Formerly law-abiding citizens brewed moonshine, became rum- runners, and frequented speakeasies. Druggists, who could dispense “medicinal quantities” of alcohol, found their customer base exploding overnight. So many people from all walks of life defied the ban that Will Rogers famously quipped, “Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.” Here is the full, rollicking story of those tumultuous days, from the flappers of the Jazz Age and the “beautiful and the damned” who drank their lives away in smoky speakeasies to bootlegging gangsters—Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone—and the notorious St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Edward Behr paints a portrait of an era that changed the country forever.
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THE GOOD CREATURE OF GOD
There was a time in America when liquor was regarded as God's gift to mankind and a panacea for almost every type of ailment. The last half of the eighteenth century was "the most intemperate era in American history." The going price for a muscular slave was twenty gallons of whiskey; farmers found whiskey distillers gave them a far better price for grain than millers; and the "good creature of God" — aqua vitae, the very stuff of life — was food, medicine, and, even more than in Europe, the indispensable lubricant for civilized, enjoyable social intercourse.
From the time they were born, Americans acquired a taste for liquor: as babies, their bottles were laced with rum to keep them "pacified"; later, "able-bodied men, and women, too, for that matter, seldom went more than a few hours without a drink." Here is the Old American Encyclopedia (1830) describing pre-independence drinking habits:
A fashion at the South was to take a glass of whiskey, flavored with mint, soon after waking. ... At eleven o'clock, while mixtures, under various peculiar names — sling, toddy, flip, — solicited the appetite at the bar of the common tippling-shop, the offices of professional men and counting rooms dismissed their occupants for a half hour to regale themselves at a neighbor's or a coffee-house with punch. ... At the dinner hour ... whiskey and water curiously flavored with apples, or brandy and water, introduced the feast; whiskey or brandy and water helped it through; and whiskey or brandy without water secured its safe digestion. ... Rum, seasoned with cherries, protected against the cold; rum, made astringent with peach-nuts, concluded the repast at the confectioner's; rum, made nutritious with milk, prepared for the maternal office.
Most early settlers were hard drinkers, and while the Puritans preached against every form of pleasurable self-indulgence, they outlawed drunkenness, not drinking. This would have been unthinkable, for the Bible itself was full of references to the joys, and blessings, of liquor. The Book of Proverbs contains this eulogy, that would have been in its place on the wall behind every bar in the land: "Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy heart. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more."
With this type of biblical leitmotif, it was no surprise that clergymen were among the biggest tipplers of all. At every house-call they were offered drinks, rum or cider was served almost continuously during their stay, and when they left they had to take a farewell drink for politeness' sake. Some clergymen made twenty such calls a day. No wonder a noted Temperance figure in Albany noted in 1857 that to his knowledge, "fifty percent of the clergy, within a circuit of 50 miles, died drunkards." The Reverend Leonard Woods, professor of theology at Andover Seminary, recalled in 1880 that among his acquaintances were at least forty ministers, "who were either drunkards, or so far addicted to drinking, that their reputation and usefulness were greatly impaired, if not utterly ruined."
City authorities invariably granted licenses to saloons close to churches, the rationale being that the priest and his flock would meet there between services. All ordinations, weddings, and especially funerals turned into prolonged drinking bouts, some of them phenomenal. In The Great Illusion Herbert Asbury cites the cost of liquid refreshment at a Virginia funeral at four thousand pounds of tobacco, and at a preacher's widow's funeral in Boston, the mourners put away over 51 gallons of Malaga. Any communal physical effort — whether harvesting, road-building, or wood-cutting — was an excuse for a binge. Workers' wages came, in part, in the form of liquor, and days off to get drunk were part of an unwritten agreement between employer and laborer.
The massive consumption of hard liquor had been a feature of "New Continent" life ever since the earliest colonization stages: as early as 1630, Peter Stuyvesant noted that "one quarter of New Amsterdam (as New York was then called) is devoted to houses for the sale of brandy, tobacco and beer." In pre-independence times, the colonies' judges were so frequently drunk at the bench that heavy fines were instituted for those proved incapable during court proceedings.
In some parts of rural America, liquor was used as currency, with prices displayed in terms of whiskey pints or gallons. Farm laborers, including slaves, got ample liquor rations. Kegs of whiskey, with tin cups attached, were at the disposal of ships' crews and passengers on flatboats on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. There were barrels of rum on tap in shops for favored customers, and even court sessions were an excuse for drinking: the liquor consumed by judge and jury during proceedings was a legitimate court expense. With rum, applejack, and blackstrap (rum and molasses) a few pence a quart, eighteenth-century Americans, whether rich or poor, slaves or free men and women, appear to have gone through life in a semiperpetual alcoholic haze. In the early nineteenth century, Asbury noted, "so much rum was available in the Massachusetts metropolis that it sold at retail for fourpence a quart. West Indian rum, supposed to be better than the New England product, was only twopence more."
