The bloody decade without alcohol

20/01/2020

The ban on alcoholic beverages in the United States marked 100 years since it went into effect, opening one of the most infamous chapters in U.S. history, that of the gangsters.

In 1917, the U.S. Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the sale, import, export, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic beverages throughout the United States, as a result of pressure on the government from conservative religious groups who blamed all social ills on the consumption of intoxicating beverages.

Poverty, criminality and domestic violence were evils that grew in the US, mainly after the Civil War which, due to its harshness, turned many soldiers into alcoholics.

It is in this context that the puritan religious groups that promoted associations such as the Temperance Movement or the Anti-Bars League took hold and gained followers, especially among unionists and liberals in the big cities of the East, such as New England, where Dry Law began to be implemented locally.

By January 1919, 36 of the 48 states of the American Union ratified the amendment, making it applicable to the entire country as of January 17, 1920, through the so-called Volstead Act which to the letter stated that "no person shall manufacture, sell, exchange, transport, import, export or deliver any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this Act.

The gates of hell

Senator Andrew Volstead, the main proponent of the ban, declared in 1920: "Tonight, one minute after twelve o'clock, a new nation will be born... The demon of drink made his will. An era of clear thinking and clean manners begins. Slums will soon be a thing of the past. Jails and correctional facilities will be empty; we will transform them into barns and factories. All the men will walk upright again, all the women will smile and all the children will laugh. The gates of hell will be closed forever.

However, the opposite happened. Soon, criminal gangs began to illegally traffic in alcohol or the products to do so. Rum molasses and Canadian whiskey became the mainstay of organized crime, which in the 1920s experienced a golden age personified by characters like Al Capone, the archetypal bloody and violent mobster, who managed to corrupt the politics and police of the city of Chicago to the extent that he could only be arrested for tax offences investigated by federal agents.

What was supposed to be a time of peace and prosperity quickly turned into a bloodbath because of gangsters' disputes to control the production, trafficking, and distribution of alcoholic beverages.  An example of this was the Valentine's Day Massacre, where allegedly five members of the Chicago North Side Gang were killed by Capone's mob on February 14, 1929.

In the midst of the Great Depression of 1929, which greatly increased the number of poor people in the U.S., and with enough of the criminality of the mafias, the ban was losing popularity and was heading for a total failure that was sealed on December 5, 1933, when the 21st Amendment was ratified by the U.S. Senate, rendering the 18th Amendment ineffective.

Noble experiment

"There's a nostalgia for the 1920s. For its mythology," confirms historian Michael Walsh, who wrote a book on the subject and maintains that Prohibition was not entirely a failure. "It's more ambiguous than saying everything is black or white," he said, pointing to a decline in divorce rates, cirrhosis cases, and psychiatric hospital admissions.

Prohibition was, according to Walsh, the result of a convergence of struggles that touched -- beyond the endemic alcoholism of the time -- all aspects of American society: "religion, politics, gender, ethnicity, race," he said.

The 18th Amendment is the only one in U.S. history to have been abolished, and alcohol regulation was eventually entrusted to the states, which in many cases passed on rule-making to municipalities. The result was a swarm of laws that varied sometimes from county to county, and from town to town.

Today, there are hundreds of "dry counties" and "dry cities" across the United States, primarily in the "Bible Belt" religious states such as Kentucky and Arkansas. In these states, the sale of alcohol is prohibited or restricted.

That is the case even in Moore County, Tennessee, home of the Jack Daniels Whiskey Distillery.

By Mexicanist