Prohibition: The 'noble experiment' that nearly destroyed America

Prohibition: The 'noble experiment' that nearly destroyed America

Reflecting on the social, cultural, and economic impacts of Prohibition 90 years on from the repeal of the 18th Amendment

History | 04 Dec 2023 | By Don Vaughan

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Temperance was supposed to be America’s saviour. For too long, prohibitionists warned, ‘demon’ rum had destroyed bodies, minds, and families. To end this plague of miseries, alcohol had to go. So it did in January 1920, thanks to ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and passage of the Volstead Act, which criminalised the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic spirits.


In that moment, America became a dry nation. Except, of course, that it didn’t. Rather than put an end to the manufacture and sale of alcohol, Prohibition merely drove it underground and into the waiting arms of organised crime, which made a killing, both literally and figuratively. In fact, over the 13 years for which it lasted, Prohibition would prove to be such a massive legal and social failure that Congress had no choice but to finally kill it via repeal of the Constitutional amendment that gave it life.


Though alcohol had been an integral part of the American fabric since the arrival of the Mayflower (which held casks of beer among its cargo), efforts to make the nation more temperate began mere decades after its founding, driven primarily by conservative churches that viewed alcohol as a social evil in need of smiting. In 1838, Massachusetts made it illegal to sell alcohol in quantities less than 15 gallons, only to repeal the law two years later. Maine picked up the mantle and passed the first state-wide prohibition law in 1846, with many other states quick to follow. Temperance leaders were ecstatic.


Wayne Wheeler, a bigwig with the formidable Anti-Saloon League, can be credited – or blamed – for the wording and intent of the 18th Amendment, which passed both the House and Senate in December 1917 and was ratified by two-thirds of the states a little more than a year later. The amendment required Congress to draft enforcement legislation, which it did through passage of the Volstead Act, named after Andrew Volstead, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.


Though well intentioned, the Volstead Act, also known as the Prohibition Act, was doomed from the start. It contained numerous loopholes, including the sale of whisky for medical use and wine for religious services. Stills were illegal, though commonly sold in hardware stores, along with wine kits. Americans new to the home-brew game found the instructions they needed at their local library and even in government pamphlets.  


The legislation also had an unexpectedly disastrous effect on the American economy. Prohibitionists were confident that once Americans sobered up, they would spend their money on other goods and activities such as buying a house, dining out, and going to the theatre. Manufacturers of non-alcoholic beverages anticipated a windfall because consumers would have no other choice. But there was no great burst of American consumerism in the wake of Prohibition. Many restaurants, dependent on the sale of liquor to make a profit, closed down. Theatres, too, were hard hit. Thousands of Americans whose livelihoods were in some way linked to the manufacture or sale of alcohol lost their jobs.


The only group to profit from Prohibition was organised crime, which quickly picked up the slack by opening illegal saloons known as speakeasies and smuggling spirits from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. When smuggling wasn’t feasible, gangsters simply made their own liquor, commonly known as “bathtub gin”, which often contained harmful chemicals. It is estimated that around 1,000 Americans died annually from the effects of bad hooch during the 13 years of Prohibition.


Organised crime was able to capitalise on Prohibition because enforcement was extraordinarily difficult. The federal government lacked the number of enforcement agents necessary to do the job properly, and Congress refused to provide additional funds to fill the ranks. Making matters worse, a sizeable percentage of government agents and local police were in the pockets of gangsters offering generous bribes to look the other way.


Heroes and villains rose from the tumult, though who was what depended on where you stood on the issue of Prohibition. Two of the biggest names to come out of the Prohibition era were Chicago gangster Al Capone, a notorious bootlegger, and Eliot Ness, a special government agent tasked by the US Department of Justice in 1929 to head Chicago’s Prohibition bureau.


At the time, Chicago was a lawless and violent city. Organised crime ran rampant, with bombings, gunfights and assassinations an almost daily occurrence. Illegal speakeasies operated with impunity, with more cops on the take than not. But if Capone thought Ness was just another easily bribed law enforcement pushover, he was gravely mistaken. Ness and his crew quickly proved they couldn’t be bought, resulting in their famous moniker: the Untouchables.


Ness’ mission was clear: make Capone’s life miserable by attacking his operations and investigating his criminal activity. It was an edict straight from the White House, but it wouldn’t be easy. In Chicago, Capone was king, protected and forewarned by scores of city cops secretly on the gangster’s payroll. While Ness’ office attacked Capone’s rum running and related activities, Internal Revenue Service agents Elmer Irey and Frank Wilson looked into the gangland leader’s finances for proof of tax evasion and money laundering.


Ness and his men broke up distilleries and speakeasies throughout Chicago and did much to disrupt Capone’s smuggling operations – events reported with banner headlines by the raucous Chicago press. Capone was indicted on more than 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act a week after he and other members of his crew had been charged with income tax evasion. The Prohibition charges were risky – the majority of Chicagoans hated Prohibition, and might feel sympathy for the man who kept the beer taps flowing – but the tax evasion charges were solid. Capone pleaded guilty to it all on 16 June, 1931 in the belief that there was a deal in place that would put him in prison for just two and a half years. When the presiding judge said there was no deal, Capone changed his plea to not guilty.


It didn’t matter. Capone was found guilty of all charges on 18 October, 1931, and sentenced to 11 years in a federal prison on 24 November. He was also ordered to pay a US$50,000 fine, $7,692 in court costs, and $215,000 plus interest for back taxes. He spent part of his sentence at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia before being transferred to notorious Alcatraz Island, off San Francisco.


Capone was released on 16 November, 1939, but the vicious mobster once feared throughout Chicago was no more. Mentally and physically incapacitated from the long-term effects of syphilis, Capone retired with his wife to their home on Palm Island, Florida. In 1946, Capone was declared mentally incompetent. He died from the complications of a stroke and pneumonia on 15 January, 1947.


Ness fared much better. When Prohibition ended in December 1933, the Bureau of Prohibition was renamed the Alcohol Beverage Unit and placed briefly under the auspices of J. Edgar Hoover before returning to the Department of Treasury as the Alcohol Tax Unit. Ness was transferred to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he fought to re-establish a legal liquor industry and remove any influence of organised crime. From there, Ness transferred to Cleveland, Ohio, where he continued his mission of destroying illegal distilleries and underworld smuggling operations. His success made Ness a national hero, and his story became the basis for the mostly fictional television series The Untouchables (1961–63), with Robert Stack portraying Ness.


Efforts to end Prohibition started even before the 18th Amendment was ratified, and grew increasingly more vocal as violence by elements of organised crime escalated and the proliferation of speakeasies proved the initiative unenforceable. One of the most vociferous anti-Prohibition groups was the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, established in 1929. Founder Pauline Sabine, who initially supported the 18th Amendment, reached out to women nationwide and let the press know that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a national anti-alcohol organisation, did not speak for all women.


The anti-Prohibition movement gained strength in 1930 when Democrats retook Congress during the midterm elections. The Great Depression had hit the nation hard, and many Democrats campaigned on the platform that repealing Prohibition would create needed jobs and help refill the nation’s coffers. In 1932, presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt also stated his support for repeal, a position that helped him defeat incumbent Herbert Hoover. Just a month after Roosevelt took office, Congress passed the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment. It was ratified on 5 December, 1933.


Though Prohibition has been off the books for 90 years, it continues to have a lasting influence in the US. For example, there remain many states and individual counties in which the sale of alcohol is restricted or prohibited entirely. In general, however, the Prohibition movement has moved on from alcohol to other vices such as cannabis – though that crusade has also started to crumble in recent years as social attitudes change, and the law with them.

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