“No tendency is quite so strong in human nature,” wrote William Howard Taft, “as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people.”
The year was 1919, and on January 16, Nebraska had become the 36th state to vote in favor of a constitutional amendment that Congress had proposed in December, 1917. Nebraska’s vote provided the three-fourths majority of states necessary to ratify the 18th Amendment. Starting one year from that date, the manufacture, transport and sale of any beverage containing more that one half of one percent alcohol would be against the law. Until the Amendment kicked in—at 12 midnight on Friday, January 16, 1920—Congress passed a so-called “wartime” Prohibition law, a curiously cynical and politically dishonest name since WWI had already ended. But Congress had no choice: they were intimidated by the most effective grassroots political movement and maneuver the country had ever seen.
As events would show, Prohibition never enjoyed the support of anything near a majority of the American people, probably not even a substantial minority. But those who wanted national Prohibition were fervent, fanatic, superbly organized and willing to use the most brutal, brass-knuckles politics. They also had very public idealism on their side, making them hard to openly oppose, especially for legislators. The drys envisioned “a sort of millennial Kansas,” as one historian put it, without want or crime or sin, once they had banished the curse of Demon Rum. Their organization, founded in 1893, cleverly called itself the “Anti-Saloon League.” Even dedicated tipplers saw most of the era’s saloons as sinks of vice and depravity, the seat of corrupt big-city politics.
When America joined the war in April, 1917, patriotism further sanctified the league’s cause: the makings of booze, beer and wine were needed for food; drunk or hung-over workers could not turn out war materiel any more than their soldier counterparts could shoot straight.
With it all, little popular outcry was voiced when Congress sent the 18th Amendment to the states for ratification or when they passed the post-war “wartime” law. Not that opposition would have mattered much, anyway. The league had Congress terrorized. As a popular song—“What Have They Got on You, Mr. Congressman”—explained,
We’ve heard just how those drys,
Keep cases on you Congress guys.
They say a careful record’s kept,
Of cash you took and where you’ve slept.
One “wrong” vote and word of a legislator’s derelictions would wing back home, broadcast by the league’s fifty thousand field reps.
The legislation had been thoughtfully crafted to minimally discomfit either the public or Congress—as a body, notoriously wet in their drinking habits, no matter how dry their intimidated votes. Notice that owning or consuming any form of alcohol was not outlawed, only its manufacture, transport and sale. As another pop song put it,
It’s the smart little feller,
Who stocked up his cellar,
That’s getting the beautiful girls.
So, at very first, general compliance—or at least resigned observance—seemed likely. A Sophie Tucker song guessed that citizens would obey:
For if kisses are intoxicating as they say,
Prohibition, you have lost your sting.
But the country quickly changed its tune. By the time of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, Irving Berlin was complaining, “You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea.”
Brilliant as the Anti-Saloon League had been in pushing the country into Prohibition, when it came to setting up the enforcement mechanism, they failed miserably. The league confused national distaste for saloons with their own enthusiasm for teetotalling. Because they assumed that the public—women especially—would report violators and insist on their punishment, the league thought it safe to throw a sop to the politicians they had terrorized, permitting enforcement to become a matter of patronage at all levels, federal, state and local.
Massive corruption competed with staggering incompetence to see which would more effectively thwart enforcement. When federal agents were forced to take the civil service exam, only two fifths could pass after two tries. A disgusted official called them “ward heelers and sycophants named by the politicians.” One in twelve ended up dismissed for cause, a dry apologist excusing that failure rate as no worse than Jesus had experienced with his disciples. In any case, there were never enough federal Prohibition agents to make any serious difference even if they had all been miracles of integrity and efficiency. They numbered only 1,500 at first and never more than 2,300—to police the drinking habits of the entire nation!
