National Prohibition and Repeal: The Illinois Experience

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Temperance movements had been popular in Illinois as early as 1833 and prohibition sentiment grew over time.

In the early twentieth century the General Assembly passed a local option law sponsored by the Anti-Saloon League that led to prohibition in two-thirds of Chicago precincts by 1909. However, those who wished to evade the law could simply do so in a "wet" precinct, thus frustrating prohibitionists.

With the establishment of National Prohibition in 1920, the state's residents optimistically looked forward to the expected benefits of the new experiment in social engineering. They hoped that Prohibition would improve health, reduce crime and violence, protect the family and youth, promote prosperity, and raise public morality. They were to be deeply disappointed.

Chicago's location made it a natural spot to become the major center for bootlegging and organized crime in the country. "Chicago is the imperial city of the gang world, and New York a remote provincial place," wrote Alva Johnston in the New Yorker.

Although there were powerful mobsters in New York, Chicago became the capital of racketeers, including the powerful Al Capone, "Bugs Moran", Johnny Torrio, the Gennas, and the O'Banions.

Violence became a way of life that affected not only gangsters but innocent residents as well. But it wasn't just stray gunfire that threatened life and health. The illegal bootleg alcohol often contained creosote, lead toxins and even embalming fluid. The dangerous beverages sometimes caused paralysis, blindness and painful death among some consumers.

Bootlegging and operating speakeasies required that law enforcement officers be bribed. In some cases, entire police department were bought off. Payoffs were a normal business expense for illegal operators, who often had to pay off prosecutors, judges, and various elected officials.

The widespread graft and corruption caused by Prohibition created a deep lack of respect for law and societal institutions. It became fashionable to flaunt the law, especially among young people.

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.

In the realization that the problems caused by Prohibition were worse than any supposed benefits, residents of the state voted overwhelmingly for Repeal.

Although Prohibition was discredited, temperance sentiment remained. Evanston, Oak Park, River Forest, Glencoe, Winnetka, Kenilworth, Western Springs, Wilmette, La Grange, Park Ridge, Wheaton, and Maywood, plus 47 precincts in Chicago chose to retain local prohibition. Within the past ten years, the number of dry precincts in Chicago has grown to upwards of 500.

Temperance sentiment today can also be seen in the very high taxation of alcohol products. Chicago consumers face seven different taxes -- federal excise tax, state excise tax, county excise tax, city excise tax, state sales tax, county sales tax and city sales tax - each time they buy a single spirits product. Chicago's liquor taxes are higher than in any other metropolitan area including New York and almost twice the rate of surrounding areas in Illinois and neighboring states.

Unfortunately, Repeal did not end the mentality of Prohibition or its legacy. Many decades after Repeal, Chicago residents are still denied fair and competitive prices and convenient access to alcohol products to which they are entitled.

 

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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