2 – Drunk & Disorderly Behavior Was Rife
One could argue that prohibition was a success on some level. For a start, it led to a reduction in the number of alcohol-related deaths during the 1920s. From 1910 to 1917, the number of deaths related to booze was 5 per 100,000 members of the population. The rate started falling in 1918, before prohibition, but the first year of the full ban, 1920, saw a rate of just 1 death per 100,000. The rate remained below 4.0 until 1927.
However, research suggests that beyond the first couple of years, prohibition did nothing to stem the flow of drink. By 1925, arrests for public drunkenness and other criminal activity related to alcohol went above pre-prohibition levels. It is impossible to say how much people drank because illegal sellers such as Al Capone didn’t pay taxes. Illegal alcohol was expensive, so a large number of people started making it in their bathtubs at home.
In 1926, the President of the International Seamen’s Union of America, Andrew Furuseth, testified in front of Congress about the level of drunken behavior he witnessed in Portland. Before prohibition, he used to see drunken, hopeless men littering the streets. Months after the passing of the Volstead Act, the same area was filled with sober, earnest men looking for work. This state of affairs didn’t last long, however. Two years later, he returned to the same part of Portland, and it was worse than before prohibition.
One of the reasons for worsening conditions was the standard of alcohol drank. Millions of gallons of rotgut moonshine and bathtub gin were produced in the 1920s. It had a famously awful taste and offered the possibility of blindness or being poisoned. Some of the illegal liquor contained industrial alcohol. The government had ordered it to be denatured in 1906 to prevent consumption and also ordered companies to include other toxic chemicals as further deterrents during prohibition. It didn’t work, and this tainted drink possibly led to the deaths of 10,000 people during the prohibition era.