This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, You’re Wrong About Prohibition, first released on May 11, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
NICOLA TWILLEY: A while back, when such things were possible, I took a boat out from Miami, into the shallow greenish water of Biscayne bay. Even from the shore, I could see what looked maybe like boats or oil rigs or something out there, and then as we got closer, I realized, there are little houses, built on stilts, just kind of scattered out there in the bay.
NARRATOR: It was early 1930s, Miami was still a young city and a surprising community was starting to spring up in the most unlikely of places, the middle of Biscayne Bay. It’s called Stiltsville.
TWILLEY: The local PBS station made a documentary about Stiltsville and its little Stilt houses. There are only seven left today. But my tour guide, a local historian called Paul George, said there used to be nearly 30. The folks at PBS spoke to him too.
PAUL GEORGE: Stiltsville really begins with some kind of an almost mythological character, crawfish Charlie, a.k.a. Crawfish Eddie, who was selling bait out here to fishermen in the flats of Biscayne Bay and not even a mile off of Key Biscayne.
TWILLEY: The water is really shallow out there and filled with sandbanks. Crawfish Charlie slash Eddie set up his shack in 1922, selling bait and chowder to fishermen. But he was quickly joined by others. Because chowder and bait fish were kind of a cover for the real business, which was drinking and gambling. Stiltsville became the club capital of Biscayne Bay.
MUSIC: Louis Armstrong’s “Don’t Forget to Mess Around” (1926)
GEORGE: It’s the old saw about guys will be guys. They came out here, they drank too much. It’s beyond where anybody’s going to touch you or reach you out here.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Stiltsville sounds like a pretty bizarre place to me, it was a tiny hamlet of a couple dozen pastel-colored houses on stilts, in the water, visible from the shoreline, just kind of sitting out there on the sandbanks. And people went there to party.
TWILLEY: Yeah, nowadays it’s kind of a curiosity. But back then Stiltsville was the place to be. Because these offshore houses on stilts thrived during Prohibition.
GRABER: And Stiltsville is just one of the very weird things left from this very weird time in American history. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food, and drink, and even laws against drinking, through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I am Nicola Twilley. And as a Brit, I always thought Prohibition was just a bizarre puritan thing that Americans had experimented with as part of this country’s puritan past. Just one of those things about America I will never understand.
GRABER: But actually Prohibition—or the temperance movements that led up to it—this whole thing was an international phenomenon. Tolstoy, Gandhi, Sinn Féin in Ireland, Native American chiefs, Black nationalist activists in Botswana. They all protested the sale of alcohol and fought in favor of limiting it. As we learn this episode, we were totally wrong about what led to prohibitions—and we’re not alone, many historians over the decades have been, too.
TWILLEY: And yet, once Prohibition had passed in the US, an equally large and committed group grew up that was dedicated to subverting it, and ensuring the supply of booze didn’t dry up. Stiltsville is just one of the many places that were created to try to get around the 18th Amendment—and just one of the many ways booze flowed into the southern US from its island neighbor, Cuba. The conventional wisdom is that Prohibition failed because no one wanted to stop drinking— but it turns out that’s not the whole story either.
GRABER: This is a story told in two parts: why Prohibition isn’t what you thought it was, and then the stories of the smugglers and corrupt judges and all the drinkers who got around it—and why it really came to its eventual end.
GRABER: Like we just said, there were a lot of famous temperance activists around the world, and one of the most famous ones was Leo Tolstoy.
TWILLEY: You’ve probably heard of Tolstoy’s most famous novels, even if you haven’t read them. He wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina in the 1860s and 70s, and they’re still considered classics today.
MARK SCHRAD: People actually in Russia talked about, you know, Russia has two tsars: Nicolas the second and Leo Tolstoy. In fact, in many cases, Leo Tolstoy was more widely renowned than the tsar was.
GRABER: Mark Schrad is a professor of political science at Villanova University, and he just wrote a new book that’s coming out this summer called Smashing the Liquor Machine, it’s a global history of prohibition.
TWILLEY: And the place to start if you want to trace that history is not the US, at least for Mark. It was Russia, which isn’t exactly famous for its temperance, at least today.
SCHRAD: The book that I wrote before this one was called Vodka Politics, and it was sort of an investigation of why Russians drink so much.
GRABER: I mean, this is what I think of when I think about the relationship between Russians and alcohol. But while researching his book, Mark discovered that Russia actually had the first national prohibition, it started in 1914 and lasted about a decade. What was going on?
TWILLEY: The story starts before big vodka—with the drinking culture that predominated from the first discovery of fermentation all the way up to the 1800s.
SCHRAD: Before the advent of vodka, your poor peasant in Kaluga or Tula ends up drinking pretty much the exact same thing that a poor peasant would be in Poland or in Germany or in England. They were drinking fermented mead, they were drinking fermented wine if you had money, but usually it was beers and ales and meads. And kvass, which is sort of a Eastern European drink fermented from bread, tastes like liquid bread, I actually kind of have a fondness for it.
GRABER: People had found ways to make booze with higher alcohol levels than beer over the millennia, but the actual science of distillation to make hard liquor really was perfected during the Islamic golden age in around the 800s. That’s actually why it’s called alcohol, the al means “the” in Arabic so you can tell it’s originally an Arabic word. Like algebra, which is also an Arabic word and which was also developed during the Islamic golden age.
