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The morning after: the impact of prohibition

From emboldening the Ku Klux Klan to fuelling the rise of the Democrats, prohibition had immense consequences for American society. Lisa McGirr reveals how the ban on alcohol changed a nation

A flapper shows off her hidden bottles of alcohol
Published: April 6, 2021 at 6:10 am
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On 14 February 1929, four men, posing as police officers, burst into a Chicago liquor warehouse controlled by George ‘Bugs’ Moran, Al Capone’s chief rival, and executed seven men. Gang warfare ruled Chicago’s streets during the prohibition years. The St Valentine’s Day massacre, as the incident became known, was the climax of a series of murders, bombings and kidnappings that rocked the windy city – and the United States. Crime kingpins, from Chicago’s Al Capone to New York’s Arnold Rothstein, amassed huge fortunes in the highly profitable illegal liquor trade, their supply rings smoothed by payoffs to judges, politicians and policemen on the beat. Rebellious men and women patronised the illicit speakeasies and nightclubs these organised criminals controlled. In this subterranean world of illegal drink, new dance crazes and musical genres – jazz prominent among them – were all the rage.


Such stories have loomed large in the popular imagination for almost a century, serving as the plots for innumerable Hollywood movies. But prohibition did a lot more than usher in a golden age for organised crime, jazz joints and bathtub gin. It sparked a vast increase in the power and reach of the federal government, and an upsurge in rightwing mobilisation led by a reborn Ku Klux Klan. It also forged new political loyalties among the ethnic urban working class to the Democratic party, where they would remain for much of the century.

Working-class saloons symbolised the dangers of mass immigration in the minds of older, white Protestants

If prohibition had huge and enduring consequences, it had equally long roots, emerging among temperance campaigns stretching back to the 19th century. But it wasn’t until the turn of the century – and the rise in anxieties over mass immigration into the United States – that the prohibition campaign truly began to pick up momentum.

Around 20 million immigrants arrived in America between 1880 and 1920. In the minds of older, white Protestant Americans, the boisterous immigrant, working-class saloon – so ubiquitous it seemed almost an extension of the city sidewalk – symbolised the dangers that immigration posed to the nation’s moral character.

It was against this backdrop of rising nativist anxieties that, in 1914, Congress introduced what would become the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, transport, sale and trade of intoxicating liquor. Crucially, however, the amendment fell short of the two-thirds needed to send it to the states.

It would take America’s entry into a global conflict to push the legislation over the line. The First World War unleashed a worldwide wave of liquor control measures, as combatant nations sought to ration the cereals and grains used in alcohol, and to fight the abuse of booze by their troops. France banned the sale of absinthe a month after the war broke out. Germany suspended liquor sales in industrial areas. In Britain, the government experimented with pub hour restrictions. Tsar Nicholas II banned the sale of vodka in retail establishments in Russia. In America, anti-liquor crusaders exaggerated the success of these measures, declaring that the United States was falling behind Europe in the battle against ‘King Alcohol’.

Once America entered the war in 1917, anti-German hysteria furthered support for the cause. With the large brewing companies controlled by German immigrants, the Anti-Saloon League championed the abolition of the “un-American… home-wrecking, treasonable liquor traffic” as a patriotic duty. That sense of duty was enough to secure the legislation the extra votes it required – and the 18th Amendment finally passed through Congress in December 1917.

Men destroy a consignment of alcohol in Washington DC, 1923
Men destroy a consignment of alcohol in Washington DC, 1923. In the wake of the huge drive to enforce prohibition, policing and surveillance began to touch US citizens' lives on a daily basis. (Image by Alamy)

Bullish predictions

“It is here at last!” proclaimed the prohibitionist crusader William Anderson when the legislation finally came into effect in January 1920. “Now for a new era of clean thinking and clean living!”

John Kramer, the first US prohibition commissioner, was equally bullish: “This law will be obeyed in cities, large and small, and in villages, and where it is not obeyed it will be enforced . . . We shall see that [liquor] is not manufactured. Nor sold, nor given away, nor hauled in anything on the surface of the earth or under the earth or in the air.” Though Kramer’s hopes were dashed, the very attempt to enforce prohibition pushed the federal government in the direction of policing and surveillance, vastly expanding federal authority, and marking the American state in indelible and permanent ways.

