18 Vintage Photos From Prohibition

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Americans are fascinated by prohibition, as evidenced by the success of shows like Boardwalk Empire and the many movies based on Al Capone. But for all the discussions and reenactments of the period, it’s still rare to actually look back on photos from the period. Here are a few scenes from the fight against alcohol, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Road to a Dry America

The American Temperance Society started all the way back in 1826—almost 100 years before national prohibition. Within the following years, more groups popped up, including the Prohibition Party, formed in 1869, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which started in 1873, and the Anti-Saloon League of America, created in 1893.

After the Prohibition Party formed, they started trying to get a president elected in their name –just like all American political parties do. Here is a picture of their sixth convention, held in 1892 at the Cincinnati Music Hall. Interestingly, while the party is still around, the 1892 convention led to the group’s most successful presidential election ever, securing their candidate, John Bidwell, 270,770 votes.

The most successful of all temperance groups was the Anti-Saloon League of America, which at one point was the most powerful lobbying group in the country.

The group’s sixteenth convention took place in Atlantic City in 1915, which is fun to look at these days, given that the same location is now the setting for a massively popular show about bootlegging. To view the full panoramic image, go here.

Of course, for some campaigners, getting prohibition passed in America wasn’t enough. They wanted the whole world to go dry. One of the most famous international prohibitionists was W.E. “Pussyfoot” Johnson. Unfortunately for Johnson though, not everyone was so excited to ban alcohol, and when he went to speak in London in 1919, he was captured by a mob of students and had to be rescued by the police. Here he is returning to America afterwards; you can see a larger version here.

Johnson’s career started to wind down at that point. Only two years later, he was booed off stage at two different venues in Canada. Despite the intimidation he received in London and Canada, he continued to tour the world speaking about prohibition throughout the rest of the twenties and then retired from public life in 1930.

Politicians Taking Sides

While prohibition didn’t go into effect nationwide until 1920, many states had already outlawed alcohol within their borders. Indiana was one such state. In fact, Governor James Putnam Goodrich signed the act into law in 1917, captured forever in this image.

Of course, not everyone supported prohibition. These men made up the “Wet Block” of Congress, who worked to repeal the prohibition legislation as soon as it was passed.

While it is sometimes hard to illustrate a political position in one picture, Representative John Phillip Hill of Maryland did an excellent job of illustrating his intent to make America a wet country again.

Prohibition-supporter William D. Upshaw of Georgia had an easy enough time taking a photo rebuttal –he simply showed himself keeping the capital dry with the use of an umbrella. Upshaw was such a well-known supporter of temperance that he earned the nickname “the driest of the drys.” In 1932, he even ran as the presidential candidate for the Prohibition Party.

Playing Cat and Mouse

Before there were drug dogs, there were booze hounds, but not the kind you’re thinking of. These pooches were specially trained to sniff out alcohol, like the flask in this man’s back pocket. This image was more than likely set up and taken for the sake of news reporters, but the idea, thought up by Colorado probation agent Commissioner Haynes, was still quite ingenious.

Moonshiners developed some pretty clever tricks of their own though. These shoes were known as “cow shoes” because they would leave a series of footprints that looked like cow tracks, making it harder for prohibition agents to tell where bootleggers were going.

With stills occasionally being hidden in the middle of nowhere, like this one, you can easily see just how useful some cow shoes would be in trying to hide any trace of your illegal activities.

One of the most popular ways of getting good booze into the country was to sneak it in at night via boat. But not all rum-runners got away with it –here is one unfortunate crew being stopped by some very heavily-armed coast guards back in 1924.

A huge problem faced by prohibition officers though was the simple fact that people smuggling and drinking booze weren’t all big-time criminals or shady-looking street characters. In many cases, the people flouting prohibition were everyday, hard-working Americans who just wanted a drink or those who knew they could make a few extra bucks helping those who had a taste for the drink. In fact, these two sweet-looking Navy nurses were even arrested and tried for smuggling liquor into the country.

Accidents Waiting to Happen

While police preferred to catch bootleggers at their warehouses, all too often the arrests ended up involving car chases. Police chases are always dangerous, but because the vehicles involved lacked seat belts, power steering, anti-lock brakes and a variety of other safety features we take for granted, the results were often deadly.

This Stutz touring car was particularly poorly adapted for racing and the driver immediately passed away when the vehicle, traveling at seventy miles an hour, crashed into a tree. The liquor that wasn’t destroyed in the crash was seized as evidence.

Interestingly, it was these very car chases that led to the creation of stock car racing and, eventually, NASCAR. That’s because bootleggers knew they had to be able to escape the police, so they started modifying their vehicles to better maneuver and to achieve higher speeds. The drivers would deliberately bring the chase up dangerous, curvy mountain roads hoping the police wouldn’t be able to maneuver the deadly curves as well as they could. The best drivers with the best cars may have gotten killed in car accidents or arrested after a serious crash, but they never got caught by speedy officers like these gentlemen. But, to be fair, Washington D.C. is hardly the ideal place for a high-speed chase.

Taking it Off the Streets

Raids, like this one that took place in the basement of a popular Washington D.C. lunchroom, were a fairly common occurrence during prohibition.

Unsurprisingly, with all of these raids going on, the government ended up with quite a lot of extra booze in its hands, all of which was supposed to be destroyed. In some cases, local officials like Mayor W. Hurd Clendinen of Zion City, Illinois, would make the destruction into a public spectacle in order to feed the reporters news of great bootlegging successes.

Just as commonly though, the police would just dump out the booze in the sewer nearest the location of their bust.

Of course, unlike the booze, the stills had to be kept around for use as evidence later on. Here Lieutenant O.T. Davis, Sergeant J.D. McQuade, George Fowler of the IRS and H.G. Bauer posed with the biggest bootlegging still captured up until that point in 1922.
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In the end, we learned that even if the average American might have consumed a little less alcohol, the resulting proliferation of organized crime just wasn’t worth the handful of benefits achieved through prohibition. The “Noble Experiment” failed and the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933.

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August 3, 2012 - 9:24am
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