Ordinary citizens learned from their betters, like George Babbitt, wowed by the casual elegance with which a rich man served him a drink. They heard that Prohibition agents brought confiscated booze to President Harding’s Ohio Gang hangout, the notorious House on K Street. Tales circulated about members staggering drunk on the floor of both houses of Congress. Speakeasys—like what is now New York’s famed 21 Club—ran openly. Puzzled by such easy access to alcohol, visitors to the United States would ask, “When does Prohibition start?”
Chicago and Prohibition
For Johnny Torrio (and therefore his protégé, Al Capone, who had joined him in late 1919) Prohibition came as an answered prayer. He had always striven to routinize crime into regular business. Now the fools had obliged him by declaring a regular business criminal!
As the country began to ignore what was, finally, just another vice law, Chicago led the way. For Chicago, that was practically a municipal tradition. Just before the Civil War, when Mayor John Wentworth tried to curb open vice, the voters turned him out. In 1870, the city council changed the name of Wells Street to Fifth Avenue, lest the number of brothels than lined the thoroughfare besmirch the memory of revered Indian fighter Captain Billy Wells; no one seriously contemplated the alternative of closing the brothels, which had been illegal on the books since 1835 (the name changed back after the brothels migrated away). In 1873, when Mayor Joseph Medill tried reform, gambling boss Michael Cassius McDonald called a mass meeting of saloonkeepers, gamblers, brothel owners and thieves to enunciate the open-town platform on which their candidate ran and won the next election. When gambler Cap Hyman married Annie Stafford, a madame, Deputy Superintendent of Police Jack Nelson attended—as guest of honor! And when John P. Hopkins became mayor in 1894, vowing clean-up, he soon faced Chicago political reality. A deputation of his reform-minded supporters visited with a list of gambling joints, identified by address, demanding that the police close them down. The mayor admitted he permitted “a few” to run because, “it is surprising how many reputable businessmen want gambling to continue. I have had representatives of prominent wholesale houses tell me that they have great difficulty in entertaining their country customers because they cannot take them around to gambling houses.” As one Chicago political philosopher summed it up, “No YMCA ever growed a big town.”
The very demographics of Chicago militated against compliance. The 1920 census listed the national derivation of Chicago’s 2,701,705 population as 11.81% “Polish,” 10.55% “German,” 5.4% “Irish,” 4.8% “Italian” all the way down to 0.11% “Indian, Chinese, etc.” To many of these, the forbidding of a traditional, almost culturally mandated shot of slivovitz or Bushmill’s, stein of lager, glass of Chianti—that was the crime, not their provision. And it was the same for the 23.8% termed “American,” even without special urgings of tradition or culture. Before Prohibition, Chicago had voted 391,260 to 144,032 to retain even the generally despised saloons. In a 1922 referendum, Chicagoans voted five to one to allow at least beer and wine. Of course that had no force of law; but the citizenry also voted with their throats.
Almost no one tried to stop them. Even before the 18th Amendment took effect, the superintendent of the Illinois revenue district—the federal body charged with enforcing wartime Prohibition—was indicted for accepting bribes, along with two assistants. “Prohibition enforcement in Chicago,” complained the U.S. attorney, “is a joke.” As for local enforcement, the city’s police chief admitted that about half his men were involved in bootlegging—not just as complaisant acceptors of bribes to look the other way, but actively pushing booze!
Prohibition—especially as “practiced” in Chicago—was made for Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. And vice versa. After ten full years of constitutional Prohibition, columnist Franklin P. Adams summed up the situation with a bit of doggerel:
Prohibition is an awful flop,
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop,
We like it.
It’s filled our land with vice and crime,
It’s left a trail of graft and slime,
It don’t prohibit worth a dime,
Nevertheless we’re for it.
Three years later Repeal would come. But by then all the gangs had learned from the riches of Prohibition what Johnny Torrio had taught Al Capone from the beginning: making crime a business pays.
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PHOTOS Top Row: mug shot at Terminal Island; the "Big Fellow"; giving "the Look"; the scars; late '20s; in car after release in '39.