The prohibitionists say that the liquor issue is as dead as slavery. The wet people say that liquor can be obtained anywhere. You’d think they’d both be satisfied.
—Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in the Miami Herald,
October 7, 1920
ON FRIDAY, JANUARY 16, 1920, at the First Congregational Church in Washington, the luminaries gathered in front of the buzzing crowd didn’t look like they’d command the sort of frenzy that had greeted Billy Sunday that day at his tabernacle in Norfolk, Virginia, when he declared that “Hell will forever be for rent.” Andrew Volstead’s drooping mustache, James Cannon’s antediluvian high-buckle shoes, and Wayne Wheeler’s resemblance to a small-town clerk were material for a caricaturist, not for a victory party. Josephus Daniels, the navy secretary who had dried up the American fleet, was at the First Congregational, too, and so were Howard Hyde Russell, the sixty-five-year-old founder of the Anti-Saloon League, and Anna A. Gordon of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU would soon be launching a campaign “to help protect the woman worker.” One of the slogans Gordon and her colleagues cooked up for the effort, “Equal Pay for Equal Work,” would be unveiled in a week and would resonate for decades.
The WCTU could look ahead to its next campaign because its last one was now completely, irrevocably over. Secretary Daniels told the crowd, “No man living” would ever see the Volstead Act modified. Other notables offered similar declarations. Then, around 11:15 in the evening, after several hours of speechifying, the warm-up speakers receded into the immense shadow of the man now moving toward the lectern. William Jennings Bryan would have no victory in his long public life greater than this one. Freeing the nation from the death grip of alcohol even obliterated some of the remnant pain from his three failed presidential candidacies. He had spent the early part of the week delivering speeches in Nebraska, four on Monday alone, but still had the energy to make the twelve-hundred-mile trip to Washington. Nothing could have kept Bryan from participating in this event, in this city, in this church where Frederick Douglass had once been a congregant, and where the end of a different form of slavery would be memorialized at midnight.
The crowd had waited three hours for Bryan’s speech. Some, it could have been said, had been waiting for decades. If the long service had made anyone’s attention waver or diluted anyone’s passion, Bryan restored them with the rolling rhythms of his oratory. For forty minutes he spoke, the great bald dome of his head gleaming with sweat, the trumpetlike sonorities of his broad vowels filling the room. At midnight he paused so that the congregants could rise and sing the doxology. Then, as they took their seats, Bryan gathered himself for a fiery conclusion. Drawing from the gospel of Saint Matthew, he yoked the liquor trade to those who would have killed the infant Jesus. “They are dead that sought the young child’s life!” he boomed. Then again, even louder: “They are dead!” And once more, his arms raised, his eyes aglow, a saint in the grip of ecstasy: “They are dead!”
THE LIQUOR INDUSTRY wasn’t dead, of course; a new version, this one illegal, underground, and nearly ubiquitous, would emerge with the birth of the dry utopia. Not two hours after rapture swept the First Congregational Church, halfway across the country agents from the Bureau of Internal Revenue apprehended two truckloads of whiskey departing a warehouse in Peoria, Illinois—“stolen,” it appeared, by officials of the distillery that had produced it. It was the first recorded arrest made under the Prohibition laws—the first of hundreds of thousands to come.
Still, many Americans greeted Prohibition with due respect: they began to drink less. A significant portion of the population either felt duty-bound to take the constitutional strictures seriously or found the procedural roadblocks erected by the Volstead Act too daunting. Alcohol-related deaths fell in 1920, as did arrests for public drunkenness. Generally speaking, the closer one lived to the middle of the country, especially in towns and cities inhabited by Protestants of northern European extraction, the more likely it was that drinking was down. Helen and Robert Lynd reported that in Muncie, Indiana—the real Middletown—where there had once been a saloon for every 140 adults, drinking declined because civic and social leaders chose to go dry, thereby setting an example for their neighbors. Still, the big cities of the coasts were not unscathed, as hotels and restaurants dependent on bar business shut their doors. One of the first to give up the fight was Holland House, on Fifth Avenue in New York. It closed during Prohibition’s very first month, its celebrated Bamboo Cocktails (sherry, dry vermouth, orange bitters) gone forever.
