Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael A. Lerner, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 351 pages, $28.95
The Diary of a Rum-Runner, by Alastair Moray, Mystic: Flat Hammock Press, 193 pages, $16.95
Smugglers of Spirits: Prohibition and the Coast Guard Patrol, by Harold Waters, Mystic: Flat Hammock Press, 186 pages, $16.95
During Prohibition an off-Broadway restaurateur smuggled liquor for his patrons’ enjoyment. He and several others would purchase the illegal hooch from a collection of offshore ships called Rum Row. Back on land, the men would pack the cases into a furniture-moving van and drive to a garage just outside New York. There they would wait until dawn, when fewer witnesses were about, to bring the booze into the city.
One day the men arrived at the garage and learned that revenue agents (the Bureau of Prohibition was part of the Treasury Department) planned to raid it overnight. Having no other hideout, they immediately drove their cargo to its destination, parking on the busy street outside the restaurant at the height of the dinner rush.
“Well,” the restaurateur recalled, “just to let you see what our average citizen thinks of this Volstead Act, what happened was this. We handed the cases across the sidewalk, and every person supping inside helped pass them to the cellar by forming a chain.…We got every blessed one in without any interference, even with the traffic cop at the corner looking on.”
Such anecdotes are chock-a-block in a new collection of books on American Prohibition. At the forefront is the New York schoolteacher Michael A. Lerner’s absorbing Dry Manhattan, which explains how temperance, a notion completely alien to New York, was imposed on its citizens and then repudiated. Almost simultaneously, Flat Hammock Press has published half a dozen accounts of Prohibition rumrunning, most of them reprints from the late ’20s and ’30s. Several shed light on how liquor was smuggled into the Big Apple.
These books are welcome relief from a recent wave of revisionist rotgut. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s website proclaims that “Prohibition did work” (the DEA’s emphasis), while ignoring the ban’s effect on violent crime. This message has been more fully expressed by historians of American temperance such as K. Austin Kerr and Jack S. Blocker Jr. In a February 2006 article in the American Journal of Public Health, Blocker wrote, “The conventional view that National Prohibition failed rests upon an historically flimsy base.…The failure of National Prohibition continues to be cited without contradiction in debates over matters ranging from the proper scope of government action to specific issues such as control of other consciousness-altering drugs, smoking, and guns.”
It is strange that the temperance movement would attract such modern support, since Prohibition was always a WASP phenomenon driven by condescension and disgust toward working-class ethnic groups, Catholics, and Jews. It was this very snobbery that doomed Prohibition within the polyethnic pandemonium that comprised the five boroughs in the Prohibition era, as Lerner explains in Dry Manhattan.
The fact that aridity gained a toehold in New York at all was the result of the labors of one William H. Anderson. In 1914 the Anti-Saloon League transplanted Anderson, then state superintendent of its Maryland branch, to New York, where he aimed to turn both state and city dry. The league differed from most earlier temperance organizations in that it sought to force its will through political means rather than evangelization to the masses.
H.L. Mencken called Anderson “the vampire and hobgoblin of every bartender’s nightmare,” responsible for shuttering almost half of Baltimore’s taverns during his roaringly successful seven-year tenure. If Anderson could duplicate his successes in New York—the wettest of America’s 48 states—the league hoped 35 other dominoes would follow, giving them the necessary three-fourths to pass a constitutional amendment forever banning alcoholic beverages from the United States.
Anderson went to work fashioning coalitions with church groups and like-minded reformers. He hired people to spread lies about wet or moderately dry politicians, going so far as to forge letters of support to officials from liquor interests. He successfully gerrymandered the state through “local option,” trimming small cities away from their surrounding counties (the rural areas more likely to vote dry) and getting cities with populations of more than 50,000 to vote on Prohibition on a district-by-district basis. Anderson continually introduced other dry legislation, most of which didn’t pass but kept wets on the defensive.
Even so, the dry agenda, as successful as it was in the Midwest,
would have never taken New York or even the country had it not been
for the Great War. During World War I a large swath of the
population that opposed Prohibition was silenced. The Anti-Saloon
League accused German-American brewers of sabotage by wasting grain
and intoxicating fighting-age men, Lerner notes, while “Irish
Americans were criticized for opposing the U.S. alliance with Great
Britain, and Southern Europeans
and Eastern European Jews drew suspicion for their perceived radicalism.” An anti-Catholic strain bubbled to the top of Anderson’s speeches as he denounced high-ranking clergymen as the traitorous tools of wet interests. In 1917 the Anti-Saloon League helped pass wartime measures that gave the federal government control over food and fuel, banning the use of grain for distillation and giving President Wilson the power to regulate beer and wine manufacture.
By Christmas 1917, Congress had approved the 18th Amendment, and on January 16, 1919, the 36th state—Nebraska—ratified it, making Prohibition part of the Constitution. New York followed less than two weeks later.
Yet the league found it had made a conquest it couldn’t defend. Enforcement became an immediate problem. Although the Bureau of Prohibition had more agents than the FBI, relatively little money was appropriated for it because drys assumed bureau agents would be assisted by state and local police. The league wanted to keep its tentacles buried within the government, so the Volstead Act, co-written by Rep. Andrew Volstead (R-Minn.) and league lawyer Wayne Wheeler, bypassed the civil service system.