Alcohol Prohibition and Repeal in Delaware

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

The temperance movement has a long tradition in Delaware. Well before National Prohibition was established in 1920, much of Delaware had already become dry. By referendum, Kent and Sussex counties had adopted their own prohibition as early as 1907. New Castle followed, and only the city of Wilmington was still wet when Prohibition was imposed across the country.

Most residents of Delaware clearly wanted the "Noble Experiment" to be successful. Residents had hoped that Prohibition would reduce drinking, improve health, increase public safety, protect youth, and raise morality. They reasoned that with nationwide Prohibition, those who wanted to drink would no longer be able to go to Wilmington or cross the state borders to obtain alcohol. Their hopes were soon dashed.

To enforce the law, Delaware created the state Department of Prohibition. Its deputy director was Harold D. Wilson, who became known as "Three Gun" Wilson. Described as a fanatical dry, Three Gun Wilson was determined to stamp out all consumption of alcohol and to use whatever means were necessary.

The Prohibition enforcer actually conducted a sensational raid on a party honoring the governor of the state. Some of his raids were motivated by departmental power struggles as well as the desire for publicity. To Wilson, the goal of preventing alcohol consumption appeared more important than legalities and the rights of citizens. He was accused of illegal search and seizure and he was also found guilty of contempt of court.

In spite of the enthusiastic efforts of Three Gun Wilson and many other law enforcement personnel, bootlegging expanded. Consumers of dangerous moonshine sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness or even death.

Public safety decreased as mob violence mushroomed. Going to speakeasies became fashionable, especially among young men and women. Corruption became widespread among law enforcement officers and even entire departments. Respect for law decreased as law enforcement officers often violated individual rights.

Although there was a long tradition of support for prohibition, the numerous serious problems it caused led to increasing disillusionment and opposition. Pierre S, Irenee, and Alice du Pont became active leaders in the movement opposing Prohibition. When it came, the popular vote was overwhelmingly in favor of Repeal.

In the decades following following Repeal in 1933, Delaware has made some progress in modernizing its alcohol laws. In 2003, the state struck down its Blue law banning Sunday alcohol sales bringing consumers greater convenience, the state more revenue, and retailers the ability to operate like every other business in this 21st century economy.

But Prohibition attitudes still remain especially with regard to tax policy. In fact, state legislators are considering a 50 percent tax increase on alcoholic beverages. This would be a regressive tax that would especially harm lower-income consumers. Legislators try to justify the increase by calling it a "sin tax" - a Prohibition-era notion. The fact is that alcohol is legal and considered by most to be a normal part of a healthy adult lifestyle. This sort of short-sighted policy only serves to undercut the viability of the state's hospitality and tourism industry.

 

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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