Evidence of the drying-up came from many sources. Welch’s Grape Juice began to set new sales records. Diminished criminal behavior led Grand Rapids, Michigan, to abandon its work farm. Chicago closed one of its jails. “We were all elated by the marked decrease in so-called disorderly conduct,” Jane Addams would recall. “Our neighborhood registered a general lack of street disorders and also of family quarrels, which had so often put a mother and little children into the streets, turned out by a drunken father, sometimes in the middle of the night.” Songwriter Albert Von Tilzer, who had taken America out to the ballgame in 1908, was cashing royalties from a new song called “I Never Knew I Had a Wonderful Wife Until the Town Went Dry.”
But the front-page headline in the January 17 edition of the ASL’s American Issue—CONSTITUTIONAL PROHIBITION IS IN EFFECT / ALL LIQUOR STAINS WIPED FROM THE STARS AND STRIPES—would prove a gross overstatement. In fact the best estimates by authoritative scholars indicate that in the decade after the arrival of the Eighteenth Amendment, alcohol consumption dropped only 30 percent.
After the house of Prohibition had begun to crumble in the late 1920s, Deets Pickett, a publicist for the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals, paused in fond recollection of those early, slightly dry days. “We learned to drink milk as never before,” he sighed, “and our tables were loaded with fresh vegetables and fruits . . . and the young people became taller and healthier and more vigorous.”
AMONG THOSE WHO had feared the arrival of Prohibition, the legendary oenologist A. R. Morrow was hardly characteristic, except insofar as he considered the new regime both unpleasant and disruptive of a way of life. Morrow, who knew the wines of California better than any other living being, had a palate so refined and a nose so sophisticated that he spurned all highly seasoned foods in order to protect his sensory acuity. Needless to say, he never smoked. He also never swallowed the wines he tasted, fearing that even a hint of inebriation could dull his edge. But the onset of Prohibition brought to Morrow’s life what he thought would be a radical change. Convinced that his career was over, he discarded all caution and, for the first time, swallowed a mouthful of wine.
What shocked Morrow was not the effect, but the absence of effect: his taste buds remained as keen as ever. He was one of those millions who believed in the miracle of the grape, the wonders of the hop, or the marvels embedded in a bushel of corn or rye, and then discovered that the arrival of the dreaded day changed their lives much less than they had feared. However much the population at large cut back on their alcohol consumption, from the very beginning those who really wanted to drink inevitably found a way. Take Baron M. Goldwater of Phoenix, who arranged to have the bar, back bar, and brass rail of his favorite saloon installed in the basement of his house, where his son Barry, ten years old at the advent of Prohibition, would soon be making beer. Or consider the father of another future U.S. senator. Joseph P. Kennedy sold off much of the stock from his father’s East Boston liquor business to grateful friends and associates, and cellared several thousands of dollars’ worth of wine in his Brookline house.
The wine in Joe Kennedy’s basement was there legally, courtesy of the clause in the Volstead Act that legitimized alcoholic beverages already stored in an individual’s residence as of midnight on January 16. Like Kennedy, most beneficiaries of this provision were wealthy. They had money to invest in an inventory they might not consume for years, and they owned residences large enough to store it. The propertied (and bibulous) classes, who were not shy about exploiting their advantage, had won an exception that was nearly as broad, and nearly as focused on a single constituency, as the gift of cider that Congress had bestowed on the nation’s farmers. The wealthy took advantage of both the exception and the lead time to buy and store as much as they wished, even after liquor and wine dealers began shutting their doors in late 1919. By January 16, 80 percent of the merchandise stored in the cellars of the Union Club at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street in Manhattan had been transferred to the members’ homes. In New Orleans civic leader Walter Parker, a member of the Stratford Club, built two new wine cellars in his house, purchased a stock of more than five thousand bottles, and proceeded to dip into it daily for the next fourteen years. In Los Angeles, Charlotte Hennessy, mother of actress Mary Pickford, simply bought the entire inventory of a liquor store and had it relocated to her basement.
