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Friday Report: Razing the bar

Jon DeVos
The Friday Report
Jon DeVos
Staff Photo |

Here’s a reminder to head down to your favorite watering hole this evening. There, you must raise a toast to our neighboring state of Utah. For it was today in 1933, that the great Mormon state cast the deciding vote to repeal Prohibition.

Prohibition, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, banned the manufacture, transport, consumption and sale of alcohol. It went into effect on Jan. 17, 1920, but within a decade folks were thinking it was a significant over-reaction to the whiskey monster.

But it’s not like Prohibition didn’t have a point. By 1830, American males over 15 consumed an average of 28 quarts of 180-proof alcohol annually. Alcohol abuse among men was a national scourge, destroying homes and families at a time when women had few rights and were often totally dependent upon their husbands for food and support. The surge of immigrants following the Civil War brought a huge European thirst for beer, making the problem even more acute. But several forces were coming together that would fix that little alcohol problem for once and for all. So they thought.

The 1913 passage of the Income Tax greatly reduced government dependency upon the liquor tax. At the same time, many abolitionists saw alcoholism as a social evil equal to slavery. Religions of all stripes were firming up anti-alcohol positions and joining other civic and social groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. Support became widespread; even the Ku Klux Klan joined the temperance movement.

The WCTU focused public attention on numerous social ills, like child labor abuses, growing immigrant slums, women’s rights and alcoholism. Thousands of women joined the group, including its most radical member, Carrie Nation.

Mrs. Nation had been arrested more than 30 times before 1910 when she walked into the nicest hotel in Wichita and took out a wicked-looking, spiked masonry axe. Before a horrified crowd of gentlemen, she quickly reduced the bar and its contents into shards and woodchips. Carrie was over 6 feet tall and 175 pounds of wild-eyed zealotry. Few men dared stand in her way.

One of the greatest benefits of Prohibition, proponents claimed, would be the reduction in crime. But it did not turn out that way. Instead, Prohibition fostered the largest crime wave in American history. Within an hour of the law passing, two freight cars of whiskey had been stolen in Chicago, government-bonded warehouses were looted and trucks carrying alcohol to disposal sites were carjacked across the nation.

Ten years after the law’s passing, alcohol consumption was approaching pre-Prohibition days only instead of government control, America’s booze supply was controlled by Al Capone and hundreds of gangland wannabee’s armed with “Chicago Typewriters” as the newly invented Thompson machine guns were called.

Fed up with the lurid crime and violence related to booze’s black market, public support for Prohibition plummeted like a stone and on Dec. 5, 1933, Amendment 21 to the US Constitution passed. The amendment was unique in two ways: First, it was the only time that the entirety, every clause and comma of an amendment, was overturned by another, and secondly, it was the only time an amendment has been ratified in state-by-state conventions, an alternative to allowing our capable legislators (recorded studio laughter) to make the decision.

So go out tonight and celebrate the demise of Prohibition, but don’t get carried away lest some wild-haired shrew come after you with an axe.


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