Those behind Prohibition saw a ban on the sale of ‘intoxicating liquors’ as a crusade against a moral evil. But the big winners were Al Capone and the mob
On Saturday, 17 January 1920, the Manchester Guardian reported with mild incredulity on one of the most extraordinary experiments in modern democratic history. “One minute after midnight tonight,” the story began, “America will become an entirely arid desert as far as alcoholics are concerned, any drinkable containing more than half of 1 per cent alcohol being forbidden.” In fact, the Volstead Act – which prohibited the sale of “intoxicating liquors” – had come into operation at midnight the day before. But the authorities had granted drinkers one last day, one last session at the bar, before the iron shutters of Prohibition came down.
Across the United States, many bars and restaurants marked the demise of the demon drink by handing out free glasses of wine, brandy and whisky. Others saw one last opportunity to make a killing, charging an eye-watering “20 to 30 dollars for a bottle of champagne, or a dollar to two dollars for a drink of whisky”. In some establishments, mournful dirges played while coffins were carried through the crowds of drinkers; in others, the walls were hung with black crepe. And in the most prestigious establishments, the Guardian noted, placards carried the ominous words: “Exit booze. Doors close on Saturday.”
In an age when individual freedom is all, it comes as something of a shock to reflect that in the world’s most prosperous and dynamic country the prohibition of alcohol lasted for almost 14 years. Today we often think of Prohibition as a deluded experiment, instinctively associating it with images of Al Capone, the mafia and the Valentine’s Day Massacre. In fact, the campaign to prohibit alcohol had been deeply rooted in Anglo-American society for some two centuries. The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, for example, was founded in 1826, and by the following decade as many as a million Americans belonged to an anti-alcohol group of some kind.
Far from being repressive authoritarians, Prohibition’s largely Protestant champions – a large proportion of whom were high-minded middle-class women – were the do-gooders of the day. Often deeply religious, they saw Prohibition as a kind of social reform, a crusade to clean up the American city and restore the founding virtues of the godly republic. Many were involved in other progressive campaigns, too, notably the anti-slavery movement of the 1850s. And as American cities boomed after the civil war, swollen with immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, the campaigners’ hatred of alcohol became steadily more ferocious. They looked in horror on the new saloons of the expanding cities, with their card games and fist fights, their bad boys and good-time girls. In particular, they became convinced that alcohol was a deadly threat to the health and virtue of American womanhood – not, perhaps, entirely erroneously, since papers of the time were full of stories of battered wives and broken marriages.Advertisement
The first state to outlaw alcohol entirely was, not surprisingly, a Protestant stronghold, the New England state of Maine, which introduced Prohibition in 1851. (Few people now realise that, thanks to the influence of the Lancashire temperance movement, Maine Road, the street where Manchester City’s famous old stadium was based, was named in honour of the state that pioneered Prohibition. It had been formerly known as Dog Kennel Lane, which would probably have been an unfortunate name for a football ground.) At the national level, though, Prohibition took a long time to get off the ground, and the Maine law was repealed only five years later. Many activists felt they had no choice but to take the law into their own hands: a good example was the ferocious evangelical Christian Carrie Nation, who stood almost 6ft tall. As Mrs Nation readily accepted, she had a daunting appearance: she once compared herself to a “bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn’t like”. Her activities ranged from serenading the patrons of Kansas saloons to smashing up bars with rocks and hatchets, often accompanied by dozens of hymn-singing women. Arrested more than 30 times before her death in 1911, she found the money for her fines from the sale of souvenir hatchets.
By the time of Carrie Nation’s death, though, the campaign for Prohibition was gathering momentum. This was the heyday of progressive reform: to a generation of Protestant reformers, using the power of the state to regulate the anarchy of the industrial city and improve the lot of ordinary workers seemed only natural and reasonable. Outlawing alcohol, which they associated with disease and disorder, fitted nicely into this agenda. As early as 1916, some 26 out of 48 states were already dry, and once the United States entered the first world war, Prohibition became identified with patriotism – not least because German Americans, with their brewing traditions, were often against it. By December 1917, with the war in full swing, both houses of Congress had approved a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol. In January 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment had been ratified by 36 states, and that October, the Volstead Act – passed over President Woodrow Wilson’s attempted veto – gave the federal authorities the power to stop the manufacture, sale or importation of “intoxicating liquor”.
Now prohibition was law. Unfortunately for its advocates, however, the federal government was never really equipped to enforce it. By the time the Volstead Act came into force, the heyday of progressive reform had already passed. The Republican presidents of the 1920s, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, were both small-government conservatives, who shrank from high spending and federal intervention. Almost incredibly, only 1,500 federal agents were given the job of enforcing Prohibition – that is, about 30 for every state in the union. On top of that, the new regime never had unanimous public support, while neighbouring countries remained defiantly wet. Neither Mexico nor Canada had any intention of clamping down on breweries and distilleries near the American border; indeed, Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, Winston Churchill, thought that Prohibition was “an affront to the whole history of mankind”.
