I went to a yacht club on the Chesapeake Bay for lunch last week and there in the bar was a wall of liquor lockers. Does anyone remember these? In places where alcohol was illegal, people could come to private clubs and bring their own liquor. They would keep it in a locker like these and whenever they came to the club, the bartender could take the liquor and make them a drink. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
Of all the excesses brought by Prohibition, the story of Etta Mae Miller must be at the top of the list. Etta Mae Miller, a 48-year-old mother of ten, lived in Michigan, a state with some of the toughest anti-alcohol laws during Prohibition. One 1927 law was one of those “three strikes and your out” sort of laws, whereby the third felony landed you in prison for life. Well, possessing a pint of alcohol was a felony in Michigan, and you know where this story is going.
Etta Mae was the first woman sentenced to life in prison under this law. She was found guilty for having two pints of gin in her home. (Police could get a warrant to search a private home if they thought they smelled liquor nearby.) With 2 previous felonies for alcohol possession on her record, she was sentenced to life in prison. Her husband, by the way, was also in jail for liquor-related offenses, but not under a life sentence. (I could not find a photo of either Mr. or Mrs. Miller, and these are not the Miller children, just a picture of 1920s children I found on the Internet–excuse the liberty.)
Public outcry against the “Life for a Pint” law was strong, and Michigan’s Governor Fred W. Green was not pleased to find 10 new orphans placed in the state’s care. The state supreme court reversed the decision and Mrs. Miller went home to her brood.
When I created my bootlegger character David, I had in mind the real bootlegger, Roy Olmsted. I learned about him in Daniel Okrent’s LAST CALL: “Olmsted had entered public life as a promising member of the Seattle Police Department, praised by the department’s very dry chief as ‘quick and responsive . . . bright and competent.’ But Olmsted’s competence extended beyond ordinary police work, and while still a member of the department . . . he began running liquor from Canada. Roy Olmsted was handsome, personable, intelligent, and remarkably ethical. He never diluted his imports or blended them with industrial alcohol as so many other bootleggers did, and he dealt in such volume that he was able to undersell every other bootlegger in the Pacific Northwest. . . he ‘avoided the sordid behavior of others in the same business–no murder, no narcotics, no rings or prostitution or gambling’–and as a result, ‘many people could not regard him as an authentic criminal.'”
What happened to Roy? Like my fictional David, he served time in prison–four years. President Roosevelt later pardoned him. Not sure whether a pardon is in David’s future . . .
Beer with very low alcoholic content existed in America long before Prohibition. During the colonial era, it was called “small beer.” By the time Prohibition struck (1920), it had pretty much faded away, but the new reality resurrected the old idea.
Anheuser-Busch led the way into nonalcoholic beer with a product they named Bevo. Laws prohibited the use of the word “beer” on the label or in advertising, so manufacturers had to insinuate that the produce was like beer without using the offensive word. Bevo sold well for about six months into Prohibition. Other breweries climbed on the bandwagon: Pabst made Pablo; Miller made Vivo; Schlitz made Famo; another company named its product Nearo, getting as close as legally possible to the words they all wanted to use: “near beer.” (The -o ending seemed to be the common factor . . . )
But all of a sudden, the market evaporated. I suppose that, having tried the nonalcoholic version, most people saw no reason to drink the substitute. People who wanted to drink real beer shifted to home production, where they could buy beer starter (malt extract, which was legal since it didn’t contain any alcohol) and make their own.
Prohibition was the law of the land, even if it was ignored in many cities (notably New York, Detroit, Chicago, Washington DC, Baltimore, etc.) Hollywood production codes prohibited scenes showing people actually drinking, so if the story called for drinking, the best they could do was picture a bottle, or show someone pouring a drink, or people holding glasses.
But according to Daniel Okrent in LAST CALL, a scholarly survey of films in 1929 showed that drinking was evident in 2/3 of them, often favorably. “In AFTER MIDNIGHT, a shy and virginal Norma Shearer takes her very first drink and burst into bloom. Joan Crawford became a star by hoofing on a speakeasy tabletop in OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS.” For the millions of people going to the movie theater each week, scenes of beautiful women and debonair men drinking alcohol looked pretty glamorous. The message served only to further undermine the Prohibition laws.
Drinking was too commonplace to ignore in the movies. I make sure to get that point across in my series.
In my Roaring Twenties series, I’ve set several scenes in drug stores. In SILENT MURDERS Jessie visits a dozen drug stores, looking for evidence of someone buying poison. I appreciate pictures like these when describing what the drug stores looked like.
Interestingly, drug stores became the best place, outside of the speakeasy, to buy liquor. It was legal if you had a doctor’s prescription for it, and you could buy it at any drug store; it was illegal to buy it at a speakeasy. Many people did both.
Well, there wasn’t much winemaking after 1920, since Prohibition caused most of the wineries to close. A few wineries in California (such as Beaulieu Vineyards, Christian Brothers) stayed in business to make legal sacramental wine for churches and synagogues, but the vast majority closed in 1920, suffering catastrophic losses that were not reimbursed by the government–an “illegal taking,” according to some. (I learned that Beaulieu Vineyards was producing over a million gallons of wine during Prohibition–all legal, all supposedly for religious purposes . . . ha!)
Wine drinking was still largely a California kind of thing in those years. In the rest of the country, very generally speaking, it was mostly just immigrants (Italians, French, Greeks, and other southern Europeans) and the wealthy who drank wine. So as I write my current mystery, set in Chicago in 1924 with characters who are French Canadian and Italian plus one wealthy German family, I can have them drinking wine. Otherwise, my characters drink beer, spirits, or hard cider, all illegal, of course.
One of many changes that Prohibition brought to America was the “booze cruise,” “party cruise,” or “cruise to nowhere”–short boat trips that sailed beyond the three-mile territorial limit (now obsolete) where American law no longer applied. There, guests could indulge in alcohol to their hearts’ content.
Suddenly popular, too, were short sailing trips to the Bahamas and Havana, where clubs and other drinking establishments sprang up to cater to thirsty Americans. Prior to 1920, the reason people took a cruise was to get across the ocean. By the early 1920s, cruising had taken on a different connotation. Historians believe these pleasure cruises were the beginning of a new industry–the vacation cruise industry.
In 1917, the doctors of the American Medical Association unanimously voted to remove alcohol from the approved medicine list, ruling that it had no medical value. But when Prohibition loomed on the horizon, the doctors saw the error of their ways. They now realized that alcohol was indeed a very important medicine, one that they should be allowed to prescribe. It was crucial in treating people with all sorts of illnesses, including old age. The doctors lobbied for–and received–permission in 1922 to prescribe medicinal alcohol to their deserving patients. Drug stores sprang up on every corner (almost as many as speakeasies) to fill these prescriptions. Here is an example of one, dated 1929, written by a doctor in Pennsylvania.
During the 13 years that Prohibition laws were on the books, inventive Americans developed many ways to sneak a drink. Let’s look at a few: