The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition

Khalid Elhassan - October 10, 2021

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A nineteenth century brewery. Pinterest

17. The Explosion of Beer Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America

Beer is America’s most popular alcoholic beverage nowadays, but until well into the nineteenth century, it had been liquor. In 1850, Americans drank about 36 million gallons of beer. By 1890, the country’s population had tripled, but its beer consumption had increased twenty-four fold, to 855 million gallons. That was brought about by Irish, and even more so German, immigrants. The Germans brought good beer, the know how to brew it, and the savvy to market it as something it was not.

As early as 1866, the recently created United States Brewers Association set out to differentiate beer from liquor. The hard stuff, the Brewers Association declared, brought about: “domestic misery, pauperism, disease, and crime“. Beer on the other hand was depicted as a healthy and wholesome beverage that just happened to have some alcohol in it, and that was more a type of “liquid bread” than booze. As early as 1870, there were about 100,000 saloons in America. By 1900, that figure had tripled to roughly 300,000.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A nineteenth century San Francisco saloon. Flickr

16. Saloon Numbers Exploded, and They Became Nuisances in Much of America

Before zoning laws became widespread, saloons were often found in the heart of residential neighborhoods. The reek of whiskey and stale beer combined with the stench of vomit and the sight of boisterous staggering drunks – when they were not passed out on the sidewalks – to turn saloons into eyesores and nuisances. In some parts of the country, saloons were especially thick on the ground. In Leadville, North Dakota, the 20,000 inhabitants could take their pick of so many drinking establishments, that there was one saloon for every 100 townspeople – women and children included.

It was even worse in San Francisco, where there was a saloon for every 96 inhabitants. That figure is derived from counting only the city’s 3000 licensed saloons: the city had another 2000 unlicensed drinking establishments. Across the country, men, women, and children, could often be seen as they exited saloons with buckets of beer to take home. As one New Yorker put it: “I doubt if one child in a thousand, who brings his [bucket] to be filled at the average New York bar, is sent away empty-handed“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A nineteenth century Chicago saloon. Chicago Public Library

15. The Innovations That Led to a Mushrooming in the Numbers of Saloons

Beer has a short shelf life, so throughout most of history, it did not make much economic to brew more beer than could be consumed locally. If you tried to transport it to distant markets, beer would spoil before it got there. Progress changed that. By the second half of the nineteenth century, pasteurization had increased beer’s shelf life, and between that, efficient refrigeration, and an expanding rail network, brewers were able to operate nationwide. However, in order to operate across the country, brewers needed a nationwide distribution network.

So they created one with a system of saloon subsidies. By the early 1900s, a saloon operator who agreed to sell only one brand of beer was guaranteed support from the brewer. Brewers advanced prospective saloon keepers cash, loans, credit for furniture, and whatever else was needed to get the establishment up and running and quenching the public’s thirst for beer. As a contemporary put it: “No man with two hundred dollars, who was not subject to arrest on sight, need go without a saloon in Chicago“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Nineteenth-century American women destroying a saloon in their town. Fine Art America

14. The Fight Against Alcohol Birthed the Fight for Women’s Rights

In the 1840s, women began to play a prominent role in an organized effort to address America’s booze problem. It made sense that women would lead that fight, considering how much they suffered from the country’s alcohol epidemic – and they were not even the ones who got to enjoy the drinking. A drunk husband or father was cause for enough misery. Alcoholic male bread winners often squandered their incomes in the emerging saloons, or neglected their work and lost out on income because of the bottle.

Then there was the “syphilis of the innocent“: an epidemic of STDs caught by hubbies in seedy saloons, where clients could find more than just booze, that was then passed on to their wives. It is thus unsurprising that America’s women featured prominently in the ranks of those who most detested alcohol, and deeply loathed not just the drink, but its makers and sellers as well. The fight for suffrage and women’s rights in America began as an offshoot of the fight against alcohol, and many early suffragettes first became politically active in that struggle.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, left, and Susan B. Anthony. National Portrait Gallery

13. Prohibition Played a Key Role in the Emergence of the Suffrage Movement

Early suffragette Susan B. Anthony abhorred alcohol and gave her first speech in 1849 to a group called the Daughters of Temperance. She joined the suffrage movement when male temperance advocates tried to keep her quiet. In 1852, the Sons of Temperance denied her the right to speak at a meeting because she was a woman. As their chairman put it, “the sisters” were not there to speak, but “to listen and learn“. The same thing happened at a NY Temperance Society meeting, and at a World Temperance Society Convention.

