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  • Writer's pictureEldon Callaway

Prohibition and the Untouchables (Part 1)

Updated: Jan 11, 2020

This month will touch on the section of American history dealing with Prohibition, Al Capone, and the Untouchables. As always, feel free to send any questions, feedback, etc. regarding the blogs or to my novel, The Quarter Year Man (just months away from publication).

U.S. Dry

January 16, 1919

The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified as a part of the Constitution. Based on the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act which had been proposed on 18 December, 1917 to save grain for the war effort, it was not passed until 18 November, 1918 after the armistice was signed 11 November, 1918 which ended World War I.

June 30, 1919

The Wartime Prohibition Act takes effect. "Thirsty-First, as 1 July, 1919 was dubbed, began the dry period which would last until 1933. President Woodrow Wilson had vetoed the National Prohibition Act, but was overruled by Congress which passed the Volstead Act (the popular name for the Act) on 28 October, 1919. What the Volstead Act did was prohibit the sale of alcohol, established the legal definition of intoxicating liquors, and penalties for producing said alcohol. The largest problem posed by the Volstead Act was that the federal government lacked the resources to actually enforce it.

January 17, 1920

The actual date that the country went dry by the terms of the amendment. The lag from ratification to enforcing of the Volstead Act has been seen by many as a timeframe for those in Congress, the wealthy, etc. to stockpile alcohol for the coming dry period. Whether directly or indirectly related to the Act, the rise of speakeasy's, establishments that illegally sold alcoholic beverages grew quickly. In New York City alone, the number soared to over 30,000, possibly as high as 100,000 clubs by 1925.

Stamp Out Prohibition

One major issue with the Eighteenth Amendment was the lack of manpower needed to enforce it. Bootlegging, Distilleries, and the eventual widespread underground organized criminal activities, grew from the ineffective capabilities of law enforcement. Inadequate at the conception, it became more ineffectual as illegal activities grew.

Whether a byproduct of the Volstead Act or not, gangland crimes soared, killings became almost commonplace between opposing gangs, and advocates for prohibition began to falter. Chicago's Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929 is an example of the disenchantment the common individual saw with prohibition. Oddly, before these mass killings, the populace did not have issues with hard stance on alcohol, nor did Congress as they were not in need of the revenue from alcohol sales at the time. It wasn't until the United States were in the deep throws of the depression that change was finally called for.

Prohibition Ends

March 22, 1933

The Cullen-Harrison Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. What this did was legalize beer with an alcohol content of 3.2% (by weight). Wine of a similar low alcohol content was also made legal. The ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment on 5 December, 1933 repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, though federal law still prohibits the manufacture of distilled spirits without meeting numerous licensing requirements for personal beverage use that would make it impractical to produce spirits.

Part Two will cover the rise of the crime gangs and Al Capone.

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