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The decade of the 1920s is often referred to as the “Roaring Twenties.” You can probably picture it now: jazz trumpets blare while women in shiny dresses dance the Charleston with their beaus and sip fancy martinis. It’s fast, it’s loud, it’s fun, it’s one big party, like New Years Eve every night. Night clubs, cocktails, rock and roll, all of these cultural staples evolved out of the roaring twenties. But take the alcohol away and, I’m not sure they would have roared quite as loudly. Surprisingly, the twenties took place during a 13 year period in the United States known as prohibition, when the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal. Despite this, Americans went to great lengths to keep the party roaring. The government had its work cut out for it to enforce this new ban on alcohol. But, did you know, they took that enforcement so seriously, it resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 Americans? Let’s fix that. 


Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. Today we’re talking about prohibition - a crazy time in US history beginning with the passing of the 18th amendment in 1919. And while constitutional amendments are, by nature, a total bore fest, I promise you this one isn’t. If your jaw doesn’t drop at least once during this episode, I will be surprised. So, let’s get into it. 


Alcohol consumption has always been fairly prominent in American culture. Actually, one could say that the very country was built on it. In 1985, Dr. David Kimball, the lead historian at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, like where they signed the Declaration of Independence and wrote the US Constitution, this guy handed over a collection of transcripts of original records to Gordon Lloyd, professor emeritus at Pepperdine University. While thumbing through the boxes, Lloyd landed on something rather interesting. It was a summary of a tavern bill from 1787. A Friday night, 3 days before the Constitution was signed, George Washington, the young country’s soon-to-be president, headed to City Tavern, just 4 blocks from Independence Hall. He was a guest of the Light Horse of Philadelphia volunteer cavalry corps that had crossed the Delaware River with him and wintered at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War. 


They have a lot to celebrate. The war is over, they won, the Constitution is all but finalized, and they’re pretty sure at this point that Washington will be the first president of the United States of America. And celebrate they do. That may actually be an understatement according to the tavern bill Lloyd found which reports that these men, 55 gentlemens as it’s recorded, collectively drank 54 bottles of Madeira wine, 60 bottles of claret (which is red wine), 22 bottles of porter, 12 bottles of beer, 8 bottles of cider and 7 large bowls of punch (which was most likely alcoholic). The bill also includes dinner, fruit, relish, and olives, as well as 21 additional bottles of wine the troop bought for 9 musicians and 7 waiters who were working at the tavern that night. Oh and there are charges listed for cigars, candles, and broken wine glasses as well. The total came to 89 pounds, 4 shillings, and 2 pence which is a whopping $15,400 today. 


3 days later, just after the signing of the finalized constitution, the delegates who signed headed back to City Tavern to celebrate. Lloyd hasn’t managed to dig up the tavern bill for this farewell dinner but he assumes it would have been just as much a party as Washington’s night with the cavalry. So, yeah the founding fathers really liked to drink. 


But by the 1800’s the temperance movement had begun. So this was basically a movement to limit the drinking of alcohol in the US. A lot of the concerns were legit. Alcohol could be very destructive, especially out on the frontier where men commonly drank too much which led to domestic violence and a lot of times they were losing their jobs because they weren’t showing up or they were showing up drunk to work. 


Women were very active in the temperance movement. By 1831 there were 24 women’s organizations dedicated to temperance which is impressive considering women didn’t really take part in politics. But, it makes sense, they were often the recipients of the drunken domestic violence abuse the men were exhibiting. Susan B. Anthony actually began as a temperance worker. She attended a New York State temperance convention where she attempted to stand up and speak for the cause but was told quote “the ladies have been invited to listen and learn and not to speak” to which she was like “umm, absolutely not. Ain’t having it.” She started her own female temperance society and played a pivotal role in gaining the right to vote for women in the United States, as well as the abolition of slavery, and equal pay for equal work. She was awesome. 


