Saturday 17th January 1920, marked the date when America became a completely arid desert in the eyes of alcohol for the American men. Any beverage having more than half of 1% alcohol was forbidden. Indeed, this was a law implemented and named The Volstead Act, which prohibited the sale of “intoxicating liquors”. However, authorities had granted a day to drinkers their last session of imbibing at the bar, before the iron curtains of Prohibition were drawn.
Bars and restaurants across the States took advantage of this by giving out complimentary glasses of wine, brandy and whisky. Conversely, other establishments exploited this situation as one last opportunity to make a profit, charging a hefty $20 to $30 per bottle of champagne, or $1 to $2 for a drink of whisky. Reception of this law was not taken lightly. Some of the most prestigious taverns even had placards that carried the portentous words: “Exit booze. Doors close on Saturday.”
Considering it was an epoch when individual freedom was given significance, it is rather shocking to note that in the world’s most wealthy and self-motivated countries, the prohibition of alcohol lasted for nearly 14 years. Nowadays Prohibition is thought of as a deluded experiment, automatically associated to images of Al Capone, the mafia and the Valentine’s Day Massacre. In reality, the crusade to prohibit alcohol had been deeply entrenched in Anglo- American society for circa two centuries. Case in point, in 1826, The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance was founded, and within a decade, a staggering 1 million Americans belonged to an anti-alcohol group of some sort.
Prohibition took a long time to get off the ground, many activists felt the need to take the law into their own hands, fervent Christian Carrie Nation, was a good example, she was even arrested over 30 times, before her death in 1911. Up to Carrie Nation’s death, however, the campaign for Prohibition was gaining momentum. This was the pinnacle of progressive reform: to a cohort of Protestant reformers, using the power of the state to control the anarchy of the industrial city and recover the lot of ordinary workers seemed logical. Banning alcohol, which they associated with ailment and anarchy, fit nicely into this program.
Although prohibition became law, the federal government was never really armed to implement it. By the time the Volstead Act came into power, the acme of progressive reform had already passed. To add salt to the wound, many American citizens who were alcohol enthusiasts were determined to get hold of a drink by hook or by crook. Even Winston Churchill, thought that Prohibition was “an affront to the whole history of mankind”. Illegal drinking lairs had thrived in big cities; definitely, the word “speakeasy” possibly dates back to the late 1880s. Historians figured that by 1925, there were as many as 100,000 illegal bars just in New York City, many of them tiny, but others catering to the rich and well-connected.
Indubitably, the top contenders from Prohibition were, the country’s gangsters. After only having been in operation for a mere hour, the police had already recorded the first attempt to break the law – with six armed men stealing some $100,000-worth of “medicinal” whisky from a train in Chicago. From its commencement, criminals had realised that Prohibition signified a lucrative business prospect; in major cities, indeed, gangs had quietly been stocking up on alcohol supplies for weeks.
According to legend, the first gangster to clench the tangible commercial potential of Prohibition, was racketeer Arnold Rothstein, whose agents had been responsible for rigging the baseball World Series in 1919. He had established his “office” at Lindy’s Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Rothstein brought alcohol across the Great Lakes and down the Hudson from Canada, and supplied it – at a handsome profit – to the city’s gangsters.
Rothstein was murdered after a gambling dispute, in 1928, yet by then, his fame was such that F Scott Fitzgerald used him as the model for Jay Gatsby’s friend Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, a “small, flatnosed Jew” with cufflinks made from human teeth. Indeed, Gatsby himself – the quintessential self-made American hero – is alleged to have made his fortune from organised crime.
Arguably the most celebrated gangster of the time, was Al Capone, a New York-born mobster who governed the majority of the Chicago underworld in the mid-1920s. Living the high life in the city’s Lexington hotel, he was said to be making $100m a year from casinos and speakeasies. To many, he was a 20th Century Robin Hood, providing to the less fortunate. Disparate to Sherwood Forest’s finest, however, Capone had a noticeable taste for the luxurious life, complemented with smart suits and expensive Templeton Rye whisky. Yet when Capone ordered the brutal machine-gunning of seven Chicago rivals in the Valentine’s Day Massacre, in 1929, public sympathy dissolved. Soon after, Prohibition agent Eliot Ness began to inspect Capone’s affairs, and in October 1931 – after Capone’s labours to nobble the jury had been conquered – he was sentenced to 11 years for tax evasion, where he eventually died of a heart attack.
By this time, Prohibition was already receding, with papers claiming that as many as 80% of congressmen drank discretely, thus it was obvious that the attempt to outlaw alcohol had epically failed. Ironically, in March 1933, merely weeks after he had been inaugurated, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act permitting the sale and consumption of beer with no more than 3.2% alcohol content.
Yet although the age of Prohibition now feels very remote, the idea lives on. Alcohol is not, after all, the only drug to have been prohibited by law; Even nowadays, more than 500 cities across the U.S. are dry, normally in ardently evangelical states. In a celebrated delightful irony, Moore County, Tennessee – the home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery, is also included on the list, although visitors are allowed to buy a “commemorative” bottle.