Freedom Can Alienate Us
Totalitarianism Terrifies Us
Prohibition Proves to Us How Easily We Can
Set Our Republic on a Totalitarian Path
Single, pregnant, and broke, 22-year old Thelma Long stood in court facing 5-years in San Quentin prison. Her crime? Owning a still, a felony under a U.S. Federal law known as The National Prohibition Act of 1920.
In truth, the still didn't belong to her. The police nabbed her during a raid of bootlegger Charles W. Holland's Los Angeles home in May of 1929. Thelma lived with Holland ostensibly as his wife and took care of his six kids. But her presence in the house made it easy for the police to charge her for possessing a still.
A media frenzy whipped up public outrage over Thelma's plight. Few saw the wisdom of jailing a young woman sure to give birth in prison. The court put her on probation thanks to some clever legal wrangling by her attorney
Thelma's life became collateral damage emblematic of Americas 13-year long war on alcohol between 1920 and 1933. But her case and the era serve us as a warning. Prohibition proves to us how quickly we can set our Republic on a totalitarian path when rival factions exercise their rights to get what they want, but destroy the freedoms they cherish, in the process.
Savannah: Home of the First Official Act of Prohibition in America
The story of Prohibition unfolds before us at the American Prohibition Museum. It is here Historic Tours of America presents compelling evidence about the costs and unintended outcomes of Prohibition.
It's little wonder Historic Tours picked Savannah as the site for this museum. To this day, locals proudly advertise the city's party town status, citing the Saint Patricks' Day celebration as one of the largest in America.
During Prohibition, Savannah was known as the spigot of the South. But it wasn't always this way. The city started out Dry.
In 1732, James Oglethorpe founded Savannah and the British Colony of Georgia. Like many leaders, he held firm views and strident convictions.
He saw alcohol as a source of evil and set out to ban it from the colony by seeking help from the British Crown. All too happy to comply, King George II decreed the first official act of alcohol Prohibition in America at Savannah in 1735.
Oglethorpe's success did not stand the test of time. Savannah became the booze-running capital of the South during Prohibition.
Georgia's 100-mile long Atlantic coast is home to 15 barrier islands, endless maze-like creeks, waterside nooks and crannies, finger-like tributaries, hammocks, caves, jetties, and remote lagoons. These qualities made Savannah a natural haven for producing and running booze during Prohibition.
The Roots of Prohibition in America
The struggle over Temperance — a movement to promote moderation or abstinence in the human consumption of alcohol — stirred in the souls of many since the earliest days of Colonial America. The views of two opposing movements, the Wets, and the Drys, dominated public debate.
An uneasy truce lasted until the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Taxes on alcohol were a vital source of revenue for the Colonies and the States throughout American history.
Tax revenues were especially critical during the Civil War with both sides desperate for funds. The Wets saw tax collection as their primary defense of critics.
The Dry movement came together after the war. The Dry’s knew their Colonial ancestors introduced alcohol to America. Collaboration between the Prohibition Party (1869) and the Anti-Saloon League (1893) coalesced into to a 33-State alliance banning alcohol sales by 1920.
The Reality of Prohibition in America
Prohibition arose from strong currents of evangelical Protestant perfectionism and a backlash against European immigration during the first two decades of the 20th century. Running a distillery — a profitable business tradition for unskilled workers in Europe — fueled fears immigrants would add to the alcohol problem and undermine the culture of our country before and after World War I.
Temperance leaders and Government bureaucrats tried to assure a doubtful public that Prohibition would trigger an economic boom. But the impact was negative. Many Americans faced a Trifecta of financial ruin instead.
First, thousands of farmers, brewers, distillers, coopers, distributors, truck drivers, warehouse workers, and clerks lost their jobs.
Second, the ban on alcohol sales meant the loss of revenues for the Federal and State governments. This ban led to new taxes forcing destitute and desperate workers to peer into their financial abyss.
Third, widespread unemployment meant more citizens became dependent on the Government for subsistence. The Great Depression (1929-1933) dealt the final economic blow to America making the financial crisis in the country unbearable.