So Anthony joined forces with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who referred to alcohol as “The Unclean Thing“, and devoted the rest of her life to the suffrage movement. In the nineteenth century, the single greatest motivator for women to want to vote was the desire to do something about alcohol. They saw the emergence of saloons as a malignity that threatened the moral fabric of society and wanted them closed, or at least regulated. They wanted greater protection from the physical abuse of drunken spouses. They wanted property rights to protect themselves and their children from profligate husbands who blew the family’s finances on booze.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Temperance advocate Eliza Thompson. Wikimedia

12. Prohibition Was the Single Biggest Motivator for Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Desire to Secure Political Rights

Women wanted laws that regulated or banned ban alcohol, but it was difficult for women to get such laws enacted when they lacked the ability to elect the lawmakers. Thus, as the nineteenth century progressed, more and more women came to see the vote as a vital means of protecting themselves and their families, often from threats posed by alcohol. Considering the booze epidemic’s negative impact on women, women’s rights advocates such as Susan B. Anthony and Eliza Thompson made temperance a women’s issue.

As they saw it, women’s issues could not be resolved if authority was left solely in the hands of men. Thus was borne one of the most potent arguments for rallying women to demand the right to vote. The logic was airtight and solid enough to break through the widespread acceptance by many women that they had no business in politics. Alcohol harmed women. Women wanted something done about alcohol. Men were not doing enough about alcohol. Women needed the vote to see to it that something was done about alcohol.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Nineteenth century suffragists. Marie Claire

11. Brewers Became Avowed Enemies of Women’s Right to Vote

The Brewers Association sought to differentiate beer from liquor, and even joined those who attacked distilled spirits. However, when faced with a common threat, the brewers swiftly closed with the distillers to ward off a new threat that threatened the very existence of their businesses: women’s votes. America’s women tended to be in the anti-alcohol camp, but so long as they were unable to vote, their sentiments posed little threat to drink manufacturers’ bottom line. That changed when some states began to grant women the right to vote.

By considerable majorities, women voters tended to back candidates who advocated for temperance and prohibition. The result was a steady tightening of alcohol-related regulations at the local and state levels and a steady rise in statewide prohibition laws. So brewers and distillers fought against the granting of the right to vote to women, by generously funding and supporting anti-suffrage politicians and organizations. Fortunately for women’s rights, the advocates of prohibition managed to counter the drink sellers’ lobbying with a lobby of their own, the most powerful one in the history of the US.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
An Anti-Saloon League propaganda poster. American Library Association

10. The Most Powerful Lobbying Group in America’s History

Throughout the history of the United States, there has never been a lobbying group as powerful as the Anti-Salon League (ASL). Through a sustained political pressure campaign, it managed to achieve its goal in spectacular fashion on January 16th, 1919, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified. When Prohibition went into effect a year later, the ASL declared on the date of its victory that: “at one minute past midnight… a new nation will be born“. It had taken them decades of hard work to get there.

The ASL was founded in Ohio in 1893 as a state society, became a national organization two years later, and soon morphed into America’s most powerful lobby. It achieved its goal of national prohibition by strict discipline, a narrow focus on the single issue of alcohol, and a refusal to fritter its energies on anything else. As an early leader put it: “The Anti-Saloon League is not in politics as a party, nor are we trying to abolish vice, gambling, horse racing, murder, theft or arson … The gold standard, the unlimited coinage of silver, protection, free trade and currency reform, do not concern us in the least“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
The Sixteenth Amendment, which authorized the US government to collect personal income taxes directly from citizens. Docs Teach

9. The Role of Taxes in the Fight for and Against Prohibition

One of the best arguments deployed by brewers and distillers against prohibition was the importance of their taxes. Alcohol manufacturers’ taxes amounted at times to 40% of the US Government’s budget. 71% of the federal government’s internal revenue in 1910, and 30% of its overall revenue, came from alcohol taxes. As prohibition’s tide continued to rise, alcohol manufacturers found themselves in the incongruous position of being an industry that welcomed – and sometimes even invited – the government to tax it more. The more dependent Uncle Sam was on taxes collected from alcohol manufacturers, the less likely it was to enact prohibition and kill off an industry whose taxes were so vital.

The bottom fell out that argument when the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified in 1913. It allowed the US government to directly tax individuals based on income, instead of apportioning taxes among the states based on population. The new revenue stream from personal income taxes suddenly meant that the excise taxes on alcohol were no longer necessary to the fiscal survival of the US Government. It was a game-changer: the Prohibition amendment was approved by Congress four years later, in late 1917, and ratified by the states in early 1919.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A pro-prohibition poster. Imgur

8. Prohibition Was Enacted by a Minority and Imposed Upon a Majority

Prohibition is the best example in American history of a minority that successfully leveraged its clout to ram through laws opposed by a clear majority. The Anti Saloon League never sought to gain majorities: it knew that “Wets”, those opposed to prohibition in the parlance of the day, greatly outnumbered the “Dries” who wanted to do away with alcohol. Instead, prohibition’s proponents reasoned that by controlling, say, 10% of the vote in any close race, they could decide the election.