TWILLEY: Two great things that go great together. But the point is, distilled spirits have been around for a while—medieval alchemists in Europe rediscovered this Arabic breakthrough in the 1200s, and distilled liquors gradually spread through Europe. These were initially prescribed as a medical treatment, but by the 1500s, they were being enjoyed in a more recreational context.
SCHRAD: But something happens, sort of about the time of the Industrial Revolution.
GRABER: At the time of the Industrial Revolution, a new type of distilling still was developed. It’s called a column still or a continuous still, and it seems like it was developed separately in both Ireland and Scotland at around the same time in the early 1800s.
TWILLEY: And as the word continuous implies, this new still meant that you could distill at industrial scale. You could make liquor quicker—much more quickly—and much more cheaply.
SCHRAD: That’s a big deal. Because you’re introducing this new industrial product, this product of the industrial age that didn’t exist before. And so it kind of sends shockwaves all around the globe with this ultra high potency, industrial distillate.
GRABER: So that’s one piece of context in the prehistory of Prohibition. And the other important thing to know about Russia in particular is that the government made money off taxes on booze. And it made a lot of money that way.
SCHRAD: If you look back in Russian history, vodka revenues made up fully 1/3 of all the revenues of the Russian Empire. And so that was like, my big aha moment, was like, okay, this is the thing, why people are encouraged to drink, is because it makes a lot of money for the government.
GRABER: This method of using alcohol sales to support the Russian government was called the kabak system. It was basically taverns across Russia that funneled the money to the state, and were committed to making as much money as possible for the tsar. Before the kabak system met industrial alcohol, you might drink a couple glasses of mead or beer with friends, and you might get a bit more plastered on a big holiday in the community.
SCHRAD: To get drunk back in the old days was a communal celebration, right? And it was, so it was done sort of under the watchful eyes of the community.
TWILLEY: Whereas in these vodka vending kabaks, whose sole purpose was to sell as much industrial strength liquor as possible, peasants would literally end up utterly smashed and even sometimes completely naked because they’d sold all their clothing over the course of the evening just to buy another drink. Mark said there are multiple reports of underdressed peasants freezing to death in ditches on the way home.
GRABER: And vodka was the drink of choice both for the tavern owners and for the tsars because it was a lot cheaper to produce than beer or kvass, they could make a much higher return on it, and unlike beer, vodka literally never spoils. It’s perfect if your whole point is to get people drunk and take all their money.
TWILLEY: So much money. To give you a sense: 100 percent of the operating budget of the Russian army came from Russian drinkers’ pockets. There was no income tax at the time, so the Russian state was really dependent on how much vodka it could get its people to drink.
GRABER: And this is exactly what Tolstoy was protesting, why he was so anti-drinking. The temperance movement in Russia was a movement against this exploitation by the tsar.
SCHRAD: They understood that this was the mechanism by which the Russian Empire was profiting off of their misery, through the vodka monopoly.
TWILLEY: Tolstoy eventually stopped writing literature and devoted himself to campaigning for temperance. This movement spread across Russia throughout the second half of the 1800s. And you might think well, no one is forcing these peasants to drink. But actually, they were.
SCHRAD: And you start to have, you know, peasant uprisings that are essentially temperance revolts, that peasants are now just saying, We refuse to drink this stuff anymore. And it starts to get to the point where by 1859 that the government of Tsar Nicholas the First, he actually sends in military garrisons to start to force the peasants to drink.
GRABER: Mark told us that government agents would be sent in to crush these revolts and they literally poured vodka down people’s throats through funnels to make them keep drinking. It was that strong a form of control for the government and a critical source of money for Russia’s imperial wars, so they could preserve and expand their large empire.
TWILLEY: So this was kind of a revelation, at least to me. Temperance was actually a progressive movement. It was the poor pushing back against a system that was set up to exploit them. And not just in Russia.
SCHRAD: This becomes sort of like this big phenomenon. It was about understanding the system of oppression, and pushing back upon that through means of what we would today call a consumer boycott.
GRABER: This is because Russia wasn’t the first government to use alcohol as a means of exploiting the poor people under their control. In fact, basically all imperial or colonizing European governments did the same thing.
SCHRAD: You find the same sort of commonalities in each of these cases, whether it’s the Russian Empire, whether it’s the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian, they’re all engaged in sort of the same degree of alcohol domination. And one way to look at this, especially through the British Empire, is that they ended up developing essentially a playbook on alcohol domination.
TWILLEY: In his book, Mark uses Ireland as a case study—in many ways, Ireland was kind of Britain’s first colony, and the place where the British really created the template for what he calls alcohol domination.
SCHRAD: And it went a little something like this: That if you’re exploring new indigenous territories, the first thing you do is introduce alcohol. And in most cases, we’re talking about distilled spirits. Step two, what happens is the natives, they drink it, and they get rip roaring drunk. And so oftentimes you have these pearl clutching stories of people being aghast at how drunk the natives are getting. But then it becomes part of the self justifying notion of, Oh, well, look, this is just evidence of how uncivilized they are. And that explains to us why we British need to civilize them, is because they can’t handle their liquor. Right. And they’re bestial drunks, and all sorts of stuff.
GRABER: This was certainly the reputation that the Irish developed. And alcohol helped British colonizers in a couple of other ways, too—drunk people are much easier to take advantage of, you can get them to sign really exploitative agreements. And you can take all their money through taxes on that alcohol because the sales are a state-run enterprise.