Mother's in the kitchen washing out the jugs,
Sister's in the pantry bottling the Suds,
Father's in the cellar mixing up the hops,
Johnny's on the porch watching for the cops
The unpopularity of Prohibition triggered pervasive disregard for law and order. Traditional crimes like murder, robbery, assault, extortion, bribery, and fraud were commonplace.
The American Mafia was born and became flush with cash trafficking in alcohol. Urban warfare broke out over brewing sites and distribution deals with Speakeasies — illicit nightclubs offering alcohol to patrons.
The organized crime climate in America made it easier for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to carry out their violent racist agenda with their membership increasing to 5 million during the era. The Klan's anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, white-supremacist views dovetailed perfectly with the Dry movement.
The Father and mother of the Ku Klux Klan is the Anti-Saloon League~Clarence Darrow~
The KKK used Prohibition to justify torching the businesses and homes of European immigrant business owners. Corrupt police, conspiring with the KKK, entered the homes of immigrants and minorities at will, using search warrants based on suspicion and flimsy evidence.
Many Americans not willing to engage in outright criminal conduct resorted to skirting the law. Some began home brewing to enjoy their stash of hooch. It became common for homemakers to hold social gatherings where visitors could discreetly sip booze.
“Does anyone really believe it is the function of Government to regulate the habits and appetites of the people rather than to provide them with jobs?”
Prohibition set up a cultural war in the United States pitting religion against religion, class against class, and race against race. Civil liberties stated in the U.S. Constitution took a back seat to enforcement.
During this time, the Government pressured neighbors to spy on one another. Many lived in fear of police raids and arrest. Peer pressure induced friends and neighbors to shun women and report their names to the police. Women who wore short skirts, bobbed hair, smoked cigarettes and worked late night jobs were prime targets for surveillance. You know, people like Thelma Long.
Akin to what we see today with dissent over Civil War statues, the Wet and Dry movements battled one another in the press, at church, at work, and in the streets.
Women became active in politics and social unrest. Armed with a hatchets, bottles, and rocks, Carrie Nation and her army of supporters from the Women's Christian Temperance Movement took to Saloon wrecking with enthusiasm.
Women favoring social change cast off Victorian age dress styles and social conduct. They were the lifeblood of the Roaring Twenties.
For the first time in America, women worked outside the home at Speakeasies as waitresses, cigarette servers, bartenders, and escorts. In New York City alone, there were 32,000 Speakeasies by 1921.
Social drinking of alcohol and permissive sexual encounters increased as many women rejected centuries of Puritanical dicta in America.
Getting Around the Law
The Medical Profession
Prohibition is better than no liquor at all
Doctors and pharmacists lobbied for liquor exemptions via the American Medical Association (AMA) citing the usefulness of alcohol for medicinal purposes. They won.
Within the first six months of Prohibition, 15,000 doctors and 57,000 pharmacists applied for licenses to prescribe whiskey to treat everything from sprained ankles to old age. They raked in a cool $40 million writing prescriptions and were favorite guests at household socials.
Ironically, their actions were hypocritical. The AMA aligned with the Temperance movement in 1917, 3-years before Prohibition, claiming alcohol had nomedicinal properties.
The Walgreens drugstore chain saw remarkable growth during the era. It began with a single store in 1901 and grew to 525 outlets by the end of Prohibition in 1933. The company filled more prescriptions for medicinal whiskey than any other drugstore outlet. By 1921, their pharmacists ordered more than 8 million gallons of whiskey from Federal warehouses.
Permanent Changes in
The Rise of Americas National Law Enforcement
The U.S. Government built the massive Federal law enforcement complex we see today during Prohibition. Budgets increased 500%. Extensive record keeping to track citizens was set up. The first cases of Federal wiretapping of criminals began in 1927.
Most of the Federal prisons were built during the era as convict populations grew 400%. Prosecutions swamped the Federal courts causing the Government to delegate enforcement actions to the States. Courts nationwide dealt with silly trials, like the case of Thelma Long, leading to widespread plea-bargaining for the first time in U.S. history.
