Prohibition Rum Runner
Prohibition Rum Runner
Date: November 4, 1930
About the Photographer: This image, by an unknown photographer, is owned by Corbis, a photo agency headquartered in Seattle, Washington. Corbis licenses images for use in magazines, films, television, and advertisements.
Prohibition was part of a century-long effort by Americans to solve the problems caused by alcohol abuse. Since attempts to persuade individuals to stop drinking often failed, reformers wanted coercive measures placed into law. In 1917, Congress approved a Constitutional amendment that banned the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating beverages. In 1919, the states ratified the Eighteenth Amendment and Prohibition became law.
Prohibition had widespread support among the public and consumption of alcoholic beverages dropped dramatically during the years that it remained in effect. But many Americans viewed Prohibition as an improper curtailment of their personal liberty. Opposition centered in the cities, where many immigrant groups regarded Prohibition as an attack on their cultural norms and religious practices. The Germans and the Irish, in particular, did not see the dangers in having a beer with dinner. Thus demand for alcoholic beverages remained high.
The chief problem for law enforcement during Prohibition was that while the United States had banned the sale of alcohol, Mexico, Cuba, and Canada had not. The governments of these neighboring countries were more than happy to see their citizens make a profit by selling alcohol to Americans. Boats and ships, known as "rum runners" easily ran liquor across the border into the U.S. In addition, a fleet of ships sat in international waters, just outside the three-mile limit, catering to Americans who sailed out to indulge in wine and liquor. Liquor and wine imported for "medicinal purposes" found its way into the stomachs of healthy citizens, while the sale of grape vines jumped dramatically. Home-brewed beer and cider appeared on dining room tables alongside "bathtub" gin. Millions of gallons of industrial alcohol were converted into bootleg liquor and bottled under counterfeit labels. Such bottles sometimes included poisonous wood alcohol that killed or blinded many unsuspecting drinkers.
Prohibition also encouraged the growth of organized crime, particularly the Mafia. Many of the gangsters who had operated gambling and prostitution rings entered the lucrative market of illegal liquor trafficking. The funds generated by bootlegging were so much greater than those created by other illegal activity that organized crime and the corruption of officials flourished on an unprecedented scale. Chicago's Al Capone (1899–1847), perhaps the most notorious gangster of the Prohibition era, reaped huge profits from selling bootlegged liquor. The crime business often included violence as rival gangs confronted each other to protect their respective turfs. In Chicago, over 200 gang-related killings occurred during the first four years of Prohibition.
PROHIBITION RUM RUNNER
See primary source image.
By the end of the 1920s, it had become apparent to many Americans that Prohibition had failed. As the many rum runners demonstrated, Prohibition had not succeeded in stopping the manufacture, sale, or transportation of liquor. The law simply proved ineffective against high demand.
While Prohibition was successful in virtually eliminating the working class saloons, it encouraged the growth of new drinking establishments, such as speakeasies, that catered to the middle and upper classes. For the first time, respectable middle-class women were patronizing bars because it was now the fashionable thing to do. Raids on restaurants, bars, and nightclubs that served liquor only had temporary success. The owners soon reopened, often after bribing the police. In the cities, nearly every neighborhood had a bootlegger. Law enforcement was ineffective since it simply was not possible to close the long Mexican and Canadian borders or to establish a naval blockade of the entire American coastline. The inability of law enforcement agencies to halt the distribution of liquor contributed to contempt for the law.
In 1933, Prohibition was repealed, partly in an effort to create jobs and tax revenue during the Great Depression. Opponents of the law argued that it had retarded the cause of temperance by inciting crime, hypocrisy, and corruption. In the decades that followed, few people remembered the successes of Prohibition because its failures were so very obvious.
Hallwas, John E. The Bootlegger: A Story of Small-Town America. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.
Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition: The Era of Excess. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.