Boy do I need a drink! (Prohibition – what was that all about then?

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We will oftentimes fail to comprehend just how much “social drinking” is a part of our lives today. I have often made the error as a Keeper describing a dinner party or other such gathering by saying “the waiter brings you a glass of Champagne” or “the mysterious professor offers you a Brandy” when in reality, given the setting for my game, Prohibition would have been in full force. Also, certainly here in the UK, many of us have little idea as to what the reality of living under such a law would be like (I assume that in the US one learns about this particular period of history in school). What I endeavour to set out in this article therefore are a few guidelines: The basic facts about prohibition, some insights into life under the law and the effect that the law had on society in general. I don’t presume to be historically perfect but I want to present a view of prohibition and its consequences that may be used as a part of the 1920’s Call of Cthulhu setting. At the same time I aim to give the average Keeper some firmer background material upon which to draw.
The Facts

Midnight of January 16 , 1920 and life for the average American Joe changed dramatically as the eighteenth amendment to the US constitution was put into effect. The amendment effectively outlawed all importing, exporting, transporting, selling, and manufacturing of intoxicating liquor. Intoxicating liquor was deemed anything having an alcoholic content of anything more than 0.5 percent, with the exception of alcohol used for medicinal and sacramental purposes. Prohibition would remain in force for the next thirteen years until it was repealed in 1933. The ‘noble experiment’, prohibition, was intended to bring down crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve the health and hygiene of the average American. It is most certainly questionable as to whether any of these objectives were met. The eighteenth amendment was largely ineffective for the simple reason that it was unenforceable, it resulted in the explosive growth of crime, was probably responsible for the establishment of true organised crime and indeed it is believed actually served to increase the amount of alcohol consumption in the United States.
The Laws & The Crimes

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The National Prohibition Act, or as it was more commonly known the Volstead Act, so called after its author, AJ. Volstead, set up guidelines for the enforcement of prohibition. The Federal Prohibition Bureau was formulated in order to see that enforcement of the act was carried out. However sufficient funds were never released to actually ensure that this was possible. There were at the peak only some 1,550 federal agents policing over 18,700 miles of coastline, as such it was clearly impossible to prevent huge quantities of liquor from entering the country. It is estimated that during the 1920’s less than one twentieth of all illegal shipments of alcohol were hindered in any way, let alone thwarted. Criminals and the average man alike flagrantly violated the laws. Bootleggers continued to smuggle liquor from overseas and across the border from Canada, they stole it from government warehouses, and indeed produced their own. The average man hid their own liquor in hip flasks, false books, hollow canes, and anything else they could find. Prohibition saw the proliferation of the speakeasy, which replaced the traditional saloons closed down by the implementation of prohibition. It is widely reported that by 1925, there were over 100,000 speak-easies in New York City alone. What made things worse was that the illegal liquor business was being driven by organized gangs, which overpowered or corrupted most of the authorities. Many bootleggers, smugglers and speakeasy owners secured their business by Elder Science Press Page 1 www.miskatonic.co.uk

The O’Banions.bribing the authorities. The large gangs mainly operated out of the cities and many of the gangsters became household names. the public readily turned to gangs who took on the bootlegging industry and supplied them with liquor. especially in large cities. they began to drink more exotic hard liquor. Wort. However.co. setting a trend that would continue. Other serious crimes. Such hard liquor was more concentrated and easier to transport and as such it was less expensive. McGurn killed everyone present. office buildings. as noted previously. and no convictions were ever made for this most heinous event. Alcohol was actually becoming increasingly easy to acquire. It was as a direct result of the lack of enforcement of the Prohibition Act that the creation of an illegal industry was possible. a type of grape juice. the consumption of alcohol initially fell. were shattered.000 of population. Al Capone. the crime rate soon soared to twice that of the pre-prohibition period. The irony of prohibition was that its introduction to reduce drunkenness forced Americans to abandon their beer and to drink more potent drinks. many seeing themselves as Robin Hood figures. became extremely expensive.5 percent alcohol. along with the violence. There was Vine-Glo. Al Capone had his henchman. were to increase by similar proportions. One day in February 1929 as a result of business differences.miskatonic. instead. which had been the predominant form of alcohol pre-prohibition. led by Bugs Moran were slaughtered in the St Valentines Day Massacre. one pint Elder Science Press Page 2 www. there was to be a significant increase within a year. Capone was in Miami at the time with a perfect alibi. This huge illegal industry was extremely profitable. then Americans could only drink less. Many seemingly legal home products were sold to those people who only wanted small quantities of alcohol. and anywhere that could be secured. whether federal agents or other persons of high political status. Although. Because liquor was no longer legally available. The grand hopes harboured by the prohibitionists that the Volstead Act would reduce drunkenness in America and thereby decrease the crime rate. The proliferation of private drinking establishments or “speakeasies” hidden in basements. more gangs became involved and the rivalry between gangs.uk . which could easily be fermented for a couple of months to turn it into a potent wine. such as assault. increased. and often went to elaborate lengths to avoid being raided and shut down. The reason behind this dramatic crime wave was the formal organization of crime. By 1925 the bootleg liquor business was so huge that hard liquor was readily available on almost every street corner. admitted only those private members that they wished to admit. In large cities the number of homicides was to double to approximately 1 per 10. It was also legal for a doctor to prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes and although there were restrictions. Strafing the building with machine gun fire. Although during the early days of Prohibition it seemed that the “noble experiment” was working. McGurn arranged a delivery of liquor to Moran and his gang at a downtown warehouse and had his gang members impersonate police officers and stage a raid. To make matters worse the illegally made alcohol that was readily available had no standards with which to conform. As such the average American began to drink less beer. was legally produced because it had less than the recognised 0. or “near beer”. when added to yeast. this product quickly turned into a much stronger beer – akin to the European “white beers”. taking centre stage. especially in large cities. such as burglaries. Chicago was to become the undisputed capital of gangland with the most powerful and infamous bootlegger. Beer. Deaths relating to alcohol poisoning rose by almost 400% in the period 1920 – 1925. “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn stage the most gruesome and well remembered gangster shoot-out of all time. as it required transporting in such large quantities. The Results The prohibitionists supporting the law argued that if drinking was not allowed. grievous bodily harm and rape all increased by factors of more than 1 in 10. Over four hundred gang related murders were recorded each year in Chicago alone. whilst other crimes involving victims.

health. After thirteen years an amendment was passed repealing prohibition. The sales of medicinal alcohol.miskatonic. the law had become disrespected. such rules were blatantly ignored. The very problems prohibitionists had intended to solve. Organized crime had grown into an empire. such as crime. corruption was rife and the per capita consumption of alcohol had actually increased quite dramatically.co. Elder Science Press Page 3 www. increased 400 percent between 1923 and 1931. it was damaging to the people and society it was meant to help.uk .per person in a ten-day period. but most importantly it was now over. The “noble-experiment” was no more. which was 95 percent pure alcohol. Prohibition was ineffective. the burden of taxation had all worsened and they were set never to return to their pre-prohibition levels.