Washington State Found National Prohibition to be Disastrous and Called for Repeal

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Washington residents had long supported outlawing alcohol and adopted statewide prohibition in 1916 and supported the establishment of National Prohibition in 1920. But it became apparent that many Washingtonians weren't going to let others prohibit them from their freedom to enjoy a drink.

An important figure in helping quench the thirst caused by prohibition was Roy Olmstead, who had joined the Seattle Police Department in 1907 and quickly rose to become sergeant in 1910. He was active in many arrests of bootleggers and rumrunners, saw how disorganized their operations were, and realized that bootlegging could be very profitable if properly organized and operated.

Olmstead began his own bootleg operation as a side-line but was soon arrested and lost his job in law enforcement. Thus, he turned to bootlegging as a full-time and highly successful occupation. Within a short period of time Roy Olmstead's business became one of Puget Sound's largest employers, utilizing office workers, bookkeepers, collectors, salesmen, dispatchers, warehousemen, mechanics, drivers, rum running crews, and legal counsel. He chartered a fleet of vessels, had numerous trucks and automobiles, and even purchased a farm to cache the contraband liquor. Before long, Roy Olmstead's organization was delivering 200 cases of Canadian liquor to the Seattle area daily, and grossing about $200,000 a month.

An informant led to Olmstead's arrest in 1924, but bootlegging continued uninterrupted by many others who took Olmstead's place.

Although we can now look back at Prohibition as a colorful period in our past, its effects were ugly. It led to widespread corruption of law enforcement officers, usually through bribes. That led to a lack of respect for Prohibition in particular and law in general.

It became fashionable for women, for the first time in history, to drink and it created an undesirable pattern of drinking -- consuming less often but much more heavily. People didn't go to a speakeasy to enjoy a drink leisurely with a meal but to guzzle alcohol while it was available.

The quickly made alcohol often contained lead toxins from careless production as well as creosote and sometimes even embalming fluid. Consumers sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness or even death.

Residents came to realize that Prohibition threatened health and safety, reduced morality, led to widespread crime, and promoted undesirable drinking patterns. In short, Prohibition was not only ineffective but also counterproductive. Washington oters first repealed state prohibition laws in 1932 and then ratified the 21st Amendment when given the opportunity the next year.

 

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, Norman H. The Dry Years: Prohibition & Social Change in Washington.
    Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1965.
  • 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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