Despite the ease with which they could satisfy their thirsts, many of the well-off chose to devote considerable energy to disputing the legitimacy of the Eighteenth Amendment. It would not be inaccurate to say that the eventual repeal of Prohibition was born in 1920 in the clubs and salons and dining rooms of the American aristocracy, who considered constitutional Prohibition an affront to republican (and Republican) principles. The first public manifestation of this phenomenon was a legal challenge orchestrated by that most distinguished of American lawyers, Elihu Root.
Root was the beau ideal of the governing class, a brilliant and wealthy man who despised the very idea of Prohibition, both as an intrusion on the rights of the individual and as an assault on the rights of the states. He was broad enough in his thinking to believe that individual rights extended to working people, but in this instance he was sufficiently narrow to frame the workingman’s exercise of those rights as the inevitable by-product of desperation. Prohibition, Root told his friend Everett P. Wheeler, “takes away the chief pleasure in life for millions of men who have never been trained to get their pleasure from art, or literature, or sports, or reform movements.” One imagines that most American workers, confronted with the choice, would opt for their beer even if the infinite joys of reform movements had been available to them. The selfless patriots who financed Root’s legal challenge—the brewers, of course—likely imagined that, too.
The Elihu Root who had gotten so hot under the collar with his anti-German rhetoric during the war (“there are men . . . who should be shot for treason”) was barely less ardent when he took his case to the Supreme Court in March 1920, accompanied by the eminent constitutional lawyer William D. Guthrie. To a degree, this was advocacy suited for a surrealist: Root and Guthrie were trying to persuade the justices to declare a constitutional amendment . . . unconstitutional. Their case was built on three legs and one crutch: the Fifth Amendment; the Tenth Amendment; a belief that the Constitution was an inappropriate vessel for what was essentially a criminal statute; and blind hope. The effort failed, but not without a blaze of rhetorical glory. Root and Guthrie’s friend Nicholas Murray Butler, the wet president of Columbia University, described the closing moments of the argument: “Mr. Root put his glasses in his pocket, and, drawing himself up to his full height, pointing his finger at the Chief Justice, with the whole nine Justices fixing their eyes upon him, he concluded his argument with these memorable words . . . : ‘If your honors . . . shall find a way to uphold the validity of this amendment, the government of the United States, as we have known it, will have ceased to exist.’”
The justices were unconvinced, and somehow the government managed to survive. Root and Guthrie, as well as Butler, would remain opposed to Prohibition. But one month after the Supreme Court defeat, Guthrie was peripherally involved in a lawsuit that concluded much more happily for all involved. His daughter Ella wanted a divorce from Eugene S. Willard, and there remained a final, contentious issue impeding a settlement. It was finally resolved when the parties agreed to divide their supply of legal liquor equally—half to his house in Locust Valley on Long Island, and half to hers on Park Avenue.
THOSE WITH NEITHER means nor storage space resorted to strategies homelier than those available to the wealthy. Within days of the onset of the dry era, portable stills, some with a distilling capacity as little as a single gallon, were on sale in cities across the country. That same week illegal liquor began leaking through the border from Canada, much of it into the poor and working-class neighborhoods of eastern and midwestern cities. The long-anticipated arrival of Prohibition—the world had known its starting date for a year—had accommodated establishment of elaborate distribution networks; as the Daily Mail of Fredericton, New Brunswick, reported, even before January 16, “Enough smuggled Canadian stock is said to be hidden in the woods [over the Maine border] to keep authorities busy for over a year.” Before January was out the head of the U.S. Customs Service told Congress that the quantities pouring in from Canada now constituted a flood, and his forces had been able to intercept only “an infinitesimal quantity.” Then a sequence of events in the remote upper Michigan mining town of Iron River established that slaking the thirst of the American working class was not exclusively contingent on Canadian ingenuity.