TWILLEY: And, just like in Russia, the Irish resisted alcohol as a way to resist their exploitation. Temperance was, again, a fight for freedom from oppression.
SCHRAD: So even if you go back to 1789, you had the Irish rebellion, you had the Society of United Irishmen. They argued as part of their attempt to try to distance themselves or get away from the yoke of the English, that the English were using whiskey as a way to keep the Irish stupefied and divided, and submissive and easy to control. And so the United Irishman, one of their primary planks was sobriety and promoting temperance amongst themselves. And so it gets into more modern history, you find that the people who are fighting the hardest for independence are dyed-in-the-wool temperance folks, the organizers of Sinn Féin and the Easter Rebellion in 1916, in Ireland, were hardcore temperance activists.
GRABER: Sinn Féin and Irish freedom fighters in general are not what I tend to think of when I think of temperance! Again, this was a real shock to me. But it was such a core part of Irish identity, that even when Irish immigrants first started coming in large groups to the US, many of them tended to be some of the biggest supporters of the temperance movement here.
TWILLEY: This same dynamic of resisting colonialization by resisting alcohol—Mark’s book shows how it played out again and again across the British empire in what’s now Botswana, in India—that’s why Gandhi was a temperance activist as well as campaigning for independence.
SCHRAD: For the people in these situations, these populations, these were one and the same. It was: We have to fight for our land, we have to fight for our sobriety, because it was all sort of wrapped into this system of opposing colonial domination.
GRABER: Alcohol was such a powerful tool for the colonizers because in many of these places, the locals had never even tried anything stronger than something like a lightly fermented beer or wine.
SCHRAD: And whether you’re talking about the aborigines in Australia, or if you’re talking about, you know, natives in Africa, or even Native Americans, these are all indigenous populations who have no experience in many cases with any sort of alcohol, but they definitely don’t have any experience with something as mind bending, as whiskey or vodka or anything like this.
GRABER: Native populations around the world were banned from making their own fermented drinks, like say, palm wine. And they were often actually paid in cheap hard booze. They were given gin instead of money.
TWILLEY: And whereas Europeans had had centuries to gradually acclimate to this much higher alcohol liquor, and even then still struggled, Mark says the native populations that those Europeans were colonizing had months instead of centuries—it was really like forced alcoholism.
GRABER: In what’s now America, Native peoples around the continent had lightly fermented drinks made from different fruits, or from the agave plant. But when they were hit with distilled spirits, they didn’t even really know what it was that hit them.
TWILLEY: One of the explanations for the name Manhattan is that it comes from a native word that means the place where we all become intoxicated—which it was. The English explorer Henry Hudson gave local chiefs their first taste of distilled spirits there on September 11, 1609. And then acquired the land.
SCHRAD: If you’re a white man who’s trading in alcohol, if you can get a Native American addicted to whiskey, and keep selling them more and more whiskey and getting them further and further in debt, well then you’ve essentially in some cases, economically enslaved them in some ways. Right, so if you can get the Native Americans drunk consistently, well, then you constantly have a way to get those highly lucrative minks and furs coming in.
TWILLEY: And this wasn’t just about individual profiteers. Just like in Russia, there was no income tax, and so for the first couple hundred years after colonization, America depended on liquor taxes just as much as Ivan the Terrible and his descendents.
GRABER: And as a result, the very first temperance activists in North America were Native Americans, who wanted to free their people from this enslavement. Mark told us the story of Little Turtle, he was a leader of the Miami people in what’s now Indiana in the late 1700s, early 1800s.
SCHRAD: And so Little Turtle, he makes a couple of missions overland from present day Indiana, over the Appalachians to get to Baltimore and ultimately to get to Washington DC. And he pleads with President Thomas Jefferson to impose a prohibition on the selling of liquor to Native Americans in those areas that were known as Indian country, which was anything that was not a state and not a territory was known as Indian country.
GRABER: Little Turtle blamed alcohol for the death of 3000 Indians in one year alone, and he said that white men and their firewater had stripped poor Indians of literally everything.
SCHRAD: And so Jefferson apparently was very much moved by this and takes this petition by Little Turtle to the Congress for the first time and implores the Congress to impose a prohibition on white people selling liquor to Native Americans in those Indian territories. And that’s actually where we get in the year 1802, was our first federal prohibition, was due to the influence of Little Turtle.
TWILLEY: Surprise surprise, the white man reneged on this prohibition. But as the century wore on, Native Americans weren’t the only ones whose lives were being destroyed by government-promoted big liquor.
GRABER: Workers around the US, poor white ones, too, immigrants, everyone, they were being exploited by the local saloon. Because just like in the kabak system in Russia, these saloons were entirely devoted to taking every last cent from a worker and funnelling a good chunk of it to the government.
TWILLEY: Mark says when you think of a saloon, you should not picture Ted Danson in “Cheers,” or your friendly local pub. That’s us projecting our current understanding onto the past.
SCHRAD: Oh you think saloon. Oh, that sounds, you know, sounds kitschy and antiquated and so on. And it makes you think like the Wild West and whatnot. But the saloons were awful, awful places, and they were the place that you would go, you could disappear into those back rooms and essentially drink your entire family’s fortune away.
GRABER: And it’s not only the men who suffered when they gave away their paycheck in exchange for drinking themselves into oblivion.