To gather that 10%, the ASL turned to America’s literalist Protestant churches, who in turn turned out their congregations to vote for ASL-approved candidates. A small but committed base of single-issue voters could be extremely powerful. It did not take long for politicians – both Republicans and Democrats, and even those who drank life fish – to realize that it was unwise to antagonize the ASL. Soon, politicians began to elbow each other out of the way to demonstrate their fealty to the ASL.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
An 1879 Harper’s Weekly editorial cartoon, criticizing the systemic disenfranchisement of black voters in the South. Wikimedia

7. Prohibition’s Advocates Turned to Anti-Black Racism to Gather Support in the South

Before the Civil War, Southerners had not been big supporters of the temperance movement, mainly because it was formed and backed by the same Northern progressive types who had been staunch abolitionists. As to white prohibitionists, they initially saw the newly enfranchised freed black slaves as natural allies, and they actually did gain the support of some black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington. That changed after black votes proved decisive in defeating an amendment to Tennessee’s constitution in 1887, that would have banned liquor in The Volunteer State.

Persuasion did not work, so the advocates of temperance turned to suppression, and began to appeal to white Southerners by playing up the image of black men with a bottle of booze in one hand, and a ballot in the other. After Reconstruction, temperance advocates began to make inroads in the South with stark appeals to anti-black racism. Southerners were obsessed with the specter of their white women getting ravished by black men, so the Dries linked supposedly out-of-control randy blacks to alcohol.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
The depiction of black legislators in ‘Birth of a Nation’. American History TV

6. Prohibitionists Were Major Advocates for the Disenfranchisement of Black Votes

The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, and The Leopard’s Spots, were examples of fiction that played up prohibitionist tropes. Popular novels upon which D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was based, they depicted negroes with “eyes bloodshot with whiskey” invade the homes of whites, to violate and plunder. As an official publication of the Methodist Church put it: “Under slavery, the Negroes were protected from alcohol … consequently they developed no high degree of ability to resist its evil effect“.

A Dry congressman from Arkansas even argued that banning alcohol would result in fewer lynchings because fewer blacks would commit crimes if they had no access to liquor. The suppression of the black vote proved highly effective for the cause of prohibition. In southern state after southern state, blacks were disenfranchised, and once the ballot was ripped out of their hands, the enactment of local or statewide prohibition was a cinch. An Alabama Baptist publication gleefully predicted an upcoming temperance victory thus: “The stronghold of the whiskey power in the state has been eliminated by the disenfranchisement of the Negro“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A black family leaving the South. Encyclopedia Britannica

5. While Prohibitionists Sought to Disenfranchise Black Voters, Alcohol Manufacturers Became Champions of Black Voting Rights

Just as Dries sought to suppress and disenfranchise blacks because they tended to vote Wet, Wets – especially the brewers and distillers – sought to defend black voting rights. Alcohol manufacturers persistently fought against poll taxes that disenfranchised blacks. When that failed, they sent field agents into southern states to secure black votes. Their standard kit included a photo of Abraham Lincoln, some Wet propaganda, a power of attorney form, and cash to pay a black voter’s poll tax. Alcohol manufacturers’ support of black voting rights infuriated Southern whites.

Their ire against the booze industry was further aroused by anti-Semitism: the distillation of alcohol had become a largely Jewish industry. Dry politicians began to routinely list the names of major distillers, such as Hirschbaum, Steinberg, and Schaumberg, to make the point that their fight was not against “American” industry, but a “foreign” one that was exploiting and debauching America’s blacks. The press got in on the act, as exemplified by a 1909 McClure magazine article that referred to the: “unscrupulous Jewish type of mind which has taken charge of the wholesale liquor trade of this country“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Encyclopedia Britannica

4. Prohibitionists Whipped Up Racist, Anti-Semitic, and Anti-Immigrant Sentiments to Further Their Cause

Collier’s did an expose about the cheap liquor popular in southern black dives, commonly known as “nigger gin” and manufactured by Jewish distiller Lee Levy. It came in a variety of brand names, such as Black Cock Vigor Gin, sold in bottles featuring illustrations of nearly nude white women. In the North, the saloons were seen by reformers as an integral part of corrupt urban political machines that were increasingly dominated by immigrants, and that was becoming increasingly powerful. Doing away with the saloons was seen as one way to do away with those political machines.