Underpaid, undertrained, and unqualified people hired during the rapid buildup of law enforcement led to widespread public corruption undermining what little confidence Americans had in the rule of law. Some enforcement officers went to jail. But sham investigations by corrupt officers stained the reputations of thousands and ruined families.
Prohibition ended in 1933 with the 21st amendment to the Constitution. But the Federal Government could not afford to lay off the Federal workers hired to enforce the law.
Doing so would have put tens of thousands of Federal employees out of work. Instead, the Government created a new war, the War on Drugs, and redirected workers to an effort that continues to this day.
The Rise of Americas National Income Tax
Taxation of alcohol was a centuries-old method of funding the Colonies, and later, the American States. Before Prohibition, up to 40% of all U.S. taxes were paid by brewers and distillers. Prohibition cut off this vital source of revenue.
Congress had no choice but to pass a national income tax to offset revenue shortfalls. In fact, the dominant Dry movement was so effective in shutting down alcohol sales, that Congress passed the federal income tax in 1913 — seven years before Prohibition.
Remaking Americas National Political Parties
The Republican Party controlled the voting blocks in major cities before Prohibition. Many party members were evangelical Protestants and supporters of the constitutional ban on alcohol. But the unfavorable impact of Prohibition triggered a rebellion among voters. Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) with his New Deal for America was swept into office in 1932.
FDR signed the 21st Amendment, the repeal of Prohibition, and in doing so exclaimed, “…what America needs now is a drink ….”
Is the Past a Prologue?
America finds itself amid a cultural divide today. With a polarized populace bickering over politics and social issues, one might think a revolution has popped up out of nowhere.
Some believe our nation suffers from future shock. Yet, we need look only to our past to spot the roots of social issues that continue to haunt us to this day.
The story of Prohibition is a cautionary tale about overregulation and what happens when a society overreacts to legislate morality. It's a strident reminder to retune our collective moral compass. It's a warning eerily reminiscent of the high stakes game played out before us daily, as Americans debate one another over social issues in the cultural town square between the halls of democracy and totalitarianism.
Get the Full Story at the American Prohibition Museum
Mindful of Savannah's flamboyant role during Prohibition, Historic Tours of America, opened the American Prohibition Museum in May 2017. It presents a treasure trove of Prohibition memorabilia, a mock Speakeasy where you can order drinks of the time, tons of tidbits and anecdotes thoughtfully organized and arranged, and a video history of the era.
This place isn't just a tourist attraction. It's a priceless piece of Americana that will trigger critical thought and reflection by all who visit. There's nothing else like it in America.
The American Prohibition Museum
209 West St. Julian Street, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Open daily· 10AM–4:15PM. Hours may differ on holidays
Phone: (912) 220-1249
Cost: Adults, $13, Children, $9
The American Prohibition Museum: https://www.americanprohibitionmuseum.com
Photos and Credits
All images of and quotes from the American Prohibition Museum are by the author taken with the courtesy and permission of Historic Tours of America.
Coastal Georgia URL Links
If you're hungry, there's many good restaurants nearby the museum. Check out Vinnie Van Go-Go's just a quick walk away for some great pizza.
Coastal Georgia has some great restaurants. We live here. We know. Check these places out the next time you're driving on I-95.
Skippers Fish Camp, Darien, GA (Exit 49 off of I-95)
The Sunbury Crab Company, Sunbury GA (Exit 76 off of I-95)
The Millhouse Steak House, Brunswick, GA (Exit 38 off of I-95)
Sal's Neighborhood (New York) Pizza, St Simons Island, GAÂ (Exit 38 off of I-95)
Fox's Pizza Den, Brunswick, GA
Some Great Places to See
Three Great Spots Along The Georgia Coast For Birdwatching Sunbury GA (Exit 76 off of I-95)
The American Prohibition Museum: The History of our Love-Hate Relationship with Alcohol, Savannah, GA (Exit 16 off of I-95 to Savannah)
Driftwood Artist Converts Dreams To Realities, Richmond Hill, GA
(Exit 87 on Route 17 West about a 1 mile from I-95