National Prohibition and Repeal in Massachusetts

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Massachusetts had been among the very first states to ratify the 18th Amendment to establish National Prohibition (1920-1933). For several decades the abolition of alcoholic beverages had been touted as the solution to the nation's poverty, crime, violence and other ills. On the eve of its implementation, most Bay Staters were optimistic.

The famous evangelist Billy Sunday staged a mock funeral in Boston for "John Barleycorn," where "mourners" threw alcohol bottles into his symbolic casket. Sunday then extolled the benefits of Prohibition. "The rein of tears is over," he asserted. "The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and jails into storehouses."

It was a beautiful dream that soon turned into a nightmare. With its deeply indented coastline and many islands, the state soon became a center of bootlegging.

A "rum row" existed off the coast of Massachusetts just beyond the three mile limit to off-load their cargoes onto speed boats. Operators ranged from the small to some of the largest in the country. Murder and hijacking were common in this dangerous but lucrative business.

With vast sums of untaxed money to be made, police were routinely bribed and entire law enforcement offices corrupted to the very top. Politicians were also widely on the take. The revelations of such corruption lowered respect for the law, which was widely violated.

Decades after Prohibition, a resident of Martha's Vineyard described the ingenuity of a moonshiner in his neighborhood: "One old guy peddled moonshine out of a baby carriage. My aunt used to say, 'That lovely little man, he's always wheeling his little child along the street.'"

Prohibition led to the establishment of thousands of speakeasies, the consumption of sometimes toxic bootleg alcohol, the corruption of law enforcement officers and politicians, the lowering of public morality, disrespect for law and increased violence.

In 1924, the Constitutional Liberty League of Massachusetts joined with the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the American Federation of Labor to create the Joint Legislative Committee. That group was successful in bringing about the first congressional examination of Prohibition. In 1930, the obvious failure of Prohibition led voters of the state to repeal its enforcement within the state. Later, Massachusetts ratified Repeal of National Prohibition.

Over the decades, Massachusetts has made some progress in modernizing its alcohol laws. In 2003, the state struck down its Blue law banning Sunday alcohol sales benefiting time-pressed consumers as well as retailers who now have the ability to operate like every other business in this 21st century economy.

 

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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