84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!

A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
Keystone/Getty Images

It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.


A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.


Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.


New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.


American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.


Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.


Keystone/Getty Images

Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

See What It Was Like to Live in a Secret NYC Library Apartment

YouTube
YouTube

Ever wanted to live in a library? For the dozens of custodians who once helped take care of New York Public Library branches, that dream was a reality. Recently, Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura stepped into one of these now-vacant apartments in upper Manhattan and explored it in all of its creepy, dilapidated glory (think falling plaster and unsafe floors—there's a reason the space isn't usually open to the public). Since the branches no longer require live-in custodians to shovel the coal that once kept the furnaces humming, the apartments have all been closed down, and are slowly being converted into new public uses. In 2016, one custodian's apartment in Washington Heights was converted into a teen center and programming space. The secret apartment at the Fort Washington library will also eventually be converted—which means that Laskow's trip helped document a space that may soon be only a memory. You can see more inside the space, and learn more about the history of these apartments, in the video below.

The British Codebreaker Who Convinced the U.S. to Join WWI

National Archives
National Archives

On January 16, 1917, Nigel de Grey, a cryptologist working for the British military, intercepted a coded German telegram sent via standard diplomatic channels. This alone was nothing special. The British cryptanalytic office where de Grey worked, called Room 40, had cracked a handful of Germany's ciphers and intercepted their messages daily. Today, however, was different: The jumble of numbers revealed a political bombshell.

We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

The coded message, sent by the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann, was destined for the German Minister in Mexico City. (Along the way, it had passed through Germany's ambassador in Washington, D.C., Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff.) At the time, America was not involved in the Great War. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson had just secured a second term by riding the slogans "He Kept Us Out of War" and "American First." The decrypted message plainly indicated that Germany was hoping Wilson would stick to his campaign trail talking points.

But the message also showed that Germany was afraid. An escalation of submarine warfare could provoke the United States, compelling it to abandon its isolationist policies and enter the war. If that happened, Germany hoped to distract the U.S. by forcing American troops to focus on an enemy closer to home: Mexico.

Upon realizing the message's significance, de Grey immediately sprinted to the office of his superior, William Reginald "Blinker" Hall.

"Do you want America in the war, Sir?" he shouted.

Hall gave de Grey, who was gleaming with sweat, an incredulous look. "Yes, why?"

"I've got a telegram that will bring them in if you give it to them."

According to an exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, "[The British] realized that they held a cryptanalytic 'trump card' that virtually guaranteed America's entry into WWI on the Allied side." Historian David Kahn put it thusly: The "codebreakers held history in the palm of their hands."

When a select few in the U.S. federal government were finally notified of the secret message, many doubted its authenticity, believing it was just a deceitful ploy by the British to win American support. The British assuaged those doubts by acquiring a fresh copy of the coded telegram and handing it over to the Americans. On February 23, a U.S. diplomat saw the message be decrypted with his own eyes—again with the help of codebreaker Nigel de Grey—and independently verified Germany's intentions. The diplomat immediately contacted President Wilson.

When Wilson saw it, he was shocked and insulted. "Good Lord! Good Lord!" he shouted. About one week later, he leaked the message to the press. Americans were similarly outraged.

(As for Mexico, the country knew it was getting a raw deal and never took Germany's bait. Reclaiming the American southwest—what was formerly Mexican territory before the Mexican-American War in the 1840s—was a recipe for disaster. Besides, Germany would have never been able to help anyway: They were blocked by the British Navy.)

By early April, the secret code had compelled the U.S. to join Britain and its allies. Today, the work of de Grey and the other Room 40 codebreakers is widely considered one of the most consequential events in cryptologic history.

 

Hungry for more details about the Zimmermann telegram? Mental Floss’s coverage of the World War I Centennial has you covered here and here.

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