BOOTLEG BOOZE AND BATHTUB GIN
This year when my December birthday rolled around, I had the pleasure of talking with friends and family who called with greetings and warm conversations - usually about how quickly the years are going by. "It seems we were just talking about this same thing and it was a whole year ago."
My daughter, Wendy, said she had heard earlier in the day it was the 73rd anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. "Yes," I said, "I heard that too. That was my second birthday so I can't say I recall the event at the time. I do better recalling Pearl Harbor. I was ten that day."
Then Wendy said: "By the way, what was Prohibition?"
"Prohibition? Oh, well, it was a time when the sale, distribution, manufacture ... of, err, alcoholic beverages was prohibited by law. And on this day in 1933, they lifted the ban." (I hoped that would satisfy her.)
We talked further about what we did know which was very little. Whether her generation or my own, little is learned about that era in school in a typical Social Studies class. Time wise, I was so close to it that it was really more part of current events and later in her classes Social Studies would have advanced to societal events effecting us all: World War II, for one major event, Civil Rights, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, student sit ins, drugs, HIV, guns and school shootings, religious cults, Right to Life, Women's Movement -- and they are just a few off the top of my head.
This much I did know. It was an Amendment to the Constitution, the 18th, that banned intoxicating liquors in 1919 and later the 21st Amendment lifted the ban in 1933. These amendments are the only ones directly concerning the same issue, and that was the extent of what I learned in school.
I directed Wendy to "google" Carrie Nation, a woman hell-bent on eradicating alcohol. I know her through the urban legend she became but well enough to pass on what I know to Wendy. As I recall in stories I've heard, sort of in a Paul Bunyonesque way, she was over six feet tall and 180 lbs. She would round up other ladies from the Women’s' Christian Temperance Union near the end of the 1800s.
These women, brandishing baseball bats and hatchets would serve warning and then show up at local saloons and smash them up, breaking all the liquor bottles lining the bar as well as breaking open the huge kegs of beer. She didn't escape punishment. She was arrested about 30 times in the first decade of the 20th Century but her plans never wavered.
She died, yet her efforts got national attention and an Amendment to the Constitution. Was it a good thing? And, did Carrie Nation do it the way Madelyn Murray O'Hair carried on her efforts to get prayer out of school? Other than illustrating the power of one in this country, I don't think they're comparable. O'Hair was an atheist and didn't want to be dragged into anyone else's worshipping.
Nation, on the other hand, was married to a drunk. She was part of the segment of society who felt powerless waiting each night at the kitchen table for their husbands to come home, hoping against hope he didn't drink away his paycheck after stopping in for a little libation. The only thoughts on their minds was that they had to do something. But, what?
Carrie Nation grabbed a baseball bat and started at the corner saloon before eventually leading the band of women whose voices were heard in every township in America. Their wishes fulfilled, they sat back and watched the passing parade as the new society they helped to forge took it's place on the world's stage.
Not so fast, ladies. In a paper by Mark Thornton, Assistant Professor of Economics at Auburn University, I read that "Alcohol Prohibition was a Failure."
In part, he wrote, "... the 'noble experiment' - was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, solve societal problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America. The results of that experiment clearly indicate that it was a miserable failure on all counts. The evidence affirms sound economic theory, which predicts that prohibition of mutually beneficial exchanges is doomed to failure."
Professor Thornton adds this: "Although consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of Prohibition, it subsequently increased. Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime increased and became "organized;" the court and prison systems were stretched to the breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant. No measurable gains were made in productivity or reduced absenteeism. Prohibition removed a significant source of tax revenue and greatly increased government spending. It led many drinkers to switch to opium, marijuana, patent medicines, cocaine, and other dangerous substances that they would have been unlikely to encounter in the absence of Prohibition."
We may not have learned too much in school about the Amendment to the Constitution but through motion pictures we've seen accurate glimpses into the lives of bootleggers - who bought and sold liquor illegally, and are not to be confused with bootleggers who copy and distribute computer software illegally in today's underground.
On screen, we see FBI agent, Elliot Ness, the honest cop who single handedly put crime families out of business by refusing to take a bribe. And we see the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, so called because seven of Bugs Moran's men were lined up against a warehouse wall and gunned down. "Only Capone kills like that," said Moran at the scene.
Prohibition was not a pretty time in America - more because of what it spawned than what it intended. Yes, initially, consumption of alcohol went down but that trend did not continue. Those who yielded to the bootlegger's prices got their usual Scotch and Bourbon smuggled in from Canada. Those who couldn't, made bathtub gin. I can't attest to any such brew myself but as neighborhood legends go, Maryann McGillicuddy made the best bathtub gin in all of New York -- and she sold it around the neighborhood filling one milk bottle at a time.