SCHRAD: This really hurt women because women did not have the rights. They did not have political rights. They did not have legal standing.
TWILLEY: Men drinking left women with nothing, and in this new industrial era, there were none of the protections that we have today. Families ended up out on the street.
GRABER: It might seem, from hindsight, like this wasn’t the fault of the saloons. The men were the ones drinking. And some people did choose not to drink, a good 20 percent of people at the time were in favor of temperance.
TWILLEY: But also picture this situation: This was a time when a lot of immigrants were showing up, there were really horrible working conditions in new factories, we didn’t have labor laws to protect workers, people were living in slums and in a lot of cases they’d been uprooted from their communities. Unregulated industrialization was hard on working people and industrial alcohol seemed to offer a temporary respite.
GRABER: But this was a predatory system. Mark says it’s kind of like how we see the opioid crisis today—people were suffering, and the Sacklers knowingly got them addicted and kept them addicted. He says the saloons at the same time behaved the same, just with hard alcohol.
TWILLEY: To make this all even worse, there were a series of economic depressions in the second half of the 1800s.
SCHRAD: So you’ve got the Panic of 1873 and 1893, it seems like every few years, like clockwork, and so this becomes increasingly problematic. Because as we know, from more recent economic crises, that the burden of the economic crisis does not fall equally upon everyone. And so oftentimes, it’s the the most disenfranchised and the most marginalized communities that pay a disproportionate price.
TWILLEY: Which brings us to a woman with a hatchet. And a lot of smashed up saloons. After this break.
CLIP PBS KEN BURNS DOCUMENTARY
CARRIE NATION ACTOR: On the sixth of June 1900, before retiring, I threw myself downward at the foot of my bed and told the Lord to use me in any way to suppress the dreadful curse of liquor. I told him, I wished I had a thousand lives, that I would give him all of them. And I wanted him to make it known to me some way. The next morning before I awoke, I heard these words very distinctly: “Go to Kiowa. And I’ll stand by you.”
GRABER: This is Carrie Nation in her own words, but of course she’s dead, so this is an actress in a Ken Burns PBS documentary. The next morning after writing these words, Carrie went to Kiowa in Kansas, and she had rocks and bottles wrapped in paper so they wouldn’t look suspicious, and she smashed up a saloon.
CARRIE NATION ACTOR: I told the owner, Mr. Dobson, get out of the way. I don’t want to strike you, but I’m going to break up this den of vice. I began to throw at the mirror and the bottles below the mirror. Mr. Dobson and his companion jumped into a corner, seemed very much terrified. From that I went to another saloon until I had destroyed three. The other dive keepers closed up, stood in front of their places, and would not let me in. By this time, the streets were crowded with people. One boy, about 15 years old, seemed perfectly wild with joy. I have since thought of that being a significant sign. For to smash saloons will save the boy.
SCHRAD: Yeah, Carrie Nation is a fascinating figure because she has been the villain. So we have this image of this larger than life personality. She goes into saloons with her Bible hymnal in one hand and a hatchet in the other and smashes up all these bars, that she was crazy. That’s the explanation that we’re always given, is that she was crazy. She was overly religious. She claimed to speak to God or speak to Jesus and that she was just loony. Right? And because that’s the only motivation that a woman can have for smashing up all these bars is either that she’s loony, or that she’s menopausal.
GRABER: This is the narrative I absorbed from the ether in America, and it’s the same narrative that historians had offered up over the century. Yes, they portrayed Carrie as crazy, but also really as motivated by religious fervor. In general, the story had gone that the white, Christian majority wanted Prohibition in order to basically discipline and control the new immigrants in the cities, the African-Americans who’d moved to urban areas. But this isn’t the true story.
TWILLEY: To be fair, Carrie herself had had a difficult life. Her mother was literally insane: she believed she was Queen Victoria and she died in an asylum. Carrie’s first husband drank himself to death, and her second marriage was deeply unhappy and ended in divorce. But Mark says she wasn’t crazy at all.
GRABER: Carrie knew how damaging alcohol was—that husband dying certainly drove it home to her—and anyway, Kansas actually was a dry state. It was illegal in theory to make, trade, or sell alcohol there.
TWILLEY: But that law was hardly being enforced. Corrupt politicians and sheriffs allowed drinks to be openly sold in dozens of saloons. Carrie just wanted the state to uphold its own law and protect women like her from the ravages of alcohol.
SCHRAD: She was very, very clear about what her motivations were. And she says, you know, you wouldn’t give me the vote. So I had to use a rock. Right? She exhausted every mechanism that you could have, every nonviolent mechanism for political protest. She had written campaigns, she had lobbied senators, she had lobbied the governor, she had done everything that was possible to help these people that she saw as being the victims of the saloons.
GRABER: So basically, Carrie wasn’t the wild-eyed severe looking killjoy she’s always portrayed as, she was a progressive activist. She used her alimony from the divorce to found the first home for drunkard’s wives in Kansas, basically it was a domestic abuse shelter. And she was joined in the temperance movement by other progressive activists. Women who wanted the vote were also against the trafficking of liquor.
SCHRAD: I think it was all part of the same movement. In fact, I think it’s interesting that we tend to think of these as separate movements, that suffragism is something that we can kind of compartmentalize and put over here. And temperance is its own particular category—it was all sort of the same thing. It was, you know, blurring the boundaries of domination and insubordination and for women. But the temperance movement allowed women in many cases, their first taste of political activism. And then from temperance is where you start to get the foundations of the women’s rights movements. And ultimately, the suffragist movement, as well.
