Last Call
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Last Call

The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Daniel Okrent

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eBook - ePub

Last Call

The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Daniel Okrent

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About This Book

A brilliant, authoritative, and fascinating history of America's most puzzling era, the years 1920 to 1933, when the U.S. Constitution was amended to restrict one of America's favorite pastimes: drinking alcoholic beverages. From its start, America has been awash in drink. The sailing vessel that brought John Winthrop to the shores of the New World in 1630 carried more beer than water. By the 1820s, liquor flowed so plentifully it was cheaper than tea. That Americans would ever agree to relinquish their booze was as improbable as it was astonishing. Yet we did, and Last Call is Daniel Okrent's dazzling explanation of why we did it, what life under Prohibition was like, and how such an unprecedented degree of government interference in the private lives of Americans changed the country forever. Writing with both wit and historical acuity, Okrent reveals how Prohibition marked a confluence of diverse forces: the growing political power of the women's suffrage movement, which allied itself with the antiliquor campaign; the fear of small-town, native-stock Protestants that they were losing control of their country to the immigrants of the large cities; the anti-German sentiment stoked by World War I; and a variety of other unlikely factors, ranging from the rise of the automobile to the advent of the income tax. Through it all, Americans kept drinking, going to remarkably creative lengths to smuggle, sell, conceal, and convivially (and sometimes fatally) imbibe their favorite intoxicants. Last Call is peopled with vivid characters of an astonishing variety: Susan B. Anthony and Billy Sunday, William Jennings Bryan and bootlegger Sam Bronfman, Pierre S. du Pont and H. L. Mencken, Meyer Lansky and the incredible—if long-forgotten—federal official Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who throughout the twenties was the most powerful woman in the country. (Perhaps most surprising of all is Okrent's account of Joseph P. Kennedy's legendary, and long-misunderstood, role in the liquor business.) It's a book rich with stories from nearly all parts of the country. Okrent's narrative runs through smoky Manhattan speakeasies, where relations between the sexes were changed forever; California vineyards busily producing "sacramental" wine; New England fishing communities that gave up fishing for the more lucrative rum-running business; and in Washington, the halls of Congress itself, where politicians who had voted for Prohibition drank openly and without apology. Last Call is capacious, meticulous, and thrillingly told. It stands as the most complete history of Prohibition ever written and confirms Daniel Okrent's rank as a major American writer.

