New Mexico's Experience with National Prohibition

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Temperance sentiment has a long history in New Mexico. In 1917, Mew Mexicans approved state-wide prohibition by a large majority of three-to-one. That was before National Prohibition went into effect in 1920.
There were high hopes that outlawing alcohol consumption would reduce crime, improve health, raise morality, and protect young people. These hopes were soon crushed by reality.

A number of people apparently refused to relinquish what they considered to be their right to drink. To satisfy the demand, illegal operators replaced legal producers and sellers.

A newspaper editorialized a year after Prohibition began that "It is estimated that there are a dozen or more moonshine stills in operation in the immediate vicinity of Santa Fe. Everyone knows that more rotgut whiskey is being sold and drunk in Santa Fe than before the days [of Prohibition.]" Presumably some of the alcohol was sold in a speakeasy in town described by historian David McCullough:

One of the more notable establishments was housed in a three-story building... the quality of the drinks and the decor of the rooms changed on each floor. The first floor was for 'poorer people' who wished to quench their thirst with 'white mule.' ...The second floor was for those slightly more affluent who ascend to 'second heaven'... Only those with a 'fat wad' could make it to the third floor where good quality booze was sold. One could drink the top-floor liquor 'without a chaser.'

Moonshine tended to be made quickly and often contained dangerous levels of lead toxins from careless production. Creosote and embalming fluid made moonshine dangerous; some consumers suffered paralysis, blindness and even death.

Prohibition led to the dangerous drinking pattern of consuming less often but very heavily. People didn't go to a speakeasy to savor a drink during a meal but to get drunk.

Illegal operators usually had to bribe law enforcement officials and knowledge of the widespread corruption and hypocrisy eroded support for Prohibition. For the first time in history, it became fashionable for women and young people to drink.

With the passage of time, residents concluded that Prohibition didn't reduce crime but increased it, didn't improve health but often damaged it, didn't raise morality but lowered it, and didn't protect young people but threatened their welfare. In short, they decided that Prohibition was not only a failure but actually counter-productive.

So, almost 80 percent of New Mexicans voted to repeal Prohibition. Santa Fe residents voted 2,768 to 201 for Repeal and even in rural areas there was overwhelming support for abolishing the failed experiment in social engineering known as Prohibition.

 

Additional Reading:

  • Asbury, Herbert. The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition.
    New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 (Originally published 1950).
  • Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America. NY:
    Arcade, 1996.
  • Cashman, Sean D. Prohibition: The Lie of the Land. New York:Free Press, 1981.
  • Clark, N. H. Deliver Us From Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition. New York: Norton, 1976.
  • Furnas, J. C. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. New York: G. P.
    Pumam's Sons, 1965.
  • Kerr, K. Austin. Organized for Prohibition: A New History of the Anti-Saloon League. New haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Kobler, John. Ardent spirits: the rise and Fall of Prohibition. NY: G. P.
    Putnam's Sons, 1973.
  • Krout, John A. The Origins of Prohibition. New York: Knopf, 1925.
  • Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • Odegard, Peter H. Pressure Politics: The Story of the Anti-Saloon League.
    NY: Columbia University Press, 1928.
  • Rose, Kenneth D. American Women and the repeal of Prohibition. NY: New York University Press, 1996.
  • Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition: The Era of Excess. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co., 1962.
  • Willebrandt, Mabel Walker. The Inside of Prohibition. Indianapolis, IN:
    Bobbs-Merrill, 1929.

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