By Bernie Schmitt
One hundred years ago this month, the people in the United States could no longer buy or sell alcoholic beverages, a “noble experiment” that didn’t turn out the way some thought it might.
Prohibition (1920-1933) helped to create the opposite of what it was designed to accomplish, and some historians say that it changed the political and cultural landscape in ways few single issues ever have.
Knox County and its fellow Hoosiers had already gone “dry” a couple of years before, when Gov. James P. Goodrich signed statewide prohibition into law in early 1918. It wasn’t the only state. By this time there were 25 other states that had their own prohibition laws. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1918, but was not ratified until the following year. The law took effect on Jan. 16, 1920.
The banning of alcohol in the U.S. was one of several “progressive” ideas — among them women’s suffrage and child labor laws — that came to fruition in the early part of the 20th Century. The strength of prohibition advocates, namely the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, coalesced to bring about the only U.S. amendment to the Constitution that has ever been repealed.
Some locals found they could earn a handsome (supplemental) income from the sale of corn whiskey, known as “white mule.” Bootlegging was going on everywhere, and a few Knox County citizens risked arrest to make it, while others risked their health — and even their lives — in drinking it.
White mule corn whiskey was so-named because it was a clear liquid that delivered a “kick” that drinkers of alcohol desired. A gallon of Knox County white mule sold for $8 in 1922, according to news reports. It took a bushel of corn to make five gallons of while mule, and since corn was selling at 55 cents a bushel, enterprising farmers and others felt the risk of breaking the law financially worth it.
A “prominent farmer on Main Street Road” was busted in late 1922 when a 100-gallon still was found in his basement. Authorities confiscated the still and “dumped 30 gallons of mule” onto the ground. They took with them another 10 gallons.
“Jack Ayres was a bootlegger here in Vincennes. He did it out of the Dixie Cabins out on old Highway 41. Dixie Cabins was a dance hall or speakeasy. He was reported to have killed himself there, but they say someone saw John Dillenger’s car driving away from the scene. I guess he didn’t want Jack to take over any of his business.”— William Acobert, April 4, 1987. From the Wabash Valley Visions & Voices Digital Memory Project
In 1923, local authorities found a 75-gallon still, whiskey, and mash, on an island in the Wabash River, hidden by thickets of willows. One guy was arrested when the trench under his grape arbor was discovered full of bottles of white mule. In 1926 white mule was found on a farm along Decker Road south of Vincennes. It took two trucks to take the 281 gallons of whiskey back to Vincennes.
There was also an incident when law enforcement caused chickens and ducks to become so drunk “they began to wobble and fall,” after they consumed the mash and whiskey they poured on the ground. Two stills, white mule and mash to make it were discovered near Chimney Pier Hills around Thanksgiving in 1922. Those caught faced either fines or jail time, and sometimes both. Fines ranged from $50 to $100 — a considerable sum in the 1920s.
In Vincennes the mayor decided when confiscated liquor would be “poured into the sewers through the manhole behind City Hall at 4th and Main Streets.” The Vincennes Commercial in one report commented that “the fish in the Wabash River have another unexpected treat coming to them today.”
Enforcement of prohibition through the country, enabled by the Volstead Act, turned out to be somewhat of a farce. But it’s not like authorities didn’t try. Historical photos show agents busting open kegs of beer and posing on boats with illicit liquor, but there were more people making, transporting, making money, and drinking illegal booze than people to police it.
Efforts to strictly enforce the law did curb consumption of alcohol at the start of the 1920s, but later it seemed as if it only encouraged people to ignore it. A 1929 report by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, consumption of alcohol per capita increased 500 percent between 1921 and 1929. This is quite the opposite of what temperance advocates had expected to happen.
For people to drink it, they had to get it. Some public officials, law enforcement personnel, and normal law-abiding citizens turned their heads and became complicit with others who broke the law, especially when money was involved. Illicit drinking establishments, “speakeasies,” sprang up throughout the land, where underground — and unregulated drinking — took place. Drinking illicit hooch was dangerous.
Bootleggers sometimes unknowingly created poison instead of drink worthy of human consumption. Unsafe bootleg alcohol often contained “poisonous lead compounds, embalming fluid, creosote, methyl alcohol, and other dangerous substances.” Many who imbibed “became ill, suffered paralysis, lost their sight, or died.”
More ominously, prohibition gave rise to organized crime syndicates, whose livelihoods depended on the importation and transportation of beer and liquor. Gangsters, most notably Al Capone of Chicago, made millions transporting and selling illegal booze. Jails and courts were crowded with offenders, thus costing more in government expense.
Prohibition brought with it immense changes and unforeseen issues during a particularly unsettling and immensely fluid time in the United States. Coming in at end of the terrible “Great War” when fear of foreigners (namely Germans) and their (drinking) habits helped its cause, prohibition was a powerful grassroots effort of unprecedented scope.
But there was reason to be concerned. Prior to prohibition, Americans were awash in drink. It had been since the country’s founding. There were 159 rum distilleries in New England in 1763, and by the 1830s, liquor was “so plentiful and so freely available, it was less expensive than tea,” according to historian Daniel Okrent.
Pioneers to the Indiana territory brewed beer and distilled liquor, and territorial establishments that served liquor provided needed tax revenue for the fledgling territorial government. But there were limitations. In the Northwest Territory, liquor could not be sold to soldiers and it was against the law to sell or provide it to Native Americans.
In the early years of the 20th Century, German brewers, led by Adolphus Busch in St. Louis, were producing 900 million barrels of beer annually. Together, beer and liquor taxes provided 70 percent of the federal internal revenue of the United States.
Frances Willard was the leading force in the WTCU in the late 19th Century. She believed it should be women to take on the issue. Alcohol was the cause of “immorality, criminal activity, and domestic abuse,” she believed, and that women and children were who suffered the most from its ills. Her efforts helped to build a strong foundation, 250,000 members, in favor of temperance that later helped Wayne Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League to usher in the prohibition law.
One of the most colorful characters to help lead the prohibition effort was Carrie Nation, who shocked the country — and patrons — when busting into saloons and wielding her hatchet. A religious zealot, no one hated liquor more than her. She describes how she attacked the Senate Bar in a Topeka, Kansas, a saloon frequented by state officials:
“I ran behind the bar, smashed the mirror and all the bottles under it; picked up the cash register, threw it down; then broke the faucets of the refrigerator, opened the door and cut the rubber tubes that conducted the beer … ”
It was Wayne Wheeler, leader of the Anti-Saloon League who was the “most masterful and powerful single individual” that helped convince Congress, and the nation, to enact a national prohibition law. His use of public demonstrations, public relations and advertising campaigns, as well as his ability to strategically organize and court public favor with Congress and others led to his success. It was the only issue he’s noted for, and it consumed his life.
Most historians will agree that prohibition was a failure in that it “encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy,” but in 14 years it did halt excessive drinking that was prevalent before 1920. In fact, the amount of alcohol consumed by Americans did not reach pre-prohibition levels until 1973, and then fell again during the 1980s.
Prohibition came to an end in 1933, when the ratification of the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th. After that came new laws, restrictions on importation and sales, and effective enforcement, which made it harder to get a drink than during prohibition itself.