American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
December 19, 2006
BOOTLEG BOOZE AND BATHTUB GIN
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- This year when my December birthday rolled around, I had the pleasure of talking with friends and family who called with greetings and warm conversations - usually about how quickly the years are going by. "It seems we were just talking about this same thing and it was a whole year ago."
My daughter, Wendy, said she had heard earlier in the day it was
the 73rd anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. "Yes," I said, "I
heard that too. That was my second birthday so I can't say I recall
the event at the time. I do better recalling Pearl Harbor. I was ten
Then Wendy said: "By the way, what was Prohibition?"
"Prohibition? Oh, well, it was a time when the sale, distribution, manufacture ... of, err, alcoholic beverages was prohibited by law. And on this day in 1933, they lifted the ban." (I hoped that would satisfy her.)
We talked further about what we did know which was very little. Whether her generation or my own, little is learned about that era in school in a typical Social Studies class. Time wise, I was so close to it that it was really more part of current events and later in her classes Social Studies would have advanced to societal events effecting us all: World War II, for one major event, Civil Rights, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, student sit ins, drugs, HIV, guns and school shootings, religious cults, Right to Life, Women's Movement -- and they are just a few off the top of my head.
This much I did know. It was an Amendment to the Constitution, the 18th, that banned intoxicating liquors in 1919 and later the 21st Amendment lifted the ban in 1933. These amendments are the only ones directly concerning the same issue, and that was the extent of what I learned in school.
I directed Wendy to "google" Carrie Nation, a woman hell-bent on eradicating alcohol. I know her only through the urban legend she became, but well enough to pass on what I know to Wendy. As I recall in stories I've heard, sort of in a Paul Bunyonesque way, she was over six feet tall and 180 lbs.
Near the end of the 1800s, she would round up other ladies from the Women's' Christian Temperance Union. Brandishing baseball bats and hatchets, these women would serve warning and then show up at local saloons and smash them up, breaking all the liquor bottles lining the bar and busting open the huge kegs of beer. She didn't escape punishment. Carrie Nation was arrested about 30 times in the first decade of the 20th Century but her will never wavered.
She died, yet her efforts got national attention and an Amendment to the Constitution. Was it a good thing? And, did Carrie Nation do it the way Madelyn Murray O'Hair carried on her efforts to get prayer out of school? Other than illustrating the power of one in this country, I don't think they're comparable. O'Hair was an atheist and didn't want to be dragged into anyone else's worshiping.
Nation, on the other hand, was married to a drunk. She was part of the segment of society who felt powerless waiting each night at the kitchen table for their husbands to come home, hoping against hope he didn't drink away his paycheck after stopping in for a libation. The only thoughts on their minds was that they had to do something. But, what?
Carrie Nation grabbed a baseball bat and started at the corner saloon, eventually leading the band of women whose voices were heard in every township in America. Their wishes fulfilled, they sat back and watched the passing parade as the new society they helped to forge took it's place on the world's stage.
Not so fast, ladies. In a paper by Mark Thornton, Assistant Professor of Economics at Auburn University, I read that "Alcohol Prohibition was a Failure."
In part, he wrote, "... the 'noble experiment' - was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, solve societal problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America. The results of that experiment clearly indicate that it was a miserable failure on all counts. The evidence affirms sound economic theory, which predicts that prohibition of mutually beneficial exchanges is doomed to failure."
Prof. Thornton adds this: "Although consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of Prohibition, it subsequently increased. Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime increased and became "organized;" the court and prison systems were stretched to the breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant. No measurable gains were made in productivity or reduced absenteeism. Prohibition removed a significant source of tax revenue and greatly increased government spending. It led many drinkers to switch to opium, marijuana, patent medicines, cocaine, and other dangerous substances that they would have been unlikely to encounter in the absence of Prohibition."
Just for the record, another book, "The Amazing Story of Repeal," tells the opposite story, saying that beer companies managed the state- by-state ballot propositions that brought about Repeal, and that in fact many crimes of violence - and particularly domestic abuse - fell during Prohibition. So the historical record is not perfectly clear, or at least historians are not in complete agreement about it.
We may not have learned too much in school about the amendment to the Constitution, but through motion pictures we've seen accurate glimpses into the lives of bootleggers, the people who bought and sold liquor illegally (they are not to be confused with bootleggers who copy and distribute computer software illegally in today's underground). Many of them, like Canada's Bronfman family, owners of Seagram's, became very respected after Repeal allowed them to build honest businesses.
On screen, we see FBI agent Elliot Ness, the honest cop who single-handedly put crime families out of business by refusing to take a bribe. And we see the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, so called because seven of Bugs Moran's men were lined up against a warehouse wall and gunned down. "Only Capone kills like that," said Moran at the scene.
Prohibition was not a pretty time in America - more because of what it spawned than what it intended. Yes, initially, consumption of alcohol went down but that trend did not continue. Those who yielded to the bootlegger's prices got their usual Scotch and Bourbon smuggled in from Canada. Those who couldn't, made bathtub gin.
I can't attest to any such brew myself but as neighborhood legends go, Maryann McGillicuddy made the best bathtub gin in all of New York.
AR Correspondent Constance Daley is based on St. Simons Island, Ga. She has just published her third collection of articles, SIDEWALKS AND SAND, available at www.amazon.com or www.skylinetoshoreline.com