Prohibition, Repeal and New Jerseys Ira Reeves

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Many New Jersey residents had hoped that Prohibition, which was imposed in 1920, would reduce crime, improve health, increase safety and raise public morality. However, New Jersey quickly became a hotbed for the production, distribution and consumption of illegal alcohol or moonshine.

Enter army hero Col. Ira Reeves, who became head of the federal government's New Jersey district for Prohibition enforcement. Determined to make Prohibition work, the teetotaling Reeves energetically led raids all over the entire state. He shut down speakeasies, roadhouses, stills, breweries, alcohol denaturing plants, and bottling plants. He confiscated bootleg shipped by car truck, train and boat. He was indefatigable.

However, Reeves quickly became disillusioned and was frustrated by the fact that virtually everyone around him drank with impunity. Under political pressure he even had to promise not to raid the state legislature's annual dinner in Atlantic City. But worse was the pervasive corruption of law enforcement officers and entire departments.

The chief of police in Trenton had Reeves' agents arrested for carrying concealed guns without a permit when they tried to shut down a brewery and in Essex County police showed up to protect a still. He then came to discover that agents in his own office had been accepting bribes.

Judicial bribery also hindered prosecution. A dozen bootleggers were caught red-handed unloading moonshine from a barge in the Rancocas Creek but prosecutors dropped all charges for supposed "lack of evidence."

The Colonel came to believe that his ceaseless efforts had been in vain and that Prohibition could never be made to work. He resigned after eight months in office. Reeves realized that Prohibition actually promoted organized crime, led to political and law enforcement corruption, created widespread disrespect for the law, caused the consumption of sometimes toxic moonshine, endangered health and safety, and lowered public morality.

This led the former Prohibition Bureau administrator to become active in The Crusaders, an anti-Prohibition organization. He wrote speeches, articles and a book about his experiences in order to promote Repeal.

Reeves had the strength of his convictions, though not a drinker himself, to point out that Prohibition was clearly not only failing but creating many serious problems. His work helped bring about the end of what President Roosevelt later called the "damnable affliction" of 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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