TWILLEY: Many suffragettes were pro Prohibition. And people fighting for equal rights for newly freed slaves—yep, they were also part of the temperance coalition.
SCHRAD: Even Frederick Douglass talked about, his line that he used to repeat all the time was that “All great reforms go together.” And by that he meant abolitionism and women’s rights, suffragism, and temperance. Those were his big three. And he was advocating vociferously on behalf of all three of those throughout his entire life, because he saw them all as being part of that same system of racial hierarchy and domination and subordination.
GRABER: And then at the same time as all these progressive activists were protesting the sale of alcohol, they were supported by new science that was being published.
SCHRAD: Yeah, they’ve known that drunks tend not to live very long. You know, they’ve known that for a long time. But the late 1800s, early 1900s, is the first time you start to have sort of scientific investigations into these sorts of things. And you start to find out things about liver cirrhosis, you start to find out all these other medical elements through the lens of medical science. And so the argument that is made oftentimes is that people like to say, Well, you talk about an anti liquor movement as being motivated by religion. In many ways, it was science that motivated more people to take up the cause of temperance.
TWILLEY: So in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a lot of things are coming together. There’s this new science, there’s this really diverse coalition of all sorts of disenfranchised groups pushing for an end to the exploitative traffic in liquor. And meanwhile, the government starts collecting income tax, so it’s no longer as dependent on the revenue from taxes on alcohol sales.
GRABER: So the stage is set. And actually, a lot of states at the time had started passing Prohibition-type laws that either restricted alcohol entirely or experimented with other ways to control the sales more. For instance, some states played with a model that was popular in Sweden, where the alcohol stores that controlled liquor sales—they were run by the community to help promote responsible drinking, not to get the most money from the sales.
SCHRAD: And it becomes sort of just kind of this gradual ratcheting up of anti-liquor machine sentiments, right. And a lot of it is wrapped into the progressive movement, this idea that this is about good governance. And it’s not so much about the stuff that’s in the bottle, again, it’s about being clear and being transparent about the harms that come of having to drink a lot of alcohol, and that you’re killing people, in many cases, by making them into drunkards and sending them into early graves. And so the same arguments that are being made about you know, why we have a Pure Food and Drug Act, which also happens at the same time as the 18th Amendment, or the federal Meat Inspection Act, the argument was the same, was that, you should not be able to sell rotten meat to people and make them sick, while you’re making money. And so it was the same ethos for prohibitionism, which was, you should not be able to make money by selling somebody a poison and making them into drunkards, while you’re making money hand over fist.
TWILLEY: And so it was that in 1917, a Democratic senator from Texas—a guy who had spent his political career campaigning for women’s right to vote and rural credit programs and child labor laws and business reform—he introduced what would become the Eighteenth Amendment in order to prohibit quote the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States.
GRABER: It was ratified in 1919 and it went into effect on January 17, 1920. The US was officially an entirely dry country.
TWILLEY: Not so fast. That’s what I thought too, but if you actually read it, the 18th Amendment didn’t prohibit drinking at all. It was just the manufacture and traffic in liquor that was illegal.
SCHRAD: So that was always the focus. If you look at the Anti Saloon League—for people who are against prohibitionism, that’s like the big villain—is that they had the chance, in a couple of occasions, to pass what was known as “bone dry legislation,” which was outlawing the consumption of alcohol. And they always fought against that. They thought that that’s a question of individual liberty. And that’s not something that they were particularly focused in on. They weren’t concerned about anybody’s individual habits. They were concerned about people exploiting other individuals.
GRABER: Lisa Lindquist-Dorr is a historian at the University of Alabama, and she wrote a book called A Thousand Thirsty Beaches, about smuggling alcohol from Cuba to the South during prohibition. And she says there’s a few reasons that the government didn’t outlaw drinking.
LISA LINDQUIST-DORR: The hope was that it would help coerce, encourage Americans to rat on their suppliers of alcohol, if they were arrested with their alcohol. If actually consuming it wasn’t illegal. It also helped deal with the problem of: What were people supposed to do with all the alcohol they already had in their homes? And so it allowed them to finish it up. It also allowed them to continue making certain kinds of alcohol: Homemade wines, homemade beer, ceremonial wines and things for personal use. So in some ways, the supporters of the law fully believed that once Americans were no longer encouraged to drink by advertising and no longer pushed into it by the liquor industry, that they would lose their taste for it.
TWILLEY: We’ll get into whether that happened—spoiler alert, it didn’t—after this break.
GRABER: So the government had made making and selling booze illegal, but they didn’t think about or create any dedicated funding for the enforcement of this new law.
LINDQUIST-DORR: Well, they actually thought that it would not take much. They did not imagine the sheer amount of alcohol that would start coming in from abroad or continue coming in from abroad. I think they just missed the boat on that.
TWILLEY: Lots of boats, actually. All bringing booze in from other countries that still wanted to sell their alcohol to their thirsty U.S. customers.
GRABER: Because in fact, people really didn’t stop drinking. Lisa told us the numbers are hard to figure out, in part because the sales were actually illegal and that’s what the government tracks to figure out how much we drink. But it looks like there was a little dip in alcohol consumption at first and then it quickly went back up to about 70 percent of what it had been before. And that’s a lot of booze.