The New Continent passion for liquor reflected the settlers' own cultural origins — in no way was it sui generis. The early immigrants came from a land — Britain — where eighteenth-century pub owners routinely displayed the notice "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence." Hogarth's "Gin lane" immortalized the degradation of London's wretched "lumpen proletariat." Cheap gin first made its massive appearance in London in 1724, and became an immediate addiction (much like crack or heroin today) to wretched, underpaid, unrepresented slum dwellers, so much so that the "Gin Act," passed by Parliament, attempted to contain this plague — to little effect, for, as Henry Fielding, the writer and social reformer, noted in a pamphlet published in 1751, "should the drinking of this poison be continued at its present height, during the next twenty years, there will be by that time very few of the common people left to drink it." Some at least of Fielding's "common people," intent on a different, less miserable life, must later have joined the ranks of America's eighteenth-century settlers.
The taverns where Americans did their drinking were little different in their squalor from the inns described by eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century travelers in Europe, with the exceptions that at first rum, and not gin, was the staple liquor; that hard liquor and beer (not wine) prevailed; and that it was all absurdly inexpensive. At first no licenses of any kind were required, no taxes imposed. The only pro-viso was that, as in Europe, saloons and bars had to be lodging houses as well — all drinking establishments were expected to provide meals and living quarters. These were, almost invariably, as in Europe, on the sordid side.
Long before the Revolution, there were big differences between European and American attitudes as far as drinking practices were concerned. Temperance — and later, Prohibition issues — from the eighteenth century on, rapidly became "the most important question in American life." The reason why is still a matter for endless debate. The puritan ethic largely explains why the Temperance issue was to become a constant religious obsession. But perhaps the simple, largely overlooked answer is that unlike Europe there were no other major issues that warranted equal concern — no wars (until the Civil War), no major social upheavals, no immediate, overwhelming cause around which public opinion might be mobilized in the interests of justice and freedom. The Prohibition issue became America's lasting preoccupation largely by default.
New Continent saloon keepers had far more clout and from the start were far more involved in the political process than their European counterparts. This, too, was an example of the idiosyncratic social context of the land, where political ideology mattered far less than in Europe.
In America, from independence onward, the saloon keeper became a key figure in local politics. He delivered the vote — usually to the highest bidder, whose political views mattered far less than his personality, his prejudices, and the amount of jobs and money at his disposal. As John Adams, America's second president, wrote of saloons in his diary in 1760:
The worst effect of all [is that] these houses are become the nurseries of our legislators. An artful man, who has neither sense nor sentiment, may, by gaining a little sway among the rabble of a town, multiply taverns and dram-shops and thereby secure the votes of taverner and retailer and all; and the multiplication of taverns will make many, who may be induced to flip and rum, to vote for any man whatever.
This lasting connection between politics and liquor, predating the Prohibition era by 150 years, was what made American drinking habits unique. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European literature, there are few references to the political clout of English publicans, or of French café or German Bierstube owners, though there are endless examples of European social, literary, and political groups meeting in drinking places, from Dr. Samuel Johnson's London pubs to Hitler's Munich Bier stub en.
The drinking habits of Americans in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries must be seen in this special social context. America was an overwhelmingly rural, vastly underpopulated country. Unlike Europe, it was not permanently wracked by bitter ideological conflicts (except for the issues culminating in the Civil War). The social and political life of small communities, scattered over a vast expanse of land, centered, far more than in Europe, around those twin meeting places, the church and the tavern, and it was no coincidence in an age devoid of radio, television, mass advertising, and mass-circulation newspapers that tavern keeper and preacher were key community opinion makers — influential figures whose views were taken seriously and discussed interminably. (The status of the saloon keeper would change in the second part of the nineteenth century, as increasingly they were foreign-born, reflecting the urban immigration waves that changed the composition of American society so dramatically from 1850 on.)
The early political clout of the tavern owner — and later of the brewing or liquor conglomerates that would take them over — was intolerable to idealists such as Adams. In a letter to a friend in 1811, he wrote:
I am fired with a zeal amounting to enthusiasm against ardent spirits, the multiplication of taverns, retailers, dram-shops and tippling houses, and grieved to the heart to see the number of idlers, thieves, sots and consumptive patients made for the physician in these infamous seminaries.
With time, drinking habits changed. Americans continued to drink inordinately, but, as also happened in Europe, rum and gin became working-class staples, whereas the wealthy indulged in increasingly fashionable Madeira, port, and Malaga. (Beer was not consumed in large quantities until much later, with the nineteenth-century arrival of German immigrants.) Hard cider had been a staple since the early eighteenth century, and whiskey made its first appearance about 1760 (the first distillers were in western Pennsylvania, but many farmers made their own). The Whiskey Rebellion occurred in 1794 when the federal government, discovering for the first time the milch-cow opportunity of liquor taxation as a source of revenue, imposed a small excise tax on distilled spirits. The "whiskey war" was brutally put down by the militia. Although the farmers eventually paid the tax, "every family in Western Pennsylvania operated its own (illegal) still."
