Iowa and Prohibition: Good Intentions Turn To Toxic Brew

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

The state of Iowa had led the way to Prohibition, being one of the three most strongly pro-Prohibition states in the union. It had instituted its own state-wide prohibition in 1916, four years before National Prohibition was established, and it was the home of several national leaders of the prohibition movement.

Iowans strongly supported Prohibition in the firm belief that it would improve society. So convinced were they that alcohol was the cause of virtually all crime that, on the eve of Prohibition, at least one town in the state actually sold its jail. Unfortunately, crime and violence increased significantly during Prohibition.

Producing illegal alcohol became big business, especially on farms across the state. However, much moonshine contained toxins such as lead, creosote and even embalming fluid. Those who consumed it sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness, and painful death.

Bootleggers typically had to bribe police and public officials. To bootleggers it was a business expense, to corrupt officials it was "easy money," but to the public it was morally corrosive corruption.

Some law officials worried that Des Moines might become a "little Chicago." Al Capone controlled most alcohol distribution in the Midwestern states and Charlie "Cherry Nose" Gioe oversaw Capone's liquor and other illegal operations in the Des Moines region.

The increasing problems caused by Prohibition led more and more Iowans to the conclusion that it was harmful on balance and they came to supported Repeal. But some stalwart leaders carried on the fight long after Repeal.

One was John Brown Hammond. Like his famous namesake cousin, John Brown, Hammond believed in direct and even violent action on occasion such as wrecking speakeasies or "blind pigs" much in the style of Carry Nation. Although he mellowed with age, he promoted a return to Prohibition. Several months before his death in an Iowa nursing home years later he was working to organize "The Eighteenth Amendment Rescue Association."

Similarly, Prohibition leader Smith Wildman Brookhart insisted until he died that "liquor is a poison and drinking it is a crime" and Ida B. Wise, the head of the national Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and former head of the Iowa WCTU, continued to lead efforts to return both the state and nation to Prohibition throughout the 1930's and 1940's.

But most Iowans who came to the realization that Prohibition didn't improve health but threatened it, didn't reduce crime but increased it, and didn't raise public morality but corrupted it. Prohibition was based on good intentions but had bad results.

 

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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