By 1893 the Anti-Saloon League had formed which was the most powerful prohibition lobby in the US. But unlike our girl Susan, they weren’t all that wholesome. Temperance had started out of concerns about the welfare of Americans and the way alcoholism affected family life and employment leading to abuse and poverty. It evolved into an issue of morality. Alcohol came to be seen as immoral, leading America towards a dystopian society with no moral character. But, moral character at the turn of the 20th century was not quite the same as today. Other things that were considered immoral at the time were, for example, women’s rights, racial equality and interracial mingling of any sort, being an immigrant, and being Catholic. Not surprisingly, the Ku Klux Klan jumped onto the coattails of the Anti-Saloon League. The rise of the KKK, which if you don’t know is an American white supremacist terrorist hate group, rose to power through its support of prohibition. They blamed all of America’s alcohol problems on Catholic immigrants from countries like Italy, claiming they threatened the US with their foreign drinking habits and saloons. Apparently they hadn’t seen Washington’s bar tab from that night with the cavalry guys. Also Catholics? So immoral. Like what in the actual? Alright, moving on. 


In 1919 a national prohibition bill is proposed. The then president Woodrow Wilson is like “nah” and vetoes it but prohibitionists control congress and they push it through anyway. It becomes known as the “Volstead Act” which was the name of a congressman who I’m assuming helped pass it. The Volstead Act enforced the 18th amendment which said quote “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” Okay Dolores Umbridge. 


So I just want to point out, it’s not actually illegal to buy alcohol or even to drink it. It’s just illegal to make it, transport it, and sell it. So you can buy it and you can drink it, but where do you get it from? This creates a black market for alcohol. Where there’s a demand, there’s a market and, legal or not, there’s money to be made. A lot of money. Some people started brewing and distilling their own alcohol at home called moonshine or bathtub gin. This is less than ideal though, it’s not great. The good stuff is brought in, mostly from Canada, some from the Bahamas. Rum running becomes a big business. 


It was relatively easy to smuggle alcohol in from Canada. It’s not like Mexico with the tightly patrolled border. Most of the border between the US and Canada, which is the longest international border in the world by the way, is just wide open frontier land. There’s nobody. Fast cars were souped up to be able to handle the weight of the booze they were smuggling and they just zoomed it on in. Actually, the rum runners liked driving these fast cars so much, and they got so good at it, they started to meet up on the weekends to race each other. This actually evolved into NASCAR which is the main car racing organization in the US. Many of the first NASCAR racers were originally alcohol smugglers. 


So if you’re drinking booze from Canada or the Caribbean, you fancy. Another option was industrial alcohol, yuck. The prohibition amendment still allowed for the manufacture of alcohol for industrial purposes, just not beverage purposes. Alcohol was needed to make film for cameras, graphite for pencils, cleaning solutions, etc. So they could still manufacture that alcohol. But to make it undrinkable, it had to be denatured. Denaturing alcohol means adding toxic chemicals to it to make it unfit for human consumption, mostly methyl alcohol. But, no matter, illicit chemists were brought in to renature the alcohol. They basically just added flavor and color to it and bottled it up all pretty. 


Alcohol could also still be used for religious ceremonial purposes. I mean we always just had grape juice during communion at the Methodist church but I guess some churches are busting out actual wine. So churches could still have wine. You can’t very well prohibit the blood of Christ, right? The number of rabbis and priests in the US suddenly skyrocketed. 


One final allowance was made, people could be prescribed whiskey for medicinal purposes. Which I guess was a thing? Apparently it was used medicinally to treat 27 different ailments, including asthma and even cancer. Not unlike medical marijuana today, I suppose. But it wasn’t easy or cheap to obtain medical whiskey. Which just sounds comically oxymoronic. First you had to get a treasury department issued certificate. Because, for some reason the treasury department was in charge of all this prohibition stuff. There was no DEA or ALE or whatever yet. So you get this certificate from the treasury, a whiskey prescription. The law said the maximum amount you could be prescribed was a pint every ten days. So that’s not a ton. Also, it was very expensive. You had to pay around $3 for the prescription and another $3 to get it filled which is a total of around $80 today. So, I don’t know, doesn’t seem that worth it to me. But apparently a lot of people were going the medical whiskey route because pharmacies were flourishing. In 1919 Walgreens pharmacy had around 20 stores. By 1930 there were nearly 400 Walgreens nationwide. They were cashing in on those whiskey prescriptions. 