TWILLEY: At first, ships full of smuggled spirits would anchor off the coast of the US, near major cities. There were so many ships anchored at a time that people said that at night, the lights made it look like a city was floating just offshore. These floating booze malls were called rum rows.
GRABER: Rum rows were anchored three miles offshore, because this was the legal limit of US sovereignty in the water. Three miles put the boats beyond the grasp of the US government.
LINDQUIST-DORR: So the United States makes a proposal saying, Well, we want to enforce our laws 12 miles out from shore. And that was, in some ways, kind of going well beyond what was accepted maritime law at that time. And eventually the US government claims that it can go after any boat, as far as what they called “one hour’s run from shore at full speed.”
TWILLEY: Of course, not all of the alcohol smuggled into the US came in on a boat. Some of it was brought south from Canada—the Canadian government actually saw Prohibition as an opportunity to make some cash, and started taxing liquor exports to the US. And some of it came north from Mexico.
GRABER: But a lot of alcohol came on what we now call rum running boats, although they smuggled much more than just rum. And a lot of those boats came from the Carribean. Some from the Bahamas. A lot came from Cuba.
MUSIC: Vamos Pa, Casa Maria Antonia, by Sexteto Habanero, a 1920s Havana band
LINDQUIST-DORR: Cuba had a number of advantages. First of all, it’s so close to Florida, you know, 60 to 90 miles, you can reach the American coast from Texas all around the Gulf Coast around Florida. Boats are going from Cuba all the way up to Boston. So in one sense, it’s its proximity. The other thing is they made it a little cheaper to do it. That they required less of a duty for transshipment of cases of alcohol than did the Bahamas. So you could save money if you decided to fetch your liquor from Cuba rather than something like the Bahamas, or some of these other places up in the Canadian maritimes. And shipping liquor from Cuba was legal, as long as the destination indicated on the shipping paper showed it was going to some place where the sale of liquor was legal. And they imported everything from Europe, from Gilbey’s gin to White Horse whiskey, to Cliquot champagne, to a lot of the brands that are actually still around today.
TWILLEY: During Prohibition, the US coastguard estimated there were between 240 and 300 ships that were known rumrunners, or what they called black ships.
LINDQUIST-DORR: It could be groups of the organized syndicates that operated regular vessels that had regular runs, that delivered to regular parties, in places like New Orleans, and Mobile, and Miami, and Tampa. And then that network would then continue moving on from the Gulf Coast all the way up into the Northeast, where there would be established groups that would ship it via rail, that would pick it up in St. Louis, or Chicago, or some of these other places. So it could be an extensive network, it could be a couple of guys, or it could be a fisherman who realized that he was only making $4 a day if he was fishing, but if he took his boat out at night and left his running lights off, he could pick up a couple of cases and make 50 bucks. There was such a huge coastline where you could land it, and there was so much available nearby that anybody wanted to, could get in the game.
GRABER: The boats coming from Cuba had to have papers that they’d have filled out at their destination and then they’d bring those papers back to Havana with them—basically the point was to prove that you’d taken your spirits where you said you would, where it was legal to import alcohol. But those papers were pretty easy to fake.
LINDQUIST-DORR: And most wholesalers in Havana who sold liquor to rum runners would provide not only the liquor, but would also provide these customs documents that you would need to be able to continue rum running and they became very full service operators.
TWILLEY: This is obviously rather frustrating to Uncle Sam. How were these boats getting the papers that they needed? Lisa told us about the ragtag group of undercover US agents in Havana who cracked the case—one of them went undercover on a rum running ship and realized huh, the customs papers were already completed before the ship ever even left the Havana port.
LINDQUIST-DORR: And then he is able then to go to, in this case the Embassy of Honduras, and purchase his own set of forged custom papers for a boat that he ironically calls the Carrie Nation, which of course didn’t exist, but he posed as someone who was going to start a rum running operation aboard that named ship.
GRABER: Busted! But of course the rum runners weren’t out of tricks yet, the cargo was just too valuable and the demand way too high.
LINDQUIST-DORR: Then you see more liquor, it’s still being smuggled, but it’s disguised as something else. It might be turpentine, it might be beef tallow, it might be fruit, all of those things that they are trying to hide what it actually is.
CLIP: ARCHIVAL DOCUMENTARY
NARRATOR: It’s 3 o’clock in the morning, any morning during Prohibition. In coastal waters, there are men at work, rum runners industriously obeying the law of supply and demand but breaking all of the others.
LINDQUIST-DORR: The danger they soon realized is that if the Coast Guard comes upon them and they have to leave or a contact boat is chased by the Coast Guard and you toss the illegal liquor overboard, those cases float. And it was possible for the Coast Guard to retrieve those cases and use them as evidence.
NARRATOR: Bootleg hooch becomes the dictator in the revolution of manners and morals. And it also becomes a major industry, developing its own techniques of packaging, shipping, and merchandising.
LINDQUIST-DORR: So they eventually switched to these packagings called hams, and they were called hams because that’s actually the shape that they were in. And what essentially it is, is a burlap bag filled with straw and six bottles of liquor. And they would then sew it up. And all of the crews of these rum runners would have to do this sewing circle time where they would sew up hams. And so it was much easier then to transport from the rum runner to a contact boat because they were lighter, they were easily handled, they could be tossed from one to the other. And then importantly, if you had to jettison your cargo later on, a ham would sink. So it would be less likely that it would be retrieved and used against you in court.
