The End of Prohibition

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After a decade of trying to control alcohol consumption in the United States, lawmakers gave up and repealed Prohibition.

Rise of the Mob

When the Anti Saloon League was focused on improving the morality of our citizens by making alcohol illegal, it is safe to say that not one of its members could have predicted the phenomenal rise in organized crime Prohibition would create.

In the early 1920s, gangsters soon realized there was a thirst they could quench, while making a hefty tax-free profit on the side, particularly in the larger cities. Organized crime was certainly not new, but in this era crime rings grew bigger and faster than ever before. Well-known leaders included George Remus in Cincinnati, Al Capone in Chicago, and Lucky Luciano in NYC.

Bootlegging, Gambling and Racketeering

These men built empires from their bootlegging, gambling, and racketeering enterprises. Remus reportedly made so much money bootlegging he would leave $100 bills under the dinner plates of his guests. He once gave brand new 1923 Pontiac automobiles to all 50 women who attended one of his lavish social gatherings. Remus was reportedly the inspiration for Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel.

Gang violence ran rampant, with drive-by shootings occurring on a regular basis. Few of these murders were solved. They were always carefully planned, witnesses were intimidated into silence, and gangsters refused to testify against each other.

Also, gangsters often bribed local law enforcement and politicians to keep themselves “above the law.”

The Debate Over Prohibition

Prohibitionists did not want to admit that the problem of enforcement was bigger than they expected it would be. Instead, they sought to slander those who broke the law. They argued Prohibition was responsible for the prosperity of the country, because workers had money in the bank that was not spent on alcohol. They also cited that workers were showing up on Monday morning with “clear eyes and steady hands,” and reduced deaths from alcoholism.

On the other hand, the “wets” as they were called, argued that Prohibition had caused the crime wave, as well as increased immorality and an escalating divorce rate. They argued that when ordinary law-abiding citizens casually violated the liquor law, it caused a disrespect for all law that “imperiled the very foundations of free government.”

The Wickersham Commission

By the election of 1928, Prohibition had become a presidential campaign issue. Herbert Hoover called it “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.”

After his election, he appointed a group of 11 men to study the Prohibition enforcement problem, which became known as the Wickersham Commission. It took them years to complete their report, which they submitted in 1931.

The results were mixed. Only five out of the eleven members believed Prohibition in its current form should continue. Two were for repealing it. Four called for modifications.

A poem that appeared in the New York Herald after the report was released poked fun at the conclusions:

Prohibition is an awful flop.

We like it.

It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.

We like it.

It’s left a trail of graft and slime,

It’s filled our land with vice and crime,

It don’t prohibit worth a dime,

Nevertheless, we’re for it.

Despite the conflicting opinions of members of the Commission, overall they called for continuing Prohibition. Nevertheless, it was the beginning of the end of illegal alcohol in this country.

The 21st Amendment

Originally, the Anti Saloon League believed an amendment would be the best course of action because it was so difficult to repeal. Someone was even quoted as saying, “There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail!”

But the “noble experiment” had failed.

As a small compromise to temperance supporters, the 21st amendment allowed for a state or municipality to prohibit alcohol within its borders. Some communities chose that route. But nationwide prohibition was a thing of the past.

Sources:

  1. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig
  2. The 1920s by Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber
  3. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s by Frederick Lewis Allen