The Noble Experiment

Banning the sale and making of alcoholic beverages was nothing new in the United States – in 1855, 13 of 31 states prohibited alcohol sales. The Progressive movement, led by the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, campaigned for prohibition along with women’s suffrage in the last decade of the 19th century. World War I gave further support to outlawing liquor, promoting abstinence as a way for soldiers to maintain their health, while appealing to their patriotism to save grain for other uses in the war effort.

whiskey bottle, gun, and brick from massacre site

In many ways, the women’s suffrage movement and prohibition were closely tied to each other so it was only fitting that within a year both passed as constitutional amendments. So, on January 16, 1920, America became a “dry” nation and remained so until 1933.

The Volstead Act provided enforcement of prohibition and, while arrests were made, nearly everyone could find a “speakeasy” bar or establishment to drink “bathtub” gin or illegally imported spirits and beer. Across the nation, alcohol consumption initially dropped by half, but this masked the fact that alcohol could be found easily in any city.

In Washington, D.C., there were 300 saloons prior to prohibition but 700 speakeasies during the Twenties and arrests for drunkenness tripled. Demand for sacramental wine (legal for religious services) was up 800,000 gallons in the first two years. And when a judge declared it was legal for physicians to issue prescriptions for whiskey for medicinal purposes, 10 million such scripts were issued each year. Gin, easy to make and easy to find, made the Twenties the “gin and something” age.

gin bottle

Many Americans broke the law by continuing to drink, and organized crime flourished. Especially in the East and the Midwest, a sophisticated web of trafficking in illicit booze made millions for underworld figures. Al Capone and his gang brought in $60 million a year in bootlegging, $105 million when his other rackets were tabulated. His base of operation, Chicago, was labeled “the only completely corrupt city in America” as the police, mayor and even judges were on Capone’s payroll. Capone and Chicago got the most press only because they flaunted their power, but fortunes were made in illicit alcohol trade in New York, Boston, Seattle, Detroit and Philadelphia to name a few. The powerful New York mobs were no less successful than Capone’s, and, in many cases, exceeded the Chicago gangster’s operations. A 1970 Justice Department report concluded that most organized crime families could be traced back to the Twenties.

By the late 1920s, many citizens, shocked by gangland slayings and other audacious mob acts, began questioning the effectiveness of prohibition. By 1932, Americans were in the throes of the Great Depression and it was readily apparent to a skeptical nation that the “noble experiment” was not working. In 1933, for the first and only time in our history, an amendment to the Constitution was repealed. The attempt to legislate morality failed.