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Prohibition in the US - 1920-1933

"Our country has deliberately undertaken a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose." Herbert Hoover, US President

On January 16, 1920, the 18th amendment was put into effect. All importing, exporting, transporting, selling and manufacturing of intoxicating liquor in the US was banned.

Soon after, came the Volstead Act. This deemed intoxicating liquor as anything having an alcoholic content of more than 0.5%, excepting alcohol used for medicinal and sacramental purposes.

It was believed that this "noble experiment" would reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene.

The Federal Prohibition Bureau was created to ensure that the Volstead Act was enforced. However, the laws were flagrantly violated.

Bootlegging

Bootleggers smuggled alcohol from oversees and Canada, stole it from government warehouses and produced their own.

People hid it wherever they could - in hip flasks, false books, hollow canes.

Saloons were replaced by illegal speak-easies. There were over 100,000 in New York City alone by 1925.

Speak-easies would be hidden in basements and office buildings and would admit only those with membership cards.

With only 1,550 federal agents to police the coastline, it was impossible to prevent huge quantities of alcohol being smuggled into the country.

Organised Crime

Furthermore, this illegal business fell under the control of organised gangs, which overpowered the authorities.

Violent gang wars erupted in many large cities, and gang members killed one another at a furious pace. There were over 400 gang-related murders a year in Chicago alone.

Al Capone of Chicago was probably the era's most famous bootlegger.

He masterminded the massacre of a rival gang on St Valentine's Day 1929. His own gang members impersonated police officers raiding a warehouse, and opened fire killing everyone there.

Capone had a solid alibi and was never convicted.

Consumption

Alcohol consumption did fall, but it didn't end drinking and bootleggers made a fortune for organised crime.

As beer had to be transported in large quantities, which was difficult, the price increased and so Americans turned to stronger, cheaper drinks.

The sale of medicinal alcohol increased 400% between 1923 and 1931. Deaths from alcohol increased, as did arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

Decline of Prohibition

Anti-prohibitionists argued that the ban on alcohol encouraged crime and disrespect for the law.

They argued that prohibition took away jobs and deprived the government of badly-needed revenues from taxes on alcohol.

In the 1932 presidential campaign, the Democratic Party endorsed the repeal of prohibition.

The Democratic presidential candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, won the election by a large margin.

National prohibition ended on 5th December 1933.

A few states, mainly in the South, retained prohibition until the 1950s or 1960s. In 1966, Mississippi became the last state to repeal statewide prohibition.


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