TWILLEY: So the hams were one trick. But the smugglers were still playing a cat and mouse game with the Coast Guard.
GRABER: Guys in the Coast Guard were spending a lot of time chasing after rum runners. And the problem was the rum runners had more money and so they could just buy and make faster boats.
LINDQUIST-DORR: And so they were constantly trying to make their boats have more and more engine power and horsepower. Eventually the Coast Guard realizes they aren’t able to build boats fast enough—build them quickly enough and make them fast enough to catch rum runners.
TWILLEY: The rum runners basically created the modern motorboat—they changed the shape of the hull and designed a new propeller engine and soon they were doing double the top speed of a government boat. And before long sport fishermen and pleasure boaters were using the rum runners’ new and improved design—and the government was using the rum running boats it had impounded to try to catch more smugglers.
GRABER: But really, all those rum runners in all those super fast boats, a lot of them evaded the Coast Guard, and then they brought all that deeply desired alcohol to shore, where everyone was craving gin and champagne and rum and whiskey.
LINDQUIST-DORR: I am sure people hoped that they would have a lovely experience and have the liquor that they were used to. But that wasn’t always the case. Most bootleggers on the shores of the United States would try and extend that liquor as far as they could go. They would what was called “cut it,” they would open the bottles, they would dilute it. They would add coloring, they would add flavoring, and then they would repackage it to make it go as far as they could. And I have one example here. Just to give you a sense of how alcohol was doctored once it got to the United States. In 1926, around Christmas, one bootlegger landed 96,000 bottles of high end liquor from Cuba, in the United States. Well he took those 96,000 bottles of good liquor, and he opened it, diluted it, doctored it, cut it, flavored it and created nearly 750,000 bottles of bootleg booze that brought joy to holiday tables around New York. I doubt it tasted much like it did when it left Cuba.
TWILLEY: And this is why we have cocktails! We talked about this way back in our cocktail episode, but it’s true: the modern craft cocktail movement has its roots in Prohibition-era creative attempts to disguise some of those off flavors. The Bee’s Knees used honey to mask any weird flavors in gin, the Mary Pickford covered up defects in smuggled rum with grapefruit juice.
GRABER: Once the liquor got to shore and was diluted as necessary, then it went all over the country. Lisa says it was sometimes put in barrels labeled turpentine and shipped up north in rail cars.
TWILLEY: Some of it was smuggled around the country in fast cars with souped-up engines—after Prohibition was over, the guys who drove those got together to race and that’s how NASCAR got started.
GRABER: And then of course a lot of the booze stayed put in the South. There was a huge local market for it, too.
TWILLEY: People talk about speakeasies and blind tigers and underground jazz clubs.
LINDQUIST-DORR: But you could also likely find liquor if you went to your neighborhood garage, if you went to a produce stand, if you went to a hotdog stand, if you went to a soft drink stand, if you went to a sawmill, that liquor became available virtually everywhere, for anyone who wanted to add a little extra revenue to their bottom line.
TWILLEY: That said, if you wanted to enjoy really good, undiluted liquor, with maybe a bit more atmosphere than your local sawmill or hotdog stand, you could take advantage of the regular ferry service from various places in Florida to Cuba. It was cheap, fast, and easy and before you knew it, you would be refreshing yourself in one of the legendary bars of Old Havana.
ARCHIVAL CLIP: MUSIC
GRABER: This is actual recorded sound from Havana from 1928—Havana was a fantastic place to visit. It was beautiful, it was warm, there were hotels and bars and great music and regular refills of your glass.
LINDQUIST-DORR: And so tourism in Cuba really expands over the course of the 1920s. And it is part because it advertises itself as a place where you can drink. I mean, Bacardi has a whole ad campaign, showing the Bacardi bat taking America, taking Uncle Sam from dry Florida over to wet Cuba. And so Americans realize, wow, not only is it beautiful and warm and interesting and exotic, but boy, is it easy to drink there as well.
TWILLEY: Cuba’s appeal was widespread. Lisa says that even the people in charge of enforcing Prohibition back home enjoyed themselves there.
LINDQUIST-DORR: And in fact, some of the district court judges in Key West and in Miami, it wasn’t uncommon for them to shut down court early on a Friday afternoon, take the ferry down to Cuba, have a great time in Cuba for the weekend and come back just in time to hold court hung over on a Monday morning. So I think there was a sense of, Okay, we have to do our job, we have to appear in certain ways. But you know, Cuba’s not all that far away. And we might as well take advantage of it.
GRABER: Several judges even owned land in Florida that was used for liquor joints and gambling dens, places where alcohol was freely served.
TWILLEY: This kind of widespread corruption was another one of the unintended consequences of Prohibition.
LINDQUIST-DORR: So it clearly becomes that there is a national sense that what Prohibition has led to is an unwillingness among otherwise perfectly respectable Americans to abide by the law, that Americans don’t think anything about violating Prohibition laws.
MUSIC CLIP: “Prohibition Blues” by Clayton McMichen
CLAYTON MCMICHEN: I’ll tell you, brother, and I won’t lie, a-what’s the matter in this land / They’ll drink it “wet” and vote it “dry”, and hide it, if they can / They’ll pitch a party and they’ll all get drunk and call it “society” / But if they catch you with a pint, “Good mornin’, penitentiary.”