Prohibition ushered in a new role for the federal government in the lives of everyday Americans. Before 1920, outside of wartime, most Americans encountered the federal government only through visits to their local post office. Now, it touched all citizens’ everyday lives, leading to a contentious decade-long debate over government’s proper scope and authority. The Prohibition Bureau, elephantine in size, established the nation’s first large-scale federal police force. Congress also provided new muscle for the Coast Guard, the Customs Bureau, and the spanking new Border Patrol, all agencies involved with prohibition enforcement. Efforts at enforcement at the federal, state and local level led to a spike in imprisonment. The number of prisoners in federal facilities tripled from 1920 to 1930 and close to doubled again from 1930 to 1940. In fact, such was the spike in prison numbers that, in Texas in 1930, prison officials refused to take any more inmates until the authorities promised new facilities to house them.

But these prisons weren’t filled with the likes of Arnold Rothstein and Al Capone. With federal and state officials having neither the resources, nor sometimes the will, to go after the powerful crime kingpins who capitalised ruthlessly on the ban on alcohol, they filled their case books by targeting small, marginal violators. This selective enforcement was the dark underside of what has been misnamed the ‘roaring twenties’. In working-class communities – whether in mining camps in rural Illinois or Oklahoma, in urban Chicago, or in the new cities of the south such as Richmond – poor men and women experienced countless raids, invasions of their homes, arrests, fines and imprisonment. Ormond Montini, an Italian-origin Pittsburgh steelworker, recalled police raiding homes with sledgehammers, busting up the wine that many local families produced. “They’d just come and break your door down. They didn’t need search [warrants]… We didn’t know any better.”

Police with men suspected of brewing hooch in New York, 1925
Police with men suspected of brewing hooch in New York, 1925. It was claimed – with little evidence – that foreigners were largely responsible for alcohol violations. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, wealthier Americans, more protected from the draconian arm of the law, could drink to excess in protected spaces operated by organised criminals. The escapades of this small band of men and women, who patronised mixed-sex and mixed-raced venues in cities like New York and Chicago, reverberated through smaller towns and cities through Hollywood movie plots, radio, tabloid newspapers and iconic novels such as F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Concerns over immigration, urbanisation and the erosion of the cultural dominance of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism that had swelled support for the law now escalated even further in the face of this new spirit of self-expression. With President Warren Harding declaring the lack of observance a national scandal in 1922, anti-liquor crusaders demanded stricter enforcement, and harsh punishment for violators. Roy Haynes, federal prohibition commissioner, blasted the “dry rot” and evil influences that had to be “torn out” by citizens militant in the law's defence. Anti-liquor crusaders heeded his call, forming an enforcement army to bolster overwhelmed federal, state and local police. The Ohio Anti-Saloon League, for example, distributed blank search warrants to district workers.

Anti-liquor crusades

Soon, this anti-liquor zeal was being directed at immigrants – and in increasingly shrill tones. The Indiana Women’s Christian Temperance Union, with little evidence, blamed foreigners for 75 per cent of violations. By 1923, they were calling for the deportation of non-citizens convicted of prohibition violations.

With enforcement failures multiplying, anti-liquor crusaders looked to the Ku Klux Klan as a powerful new ally for their mission to dry up the land. This second incarnation of the Klan, born in 1915, drew millions to its ranks with its promise of militant action to ensure the law was observed. The Klan frequently gained a foothold in white Protestant evangelical communities with its promise to put bootleggers and moonshiners out of business and “clean up” communities. The targets of this “clean up” were, inevitably, those they identified as enemies of “100 percent Americanism” – African-Americans, Catholics, foreigners and Jews.

In some places, Klan clean-up actions won the support of enforcement agents under pressure to shut down sources of supply. When police in La Grande, Oregon, cracked down on violators, the Klan buttressed its forces, targeting Italian, African-American and Mexican neighbourhoods.

None other than Roy Haynes authorised Klan anti-liquor raids in Williamson County, a mining community in Illinois. Emboldened by Haynes’s support – and urged on by local Protestant pastors – the Klan confidently predicted that all members of the local Catholic church would be in jail before “the foundations of a new church were built”. The raids that followed in late 1923 and early 1924 overwhelmingly targeted Williamson County’s Italian immigrants, who protested rough treatment, theft and planted evidence. The Italian consul protested the “terrorisation of foreign residents” to the State Department. Raids grew increasingly reckless, with more than a thousand Klansmen raiding roadhouses and homes, setting some of them on fire.

