Prohibition and Repeal in New York State

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Many residents of New York state had hoped that Prohibition (1920-1933) would reduce crime, improve health and safety, promote economic prosperity, and increase public morality. However, experience would prove the Noble Experiment to fail on all counts.

Mob-controlled liquor quickly replaced legitimate tax-paying alcohol producers and retailers. Gangster-owned speakeasies replaced neighborhood drinking establishments and within five years after Prohibition was imposed, there were over 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone by some estimates. So many speakeasies operated that New York was known as the "City on a Still."

Mobsters opened large nightclubs with elaborate floor shows and popular bands. Speakeasies and nightclubs flourished because law enforcement officers were widely bribed. In essence, the speakeasies and nightclubs bought "protection" from the very people paid to enforce the law.

Hypocrisy was endemic. A raid on one of the city's most famous speakeasies caught a number of its politicians and other leading residents. The most famous and successful Prohibition agents in the state, "Izzy" Einstein and Moe Smith enjoyed nothing more after a hard day of vigorously enforcing Prohibition than sitting back and enjoying their favorite beverages: beers and cocktails.

Organized smuggling of alcohol from Canada and elsewhere quickly developed after Prohibition became the law. A "rum row" developed off the coast of New York City where ships lined up just beyond the three mile limit to off-load their cargoes onto speed boats under the cover of darkness.

In northern New York, bootlegging was especially rampant across the St. Lawrence River separating the state from Canada. Murder and hijacking were common in the dangerous but lucrative bootlegging business.

An increase in often deadly violence eroded support for Prohibition. Imprisonment reached a high after it became a felony to violate Prohibition. The number of violators sent to jail doubled and the federal prison population in the state jumped from 5,000 to 12,000.

Federal Prohibition officials inadvertently promoted Repeal by announcing that effective enforcement in the state would require hiring several thousand more Prohibition agents. The state legislature's reaction was to pass a law calling for a constitutional convention to overturn the disastrous "experiment in social engineering." Residents of New York State had come to the conclusion that Prohibition was not only impossible to enforce, but that it also created rather than solved problems.

After Congress approved the 21st Amendment for states to ratify if they wished, New Yorkers voted almost eight to one in favor of Repeal.

Over the decades, New York has made progress in modernizing its alcohol laws. In 2003, the state struck down its Blue law banning Sunday alcohol by allowing stores to open any six days, including Sunday, benefiting time-pressed consumers as well as retailers who now have the ability to operate like every other business in this 21st century economy. The success of the stores that opened on Sundays led the legislature to pass permanent seven day sales earlier this year. New York also recently repealed an archaic ban on spirits auctions. Slowly, the remaining vestiges of Prohibition appear to be disappearing in New York.

 

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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