Jon de Vos: Speakeasy and carry a big hatchet
Lest it sneak by unnoticed in the thunder of the new administration, next Thursday, Jan. 29, is the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The entire content of the amendment was summed up in one word, “Prohibition.” This law was championed by Desperate Housewives who picked up stones and hatchets and formed a fearsome gang called The Women’s Christian Temperance Union. They created a force so formidable that only the men of one state out of the entire 48, Rhode Island, had the courage to stand up to them and reject it. President Herbert Hoover called it the “Noble Experiment.” By throwing rocks at drunks and chopping up bars, the WCTU was only trying to keep families together by chasing Demon Rum out of their lives.
Here’s the odd part. The new law did not mention getting drunk. It only banned manufacturing, sale, transporting, importing and exporting spirits. You could drink it if you could find it. Maybe you had the foresight to stash a couple barrels in the barn, you could wallow in it if you wanted. Let’s say you drank Old Skivvys and you’d packed away three shots by the end of the day. That meant that on Christmas Eve 1920, there better be 721 quarts of booze under the tree because that’s what you’ll need to get through the next 13 years. Oh, yeah, then came the Great Depression and alcohol use spiked. That would be the Depression of 1930. It’s sad that it’s come to a time where we need to distinguish among our Great Depressions.
The 18th Amendment was an early example of unfunded mandates because the day it passed, heaps of legitimate businesses closed and Al Capone lit the fire under his first distillery. It fell upon the IRS to enforce the terms of Prohibition and it quickly proved to be an impossible task. America’s party started when World War One ended and it turned into the rave called the Roaring Twenties, a decade fueled by jazz and bootleg whiskey, the name of the flask stashed in a gentleman’s boot, not that there were that many around. Nearly a whole generation of men died in WW1 and as the world tried to return to normalcy, the surviving young women decided to not go quietly into that dark spinsterhood; they were going to enjoy life. The term “flappers” described the noise of their dresses as they danced. The word was coined in England but American authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald shaped the image and the ideal of the flapper as, “lovely, expensive, and about nineteen.” They drank in “speakeasies”, places with unmarked doors where you whispered a password and a bouncer let you in.
Gangsters grew rich and notorious, turning into national celebrities like Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello. They were ruthless men who used murder as a business tactic to eliminate rivals. Chicago witnessed 247 gangland slayings in a four-year period, culminating in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, when members of Capone’s gang, dressed like cops, executed seven members of “Bugs” Moran’s gang in broad daylight in Lincoln Park. Gangs even had political clout. A Michigan State Police raid on a Detroit speakeasy netted the mayor, the sheriff and a local congressman.
Carrie Nation, a leading activist in the WCTU, tore up saloons while preaching Heaven on Earth without Alcohol. What she came up with fell a little short. The 18th Amendment carries the distinction of being the only constitutional amendment to be trumped by another as the 21st Amendment put an end to the Noble Experiment.
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