26 December 2012

A question about Prohibition

I was reading a Slate article (The Chemist's War:The little-told story of how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition with deadly consequences) and encountered this sentence -
The saga began with ratification of the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States.
- and noticed that the 18th Amendment did not ban the consumption of alcohol.  This was confirmed at the Wikipedia page: "Prohibition was instituted with ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on January 16, 1919, which prohibited the "...manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States..."

Now I'm wondering why, in so many movies, scenes depicting raids on speakeasys show the patrons fleeing the establishment? (I think The Cotton Club had a scene like that).  If patrons were not doing anything illegal in consuming alcohol, why do they jump out windows and escape through back doors to the alley?  


  1. Well the chaos makes for good cinema doesn't it. Just like how physics don't always apply in movies.

  2. They were transporting intoxicating liquors in their tummies!

    1. Not if they had remained still they wouldn't : ).

  3. They had to purchase it, so that is counted as being partners in a sales transaction.

  4. Yes -- what Neil said. This is also why some people stockpiled alcohol prior to Prohibition going into effect (after it was made law) -- it was okay to consume in your own home. But you couldn't sell or transport it.

  5. The Volstead Act made possession of alcoholic beverages a crime:

    Sec. 3. No person shall on or after the date when the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States goes into effect, manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized in this Act, and all the provisions of this Act shall be liberally construed to the end that the use of intoxicating liquor as a beverage may be prevented.

    It was very difficult to be convicted under the Volstead Act, so the problem was probably the social stigma that came with getting your name in the paper for being arrested.

    In skimming through the Volstead Act, it was interesting to see that back in 1919 Congress was aware that doctors could be bought off and so they were intent on keeping them from prescribing alcohol to any of their patients who wanted it. The medical-marijuana regulators should have read the Volstead Act (or maybe they did).

  6. According to Bill Bryson, in his book "Made in America", the wine industry in the U.S. was at first facing ruin, they could only sell grape-juice. Then some bright person got the idea of labelling the bottles 'WARNING: will ferment and turn into wine!' and then giving step by step
    instructions on the actions the customer would need to avoid, and in what order.... And grape juice demand rocketed.
    Sacramental wine, for religious purposes, was exempt from prohibition. Devout customers boomed in numbers.
    So much so that Californian vineyeards grew, during prohibition, from under 100,000 acres, to almost 700,000 acres.Before prohibition, New York had 15,000 legal bars, but toward the end, it had over 30,000 illegal ones.
    Before a House Judiciary Committee, in 1930, a journalist testified that he'd seen the Governor of Michigan, the Chief of Police of Detroit, and four circuit judges "drinking lavishly and enjoying the entertainment of a troupe of young ladies dancing the 'Hootchie Kootchie', without benefit of clothing'.
    Aah, happy times, happy times.....

  7. Remember that the 18th Amendment was designed to create a national system of prohibition, uniting the many already existing state systems. The courts had decades of trouble (due to the commerce clause) in enforcing state laws prohibiting the importation of alcohol from other neighboring 'wet' states and it took federal action (the Volstead Act) and ultimately the 18th Amendment to finally make it constitutional for a state to ban the import and sale of alcohol within its own borders.

    Also people weren't fleeing speakeasies because of the risk of federal action, state law was more to be feared, not only prohibiting alcohol consumption but also your usual 'drunk and disorderly' type misdemeanors.

    1. Ah... state laws could be crucial. Thanks, Russell.


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