National Prohibition and Repeal in California

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Californians had largely welcomed the establishment of National Prohibition in 1920. Temperance sentiment had long been strong in the state. California had elected the only Prohibition Party member of Congress and had given the Prohibition Party's presidential candidate the largest popular vote in history.

Californians widely believed that National Prohibition would improve health, increase safety, reduce crime, improve the economy, and raise public morality. Experience would prove them wrong.

Prohibition didn't decrease drinking. The Anti-Saloon League ranked San Francisco second only to New York as the wettest city in the country. The New York Times commissioned surveys and reported that Prohibition had not reduced the quantity but only the quality of alcohol consumed in Los Angeles County. Arrests for drunkenness climbed steadily during Prohibition.

The State Prohibition Commissioner reported that hair tonics and other products containing alcohol accounted for one-half of the drunkenness in the state. Even worse, bootleg alcohol frequently contained creosote, lead, and embalming fluid. Some consumers were paralyzed, blinded and even killed by it.

The number of alcohol deaths jumped from 69 to 418 in just five years during Prohibition.

A state senator declared California a "bootlegger's paradise" and speakeasies mushroomed in every city and town. Their operation required that law enforcement officials be bribed and some departments were completely corrupted by the lure of easy money.

The federal director of Prohibition enforcement for northern California resigned after he was indicted for embezzling alcohol for his own consumption. When not corrupt, enforcement agents were generally ignorant of Constitutional protections limiting search and seizures, complained a U.S. attorney. Police in Los Angeles and elsewhere entered homes without search warrants. Property was frequently destroyed and innocent citizens assaulted by the very people who were paid to protect them.

Prohibition made formerly legal activities illegal and made ordinary citizens into criminals. Consequently, respect for law and societal institutions declined, often openly. In 1928, a Los Angeles jury consumed the evidence against a bootlegger on trial and who had to be released for lack of evidence.

Prohibition deprived the state of alcohol tax revenues at the very time crime was mounting and enforcement expenses were increasing.

As the situation caused by Prohibition steadily deteriorated, Californians increasingly came to the conclusion that "the cure was worse than the disease." Prohibition didn't reduce drinking but simply made it much more dangerous to life and health, didn't reduce crime but increased it, didn't increase prosperity (except for bootleggers and organized criminals), didn't improve public morality but directly led to its rapid deterioration.

Californians voted over three-to-one for Repeal of the failed experiment known as National 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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