The national prohibition of alcohol in the United States did the exact opposite of what it was designed to do. Instead of producing "clean living," alcohol-free Americans as supporters had hoped, prohibition gave birth to some of the country's largest crime syndicates and drinking grew in popularity. Syndicates were glamorized by the public that they provided a necessary service for. This glamorization resulted in a large upsurge of crime in the United States.
The Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution, known as The National Prohibition Act, was adopted in 1919 and ended in 1933. When it was first enacted, President Woodrow Wilson vetoed it. Two hours later Congress overrode his veto, and the act became law.
The author of the act, Wayne Wheeler, was a member of the Anti-Saloon League. The act, (only a few paragraphs long), laid out the framework for the legal and illegal uses of alcoholic beverages, and repercussions for illegal use. The act was later referred to as the Volstead Act, named after the Republican congressman from Minnesota, Andrew J. Volstead. (Cohen, Chapter 5)
The Volstead Act was designed to stop Americans from consuming alcoholic beverages - specifically those beverages containing an excess of.05% of alcohol. However, there were exceptions to this rule. "For example, a farmer could make cider - then store it and let it 'harden', that is, become alcoholic. So long as he didn't add anything to it, or treat it in any way, and didn't try to sell it, the beverage was perfectly legal. This was a concession to the politically powerful farmers." (Cohen, Chapter 5)
Although most Americans saw the Prohibition Era as a time when personal liberty was limited, some saw it as liberation all in its own. For some, it was liberation from the ills of alcohol and its related problems.
Warner supports his argument for this by commenting that "as stated by Professor Irving Fisher, 'it is untrue that prohibition is a violation of a man's personal liberty any more than are compulsory education, compulsory workmen's compensation, tenement laws or law in general. Alcohol prohibition is in the same class as opium prohibition. If liberty to be illiterate, to endanger workmen's lives, to build dark-room tenements and to narcotize oneself be liberty in form, it certainly is not liberty in substance. Naturally, every law to promote human liberty must be, in form, restrictive.'" (142-143)
The Volstead Act was instituted by a group of politicians and activists who believed firmly in the benefits of an alcohol-free society. The Prohibition Bureau was one of the most influential groups in support of prohibition. The group's agents or members "were about 1,500" in number. "They were poorly paid, barely trained, often corrupt, and widely despised. There weren't enough agents to make a serious dent in the liquor trade." (Cohen, Chapter 5)
Blocker noted that groups such as the Prohibition Bureau were based on intolerance and racism. "Looking back on the disastrous experiment of national prohibition in the 1920's, modern historians of the United States have depicted the temperance movement as an intolerant and futile attempt on the part of Protestant, rural, and small-town Americans to stem the flow of social change and to impose the cultural values of native-born Americans on urban and immigrant America." (45)
It is no wonder Americans had such a negative response to the Prohibition Act. This negative response overflowed into other aspects of American culture. The prohibition had a powerful effect on law, politics, and most importantly, the crime world. (Kyvig, 16)
According to the act, beer could still be brewed. However, most of its alcoholic content had to be removed before it could be distributed. This non-alcoholic version of beer was called 'near beer'. Unfortunately, this did not quench the thirsts of the public.
One of the ways Americans retaliated was by continuing to consume alcohol despite the act. Alcohol drinkers had many methods of illegally obtaining alcoholic beverages. The two most popular methods were smuggling and bootlegging. Both methods were very dangerous to all parties involved.
Law enforcement agencies were not prepared to prevent smuggling on the scale necessary. Jesilow adds that, "policing the perimeter of the country is as impossible today as it was in 1920. The amount of alcohol smuggled into this country at that time is, of course, unknown, but the quantity must have been large. For example, in the first seven months of 1920, 90,000 cases of liquor in Canada were transported to the border cities-approximately a tenfold increase from the previous years. Much of this alcohol was then smuggled across the border into the United States." (98)
Americans also found ways to add alcohol to their beverages. 'Needle beer' was an essential of the Prohibition Era. Before the beer was sold, a hypodermic needle full of alcohol was squirted into it, thus giving it the name 'needle beer'. Beer distributors also found ways to keep the alcohol from the legal beer, later using it in other alcoholic brews.
There were many other popular illegal beverages as well. Grape concentrate was recognized for its alcoholic benefits and wine making became popular again. According to Cohen, "a brick of the concentrate was dissolved in a gallon of water. Then the user was warned, 'Do not place the liquid in this jug and put it away in the cupboard for twenty-one days, because then it would turn into wine.' The sale of grapes and all the paraphernalia needed for making wine at home increased dramatically. The vineyards of California, where grapes are grown for wine, prospered." (Chapter 5)
The distillation of alcohol at home, in what was referred to as 'stills', was illegal but profitable. The end product, 'moonshine', was already commonly prepared by many families in rural America prior to prohibition. The distillation of moonshine ran rampant during the days of the prohibition when citizens realized how simple it was to create their own alcohol. Information on alcohol distillation was easily attainable and the necessary equipment was relatively inexpensive. Alcohol was made from corn, sugar, or potatoes - the same materials used by major manufacturers - but in the homes of individuals.
Another method of obtaining alcohol was from industries that produced it. Because industrial alcohol was used for so many products, such as cleaners and fuels, "the business could not be shut down, and during the Prohibition Era the production of industrial alcohol increased dramatically. Much of it - no one knows how much - went into the manufacture of illegal beverages." (Cohen, Chapter 5)
Unfortunately, both moonshine and industrial alcohol were dangerous to consume. For example, industrial alcohol was deadly in its true form. It had to be altered for human consumption. "It could be 'washed', that is, the poisons could be removed." Occasionally, this process did not occur properly "and many people died or went blind from drinking liquor made from industrial alcohol." (Cohen, Chapter 5)
The preparation of moonshine could sometimes lead to disaster as well, in worst case scenarios, blinding or killing unintended victims just as industrial alcohol. This was usually caused by poor preparation skills, a result of mistakes made during the de-naturing process of the alcohol.
For some, alcohol was still available legally for medicinal purposes. "Some unscrupulous pharmacists would get phony prescriptions from equally unscrupulous doctors or simply forge them. Then they would go to the government warehouses and get the liquor the prescriptions entitled them to. The liquor would be 'cut', that is, mixed with other substances, so the pharmacist now had three or four bottles instead of one." (Cohen, Chapter 5)
Politicians during the Prohibition Era believed that prohibition would be an inexpensive venture, requiring little effort on their part. It was expected that Americans would embrace the 'clean living' ways that the act promoted. "Wayne Wheeler estimated that enforcement would cost about five million dollars a year. Like other die-hard drys, he was convinced that the American public would soon recognize the enormous value of an alcohol-free society, and the need for enforcement would rapidly disappear. It was the greatest miscalculation he ever made." (Cohen, Chapter 5)
For the initial year of implementation alone, the congress appropriated $6,350,000. In 1923, another $28,500,000 was needed. A few years later, it was projected that $300,000,000 was necessary to continually implement prohibition on a national scale. (Cohen, Chapter 5)
According to the Volstead Act, states were allowed to pass their own specific prohibition laws. "Many did, and some laws were a lot tougher than the federal statutes. In Vermont, for example, people arrested for drunkenness were required to tell the authorities who had given or sold them the liquor." (Cohen, Chapter 5)
Unfortunately, states typically did not enforce their own prohibition laws. Most…