Of the innumerable headlines that focused the nation’s attention on Iron River in the last week of February 1920, the most dramatic may have been the one in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Stretching across the top of the front page, in two lines of the declarative black capitals generally reserved for wars, presidential elections, and horrible natural disasters, it read ARMED INVASION IS BEGUN TO CRUSH PROHIBITION REBELLION IN MICHIGAN. The unembarrassed use of “rebellion” also featured prominently in the New York Timesversion, and in Chicago the Tribune took the next and obvious step in its eight-column screamer: WHISKY REBELLION, the paper called the events in Iron River, and added, ARMED FORCE TO DESCEND ON MINING COUNTRY.
In fact, the armed invasion force included fewer than two dozen federal Prohibition agents. The rebellion largely consisted of the maneuvers (either impudent or bold, depending on your perspective) of a young district attorney. And there was no whiskey involved at all—the drink in question was a homemade zinfandel pressed from grapes shipped in from California and known in upper Michigan as “Dago Red.” But the events in Iron River would demonstrate that insofar as alcoholic beverages were concerned, the interests of the working poor and the well-to-do coincided—in this instance, because the former wanted their wine, and because the latter very much wanted them to have it.
The story broke on February 23, when a federal agent named Leo J. Grove seized three barrels of homemade wine from the basement of a grocery store belonging to the Scalcucci brothers, provisioners to the italians, Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Croatians, Serbs, and other immigrants who had been drawn to the area by the lure of jobs in the iron mines. District Attorney Martin S. McDonough asserted that the wine had been illegally expropriated; because one of the Scalcuccis lived above the grocery store, he said, Grove had improperly invaded his “home” without a warrant. McDonough thereupon seized the wine, returned it to the Scalcuccis—and arrested Agent Grove for the illegal transport of liquor. In his Chicago office, Alfred V. Dalrymple, chief Prohibition officer for the midwestern states, was displeased. He declared that Iron County “is in open revolt.” Telling the press he would take “as many men as are necessary” to subdue the rebellion, Dalrymple said, “I do not want bloodshed, but if the state authorities stand in the way, and they are backed by their political cohorts, I am going to shoot.”
Dalrymple arrived in town at midnight on February 24 with sixteen of his own men and what was variously described as “a host” or “an army” of reporters, photographers, and newsreel cameramen. One of the first tableaux they encountered was a rural, winterized version of the panic that had gripped many American cities five weeks earlier. The Tribune reporter described “bobsleds drawn by oxen and horses” and hand sleds pulled along the snowy roads by men, women, and children, all laden with bottles and casks destined for “the hills, mine shafts, tunnels, and underbrush,” there to be hidden from Dalrymple’s invaders.
Mostly, though, the press contingent got indoor pictures of Dalrymple staring down the thirty-four-year-old McDonough in the lobby of the Iron Inn or exterior shots of him out in the frigid February weather, sledgehammer in hand, smashing open the barrels of wine his men had managed to intercept. As vivid gouts of Dago Red saturated a nearby snowbank, turning it a deep, grapy purple, a cameraman from Pathé News gave a local man called “Necktie” Sensiba fifty cents to drop to his knees and eat the snow. The high school kids who joined him didn’t have to be paid.
That was about it; by 4 p.m. on the twenty-fifth, sixteen hours after Dalrymple’s arrival, he suddenly announced that he had important business in Washington, would be leaving within the hour, and would issue no more statements. The business, it turned out, was an investigation of the entire silly affair, ordered up by Dalrymple’s boss, Prohibition commissioner John F. Kramer. As Dalrymple and his men boarded the train for Chicago, Iron River residents got out their sleds again and toted their bottles and barrels back to their homes. McDonough, the young prosecutor, was hailed as a hero in the iron country of northern Michigan and beyond. The New York Times reported that telegraph wires into Iron County were jammed with congratulatory messages from sixteen states. One, from New York district attorney Edward Swann, saluted McDonough for his “courageous stand against Dalrymple’s theatrical attempt to gain notoriety for himself.”
At least some of McDonough’s courage emanated from a motivation little noted at the time. “These foreigners”—the mine workers of Iron County—“always have had their grape presses and their homemade wine,” McDonough said during the rebellion. “They drink this in preference to water. They carry it to their work in their dinner pails and they won’t work without it.”