But if you’re ritzy folk living in one of the big eastern cities, especially New York. You likely aren’t drinking bathtub gin or communion wine. You’re probably heading to a speakeasy, which is basically just an illegal bar. These things were popping up everywhere. Sometimes they were hidden and you just kind of had to know through word of mouth where they were and how to get in. Sometimes they were hidden in plain sight disguised as soda shops, except the soda had a kick to it. Speakeasies were often raided and shut down but they’d just pop right back up somewhere else. 


They become a cultural phenomenon and they leave a lasting impact. For really the first time, men and women are drinking together. Before, it was just a bunch of men in saloons letting off some steam after their shift at work ended. Now, women are joining in. There’s more social acceptance of women drinking. I mean heck everyone is breaking the law, why not? Now that men and women are drinking together, there’s entertainment, music, dancing. This is where the concept of the nightclub, the cabaret, came from. Also cocktails. They existed before this but now they’re necessary. Soda and juice mixed with sub par alcohol masked the taste of whatever it was they were actually drinking. And jazz music. This is the birth of jazz music which would later evolve into rhythm and blues and then into rock and roll. If you walked into one of these speakeasies, you’d likely see an all white audience dancing to all black entertainment. The African American population in Chicago rose by 1000% during prohibition. Where there’s a market, there is money to be made. 


And no one knows this better than the mob. Prohibition paved the way for this massive and extremely lucrative black market and it led to an explosion of organized crime. Many of the speakeasies were owned by gangs. Those that weren’t got their alcohol from the gangs. Gangsters are popping up all over, controlling the bootlegged alcohol game, paying off the police to turn a blind eye. One of the best known mob bosses of all time was a product of prohibition. Al Capone, or you may know him as Scarface, became the leader of the Chicago Outfit in 1925. By the late 20’s, he’s raking in over 60 million dollars a year bootlegging. He basically owned law enforcement. He rigged the 1927 election for mayor of Chicago and basically got complete immunity from the law, for a while at least. But there are Capones all over the country. Organized crime is rampant which is so ironic, right? I mean the whole purpose of prohibition was to crack down on immoral behavior, to keep the US from this dystopian fate everyone was fearing and now it’s basically run by the mobs. 


By 1926 the treasury department has had it up to here. They are so sick of the blatant disregard for the 18th amendment and they just want to get back to making coins and stuff. I’m still just like so confused that the treasury department was in charge of this. A lot of the alcohol at this point is that renatured industrial alcohol. So the government decides to up its game. They’re adding a ton of methyl alcohol and all kinds of other chemicals to it now. In the beginning, I think, they were like “cool, if we add this actual poison, surely no one will drink it.” And then when people continued to drink it despite the actual poison the strategy shifted to, “okay well if we add enough to cause serious harm people will get scared and stop drinking it.” So that’s what they did and a lot of people died. An estimated 10,000 Americans died from drinking poisoned industrial alcohol during prohibition. 750 people died in a single year in New York City alone. Many that survived were paralyzed or left blind after drinking the methyl alcohol laced concoction. So they intentionally poisoned people to dissuade others from drinking. 


And, you guys, this got my mind racing and I think I discovered a new conspiracy theory. Hear me out. I’m probably way off base but hear me out. This situation with the poisoned alcohol reminds me a lot of what’s been happening today with fentanyl laced illicit drugs. Like, several people that I went to high school with have died in the last couple years from doing drugs that they didn’t know contained fentanyl. Super sad and it’s happening more and more. And this wasn’t like crazy stuff. It was xanax and like cocaine or something but it had been cut with fentanyl. What if the government is putting the fentanyl in illicit street drugs to try to scare people out of using them just like they did with alcohol during prohibition??? I don’t know, like I said that’s probably way off base, but they have motive and they’ve done it before. Just saying. 


