sentio hero

How Manhattan Made a Mockery of Prohibition

BooksBooze Politics
Source: National Police Gazette, 1880-1881. Source: Library of Congress
Source: National Police Gazette, 1880-1881. Source: Library of Congress

“It should not be forgotten,” writes historian Ellen NicKenzie Lawson, “that one possible derivation of the word Manhattan is the Native-American word manahachtanienk, which translates as ‘place of general inebriation.'” It thus should not surprise that when the federal government imposed Prohibition, New York City became the nation’s biggest scofflaw.

Drinking was a normal daily activity for many city dwellers. The poor drank in rough taverns and the working classes in beer saloons. The rich and learned had opulent clubs like the Union Club (est. 1836) and Century Association (est. 1847) where they could knock back Madeira, Champagne and anything else their bellies desired.

When Prohibition first hit the city in 1920, Mayor John F. Hylan shrugged. “I have never been a drinker or a smoker,” he told a crowd. “But that does not mean I am for Prohibition. I believe in personal freedom.”

Voters replaced Hylan in 1925 with a boozier pol. Jimmy Walker was a carouser and a drinker, whose nocturnal gallivanting earned him the moniker “the night mayor.” Walker advocated policies to make some drinking licit. When that failed, he ignored Prohibition and shamelessly hung out in speakeasies, celebrating the night. But it wasn’t all fun and games during the time of teetotalism. Prohibition unleashed mayhem in Manhattan, as Lawson richly details in “Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws” (SUNY Press).

To understand why, one need only consider the basic economics of the matter. Outlawing the supply of goods and services does not demand for those things disappear. Supply instead shifts from licit producer and sellers to illicit ones, who will fight among themselves for market share. The quality of the product may decline, as firms can’t be held unaccountable by either the government or customers.

So it was that the city became riven with gangs, who formed complex syndicates that trafficked in smuggled, illicitly produced and often toxic alcoholic beverages. With 30,000 speakeasies operating and millions of bottles and kegs of drink being consumed, one can only imagine how immense was the untaxed wealth flowing into the pockets of thugs like Big Bill Dwyer and Lucky Luciano.

Manhattan and its fellow boroughs — Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island — are surrounded by water. Massive amounts of liquor and other strong drinks slipped into the city via ships like the Mazel Tov, which deposited lord-only-knows-how-much liquor. The tugs, barges, tankers and speedboats were joined by trucks and automobiles, which hauled hooch over the spans of new bridges built in the previous few decades. Trains also brought intoxicating drinks to town. Surveying the insanity in 1932, abstemious titan John D. Rockefeller, wrote:

“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”

New York City was greatly relieved in 1933. Prohibition was abolished, in part, due to the machinations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a New Yorker). Legal drinking establishments rapidly opened across the city and the speakeasies died off. The hoodlums shifted into other rackets, with so little moonshine in demand. The prices for drinks went down and the quality went up. People were happy.

The 21st Amendment, to its credit, carved back the federal government’s role in alcohol policy. Its major downside was that it immensely empowered states to regulate the trade of alcohol, an arrangement that runs headfirst into the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.  (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3). Like most states, New York erected all sorts of protectionist, anti-trade and often corrupt policies that inhibit the free trade of alcohol among the states, to say nothing of within them. That, however, is a subject for another day.

This article was first published by the American Spectator.

Share

How Liquor Got Into Manhattan During Prohibition

BooksBooze Politics

Smugglers Bootleggers and Scofflaws“It should not be forgotten,” writes historian Ellen NicKenzie Lawson, “that one possible derivation of the word Manhattan is the Native-American word Manahachtanienk, which translates as ‘place of general inebriation.'”

So, when politicians in Washington, DC decided to impose Prohibition on the nation, New York City became the biggest scofflaw. The town openly and brazenly disobeyed the teetotalism, as Lawson richly details in Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws (SUNY Press, 2013).

To tell the story, Dr. Lawson worked through heaps of original records—some 90 boxes of materials held in the National Archives. She discovered some amazing things, and brings to light facts you will not find in other histories of Prohibition.

Prohibition unleashed mayhem in Manhattan, where drinking was a daily habit for many denizens. To understand why, one need only consider the basic economics of the matter. Demand for a good will not disappear by abolishing the legal market for it. Supply will simply shift from licit producers and sellers to illicit ones, who will fight among themselves for market share. The quality of the product may decline, as a firms are unable to be held unaccountable by either the government or customers.

