10 Things Almost No One Knows About Prohibition
One of author Mary Miley’s favorite things about being a writer is the research process. Miley shares some of the interesting tidbits she learned while writing her Roaring Twenties mystery series.
Researching the Roaring Twenties for my mystery series is such fun that sometimes I have to force myself back to the keyboard to write. But over the past few years, I’ve learned a lot of weird things about the 1920s, things that almost no one knows, and I use them in my books.
Prohibition was the defining characteristic of the 1920s because it affected all Americans, turning most of them into lawbreakers. Corruption and violence leached into every level of society as police, judges, juries, and politicians were bought off. The rise of gangsters and the Ku Klux Klan made this the most violent era America had seen. Consider the dilemma facing Jessie, my main character, when she finally ties murder to bootleggers—where can she turn? Law enforcement is in cahoots with the crooks!
Here are some of the weird-but-true things I’ve learned about Prohibition.
- The 18th amendment did not make it illegal to drink liquor. It made it illegal for some people to make, sell, or transport some alcoholic beverages–sometimes.
- People could legally drink up any supplies they already owned, and the government gave everyone a year’s running start. Most wealthy drinkers and private clubs stockpiled huge amounts in anticipation. The mother of silent film mega-star Mary Pickford found it easier to buy an entire liquor store and have the contents transferred to her basement.
- You’ve heard of medicinal marijuana? Well, they had medicinal alcohol. This is a great plot device, one I use in two of my books. Before Prohibition went into effect, the American Medical Association ruled that there was no medicinal benefit to alcohol, but as Prohibition dawned, the docs saw the error of their ways and declared that whiskey was a critical medicine after all! They got an exemption. Doctors, dentists, and even vets were allowed to prescribe whiskey for medicinal reasons. (There must have been a lot of happy dogs and horses when that took effect!) A huge business in legal medicinal whiskey developed, most of it sold in drug stores.
- Another loophole gave Catholics, Jews, and certain Protestants an exemption for sacramental wine. When this became known, most urban males found religion. Churches and synagogues saw huge increases in their congregations—on paper, if not in the pews—and there were many faux priests and faux rabbis distributing wine. Who could tell the difference?
- Of course there were exemptions for alcohol used for research and industrial purposes in the chemical industry and in hospitals. Predictably, this led to massive abuse. One Los Angeles hospital ordered denatured alcohol by the gallon before Prohibition; after Prohibition started, they began ordering by the boxcar. It was relatively simple to convert it into something drinkable.
- Before Prohibition, the purpose of an ocean cruise was to cross the ocean. Now a new sort of party “cruise to nowhere” developed, sailing beyond the 3-mile territorial limit to drink legally. More than one historian has credited this with the beginning of the vacation cruise industry. Which reminds me, you’ve probably heard that NASCAR grew out of the souped-up cars intended to outrun revenue agents, right? This is true. So is the evolution of high-speed powerboats, designed to outrun the Coast Guard.
- Farmers had always made hard cider and even those who supported Prohibition—which was most—saw nothing hypocritical about continuing. So to keep that important group happy, the law allowed them to continue. This loophole included other fruit juice fermentations, like grapes, so wine production shifted from commercial wineries to the home. As you might expect, quantity rose; quality declined.
The wine loophole led to what I like to call the Don’t-Try-This-At-Home kits, like Vino Sano grape bricks. These were solid, dehydrated blocks of grape concentrate, stems, pulp, and skins. Buy a Grape Brick and read the accompanying label with its detailed instructions about what you should NOT do with it–be sure NOT to add sugar, water, and yeast, be sure NOT to leave it in a dark place for two weeks or “it might ferment and become wine.” Or if that was too much effort, you could just order a 50-gallon drum of grape juice delivered to your home and hire someone to come by periodically to add yeast and monitor progress as it changed into wine; then brought wine bottles, corks, and labels to bottle it for you. There were similar starter kits and home-helpers for beer. Home manufacture of fermented fruit juice remained legal in some states, as long as it was not sold.
- Here’s one of my favorite bits of trivia: In 1922, President Harding was pushed to declare that foreign ships coming into US ports had to be liquor free. This was aimed at Cunard, the British passenger line that was taking business away from American ships. Who wanted to sail on a dry American ship when they could take Cunard and drink? When the British Parliament heard this, some members considered tit-for-tat legislation that would have forced American ships to have liquor aboard before they could land at any British ports! Cooler heads prevailed and a compromise was reached.
- I was surprised to learn how young the gangsters were—Al Capone was 25 when he bossed Chicago’s crime organization, and he went to prison at 31. So if one of my characters seems too young to be a big city crime boss, he’s not.
- Gangsters were among the most ardent supporters of Prohibition. The others included some very odd bedfellows: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Ku Klux Klan, Methodists, Baptists, Coca-Cola, and theater owners. Gangsters were making so much money, they hoped Prohibition would go on forever. Coke folks hoped people would drink sodas instead of alcohol. Theater owners hoped people would go to the movies instead of drink. All were disappointed when Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
Mary Miley is an Army brat who has lived in Virginia most of her adult life. She received a BA and MA in history from the College of William and Mary and taught American history and museum studies at Virginia Commonwealth University for thirteen years. She is the author of 200 magazine articles, most on history, travel, and business topics, and of a dozen nonfiction books. The Impersonator (2013) was Mary’s first foray into fiction (and it won the national Mystery Writers of America award for Best First Crime Novel); Silent Murders (2014) is a sequel. The third, Renting Silence, is out now.
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