National Prohibition and Repeal: West Virginia's Experience

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

West Virginians had long favored outlawing alcoholic beverages, having established state-wide prohibition in 1914. Residents widely believed that the creation of National Prohibition in 1920 would improve health, increase safety, reduce crime and violence, improve the economy, and raise public morality and protect the family and youth.

Some employers viewed Prohibition as a way to increase the efficiency of their work force, especially their immigrant workers. One of the strongest supporters of Prohibition was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It insisted that those who opposed it were un-American and often took enforcement into its own violent hands.

But not everyone supported Prohibition. Organized labor tended to oppose it in the belief that it was an attempt to make workers more easily controlled. Union leader Samuel Gompers complained that Prohibition was created by the only constitutional amendment in U.S. history to reduce rather than expand the freedoms enjoyed by Americans.

Apparently, many people in West Virginia weren't going to let their freedom to drink be denied. After legitimate tax-paying alcohol producers and retailers were outlawed, illegal operators, including organized criminals, moved in quickly to meet the brisk demand for alcoholic beverages.

Tradition and terrain combined to make the state an ideal location for the production of moonshine. With easy, untaxed money to be made, police and sheriffs were routinely bribed. Politicians were also widely on the take. The revelations of such corruption lowered respect for the law, which was widely violated.

The rampant graft and corruption caused by Prohibition created a deep lack of respect for law. It became fashionable to flaunt the law, especially among young people, and many people became alarmed at the decline in public morality.

Prohibition also led to the pattern of infrequent but very heavy drinking. People didn't go to a speakeasy to have a leisurely drink with a meal, but to guzzle the alcohol while they could.

Bootleg alcohol was carelessly made and often contained creosote, lead toxins and even embalming fluid. Consumers sometimes suffered paralysis,blindness and painful death. This led some drinkers in the state to switch to opium, cocaine, hair tonic, sterno or 'liquid heat,' and other dangerous substances that they would have been unlikely to consume in the absence of Prohibition.

Prohibition denied the state tax revenues from alcohol at the very time the it was causing dramatic increases in crime and violence, heavy court workloads, and over-crowded jails.

As widespread crime and other problems caused by Prohibition mushroomed, more and more residents decided that the cure was much worse than the disease and called for Repeal of the failed experiment in social engineering.

Although Prohibition was overturned many decades ago, temperance sentiment still endures. For example, West Virginia remains one of a minority of states that still prohibit the Sunday sales of distilled spirits. This is despite the fact that Sunday has become the second busiest shopping day of the week.

Perhaps West Virginia will continues its push into the 21st Century by abolishing the final vestiges of the failed experiment in social engineering that was 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, 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. Pumams 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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