The Great Experiment, and Why It Failed

The “Great Experiment” of Prohibition had an entire Constitutional Amendment behind it, as well as the support of thousands. But while it was in effect, it was extremely controversial, poorly managed, and finally killed after only 13 years; in its wake, it actually may have caused a bigger problem.

Here’s what happened.

The Volstead Act, the enforcement arm of the 18th Amendment, went into effect on January 16, 1920. Timing may have been a big part of the problem – while support for Prohibition had been strong throughout the teens, when the country was trying to rally behind its troops overseas fighting in World War I, by the time the act was finally enforced, America had helped win the war, the troops were back home, and everyone wanted to let down their hair and party a little. Having the government throw a national wet-blanket on this national welcome-home party was grotesquely bad timing.

But Prohibition still had active and vocal supporters, in the government and in the private sector, and they tried. A force of Prohibition agents was set up to enforce the Volstead Act, much publicity was made of dumping out some existing stores of alcohol, and temperance supporters faced forward hopefully. It became quickly apparent it wasn’t going to be as easy to enforce as temperance supporters thought, though.

Firstly, the number of men enforcing the law was pitifully small and underpaid. The federal government's force of prohibition agents only numbered about two thousand men. If every single one of those agents had been stationed on the borders and coasts to prevent smuggling alcohol into the country, there would still be only one agent for every twelve miles of border. Each agent also only got a salary of only $35-50 a week, which made many of them particularly ripe for bribing.

It was also extremely easy to export alcohol from Canada in particular; all a smuggler had to do was pay a small tax, fill out an application for an export permit, and then bring the alcohol back across the border. Canada made a brisk business due to the rather porous nature of our border, and bootleggers also made a tidy profit – a case of liquor costing only about $30 in Canada could be resold, bottle by bottle, for nearly three times that amount.

Canada wasn’t the only country where booze was coming from – to the south, boats from Cuba sent it in as well. The Volstead Act covered territory extending three miles from the United States Coast, and bootleggers got around that simply by having captains of ships with their cargo anchor three and a half miles off shore, and they would take smaller boats out to meet them, pick up the alcohol, and head back into shore.But smuggling from over the border wasn't the only problem; there already was a lot of alcohol left over when Prohibition went into effect. A great show was made of dumping it out in some communities, but a lot of the existing stores were moved onto the black market instead, with some fast-and-loose paperwork covering their disappearance.

It was also a lot easier to manufacture alcohol within the country than the government thought. The Volstead Act permitted the manufacture of alcohol for medicinal purposes and industrial use; it was extremely easy for individuals to distill the non-drinkable chemicals out of industrial alcohol and resell it for recreational use. Or, one could befriend a doctor with a lenient approach to the law (doctors were reportedly very, very popular during Prohibition). The Volstead Act also permitted the manufacture of non-alcoholic beer, which is made just like regular beer, but then has the alcohol removed; here, it was extremely easy for a manufacturer to "forget" to take the alcohol out of a batch or two now and then and "set it aside for disposal", only to have it "stolen". (Whoopsie!)

Also, it was possible to buy a small portable still, enough to produce a gallon of alcohol, for only about seven dollars, and brew your own stuff at home. Some recent immigrants also came from a tradition of brewing alcohol at home anyway, as well as some groups already in the United States (Italian immigrants often made their own wine anyway, as well as moonshiners in Appliachia). All the Volstead Act did for them was just increase the number of potential customers. In the latter days of Prohibition, some breweries who’d been forced to close in 1920 secretly re-opened, or rented themselves out to bootleggers.

Still others found creative ways around the code -- one very popular product in the 1920's was something called the "Grape Brick," which was a block of dried, compressed crushed grapes; a small packet of yeast came along with it. Along with both of these items was a flyer warning the user not to add the yeast to the grapes or else fermentation would result. (But if you did that, this flyer went on, then you certainly shouldn't then let the mixture age in a cask for x number of months...oh, but if you still did that, then you certainly shouldn't filter the mixture and store it at x degrees farenheit....oh, but gosh darn you, if you still did that, well then you certainly shouldn't...)

There were dangers to homebrewed and doctored alcohol, of course. Exploding stills were a danger, and several homebrewers died or were injured in the resulting fires. Distilling the undrinkable chemicals out of industrial-use alcohol was a tricky and precise process, and someone who didn’t quite have it under control could end up serving and drinking a potentially lethal cocktail. (Interestingly, though, some people tried to sue the government for putting lethal chemicals in their alcohol!) Some bootleggers also tried to “stretch” their supply of alcohol a little, by watering it down and re-bottling it; some tried adding different flavorings and colorings to disguise their tampering. Not all were successful.The state governments were supposed to chip in to support the Federal effort, but by 1927, their financial support was less than 12% of what they each spent on their own fish and game laws budgets, and some states just flat-out contributed nothing at all and let the Federal enforcement do all the work.

There was a lot of debate over the law itself -- clearly it wasn't working the way it was intended. But no one seemed sure about what to do about it, because the issue itself was also so divisive. Some proposed changing the law itself; some proposed amending the law to permit the sale of wine or beer, but skeptics said that a public now used to drinking illicit gin and Scotch probably wouldn't go for that. Two interesting proposals came in 1928; Governor Al Smith of New York, Herbert Hoover's presidential challenger, proposed setting a Federal standard for "the scientific definition of the alcoholic content of an intoxicating beverage" and applying the prohibition laws only to things that fell above that standard; he also proposed letting each state set its own standards higher if they so chose. He also, interestingly, was in favor of letting each state manufacture alcohol for sale for private use only within its own borders (...isn't that actually the way it is today, come to think of it?...). Hoover won the day instead, though, and his Smith's ideas faded.But Hoover had his own Prohibition issue on the platform -- he promised an exhaustive study of the law and its enforcement to see where things were going wrong. Eleven men were appointed to the committee, and did not complete their research until 1931; all felt that something was clearly wrong with the way Prohibition was being enforced. Each man made an individual report, and each had a different opinion as to "what now"; the majority of them felt that the amendment should either be repealed outright, or altered. However -- even though a majority of the committee believed Prohibition wasn't working as it was -- the committee as a whole recommended that it should be left alone, meekly saying that maybe they could modify it in the future if it still wasn't working. The whole mess caused one wit in the NEW YORK WORLD to sum things up in a poem:

"Prohibition is an awful flop,
We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop,
We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime,
It don't prohibit worth a dime --
Nevertheless, we're for it."

Prohibition finally ended in 1933; Congress officially announced the repeal during that March, with the law going into effect in December. By all accounts it had been a failure – except for the Mafia. Their involvement in bootlegging was a huge source of cash, but it was also a huge mobilizing and organizing force. Before 1920, the different Mafia families had had little contact with each other, but the sheer numbers of people involved in bootlegging, smuggling, distribution, and brewing alcohol forced them all into closer contact and collaboration. Many Mafia families had to expand quickly just to drum up the necessary manpower, and had to learn how to cooperate with neighboring families. By the end of the 1920’s, the various mafia families across the country had grown tremendously – and were also starting to realize the benefits of cooperation. In short, Prohibition lead to the “organized” part of “organized crime.”

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