Smuggling Alcohol & Speakeasies in the 1920s
At midnight on January 16, 1920, the manufacturing, sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages became illegal in the United States. The relatively quick and easy ratification of the 18th Amendment came as no surprise to its supporters, especially given more than half the states already prohibited alcohol within their borders. The surprise was that Prohibition proved nearly impossible to enforce, quickly becoming one of the most openly violated laws in American history.
1 Rise of the Rum Runners
The prohibition of alcohol didn't eliminate demand, and America's 18,700-miles of border proved porous to smugglers eager to import illegal liquor at substantial profit. One of the most infamous rum runners was William McCoy. Before Prohibition, McCoy had built speed boats for wealthy private clients. Once the 18th Amendment went into effect, McCoy quickly discovered he could turn more profit carrying rum back to America from the Bahamas. His high-quality, imported alcohol gave rise to the phrase "the real McCoy." Although the U.S. renegotiated treaties to extend territorial waters to 12 miles off the coast, rum runners simply hovered just outside the boundary and quietly transferred their goods to speed boats that could slip into secret coves and small inlets to unload.
2 From Saloon to Speakeasy
With the passage of the 18th Amendment, the potentially unsavory neighborhood saloon disappeared from the American landscape. In its place, illegal drinking spots known as "speakeasies" proliferated. For example, the 1,200 legal bars operating in Cleveland in 1919 gave way to an estimated 3,000 speakeasies in 1923. Organized crime bosses owned or controlled many of these speakeasies -- perhaps none more notorious than Chicago's Al Capone. The city's estimated 10,000 speakeasies depended on Capone for their supply, and his power reached through the halls of government and behind the benches of courtrooms. Capone controlled not only the sales of alcohol in Chicago, but also its supply chain, reaching to smuggling sources in Canada and Florida.
3 Fueling Social Change
Americans initially supported Prohibition by wide margins, particularly given austerity brought on by the country's participation in World War I. However, with the war over, people were ready to let loose and have some fun, exhausted by years of stoic seriousness. Just six months after the onset of Prohibition, women also acquired the right to vote. Newly liberated women took to the floors of speakeasies, smoking cigarettes and drinking cocktails with bare legs, short skirts and bobbed hair. These "flappers" marked a sharp contrast to their straight-laced Victorian Era counterparts. Much like alcohol itself, social change bubbled up from the underground. Speakeasies erased social boundaries by branding all patrons criminals, and the working class hobnobbed with celebrities in posh urban nightclubs.
4 Moonshine in Dixie
Perhaps the biggest enforcement problem with Prohibition was the ease with which alcohol could be distilled. Illegal distilleries operated before Prohibition, primarily in rural areas, and their skills and expertise were in high demand once Prohibition took effect, and the closure of lawful distilleries increased demand. Proof of the proliferation of illicit stills could be found in the production of corn sugar, a basic component of corn whiskey, which saw a sixfold increase between 1919 and 1929. The Dixie Highway, a route running from Florida to Michigan, became a key route for moonshine distribution. Bootleggers running liquor often modified their cars so they could outrun police who attempted to pull them over. These modifications gave rise to the sport of stock car racing, which is still enjoyed by millions.
- 1 University of Houston Digital History: Prohibition
- 2 University of Virginia American Studies: Alcohol and Al Capone
- 3 Stanford University Libraries Riverwalk Jazz: Speakeasies, Flappers & Red Hot Jazz -- Music of the Prohibition
- 4 University of Houston Digital History: The 1920s -- An Overview
- 5 Time Magazine: Top 10 Prohibition Tales -- The Real McCoy