So it was that the Big City became riven with gangs, who formed complex syndicates that trafficked smuggled and illicitly produced (and often toxic) alcoholic beverages. With 30,000 speakeasies operating and millions of bottles and kegs of drink being consumed, one can only imagine the immensity of the untaxed wealth flowing into the pockets of thugs like Big Bill Dwyer and Lucky Luciano.

You can read a digest of Lawson’s book in Prologue, a quarterly magazine published by the federal government’s National Archives and Records Administration. But to get a full picture of the utter failure of Prohibition in Manhattan, buy a copy of her book and visit Lawson’s http://smugglersbootleggersandscofflaws.com/.

 

 

Share

America’s Finest Drinky Artist

Other Stuff
Maakies-Sea-Monster-Being-Drunk
Source: Maakies.com

I first encountered Tony Millionaire‘s work when I worked at New York Press in the late 1990s. His comics were brilliantly drawn, and their story lines usually bawdy. The madcap adventures of Drinky Crow and his simian friend, Uncle Gabby, fast became a source of laughter to me. Drinky Crow, by the way, had his own show for a time.

Millionaire is still at it. One can see his latest dipsomaniacal MAAKIES comics at http://www.maakies.com/, where one also can snatch up original MAAKIES art. Books and other MAAKIES items can be nabbed here.

 

 

Share

Western Brewers Eye China

Booze Politics

China MapPer capita drinking is falling in the Western World. Birth control and other factors have crimped population growth.

So where’s an enterprising businessman to go? East.

As reported previously, brewers are racing to seize shares of the African beer market. They also, as the New York Times explains, are trying to make inroads  into the massive Chinese market. American craft beers are becoming hot there, and brewing giant AB InBev has taken notice…(Read more at the New York Times)

Share

Great Moments in Drinks History: The Beer Bridge

Other Stuff
Source: NARA.gov
Source: NARA.gov

Yes, incentives matter. And beer is a strong incentive. Here’s the story of the American “beer bridge” courtesy of Alfred M. Beck et. al., The Corps of Engineers: The War Against Germany (1985):

“Work on the ponton bridge at Koenigswinter, which the 294th Engineer Combat Battalion built with the help of the 181st, 86th, and 552nd Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalions, began at 2210 on 18 March and was completed in less than seventeen hours. The treadway at Bonn, which the 237th Engineer Combat Battalion built with the help of a company each from the 238th Engineer Combat Battalion, the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion, and the 990th Engineer Treadway Bridge Company, went even more rapidly. At 1,340 feet the longest bridge yet built across the Rhine, it was completed in record time. For one thing, construction started in daylight. Also, the men of the 237th had a powerful incentive. The VII Corps commander, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, who urgently needed the bridge near Bonn, offered to buy beer for every man working on it if the total construction time did not exceed ten hours. Work began at 0615 on 21 March and the first vehicle crossed at 1625 – ten hours and ten minutes later. That was good enough for General Collins. The following day he hosted a party in a hall at Bonn to celebrate with the engineers the completion of the ‘Beer Bridge.’”

You can see a larger print of the at the National Archives and Records Administration at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/12007749?q=12007749.

Share

Petition to Congress to Provide Whiskey to the Army (1780)

Booze Politics
Source: NARA, SpiritedRepublic.org
Source: NARA, SpiritedRepublic.org

This petition from Gossinus Eketens (January 12, 1780) to the Continental Congress was displayed at the National Archives (Washington, DC) recent exhibit, Spirited Republic. As NARA notes:

“The alcohol ration was an integral part of the Continental Army from its inception in 1776. Soldiers were allowed to have one “gill” (approximately two ounces) of whiskey, rum or brandy per day. The alcohol ration was seen as a necessity to army life during the Revolutionary War as is evidenced by this petition by Gossinus Eketens for the Continental Congress to appropriate whiskey for troops fighting on the frontier.

However this view was not shared by all, and by 1818 the Surgeon General Joseph Lovell expressed a desire to rid the army of it’s “bug juice” ration. Moves to stop the spirit ration ended in failure as he encountered severe opposition from the soldiers. Later in the century the problem of alcoholism in the army came to the fore again; in 1852, 1,965 out of 13,338 men were rejected for service because of drunkenness. In 1890 a limited prohibition was placed on soldiers banning alcohol from military bases and posts, and remained in force until it was repealed in 1951.”

George Washington, it is worth adding, agreed with this sentiment. “The benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all armies, and are not to be disputed,” he wrote.

You can see more about our Spirited Republic at http://www.spiritedrepublic.org/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abXkEmqapeo.

Share

Sale on Beers, Spirits, & Wines!

Our Whiskey Book

Join the Drinks Talk on FB!