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Boy do I need a drink!

(Prohibition – what was that all about then?)


We will oftentimes fail to comprehend just how much “social drinking” is a part of our lives today.
I have often made the error as a Keeper describing a dinner party or other such gathering by
saying “the waiter brings you a glass of Champagne” or “the mysterious professor offers you a
Brandy” when in reality, given the setting for my game, Prohibition would have been in full force.
Also, certainly here in the UK, many of us have little idea as to what the reality of living under
such a law would be like (I assume that in the US one learns about this particular period of history
in school).

What I endeavour to set out in this article therefore are a few guidelines: The basic facts about
prohibition, some insights into life under the law and the effect that the law had on society in
general. I don’t presume to be historically perfect but I want to present a view of prohibition and
its consequences that may be used as a part of the 1920’s Call of Cthulhu setting. At the same
time I aim to give the average Keeper some firmer background material upon which to draw.

The Facts
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Midnight of January 16 , 1920 and life for the average American Joe changed dramatically as the
eighteenth amendment to the US constitution was put into effect. The amendment effectively
outlawed all importing, exporting, transporting, selling, and manufacturing of intoxicating liquor.
Intoxicating liquor was deemed anything having an alcoholic content of anything more than 0.5
percent, with the exception of alcohol used for medicinal and sacramental purposes. Prohibition
would remain in force for the next thirteen years until it was repealed in 1933.

The ‘noble experiment’, prohibition, was intended to bring down crime and corruption, solve
social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve the
health and hygiene of the average American. It is most certainly questionable as to whether any
of these objectives were met. The eighteenth amendment was largely ineffective for the simple
reason that it was unenforceable, it resulted in the explosive growth of crime, was probably
responsible for the establishment of true organised crime and indeed it is believed actually served
to increase the amount of alcohol consumption in the United States.

The Laws & The Crimes

The National Prohibition Act, or as it was more commonly known the Volstead Act, so called after
its author, AJ. Volstead, set up guidelines for the enforcement of prohibition. The Federal
Prohibition Bureau was formulated in order to see that enforcement of the act was carried out.
However sufficient funds were never released to actually ensure that this was possible. There
were at the peak only some 1,550 federal agents policing over 18,700 miles of coastline, as such
it was clearly impossible to prevent huge quantities of liquor from entering the country. It is
estimated that during the 1920’s less than one twentieth of all illegal shipments of alcohol were
hindered in any way, let alone thwarted. Criminals and the average man alike flagrantly violated
the laws. Bootleggers continued to smuggle liquor from overseas and across the border from
Canada, they stole it from government warehouses, and indeed produced their own. The
average man hid their own liquor in hip flasks, false books, hollow canes, and anything else they
could find.

Prohibition saw the proliferation of the speakeasy, which replaced the traditional saloons closed
down by the implementation of prohibition. It is widely reported that by 1925, there were over
100,000 speak-easies in New York City alone. What made things worse was that the illegal liquor
business was being driven by organized gangs, which overpowered or corrupted most of the
authorities. Many bootleggers, smugglers and speakeasy owners secured their business by
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bribing the authorities, whether federal agents or other persons of high political status. It was as a
direct result of the lack of enforcement of the Prohibition Act that the creation of an illegal industry
was possible. The grand hopes harboured by the prohibitionists that the Volstead Act would
reduce drunkenness in America and thereby decrease the crime rate, especially in large cities,
were shattered. Although during the early days of Prohibition it seemed that the “noble
experiment” was working, the crime rate soon soared to twice that of the pre-prohibition period. In
large cities the number of homicides was to double to approximately 1 per 10,000 of population.
Other serious crimes, such as assault, grievous bodily harm and rape all increased by factors of
more than 1 in 10, whilst other crimes involving victims, such as burglaries, were to increase by
similar proportions.

The reason behind this dramatic crime wave was the formal organization of crime, especially in
large cities. Because liquor was no longer legally available, the public readily turned to gangs who
took on the bootlegging industry and supplied them with liquor, many seeing themselves as Robin
Hood figures. This huge illegal industry was extremely profitable; more gangs became involved
and the rivalry between gangs, along with the violence, increased. Over four hundred gang
related murders were recorded each year in Chicago alone.

The large gangs mainly operated out of the cities and many of the gangsters became household
names. Chicago was to become the undisputed capital of gangland with the most powerful and
infamous bootlegger, Al Capone, taking centre stage. One day in February 1929 as a result of
business differences, Al Capone had his henchman, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn stage the most
gruesome and well remembered gangster shoot-out of all time. The O’Banions, led by Bugs
Moran were slaughtered in the St Valentines Day Massacre. McGurn arranged a delivery of
liquor to Moran and his gang at a downtown warehouse and had his gang members impersonate
police officers and stage a raid. Strafing the building with machine gun fire, McGurn killed
everyone present. Capone was in Miami at the time with a perfect alibi, and no convictions were
ever made for this most heinous event.

The Results

The prohibitionists supporting the law argued that if drinking was not allowed, then Americans
could only drink less. Although, as noted previously, the consumption of alcohol initially fell, there
was to be a significant increase within a year, setting a trend that would continue. Beer, which
had been the predominant form of alcohol pre-prohibition, became extremely expensive, as it
required transporting in such large quantities. As such the average American began to drink less
beer, instead, they began to drink more exotic hard liquor. Such hard liquor was more
concentrated and easier to transport and as such it was less expensive. The irony of prohibition
was that its introduction to reduce drunkenness forced Americans to abandon their beer and to
drink more potent drinks. To make matters worse the illegally made alcohol that was readily
available had no standards with which to conform. Deaths relating to alcohol poisoning rose by
almost 400% in the period 1920 – 1925.

By 1925 the bootleg liquor business was so huge that hard liquor was readily available on almost
every street corner. Alcohol was actually becoming increasingly easy to acquire. The
proliferation of private drinking establishments or “speakeasies” hidden in basements, office
buildings, and anywhere that could be secured, admitted only those private members that they
wished to admit, and often went to elaborate lengths to avoid being raided and shut down. Many
seemingly legal home products were sold to those people who only wanted small quantities of
alcohol. There was Vine-Glo, a type of grape juice, which could easily be fermented for a couple
of months to turn it into a potent wine. Wort, or “near beer”, was legally produced because it had
less than the recognised 0.5 percent alcohol. However, when added to yeast, this product quickly
turned into a much stronger beer – akin to the European “white beers”. It was also legal for a
doctor to prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes and although there were restrictions, one pint

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per person in a ten-day period, such rules were blatantly ignored. The sales of medicinal alcohol,
which was 95 percent pure alcohol, increased 400 percent between 1923 and 1931.

After thirteen years an amendment was passed repealing prohibition. The “noble-experiment”
was no more. Organized crime had grown into an empire, the law had become disrespected,
corruption was rife and the per capita consumption of alcohol had actually increased quite
dramatically. The very problems prohibitionists had intended to solve, such as crime, health, the
burden of taxation had all worsened and they were set never to return to their pre-prohibition
levels. Prohibition was ineffective, it was damaging to the people and society it was meant to
help, but most importantly it was now over.

Elder Science Press www.miskatonic.co.uk


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