In every Western you have ever seen a Hollywood cowboy, spurs jangling, goes to the saloon and slaps some cash on the huge counter, saying nothing. The barman picks up the nearest bottle and pours a healthy slug of some kind of whisky. No-one says anything. Cowboy knocks the contents of the glass back in one gulp, wipes his mouth with his sleeve, and leaves. Sometimes he just leaves. Other times he pauses to shoot dead three or four villains down from their rickety tables, all trying to draw their six-shooters.
But there was a concerted movement in the USA to stop the sale of alcohol that lasted much longer than the Prohibition period. The American Temperance Society was founded in 1826, when six-shooters were un-heard of. By 1838 the ATS had persuaded more than a million American citizens to sign the pledge. This meant complete abstinence from the demon drink. ( A typical ‘speakeasy, left)
The state of Maine (later absorbed by Massachusetts) outlawed alcohol altogether in 1846: by 1855 thirteen other states had done the good deed too. Sales of booze plummeted. Then good citizens actually formed a new political party, calling it The Prohibition Party (1869) and things got really serious. It was only four years after the end of the Civil War and it looked as though cowboys would be forced to drink sarsaparilla instead of liquor; and stop shooting people in saloons.
In 1874 the ladies got into the act, perhaps tired of drunken fathers and husbands; under Frances Willard they founded the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Mrs President Hayes joined in the gloom by refusing to allow alcoholic drinks to be served in the White House, thus earning herself the sobriquet of ‘Lemonade Lucy’. Then there was a virago called Carrie Nation, who wanted to Carry the Nation with her in the fight for abstemiousness, and did so by smashing up the nearest bar with an axe.
As if this was not enough to drive a man to drink, there was the American Anti-Saloon League, a large chorus of employers, the bosses, which actually became the most powerful pressure group. By 1900 the five rural states in New England had adopted prohibition and by 1915 (well before the US had entered the European World War) two-thirds of the entire nation was dry. In 1917, just in time as usual, the States barged into the First War with religious and moral backing, as well as arguments for prohibition in tired old Europe too. Half America said that prohibition would save grain and that industry would be more industrious if workers were sober.
Also in 1917 came the 18th amendment to the Constitution, condemning the sale and manufacture of alcohol, passed by Congress in December, ratified by all states in January 1919 and then enforced by the Volstead Act of 1920. Real prohibition had arrived.
One of the problems was that there were never enough enthusiastic agents around to enforce the Law. The authorities destroyed thousands of stills and got rid of millions of gallons of wines and spirits. There were only a thousand or so agents in 1920 – in a country the size of the United States –and nearly 3000 in 1930. It was not enough. Many drank themselves, and took bribes. A vast new industry crept in: the ‘Bootleggers’. Liquor was smuggled in from everywhere, including Canada, Mexico and the West Indies.
In New York 32,000 illegal ‘Speakeasies’ flourished, which was double the quantity of bars in existence before prohibition. But by far the worst effect the Volstead Act had was the immense proliferation of organised crime. Bootleggers became enormously rich, among them Joseph Kennedy, father of murdered John and Robert, and the late Senator Edward.
There were huge profits to be made, and the bootleggers established their own breweries, distillers and distribution networks. In New York, Chicago and Miami the gangs murdered competitors, and blackmailed business people into paying ‘protection money’.
Their unlimited supplies of cash enabled them to buy the police and judges. From the booze trade they moved into prostitution, gambling and drugs. Infamous names began to appear before an astonished world – Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, Johnny Torrio, ‘Legs’ Diamond etc. Capone was responsible for at least 500 gangland murders, including the infamous ‘Valentine’s Day Massacre’ – but he went to prison on a charge of tax evasion.
President of the USA Warren Harding spoke out against alcohol, but drank heavily within the precincts of the White House. It had become fashionable to break the Law.
Seeing that prohibition could not possibly be enforced, the people of the US thought it was time to repeal the laws forbidding the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The Great Depression provided necessary support for abolition, because it was thought that employment would increase. Abolition would help the farmer, it was said, while high liquor taxes would benefit state and federal revenues. In the 1932 presidential election the Democratic Party supported repeal – ‘A New Deal and a pint of beer for everyone!’ they cried. After winning the election they passed the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed the 18th.
By December, 1933, this was ratified officially and control of drinking passed to the States. Only seven States were against repeal, and they were almost all in the South. It still required thirty-three years for all Prohibition to be repealed (1966). Prohibition had been an appalling mistake, but it came about through the best intentions. Politicians had not had the foresight to anticipate the entirely human reaction to prohibition of anything, let alone a quiet sip of mint julep on the stoop, or the three Martini lunch.