TWILLEY: There was a lot of hypocrisy in who was punished for drinking. But there were also some changes in who was doing that drinking.
GRABER: Like women. Before Prohibition, women did drink, Lisa says it was common for wealthier families to have beautiful decanters and for women to use them, but they just drank at home. They weren’t welcome in the saloons.
LINDQUIST-DORR: What changes with Prohibition is who gets to drink where, and it’s as a result of Prohibition that women drinking in public becomes acceptable really for the first time. And what you begin to see is young women arrested with young men for public drunkenness on the street together in the wee hours of the morning.
TWILLEY: Progress takes many forms. But really, what this all shows is that Prohibition didn’t really reduce the amount Americans drank at all. It changed where they drank and what they drank and even who was drinking, but the liquor was still flowing. Which was not the plan at all.
LINDQUIST-DORR: Beginning in 1930, the federal government finally decides, okay, we need to look at how this whole Prohibition thing is working. And it had not been working well. They would continually say that progress was being made at stopping rum running, and it would merely shift the market to someplace else. So the government begins what becomes known as the Wickersham Commission, and this was essentially an investigation, a commission to look into how Prohibition is going. And they solicit information and feedback from sheriffs and judges and prosecuting attorneys and all of these people who are involved in the enforcement of Prohibition all around the country. And what they get back: Boxes and boxes and boxes of replies of people saying, Prohibition is a joke. Prohibition is a farce. Evading Prohibition is a national pastime. You know, the only people we can get to abide by Prohibition are ministers.
DELEGATION SPEECH MAKER: We therefore recommend that the Congress of the United States immediately propose an amendment to the federal constitution repealing the 18th Amendment. CROWD GOES WILD
GRABER: Also, the US was heading into the Great Depression, the government needed money, and that meant they needed tax money from booze—just like all the governments in the past had.
LINDQUIST-DORR: When you’re going to have social programs and ways to combat the Depression, that tax revenue is needed. And at the same time, Roosevelt also says, I think it’s time that Americans had a beer.
ARCHIVAL NEWS CLIP
NARRATOR: Washington DC. Roosevelt brings back beer and wine. By signing the Cullen Bill in a simple ceremony at the White House, the president has made it a law. Rushed through the House and the Senate, the measure marks the termination of a 14 year drought, ended by Roosevelt’s prompt action.
TWILLEY: So yeah, in a lot of ways, Prohibition failed. But just like Prohibition passing—it wasn’t necessarily for the reasons I thought. In part it failed because all the other progressive causes it was wrapped up in succeeded. Women could now vote, there was a better social safety net, funded by a tax system that wasn’t quite as reliant on booze.
GRABER: And around the world, while no other country had as widespread, long, and thorough a national prohibition as we did, the temperance movements in other countries had the same goal of resisting exploitation, as Mark pointed out. And, well, it’s unclear how strong a role temperance played, but over the century, India and Ireland and Botswana and more did gain their independence. So no more need for the temperance movement.
TWILLEY: Those progressive gains—they’re partly Prohibition’s legacy. But there’s more. In the US, we were left with cocktails, NASCAR, motorboats, women being welcome in bars, and also the rise of Coca-Cola and Walgreens, the California wine industry, Stiltsville—all kinds of unexpected outcomes. Including some very strange local laws, put in place to control liquor sales after federal Prohibition ended.
SCHRAD: I’m originally from Iowa. I remember, as a kid, they had the state liquor stores. That came out of the 1930s and stuck around forever, because that was the system that they had.
GRABER: We still have those state liquor stores over the border from Massachusetts in New Hampshire. It was a little like the Sweden model—it was meant to help the state regulate how much liquor was being sold and when—like, there were limited hours in which you could buy a bottle. In my state of Massachusetts, like some other states, the government put in Blue Laws, where you couldn’t sell booze on Sundays. Although that’s not law anymore.
SCHRAD: Until very recently, in Pennsylvania, if you wanted to buy beer and you had to buy a six pack, you actually had to go to a restaurant to buy it.
TWILLEY: I remember this from my Philly days. No more than two six packs at a time. Usually from the local pizza place.
SCHRAD: And if you went to a beer store, they would only sell it by the case. And that was sort of a remnant of the 1930s as well, that’s, you know, if you’re going to buy a whole bunch of beer, well, then you’re going to have to be face to face with exactly the amount of your consumption. And so a lot of the stuff that gets encoded into the laws from that particular era—they stick around for a long, long, long time.
GRABER: Glad those laws are mostly gone—but I’ll take the cocktails!
TWILLEY: And a big cheers from me to achieving all those progressive goals that the temperance folks were originally fighting for. I’ll drink to that!
GRABER: Yes, of course, there’s so much we didn’t say about Prohibition and its aftermath, like Al Capone and the mob, and the growth of the KKK. Some of that will appear in our special supporters newsletter, gastropod.com/support.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Mark Schrad and Lisa Lindquist-Dorr. We have links to their new books, Smashing the Liquor Machine and A Thousand Thirsty Beaches, on our website gastropod dot com, along with some pretty cool photos from my trip to Stiltsville.
GRABER: Thanks as usual to Gastropod producer Sonja Swanson for all her help this episode, and we will be back in two weeks with a trip to the skies. And the food that goes along with it. ‘Til then!