McDonough, whose father-in-law had founded Iron River four decades earlier when he opened some of the county’s first iron mines, also said, “We have a large number of foreign workers here, and we wish to keep them.”
IN THE FIRST seven months of that first dry-but-wet year, 900,000 cases of liquor found their way from Canadian distilleries to the border city of Windsor, Ontario. This worked out to roughly 215 bottles of booze for every man, woman, and child in the area. This sounds like a lot only if you don’t believe the court testimony of the Windsor woman who had personally acquired nine barrels of that whiskey, plus another forty cases of it in bottles. During the late war, she told a magistrate, she had turned to the bottle to soothe her anguish about the Canadian boys at the front, in the process developing a taste for the stuff that she had not been able to shake after the armistice. Poor dear—simple math suggested she’d been drinking roughly ten bottles a day. Or perhaps she, and all the other Wind-sorites on the receiving end of the whiskey flood, just might have been sending it across the mile-wide Detroit River to Michigan. It was as if the whole eastern end of Ontario, and much of the north as well, had been lifted up and tilted so that every drop of liquid in the province could run downhill to Windsor.
Another conduit through Ontario—the Michigan Central tracks connecting Niagara Falls to Windsor, and thus the northeastern United States to Detroit and beyond—carried its own cargo of liquor in the summer of 1920. On June 6, an honest customs inspectorboarded a train that had originated in Boston, crossed into Canada at the falls, and was now in Windsor, poised to enter the international rail tunnel to Detroit. He entered the first car and asked the occupants to hand over any liquor they were carrying. This produced twelve bottles, which the inspector placed on the floor as he entered the second car to continue his rounds. When he turned around a moment later, all twelve bottles had disappeared. Undeterred, he moved along the train, tapping the coat and pants pockets of the next car’s occupants and reaping another harvest of flasks and bottles.
Inspector Graham probably didn’t know that the pockets he patted belonged to two hundred Massachusetts Republicans on their way to the party’s national convention in Chicago. Though the Boston Evening Transcript reported the misadventure, the tone of its report was conspicuously lighthearted (Graham had been “in pursuit of suspicious gurgles”), even blasé: it characterized the delegates’ train trip as “politically uneventful.” Beyond that, little mention of the event appeared in the newspapers. Already, at this early moment in the evolution of Prohibition, the personal habits of the men who had placed the Eighteenth Amendment in the Constitution, or who presided over its enforcement, weren’t a matter of public concern.
Not even to Wayne B. Wheeler, who asked American politicians for public loyalty, not private virtue. Wheeler knew that the victories of 1919 could be undone if Congress failed to appropriate funds for enforcement, so he devoted most of 1920 to building a barrier against such an eventuality. Without continued support from both major parties, Wheeler believed, the Eighteenth Amendment could be undermined as quickly and as thoroughly as the Fifteenth. Yet as the two political parties gathered for their conventions that summer, Wheeler wanted nothing but inaction.
He was pleased that the Republicans picked the privately soaking but publicly parched (and always pliable) senator Warren G. Harding as their candidate. He was displeased that the Democrats chose Harding’s fellow Ohioan, the sometimes-wet-sometimes-dry governor James M. Cox, as theirs. But Wheeler cared less about the parties’ candidates than about their platforms. In that prebroadcasting era, when the only information American voters could get about national candidates came in printed form, the endlessly debated, widely circulated platforms were essential documents—and Wheeler didn’t want a word about Prohibition in either one of them. “Fearing that either or both party conventions would reject” a strong dry proposal, wrote his research assistant, Justin Steuart, Wheeler chose not to risk any inference that the ASL’s power and influence had waned.
The Republicans obliged; not even an allusive mention of Prohibition or the Volstead Act appeared anywhere in the 102 paragraphs of their platform, not even in the section devoted to recent GOP legislative successes. There, the party confined its self-congratulation to its efforts regarding such concerns as telegraph reform, postal pay rates, vocational education, and the future of the shipping industry. The party’s controlling document boasted of its support for the pending Nineteenth Amendment—woman suffrage—but whispered not a word about what it had done for the Eighteenth.
