Prohibition Era Dry Laws in New York State

Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York was a strong advocate of states' rights and individual freedoms. He pressed the passage of the Walker-Gillette bill in 1920 (the first year of National Prohibition) to legalize 2.75% beer by weight and 3.5% by volume in clubs, restaurants, hotels with 50 or more rooms (only with meals), and in grocery stores for home consumption. However, two weeks later the U.S. Supreme Court effectively nullified the law.

Smith was succeeded in 1921 by Governor Nathan L. Miller who campaigned on a promise to enforce Prohibition vigorously. He promptly abolished the Walker-Gillette Act and then sponsored a series of bills known collectively as the Mullan-Gage Act. The latter not only incorporated the federal Volstead Act (legislation enabling enforcement of National Prohibition) into state law but additionally included other more intrusive provisions as well.

For example, the Walker-Gillette Act empowered state law enforcement officers to search for and seize alcoholic beverages whenever and wherever they suspected its existence without probable cause or a search warrant.

The Walker-Gillette Act also empowered individuals to sue an intoxicated person for damages if they were physically injured, their property was damaged, or their means of support was reduced. And Governor Miller substantially increased the number of State Police to enforce Prohibition.

Nathan Miller was defeated by Al Smith in 1922. Smith was not only an opponent of Prohibition but personally purchased illegal bootleg alcohol himself. A measure to repeal Mullan-Gage, known as the Dunnigan bill, failed to pass by one vote. However, a measure known as the Culliver bill was soon signed into law.

Upon replacement of Mullan-Gage by the Culliver law, the federal prohibition director in New York City immediately announced that he would call upon the superintendent of state troopers, the sheriff of each county, and every chief of police to assist in arresting violators of Prohibition. Nevertheless, repeal of Mullan-Gage resulted in greatly diminished New York participation in Prohibition enforcement, which then fell largely to federal officers.

Declining support for Prohibition made obtaining convictions increasingly difficult. Passage of the federal Jones Act of 1929 made violations of Prohibition laws a felony rather than a misdemeanor and increased maximum penalties. Nevertheless, the penalties actually imposed in both New York State and the rest of the nation remained low.

Federal Prohibition officials inadvertently promoted Repeal by announcing that effective enforcement in the state would require hiring a one hundred-fold increase in the number of Prohibition agents. The state legislature's reaction was to pass a law calling for a constitutional convention to overturn what it saw as the disastrous "experiment in social engineering." Residents of New York State had come to the conclusion that Prohibition was not only impossible to enforce, but that it also created rather than solved problems.

After Congress approved the 21st Amendment for states to ratify if they wished, New Yorkers voted almost eight to one in favor of Repeal.

 

Sources:

  • Note: The idiosyncratic capitalization and punctuation (or lack thereof) of the New York Times has not been altered.
  • BRONX GRAND JURY URGES THE REPEAL OF STATE DRY LAW; Blames Mullan-Gage Act for "Unprecedented Violence" and Increased Drugs Use. REPORT COMMENDS POLICE But Says Task Imposed Upon Them by Federal Government Is an Impossible One. DENOUNCES HOME RAIDS Attacks "Bands of Men Akin to Pirates" Who Break Into Respectable Houses Seeking Rum. New York Times, October 15, 1921.
  • 8,975 DRY ACT ARRESTS; 141 Autos, 180 Stills Seized Under Mullan-Gage Law. New York Times, October 19, 1921.
  • Everest, Allan S. Rum Across the Border: The Prohibition Era in Northern New York. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1978.
  • Gambino v. United States, 275 U.S. 310 (1927) 275 U.S. 310.
  • GRAND JURIES ASK DRY LAW REPEAL; Two Bodies Declare Mullan-Gage Act "Ineffective and Financially Burdensome. "PROHIBITION IS ATTACKED Kings County Inquisitors Declare Liquor Not a "Proper Subject for Legislative Interference." New York Times, December 30, 1922.
  • LEGISLATIVE POLL SHOWS CITY EAGER TO ALTER DRY LAWS; Up-State Membership is Less Willing to Express Stand, but in the Main Opposes. MAY DODGE REPEAL ISSUE New Body Is More Likely to Memorialize Congress Than Void Mullan-Gage Act. 93 MEMBERS GIVE VIEWS 51 Senators and Assemblymen for State Law Repeal--58 Favor a Wine and Beer Resolution. New York Times, November 20, 1922.
  • LIQUOR REFERENDUM PLANNED BY SMITH; Governor-Elect Wants to Take Prohibition Question Out of Politics. MAY GUIDE OTHER STATES Precedent Is Seen in Popular Vote on Bill for Creation of Bronx County. New York Times, November 25, 1922.
  • NO 'JAIL' IN DRY LAW FOR FIRST OFFENDER; Mullan-Gage Act Makes No Provision for Imprisonment in Default of Fine. RUM LINER PLAN BALKED Postal Authorities Interfere With Alleged Smuggling Plot--Yacht Patricia Released. New York Times, April 6, 1922.
  • $12,000,000 IN LIQUOR SEIZED, SAYS LEACH; Deputy Commissioner Enforcing Mullan-Gage Law Also Reports 7,886 Arrests. 21 AGENTS LEAVE BROOKLYN Court Orders Seized Liquor Returned--Will Test Van Ness Law in New Jersey. New York Times, August 9, 1921.

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