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Publisher
Scribner
Year
2010
ISBN
9781439171691
PART I
THE STRUGGLE
author
If a family or a nation is sober, nature in its normal course will cause them to rise to a higher civilization. If a family or a nation, on the other hand, is debauched by liquor, it must decline and ultimately perish.
—Richmond P. Hobson, in the U.S. House of Representatives, December 22, 1914
Chapter 1
Thunderous Drums and Protestant Nuns
author
AMERICA HAD BEEN AWASH in drink almost from the start—wading hip-deep in it, swimming in it, at various times in its history nearly drowning in it. In 1839 an English traveler marveled at the role liquor played in American life: “I am sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink,” wrote Frederick Marryat in A Diary in America. “If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink because it is hot; they drink because it is cold. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice; if not, they drink and swear; they begin to drink early in the morning, they leave off late at night; they commence it early in life, and they continue it, until they soon drop into the grave.”
To Americans reading Captain Marryat’s book, this would not have been news. The national taste for alcohol (or—a safer bet—for the effects of alcohol) dated back to the Puritans, whose various modes of purity did not include abstinence. The ship that brought John Winthrop to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 had more than ten thousand gallons of wine in its hold and carried three times as much beer as water. When the sixteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin first compiled a list of terms for “drunk,” in 1722, he came up with 19 examples; fifteen years later, in the Pennsylvania Gazette, he could cite 228 (including “juicy,” “thawed,” and “had a thump over the head with Sampson’s jawbone”). By 1763 rum was pouring out of 159 commercial distilleries in New England alone, and by the 1820s liquor was so plentiful and so freely available, it was less expensive than tea.
In the early days of the Republic drinking was as intimately woven into the social fabric as family or church. In the apt phrase of historian W. J. Rorabaugh, “Americans drank from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn.” Out in the countryside most farmers kept a barrel of hard cider by the door for family and anyone who might drop by. In rural Ohio and Indiana the seed scattered by John Chapman—“Johnny Appleseed”—produced apples that were inedible but, when fermented, very drinkable. “Virtually every homestead in America had an orchard from which literally thousands of gallons of cider were made every year,” wrote food historian Michael Pollan. In the cities it was widely understood that common workers would fail to come to work on Mondays, staying home to wrestle with the echoes and aftershocks of a weekend binge. By 1830 the tolling of a town bell at 11 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. marked “grog-time.” Soldiers in the U.S. Army had been receiving four ounces of whiskey as part of their daily ration since 1782; George Washington himself said “the benefits arising from moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies, and are not to be disputed.”
Drink seeped through the lives of the propertied classes as well. George Clinton, governor of New York from 1777 to 1795, once honored the French ambassador with a dinner for 120 guests who together drank “135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of English beer, and 30 large cups of rum punch.” Washington kept a still on his farm, John Adams began each day with a tankard of hard cider, and Thomas Jefferson’s fondness for drink extended beyond his renowned collection of wines to encompass rye whiskey made from his own crops. James Madison consumed a pint of whiskey daily.
By 1810 the number of distilleries in the young nation had increased fivefold, to more than fourteen thousand, in less than two decades. By 1830 American adults were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. “Staggering” is the appropriate word for the consequences of this sort of drinking. In modern terms those seven gallons are the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of a standard 80-proof liquor1 per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and there were millions of them) factored in. Once again figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like.
Another way: listen to thirty-three-year-old Abraham Lincoln summarizing domestic life in Sangamon County, Illinois. “We found intoxicating liquor used by everybody, repudiated by nobody,” he told a temperance meeting in 1842. “It commonly entered into the first draught of an infant, and the last thought of the dying man.” It was, he said, “the devastator.”
♦ ♦ ♦
“TEMPERANCE”: WHEN LINCOLN SPOKE, the word’s meaning was very different from what it would soon become. For decades it had meant moderation, both in quantity and in variety. The first prominent American temperance advocate, the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, encouraged the whiskey-riddled to consider a transitional beverage: wine mixed with opium or laudanum. This was the same Rush—respected scientist, signer of the Declaration of Independence, friend to Jefferson and Adams—who insisted he knew of a drunk who had made the mistake of belching near an open flame and was “suddenly destroyed.”
By 1830 those seven gallons of pure alcohol per capita had confirmed the earlier fears of Harvard literature professor George Ticknor, who in 1821 had told Thomas Jefferson that if the consumption of liquor continued at its current rate, “we should be hardly better than a nation of sots.” Moderation itself was called into question. Just before he took up the cause of abolitionism, William Lloyd Garrison—whose alcoholic father had abandoned his family when William was thirteen—published a journal that bore the slogan “Moderate Drinking Is the Downhill Road to Intemperance and Drunkenness.” General Lewis Cass, appointed secretary of war by Andrew Jackson, eliminated the soldiers’ entire whiskey ration and forbade the consumption of alcoholic beverages at all army forts and bases. Cass was able to do this only because of the improvement in water quality, for among the reasons the whiskey ration had persisted was the foul water supply at many military installations.