In 1929 the US stock market crashed. People are freaking out, frantically trying to withdraw all their money from the banks. And it’s not like the banks have all that money just sitting in the vaults. It’s not Gringotts, okay? So the banks are screwed. Thousands of them are forced to close. And this sets off a period of economic demise known as the Great Depression. A bunch of people lose their jobs. People are poor, like really poor. The poorest America’s ever been. Discontent is growing. The government is intentionally poisoning people and still not letting them drink and also not helping them and they’re poor and mad. John D. Rockefeller had donated over a million dollars to the temperance movement and even he is like “okay, that’s enough.” He announces his belief that the law should be repealed. Tides are changing. 


There’s a presidential election in 1932. The worst economic backdrop of any presidential election. Not the worst backdrop in general, that goes to Lincoln’s 1864 election, but the worst economic backdrop for sure. It’s Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR steps up and he’s like “yeah we gotta get rid of prohibition, this is nuts” and he wins the election by a landslide. But it’s not just because he likes to drink, because he did like to drink, it’s because of the economy. So normally when people are suffering due to a bad economy, loss of jobs, whatever, the government steps in with programs to help people out financially. We saw this during Covid with the stimulus checks, right? There are things the government can do to save its people during a depression. If the government has money. The problem was, the government was just as poor as the people. They didn’t have the money to bail people out. So everybody was just going down together. 


FDR knows the largest single source of tax revenue before prohibition, yes the largest single source, was alcohol. Back when selling alcohol was still legal, the government was making boucous of money taxing it. The lost tax revenue over the 13 prohibition years amounted to an estimated 11 billion dollars in 1920s money. That’s around 168 billion dollars today. On top of that, they were spending tons of money to enforce prohibition, quite poorly I might add considering law enforcement was so easily bribed by the mob. So this is really a no brainer. The government needs money to bail the country out of the great depression. Instead of reaping all those alcohol taxes, the money’s being funneled into street gangs and organized crime mobs. They’re not doing any good with it. They certainly aren’t giving poor people stimulus checks. 


So on December 5, 1933 the 18th amendment was repealed by the 21st amendment and alcohol is once again legal to manufacture, transport, and sell. The government starts collecting those taxes which go towards programs and projects to help end the depression, FDR’s “New Deal.” But between you and me it's really the WWII related economic boom after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that finally ends the depression. But that’s a conspiracy for another episode. 


So did prohibition achieve its goals of cracking down on those immoral alcoholic Catholic immigrants? No. Not at all. It quite possibly achieved the opposite of its goals. Take that KKK. Now women are drinking and dancing to black music and the son of Italian immigrants runs the mob and controls the police. It’s the exact opposite of their thinly veiled bigoted agenda. 


There were a handful of benefits that came from prohibition. Cirrhosis of the liver declined and there were fewer hospitalizations for alcohol induced psychosis. But alcoholism actually increased. There were less arrests for drunkenness but more arrests for other stuff and more crime, way more sophisticated crime, overall. And this concept of the mob controlled black market that started with prohibition carried over into other areas, other contraband, after alcohol was made legal again. It was a Pandora's box of organized crime. 


So was prohibition successful? No, I think not. I think it was a horribly failed experiment. And I’m not saying all of the motives were bad. Susan B. Anthony wasn’t after the Catholic immigrants. She just wanted more stability for families and fewer abused women. It makes sense. But it clearly didn’t work. It just detoured the money away from the government, and therefore the people, and straight to the criminals. People were still drinking and, now, they were dying and going blind, poisoned by the deadly additives the government pumped into the alcohol to dissuade them from drinking it.  