In a 1926 image, the Ku Klux Klan promises to smash the ‘blight’ of alcohol consumption
In a 1926 image, the Ku Klux Klan promises to smash the ‘blight’ of alcohol consumption – and often did so with the approval of local police forces. (Image by Alamy)

Anti-liquor campaigners had got the crackdown on illicit drinking they’d craved. But with 20 people dead, the National Guard patrolling the streets, and the Illinois governor declaring martial law, the Klan had well and truly overstepped the mark. And now they were about to reap a national backlash.

The prominent lawyer Clarence Darrow decried the reign of “tyranny and despotism”, and a “psychology of hate and bitterness” emanating from religious zealots obsessed with liquor law enforcement. The controversy led the Prohibition Bureau in 1924, and again in 1927, to instruct its agents to refuse the support of any armed citizens in their anti-liquor raids, including the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan’s reign of terror was one of prohibition’s most devastating consequences. But immigrants also resented the criminalisation of their cherished cultural rituals and leisure habits. They deplored the violence that illegal supply rings brought to their communities, and the selective enforcement that disproportionally targeted poor violators.

In 1928, Irish Catholic Al Smith mobilised this seething hostility in his run for the presidency. At the head of the Democratic party ticket, Smith raised the banner flag of prohibition opposition, and championed pluralism and tolerance. Though Herbert Hoover beat Smith easily, with Republicans attacking the twin evils of “Rum and Romanism”, the ethnic, urban working-class voters that Smith brought to the Democratic party for the first time stayed there, forging an important part of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition.

Alarming disobedience

On 4 March 1929, just weeks after the St Valentine’s massacre, Herbert Hoover stood at the capitol before a great throng to celebrate his inauguration. The new president wasted no time in identifying the first critical business of the nation as the “failure of our system of criminal justice”. The “most malign danger of all these dangers” facing the nation, he averred, was “disregard and disobedience of law”. The disobedience, growth of organised crime and abuses of law enforcement – all consequences of prohibition – were nothing less than challenges to the legitimacy of the US state.

Hoover’s speech was a watershed. Never before in US history had a president identified crime as a problem of national concern in an inaugural address. He leveraged the national obsession over crime to wage war against it, building the edifice of the federal penal state. Among a raft of initiatives, he established the first large-scale national crime commission, undertook a campaign of prison growth, expanded the FBI and created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

For all his success in taking the fight to crime, Hoover lost the impossibly ambitious war on alcohol. As the Great Depression tightened its grip on the country, Democrats attacked the president for excessive spending on enforcement – and stepped up the campaign for repeal. By 1932, Franklin D Roosevelt was running for president on this very platform. Buttressed by the ethnic industrial workers brought into the party by Al Smith – and the promise of new jobs and revenue generated by the legalisation of an entire industry – FDR won by a landslide.

A lorry delivers beer to Cleveland on 6 April 1933
A lorry delivers beer to Cleveland on 6 April 1933. The following day, with the support of President Roosevelt, the sale of beer was relegalised. (Image by Alamy)

Americans didn’t have to wait long for the new president to act on his promises. Within nine days of taking office, Roosevelt was forwarding a bill proposing the relegalisation of alcohol to Congress. The bill sailed through the house, officially becoming law on 7 April 1933. Some 13 years after William Anderson had hailed “a new era of clean thinking and clean living”, Americans could once again drink alcohol without fear of being hounded by the authorities, beaten by the Klan, or thrown behind bars.

The war on alcohol was over, but the expansion of state authority that the war had set in motion could not be unpicked so easily

The night before, a festooned truck, escorted by a police detail, pulled up to the White House delivering two crates of the city’s new brew: “President Roosevelt, the first real beer is yours.” Crowds braved the midnight rain to cheer at the gates.

The war on alcohol was over, but the expansion of state authority that it had set in motion could not be unpicked so easily. The 18th Amendment had supercharged federal power. In so doing, it created new possibilities for the uses of such might. Once faced with the unprecedented challenges posed by the Great Depression, many Americans recalled the muscular activism of the prohibition era, and sought to apply it to other social problems.

Of all these problems, perhaps none have had a more lasting impact on American society than its addiction to drugs. By 1934, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had established the basic edifice of a remarkably resilient global drug control regime – one that learned from the mistakes of the prohibition era.

But with lessons learned have come missteps. In 2020, hundreds of thousands of Americans languish behind bars for non-violent drug violations – arguably the result of the prohibitionist attitude and zeal for criminalisation that emerged a century earlier. The prohibition era may have ended almost 90 years ago but it is still being played out on the streets – and in the prisons – of America today.

Lisa McGirr is professor of history at Harvard University. Her books include The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (WW Norton, 2016)


This article was first published in the January 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine


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