At roughly the same time, the nation’s first large-scale expression of antialcohol sentiment had begun to take shape. The Washingtonian Movement, as it became known, arose out of a Baltimore barroom in 1840, when six habitual drinkers pledged their commitment to total abstinence. In some ways they couldn’t have been more dissimilar from the prohibitionists who would follow them. They advocated no changes in the law; they refused to pin blame for their circumstances on tavern operators or distillers; they asked habitual drinkers only to sign a pledge of abstinence. In the same speech in which he condemned the ubiquity of alcoholic beverages, Abraham Lincoln (who thought mandatory prohibition a very bad idea) praised the Washingtonian reliance on “persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion. . . . Those whom they desire to convince and persuade are their old friends and companions. They know they are not demons.”
The movement’s tactics may not have included any elements of compulsion, but the Washingtonian methodology was not entirely as unassuming as Lincoln might have believed. In the grand American tradition, Washingtonian evangelists poured out a lot of sulfurous rhetoric to lure something between three hundred thousand and six hundred thousand men out of the dungeon of inebriety. “Snap your burning chains, ye denizens of the pit,” John Bartholomew Gough urged his listeners, “and come up sheeted in the fire, dripping with the flames of hell, and with your trumpet tongues testify against the damnation of drink!” Certainly the most successful of Washingtonian platform speakers, Gough was a reformed drinker (and, conveniently, a reformed stage actor as well) who in 1843 alone addressed 383 different audiences and the next year achieved national prominence when he drew twenty thousand potential converts to a single event on Boston Common to bear witness to his zeal.
The year after that, Gough took part in another grand American tradition when he backslid so spectacularly it became a minor national scandal. He was found in a brothel near Broadway and Canal streets in lower Manhattan, in relative repose following a six-day bender. Gough later claimed he had been drugged, that the drugging had led him to a round of drinking, and that at one point “I saw a woman dressed in black [and] I either accosted her, or she accosted me.” By all accounts he remained totally abstinent thereafter, and by the time he stopped lecturing thirty-four years later Gough had delivered more than ten thousand speeches to audiences estimated at more than nine million people. Among his listeners was a San Francisco surveyor who named one of the city’s main thoroughfares in his honor—out of either a sense of gratitude or, possibly, irony.
♦ ♦ ♦
RECALLING THE NASCENT temperance movement in the 1840s, one of its most devoted adherents would salute the work of the Washingtonians. They had changed many lives, he said, through “their mission of peace and love.” But, he added, “we also saw that large numbers who were saved by these means, fell back again to a lower position than ever, because the tempter was permitted to live and throw out his seductive toils. Our watchword now was, Prohibition!”
The exclamation point was entirely characteristic of Phineas Taylor Barnum; the taut, one-word epithet that preceded it, bearing its declaratory capital P, represented something new. Prohibition—the legislated imposition of teetotalism on the unwilling—was an idea that had been lurking beneath the earnest pieties of the temperance movement and was transformed in the late 1840s into a rallying cry. Barnum may have been the nation’s best-known convert to the cause, a relentless proselytizer who used his protean promotional skills to persuade men to take the same pledge he had. At his American Museum in New York City, Barnum drew in crowds eager to gawk at his collection of “gipsies, albinoes, fat boys, giants, dwarfs [and] caricatures of phrenology,” but that was only the beginning of the show: he also did all he could to direct them to the museum’s theater, for presentations of “moral plays in a moral manner.” One of these, The Drunkard; or, The Fallen Saved, was an overripe melodrama that drew as many as three thousand people to a single performance.2 The lead character’s extravagant case of the DTs in the fourth act was an especially popular scene.
Barnum was among hundreds of thousands of Americans who turned toward prohibitionism because, he wrote, “Neal Dow (may God bless him!) had opened our eyes.” A prosperous businessman from Portland, Maine, Dow had first made his mark on the public life of his hometown in 1827 when, at the age of twenty-four, he somehow persuaded the volunteer fire department to ban alcohol at its musters. Perhaps the firemen had become chagrined at their “most disgraceful exhibitions of drunkenness” at these “burlesque occasions” (even as they enjoyed them enormously). Just as likely, they were moved (or intimidated, or flabbergasted) by the cauterizing fire of Neal Dow’s passion.
Dow came by his reformist ardor naturally and lived by it wholly. His father was a prominent abolitionist; his great-grandfather on his mother’s side was a man “of great physical and mental vigor” memorably (and prophetically) named Hate-Evil Hall. In his thirties, by now head of his family’s successful tannery, Dow led a group of Portland employers who chose to deny their workers their daily “eleveners”—grog time. Elected mayor in 1851, he immediately persuaded the Maine legislature to enact the nation’s first statewide prohibitory law, mandating fines for those convicted of selling liquor and imprisonment for those engaged in its manufacture.
