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How the Misery of the Great Depression Helped Vanquish Prohibition

January 2, 2019 in History

By Jesse Greenspan

During the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition seemed here to stay. Then the economy collapsed, and the “noble experiment” crumbled along with it.

Disenchantment with Prohibition had been building almost from the moment it first took effect in 1920. Politicians continued drinking as everyday people were slapped with charges. Bootleggers were becoming rich on the profits of illegal alcohol sales and violence was on the rise. But it wasn’t until the Great Depression that the repeal movement truly gained steam.

“The Depression has a huge impact,” says Garrett Peck, author of The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet. “We got Prohibition because of an emergency, the emergency being World War I, and we lost Prohibition because of another emergency, the Depression.”

By arguing that the country needed the jobs and tax revenue that legalized alcohol would provide, anti-Prohibition activists succeeded in recruiting even noted teetotalers to their cause. As the economy crumbled and the Democratic Party gained power, the demise of Prohibition eventually became a fait accompli.

Barrels of beer emptied into the sewer by authorities during prohibition.

Alcohol consumption and alcohol-related diseases did decrease overall due in large part to the expense of procuring illicit booze. Still, just about anyone who wanted a beer could easily get one at the countless speakeasies that popped up around the country. (There may have been more than 30,000 in New York City alone.)

READ MORE: The Improbable Prohibition Agents Who Outsmarted Speakeasy Agents

Even politicians who supported Prohibition in public continued imbibing in private. President Warren G. Harding, for example, stocked the White House with whiskey for his infamous poker nights, while his Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover liked to stop for a drink at the Belgian Embassy—where U.S. law technically didn’t apply.

As for the legislative branch, one prominent bootlegger estimated that he supplied two-thirds of Congress with liquor. “There’s a lot of hypocrisy,” says Garrett Peck, author of The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet. “Everyone thinks that Prohibition is for someone else to obey.”

Though power brokers drank with impunity, enforcement could be strict for the masses, particularly once the Jones Act of 1929 increased penalties for liquor law infractions. The courts became backlogged with alcohol-related cases, and newspapers ran wild with stories of prosecutorial excess, such as a Michigan mother of 10 …read more


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