The problem with prohibition, is that it went against everything America stood for, was built on. Freedom, right? It’s all about the freedom. I always knew, growing up in the United States that it was the “land of the free,” or whatever but, honestly I didn’t really know what that meant until I spent some time in Italy. I spent about a month and a half working on a sailboat off the coast of Sardinia back in 2011. It was a dream. It seems like a dream now. But I remember Marco, the owner of the boat, I remember him telling me “not everyone can own a boat in Italy.” And I was like “Huh? What do you mean?” And he went on to explain that, in Italy, well in a lot of places come to find out, the government has to approve you before you can buy a boat. They look at how much money you make and they determine if you are able to afford a boat or not. If they decide you can’t afford a boat, you can’t buy a boat. I was completely blown away by that, I still am. It was the first time in my life, I was like 23, and it was the first time in my life that I realized what it meant to be free and that America is quite unique in its freedom. It made me incredibly appreciative of my country. I felt very patriotic. Because here, you know, you see like a beat up rusty mobile home with a huge trampoline in the yard, a couple of boats, and a massive satellite so they can get a million channels for their big screen TV. If it was up to the government, no they can’t afford that stuff. But they are free to make that decision themselves and if that’s what they want to put their money towards then so be it. It’s a beautiful thing. 


So prohibition brings up a really interesting philosophical question. When should the government step in? Where is that line drawn? Should the government prevent people from doing things that may be harmful to them? Like, heroine? Yeah, I kind of think heroine should remain illegal. I think that’s on the “prohibit this please” side of the line. But then, I remember a news story from years ago that’s just stuck with me about controversy over a proposed law that would limit the size of sodas that could be sold in New York City. It basically said that food service establishments couldn’t sell sugary drinks that were larger than 16 ounces. And people freaked out. They were adamantly opposed to this law. And it didn’t pass because of all the backlash. It felt like the government overstepping the line. And, I don’t know sugar might actually be worse than quite a few illegal drugs when it comes to long term health effects, but it does feel icky to have the government control the size of the soda you can buy. 


And to an extent, it’s like survival of the fittest, right? I mean if you’re going to guzzle 64 ounce Pepsis on the reg, maybe we should just step back and let natural selection do its thing. But then again, if you get diabetes and end up on medicaid or disability after your foot gets amputated or whatever then you are a burden on the government and therefore everyone. So, I get it, I really do. It just becomes hard to define where that line is drawn. 


One thing I think they’ve gotten wrong for like ever, though, is marijuana. And I know that’s changing now, a lot of states have legalized marijuana. I think it's legal in like 20 some states now. But my goodness, what has been up with that? I think a 64 ounce Pepsi is more dangerous than a joint. And I don’t even smoke weed, you guys, I really don’t, so I’m saying this objectively. Can you even imagine how much tax revenue the US could have been collecting over the 86 years that marijuana has been illegal? Can you imagine how much money the government could have saved on law enforcement, prison, etc. if marijuana had been legal all this time. How much unnecessary crime and punishment could have been avoided? 


Alcohol prohibition lasted 13 years. Marijuana prohibition is at 86 years and still counting in over half the country. And alcohol is undeniably more dangerous and destructive than weed. There’s something majorly fishy here. I’m going to have to do a whole episode on marijuana I think you guys. What the heck happened? How did a relatively harmless plant become so demonized that the US government would opt to prohibit it for almost a century instead of cashing in on billions and billions and billions, trillions? Probably trillions of dollars. It’s whack. 


So if there’s anything my deep dive into the prohibition years taught me, it’s that Americans will never give up their freedom and weed should definitely be legal, like yesterday. No, but really, those 13 years, that failed experiment of prohibition really left an incredibly lasting impact on American culture. The way that it changed entertainment with the evolution of the night club, men and women drinking together, women drinking socially in general, dancing, the music that evolved - jazz, then rhythm and blues, and finally rock and roll, NASCAR, and of course the mob, organized crime. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the ways in which prohibition would leave its mark on the very identity of America.


Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix. 


Information used in this episode was sourced from the Chicago Tribune,, the Mob Museum, University of Rochester,, The Whiskey Wash, National Library of Medicine, a Short History of podcast episode about Prohibition, and a Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know podcast episode titled “the prohibition conspiracy.” Links to all of these sources can be found in the show notes.

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