The Maine Law, as it came to be known, enabled the antiliquor forces who had been stirred by the Washingtonians to use this template to pass similar laws in a dozen other states. Just as his cause became a national movement, so Dow became a national celebrity, admired not just by Barnum but by many other prominent men. Some embraced him with almost unseemly fervor. The education reformer Horace Mann called Dow “the moral Columbus” and apparently did not blush when he equated the significance of the Maine Law with “the invention of printing.” This was no longer a movement; it had become a fever.
Which meant, of course, that it could not last. Republican politicians, fearing that prohibitionism was divisive and might weaken the unity that had formed in the young party around the slavery issue, began to tiptoe around it. In Portland, unrest broke out in 1855 among Irish immigrants who despised Dow and his law; after an angry crowd of three thousand had gathered on the night of June 2, one man was killed and seven wounded by militiamen who had been ordered to quell the riot. By the end of the decade states that had enacted versions of the Maine Law had repealed them—Maine included.
♦ ♦ ♦
THE OPPOSITION OF Portland’s Irish community could have been seen as an augury. For the next three-quarters of a century, immigrant hostility to the temperance movement and prohibitory laws was unabating and unbounded by nationality. The patterns of European immigration were represented in the ranks of those most vehemently opposed to legal strictures on alcohol: first the Irish, then the Germans, and, closer to the end of the century, the Italians, the Greeks, the southern European Slavs, and the eastern European Jews. But the word “ranks” suggests a level of organization that did not exist among the immigrant populations in whose lives wine or beer were so thoroughly embedded. Only the German-American brewers showed an interest in concentrated action, when they united in response to the imposition of a beer tax during the Civil War.
But even a group as powerful, wealthy, and self-interested as the United States Brewers’ Association met its match in the foe who would engage it for nearly half a century: women. Specifically, women of Protestant, Anglo-Saxon stock, most of them living in the small cities and towns of the Northeast and Midwest. They were led into battle by a middle-aged housewife whose first assault took place in her hometown of Hillsboro, Ohio, in 1873, inspired by a man famous for his advocacy of abstinence, chastity, gymnastics, health food, loose clothing, and the rights of women.
When Dr. Dioclesian Lewis showed up in town, he could usually count on drawing an audience. Dio, as he was called (except when he was called “beautiful bran-eating Dio”), was no doctor—his MD was an honorary one granted by a college of homeopathy—but he was many other things: educator, physical culturist, health food advocate, bestselling author, and one of the more compelling platform speakers of the day, a large, robust man “profoundly confident in the omnipotence of his own ideas and the uselessness of all others.” He was also the inventor of the beanbag.
On December 22, 1873, Lewis’s lecture caravan stopped in Hillsboro, a town of five thousand about fifty miles east of Cincinnati. That evening he spoke about “Our Girls” (the title of one of his recent books); the next, he gave a free lecture on the subject of alcohol. In it he urged the women of Hillsboro to use the power of prayer to rid the town of its saloons—not by calling down the wrath of God, but by praying for the liquor sellers, and if possible praying with them.
The next morning seventy-five Hillsboro women emerged in an orderly two-by-two column from a meeting at the Presbyterian church, taller ones in the rear, shorter in front, and at their head Eliza Jane Trimble Thompson. She was the daughter of an Ohio governor, the wife of a well-known judge, a mother of eight. She had never spoken in public before, much less led a demonstration of any kind. Inside the church, chosen by the others as their leader, she had been so strangled by nerves that she had been unable to speak until the men, temperance advocates though they were, had left the room. She was fifty-seven, a devout Methodist. As she left the sanctuary of the church and emerged into the bitter, windy cold, she led the women in singing the sixteenth-century German hymn “Give to the Wind Thy Fears,” translated by John Wesley himself.
On that Christmas Eve and for ten days after, Thompson led her band to Hillsboro’s saloons, its hotels, and its drugstores (many of which sold liquor by the glass). At each one they would fall to their knees and pray for the soul of the owner. The women worked in six-hour shifts, running relays from their homes to the next establishment on the list, praying, singing, reading from the Bible, and generally creating the largest stir in the town, said a Cincinnati newspaper, since news of the attack on Fort Sumter twelve years before. If they were allowed inside, they would kneel on a sawdust floor that had been befouled by years of spilled drinks and the expectorations of men who had missed, or never tried for, the spittoon; if not, they would remain outside, hunched for hours against the winter cold. At William Smith’s drugstore, the proprietor joined them in prayer and vowed never to sell liquor again. Outside another saloon, they knelt in reproachful humility while the customers leaned against the building, hands in their pockets, unmoved by the devout spectacle before them.
The events in Hillsboro launched the Crusade, a squall that would sweep across the Midwest, into New York State, and on to New England with the force of a tropical storm. In eleven days Thompson and her sisters persuaded the proprietors of nine of the town’s thirteen drinking places to close their doors. Down the road in Washington Court House, the gutters ran with liquor decanted by repentant saloonkeepers. As the Crusade spread from Ohio into Indiana in January and February 1874, federal liquor tax collections were off by more than $300,000 in just two revenue districts. In more than 110 cities and towns, every establishment selling liquor yielded to the hurricane set loose by Eliza...

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