It’s hard to imagine a time when it was illegal to make, sell or distribute alcohol. But today is the anniversary of such an event – yes, although the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, it was one year later, on January 17, 1920, that it actually came into effect.
Now Prohibition may be long dead, but the speakeasies, cocktails and general beliefs that it spawned are still with us today.
For better or worse, Prohibition changed the way Americans (and ultimately the world) drank, and the cultural impact that resulted from that has never really gone away.
Here are a few of the odd and surprising effects of Prohibition.
Congress had its own bootlegger known as the Man in the Green Hat
Members of Congress who wanted alcohol during Prohibition could turn to Capitol Hill’s top bootlegger, George L. Cassiday. Cassiday walked through the halls of Congress making up to 25 deliveries of illegal booze a day while Capitol Police allowed him in at all hours. Over five years he supplied bottles of Whiskey, Moonshine, Scotch, Bourbon and Gin from a sturdy leather briefcase. The press nicknamed him “Man in the Green Hat” and is infamy spread and he was finally arrested in 1930 with six bottles of Gin and his client list (which was never published). He was sentenced to a year in prison. Cassiday later wrote that he helped 80 per cent of Congress violate Prohibition laws.
The original ‘booze cruise’
Prohibition helped create the first booze cruise. Many port cities offered a “Cruise to Nowhere” in which a boat would take passengers out to international waters where they could drink without repercussion and return several hours later.
Herbert Hoover never referred to Prohibition as “a noble experiment.”
Many books and articles on Prohibition have quoted President Herbert Hoover describing Prohibition as “a noble experiment.” But Hoover himself complained that he was misquoted. Hoover was a confirmed supporter of Prohibition and campaigned for it the year he was elected president in 1928. He made this pro-dry statement at the Republican National Convention that year: “Our country has deliberately undertaken a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.”
Al Capone’s oldest brother was a Prohibition enforcement agent
While his younger brother Al built a criminal empire based on illegal liquor in Chicago in the 1920s, James Vincenzo Capone enforced Prohibition laws for the federal Indian Affairs administration on reservations of the Winnebago and Omaha tribes in Nebraska. Vincenzo, the eldest of the six Capone brothers, had changed his name to Richard Joseph Hart to hide his identity and in tribute to the silent movie cowboy, William S. Hart.
The end of Prohibition made U.S. constitutional history
The repeal of the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) by the 21st Amendment was the first and only time the Constitution was amended by state constitutional conventions – instead of state legislatures – and the only time an amendment abolished a previous one.
The Prohibition Party still exists
The Prohibition Party was originally formed pre-prohibition in 1869 and remains America’s oldest third party. It was the first political party to permit women as members. Thomas Nast, the famed cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly in the late 1800s who created the elephant to symbolize the Republican Party and the donkey for Democrats, settled on the camel for the Prohibition Party, since that animal drinks only water. The Prohibition Party is today little more than a curiosity with very little support left. Its platform remains opposed to alcohol as well as tobacco. Its candidate for president of the United States in 2012 garnered just 519 votes nationwide.
The term “speakeasy” did not originate during Prohibition
It came from the two-word phrase “speak easy,” coined by American journalist Samuel Hudson back in 1889. Hudson, in his 1909 book Pennsylvania and Its Public Men, recalled that while in Pittsburgh in 1889, a new city liquor licensing law reduced the number of taverns there to only 96. That encouraged a rise in illegal bars all over town. Hudson asked Tim O’Leary, a local Democratic Party politician, to show him one. O’Leary explained that an elderly Irish widow who sold illegal beer and whiskey once warned her patrons, in her brogue, to “spake asy, now, the police are at the dure.” So, Hudson said, “Spake asy” became the moniker for the hundreds of unlicensed taverns in Pittsburgh.
Speakeasies often were located behind doors painted green
During the dark days of prohibition, if you saw a green door on a business, chances are there was a good time hiding behind it. For many speakeasies, the only advertisement they needed to attract thirsty patrons and hide from police was a green door. A green door was a wink and a nod that booze lied behind it. Some popular speakeasies, like Chicago’s Green Door Tavern are still in operation.
Jails went through an overhaul
Some folks were so sure that alcohol lead to almost all crimes, that towns actually sold off their jails right before Prohibition went into effect. What ended up happening? Severe overcrowding and increased federal spending on prisons . . . or the exact opposite of what people thought would happen.
It killed a lot of people
Because bootleggers concocted unregulated liquor, a greater percentage ended up being tainted. Approximately 1,000 Americans died from drinking that liquor each year during Prohibition. Also, in an awful attempt to scare people from drinking any alcohol they could get their hands on, the U.S. government actually ordered some industrial alcohol to be poisoned. After all was said and done, it is estimated that around 10,000 people died from this poisoned alcohol. On top of all of this, the spike in organized crime added to the death toll as did people believing they could drink things like filtered antifreeze.
There were suddenly more pharmacists
Whiskey could still legally be prescribed by pharmacists to treat an array of medical issues. Medicinal alcohol sales increased by 400% from 1923 to 1931 and the number of registered pharmacists also increased drastically
Mississippi became the last state in the union
While the 18th amendment was repealed in 1933, it was up to each state to lift the ban on booze. Some, like North Carolina, dragged their feet for a few years. But nobody held on to sobriety as long as Mississippi. It wasn’t until 1966 that alcohol was made legal in the Magnolia State.