Above all, many Americans with a taste for liquor were determined to get hold of a drink one way or another. Illegal drinking dens had long flourished in big cities; indeed, the word “speakeasy” probably dates from the late 1880s. But now they bloomed as never before; historians estimate that by 1925, there were as many as 100,000 illegal bars in New York City alone, many of them tiny, spit-and-sawdust joints, others catering to the rich and well-connected. In Detroit, tantalisingly close to the Canadian border, smugglers used “false floorboards in automobiles, second gas tanks, hidden compartments, even false-bottomed shopping baskets and suitcases, not to mention camouflaged flasks and hot water bottles”, as one account has it, to bring alcohol into the city. And somehow it speaks volumes that when the Michigan state police raided one Detroit bar, they found the local congressman, the local sheriff and the city’s mayor all enjoying a drink.
The big winners from Prohibition were, of course, the nation’s gangsters. The law had only been in operation for an hour when the police recorded the first attempt to break it, with six armed men stealing some $100,000-worth of “medicinal” whisky from a train in Chicago. From the very beginning, criminals had recognised that Prohibition represented a marvellous business opportunity; in major cities, indeed, gangs had quietly been stockpiling booze supplies for weeks. Legend has it that the first gangster to grasp the real commercial potential of Prohibition, though, was racketeer Arnold Rothstein, whose agents had been responsible for rigging the baseball World Series in 1919. Establishing his “office” at Lindy’s Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, Rothstein brought alcohol across the Great Lakes and down the Hudson from Canada, and supplied it – at a handsome profit – to the city’s gangsters.
In 1928, Rothstein was murdered after a gambling dispute, but by then his fame was such that F Scott Fitzgerald used him as the model for Jay Gatsby’s friend Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, a “small, flatnosed Jew” with cufflinks made from human teeth. Indeed, Gatsby himself – the quintessential self-made American hero – is alleged to have made his fortune from organised crime. “He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter,” says Tom Buchanan. “I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him and I wasn’t far wrong.”
By far the most celebrated gangster of the day, though, was Al Capone, a New York-born hoodlum who controlled much of the Chicago underworld in the mid-1920s. Living in splendour in the city’s Lexington hotel, he was said to be raking in some $100m a year from casinos and speakeasies. To many people, he seemed a real-life Robin Hood, opening soup kitchens for the unemployed and giving large sums to charity. Unlike Sherwood Forest’s finest, however, Capone had a pronounced taste for the good life, wearing smart suits and drinking expensive Templeton Rye whisky. “I’m just a businessman,” he used to say, “giving the public what they want.” But when, in 1929, Capone ordered the brutal machine-gunning of seven Chicago rivals in the Valentine’s Day Massacre, public sympathy evaporated. That same year, Prohibition agent Eliot Ness began to investigate Capone’s affairs, and in October 1931 – after Capone’s efforts to nobble the jury had been defeated – he was sentenced to 11 years for tax evasion. He eventually died in prison of a heart attack; appropriately, perhaps, for the nation’s most famous vice baron, his health had been eroded by syphilis.
By the time Capone went down, support for Prohibition was already ebbing away. With newspapers alleging that as many as eight out of 10 congressmen drank on the quiet, it was obvious that the attempt to outlaw alcohol had failed. In March 1933, just weeks after he had been inaugurated, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act permitting the sale and consumption of beer with no more than 3.2% alcohol content. The Depression was in full swing, national morale was at rock bottom and, as Roosevelt put it, “I think we could all do with a beer.” And on 5 December 1933, Utah approved the Twenty-first Amendment, providing a majority for ratification and consigning national Prohibition to the history books.
Yet although the age of Prohibition now feels very remote, the idea lives on. Alcohol is not, after all, the only drug to have been prohibited by law; many people who regard Prohibition as bizarre and misguided think nothing of outlawing, say, heroin or cocaine. We often forget, too, that many states chose to remain dry after 1933. Mississippi, the last entirely dry state, only repealed Prohibition in 1966. Even today, more than 500 municipalities across the United States are dry, often in strongly evangelical states. In a famously delicious irony, they include Moore County, Tennessee, the home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery, although visitors are allowed to buy a “commemorative” bottle.
The truth is that in many corners of the United States, opposition to alcohol dies hard. When Barack Obama was photographed with a very weak beer in hand at a Washington Wizards game, the phone-in lines smouldered with anger. “The president is the president 24 hours a day,” one caller said. “I don’t think he should drink on the job.”