The Democrats approached their convention a few weeks later knowing two very important things: that the other party had remained silent on Prohibition and that members of their own party wouldn’t have to suffer the confiscation of hip flasks en route to San Francisco. That was because they didn’t have to take any along. San Francisco had officially declared its distaste for Prohibition even before it had started. Back in 1919, the city’s considerate board of supervisors, mindful of the hardship about to be visited upon its citizens, had unanimously repealed the city ordinance banning unlicensed saloons. A judge—a federal judge, in fact—had declined to give a jail sentence to Louis Cordano of Mission Street, who had been convicted of a prohibition violation; among Italians, the judge said, wine “is as necessary as coffee to the average American and tea to the average Englishman.” A few months before the Democratic convention got under way on June 28, an examination of a panel of fifty prospective criminal trial jurors revealed that exactly two of them identified themselves as dry.
As a result, the Democrats’ sojourn by the Bay was eagerly anticipated by delegates who were, in the disapproving words of a dry delegate from Minnesota, “in communion with the spirit of John Barleycorn.” Republican Mayor James Rolph Jr., who believed in accommodating his guests even if they were Democrats and even if they voted dry, provided delegates and the press corps with what a grateful H. L. Mencken characterized as “Bourbon of the very first chop, Bourbon aged in contented barrels of the finest white oak, Bourbon of really ultra and super quality.” Delivered by “small committees of refined and well-dressed ladies,” Mayor Rolph’s bourbon was also free of charge. If you stood in a San Francisco hotel lobby and looked thirsty, wrote another journalist at the convention, “all sorts of unknown Samaritans will charitably ask you up to their room.”
The Democrats who managed to drag themselves to the Cow Palace to adopt a platform and nominate a candidate seemed no more eager to address Prohibition than the Republicans had been. This was definitely true of the dry leaders who had come to the convention to loom over the proceedings like armed prison guards on a catwalk. Dry Democrats were James Cannon’s responsibility, and Cannon (along with William Jennings Bryan, platform committee chairman Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, and any other dry in an influential party position) was Wayne Wheeler’s responsibility. President Wilson asked his supporters to introduce a plank modifying the Volstead Act to allow the sale of beer and light wines, but Glass refused even to allow a debate on its merits. Scanning the horizon in the other direction, the ASL had to contend with a runaway train when Bryan, who did not appreciate subtlety, introduced a militantly dry floor resolution. To Cannon fell the counterintuitive task of persuading dry delegates to vote down the Bryan resolution. His private reasoning: if the Democrats had such a plank while the Republicans did not, the ASL’s meticulously balanced posture of nonpartisanship would be endangered. His public position, as described by Senator Glass: Cannon nobly “shrank from the idea of having [Prohibition] made a political issue.”
An ailing Bryan was devastated. The Boy Orator of the Platte was now a very old sixty, plagued by diabetes and crippled by his evident irrelevance; some called him the party’s “Beerless Leader.” A wisecrack published as the convention opened was not far off the mark: “There are several hundred men in this convention who would like to nail William Jennings Bryan to his cross of gold and leave him there to die of thirst.” As the Democrats prepared to vote on the resolution, Wheeler encountered Bryan at the rear of the hall, prostrate on a makeshift bed fashioned from a cast-off door and two wooden supports. “I put an old coat under his head for a pillow,” Wheeler would remember. “He seemed dead tired, and the expression on his face indicated that he was suffering greatly. He took me by the hand and with tears coursing down his cheeks told me he was ready to die if he could make his party take the right action as to prohibition and adopt his resolution.”
Abhorred by the wets, abandoned by the drys, Bryan and his resolution were overwhelmed, losing by a vote of 929.5–155.5. Not even half a year had passed since his apotheosis in the First Congregational Church in Washington; now, he said, “My heart is in the grave.” For much of the rest of the convention wet delegates, the fortunate beneficiaries of Sunny Jim Rolph’s largess and Wayne Wheeler’s political calculations, crooned chorus after cheerfully cynical chorus of that tuneful old favorite, “How Dry I Am.”