The advocates of temperance and prohibition were not above appealing to racism, or to rallying support for the Dry cause by whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria. For example, pioneering women’s suffrage and prohibition advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton decried the prospect of “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence … making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
The spread of prohibition at the state and local level. Pinterest

3. Geography and Demography Allowed a Prohibitionist Minority to Impose Its Will on an Anti-Prohibition Majority

Mississippi’s legislature voted for the Eighteenth Amendment on January 8th, 1918, and The Magnolia State became the first to ratify Prohibition. Ratification by a total of 36 out of America’s then 48 states were needed for national Prohibition to go into effect, but geography and demography made the prohibitionists’ task relatively easy. As a rule of thumb, the cities were overwhelmingly against Prohibition, while the countryside was for it. However, most of the country’s big cities – and most of the population for that matter – were concentrated in relatively few states.

That made it possible for Prohibition’s advocates to completely write off America’s twelve most urbanized states – the Pennsylvanias, New Jerseys, and even the Connecticuts – and still achieve ratification with victories in the less populous and more rural states. It was an early twentieth-century version of Red America losing a popular vote to Blue America, and still winning an election. Prohibition was also helped by the era’s shockingly unequal apportionment of legislatures. Today, we take “one person, one vote” for granted. It was not always so, and it certainly was not so in the early twentieth century when Prohibition was ratified.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Prohibition ratification map. Distillery Trail

2. Unequal Representation in State Legislatures Helped a Prohibitionist Minority to Impose Its Will on an Anti-Prohibition Majority

In the early twentieth century, rural citizens were routinely over-represented in state legislatures, while urban citizens were underrepresented. In New York, for example, an urban legislator might represent seven times as many people as the rural legislator seated next to him. It meant that the vote of a single Upstate citizen – most likely protestant, prohibitionist, and Republican – was equivalent to the vote of seven Irish-American anti-prohibition Democrats from Manhattan. The figures were even more skewed in New Jersey, where each county got a state senator, regardless of population: Dry rural Cape May County, population 19,000, had the same representation as Wet urban Essex County, population 652,000.

Prohibitionists and their leading organization, the Anti Saloon League, had long understood and accepted that they were a minority. They sought to avoid referendums because they knew that if voters were given the option of a straight up or down vote on Prohibition, Prohibition would lose. Instead, prohibitionists concentrated on capturing legislators, by leveraging their committed and disciplined Dry followers into disciplined block voting that could swing elections. Perhaps nothing better illustrates that than Mississippi, the first state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. When submitted directly to voters, a prohibition amendment to the state constitution was rejected by a majority of Wet voters, 53% to 47%. Just two months later, however, Mississippi’s legislatures approved the Eighteenth Amendment, 75% to 25%.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Police emptying beer barrels during Prohibition. Imgur

1. A Victorious Minority

As Prohibition’s advocates had predicted, the lower population and more rural states were the quickest to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. The exceptions were Connecticut and Rhode Island, both of which had a majority Catholic population, and both of which refused to ratify. Their votes were neither missed nor needed, as the prohibitionists ran up the score in the legislatures of other small and rural states. On January 16th, 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, when its lower house voted in favor 98-0. It was official, and Prohibition was automatically scheduled to go into effect a year later.

The Eighteenth Amendment brought about drastic changes in the role of the federal government and its interactions with Americans, and fundamentally changed the way we live. It also set off a cascade of unintended and unforeseen consequences and changes impacting a bewildering variety of subjects. The rise of organized crime, the concept of home dinner parties, modern American tourism habits, radical changes in speedboat design, and the deep engagement of women in politics – all the preceding, and more, can be traced back to Prohibition. It might have ended in failure, but it changed America forever.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Aaron, Paul, and Musto, David – Temperance and Prohibition in America: An Historical Overview (1981)

Behr, Edward – Prohibition: Thirteen Yeas That Changed America (1996)

Burns, Eric – The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (2003)

Cheever, Susan – Drinking in America: Our Secret History (2015)

Daily Beast – How the US Government Enforced Prohibition by Poisoning Americans

Encyclopedia Britannica – Anti Saloon League

Encyclopedia Britannica – Temperance Movement

History Collection – 18 Details in the Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition

Murdoch, Catherine Gilbert – Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870 – 1940 (1998)

Orkent, Daniel – Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2010)

New York Times, January 19th, 2019 – How the Klan Fueled Prohibition

PBS – Prohibition: Anti Saloon League

Sismondo, Christine – America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops (2011)

Slate – The Chemists’ War

Time Magazine, January 10th, 1927 – Prohibition: Poison

Time Magazine, January 14th, 2015 – The History of Poisoned Alcohol Includes an Unlikely Culprit: The US Government

Vox – The US Government Once Poisoned Alcohol to Get People to Stop Drinking

Walsh, Victor A., Journal of American Ethnic History vol. 10 no. 1-2 (Fall 1990 – Winter 1991) – Drowning the Shamrock: Drink, Teetotalism and the Irish Catholics of Gilded Age Pittsburgh

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