In 1810, the total population of the United States was still only slightly above the 7 million mark, and though statistics were, by today's standards, primitive, they reveal that per capita consumption of liquor was huge. According to a report published in 1814 by the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance (one of the first of the Temperance movements), "the quantity of ardent spirits consumed in the country surpasses belief." Over 25 million gallons were consumed locally, it claimed, but
considering the caution with which accounts of property are rendered to government through fear of taxation; considering also the quantities distilled in private families ... there is a high probability that millions might be added to the account rendered by the marshals. Let it stand, however, as it is, and add to it eight million gallons of distilled spirits in the same year imported, and the quantity for home consumption amounts to 33,365,559 gallons (or 4.7 gallons per person).
Another Temperance society (Connecticut, May 19, 1830) reported that "in one of the most moral and regular towns of Lichtfield County, whose population is 1,586, the amount of distilled liquors retailed during the last ten years has been 36,400 gallons." Later reports from other local temperance societies claimed that the "1,900 inhabitants of Dudley, Massachusetts, drank ten thousand gallons of rum" and that "the population of Salisbury, Connecticut, consumed 29.5 gallons of rum for each of its thirty-four families" in 1827. According to the Albany (New York) Temperance Society, its 20,000 inhabitants (in 1829) "consumed 200,000 gallons of ardent spirits" — ten gallons a head of what must have been mostly whiskey, rum, or gin. The average (white, adult, male) yearly per capita consumption, in the years 1750-1810, has been roughly estimated at between ten and twelve gallons of "ardent spirits."
Long before American independence, local authorities and their London masters made sporadic efforts to reduce the scale of drinking, with little success. In theory, regulations abounded: drinking shops could serve only limited quantities to each customer, who could remain there for only an hour or two (both times and quantities varied from place to place). However, the rules were rarely enforced. In Massachusetts, habitual offenders were pilloried, and made to wear hair shirts inscribed with a large D or the word Drunkard.
In Georgia, when drinking assumed such alarming proportions that news of it reached London, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1734 enforcing Prohibition (though beer was exempt), and a ban on exports of rum and brandy to Georgia, regarded by London's colonial authorities as the most turbulent part of the colony, was put into effect. Effective in 1735, it lasted eight years and was only rescinded in 1743 after reports reached London that Georgian farmers were abandoning their crops to concentrate on moonshining, and that contraband liquor from South Carolina was entering Georgia on a huge scale. This earliest Prohibition experiment revealed, in this Georgian microcosm, almost all of Prohibition's inherent failings: bootlegging and moonshining apart, Georgian juries systematically refused to convict offenders, and some colonial enforcers of the law took bribes to look the other way. Over a century and a half later, history would repeat itself on a much vaster scale.
From the very earliest settler times, a small minority of Temperance activists tried to fight the tide. These were invariably Puritan leaders, such as Increase Mather and his more famous son Cotton, whose concern was less the physical than the religious health of their parishioners, Increase Mather preaching, for instance, in 1673, that "the flood of excessive drinking will drown Christianity." But even Cotton Mather was unable to fight the tide completely: at a "private fast" in Boston, he noted in his journal, after prayers, "some biskets, and beer, cider and wine were passed round."
The Methodists were to become the avant-garde of the Temperance movement, but their use of the word excessive was significant: social drinking was so prevalent that outright Prohibition was unthinkable, except to a few mavericks. So strong were the rules of social behavior that even the most abstemious preachers found it difficult to refuse a drink. Increase Mather himself put it eloquently in his sermons: "Wine is from God but the drunkard is from the devil."
The most revered American of all, George Washington, was no role model for Temperance activists. A notorious drinker — in his first few months as president, about one fourth of his household expenses were spent on liquor — he may well, if his generals' testimony is to be believed, have conducted part of the war against the British in an alcoholic haze, for, as General Marvin Kilman, a commander in the Continental Army, was to write, "Much of George Washington's continuing good cheer and famed fortitude during the long years of the war, caused to some extent by his overly cautious tactics, may have come from the bottle."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Prohibition"
Copyright © 2011 Edward Behr.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Good Creature of God 7
2 Fervor and Fanaticism 21
3 The Women's War 35
4 The Lineup 45
5 Prohibition's First Victims 63
6 America Goes Dry 77
7 The Providers 91
8 Harding and the Racketeers 105
9 Remus Unravels 121
10 The Adventurers 129
11 "Prohibition Works!" 147
12 "Prohibition Doesn't Work!" 161
13 Chicago 175
14 Remus on Trial 195
15 Remus Redux 209
16 A Fatal Triumph 221
17 The Aftermath 237