Prohibition: Thirteen Years That changed America

Overview

On the stroke of midnight on January 16, 1920, America went dry. For the next thirteen years the 18th Amendment to the Constitution would specifically deny every citizen the right to buy or sell alcoholic drink. Those thirteen years were to change America forever: instead of regulating social behavior and eliminating the scourge of "the Devil's brew," Prohibition incited Americans to bend or break the law by virtually any means possible. In these pages, Edward Behr traces the rise of the Temperance movement from ...
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Overview

On the stroke of midnight on January 16, 1920, America went dry. For the next thirteen years the 18th Amendment to the Constitution would specifically deny every citizen the right to buy or sell alcoholic drink. Those thirteen years were to change America forever: instead of regulating social behavior and eliminating the scourge of "the Devil's brew," Prohibition incited Americans to bend or break the law by virtually any means possible. In these pages, Edward Behr traces the rise of the Temperance movement from Colonial times onward. Indeed, pioneer America was a free-wheeling, hard-drinking country. Whiskey was so plentiful it was often used for legal - and illegal - tender. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth, various crusading forces, some well-meaning, some hypocritical, were increasingly demanding an end to intemperance and the abolition of all alcoholic beverages. Between 1920 and 1933, they succeeded. Here is the full, rollicking story of those thirteen years, taking us back to the Jazz Age and its flappers, to the "beautiful and the damned" who drank their lives away in speakeasies; to the Saint Valentine's Day massacre, and to the bootleggers, rumrunners, and high-living gangsters who flagrantly and defiantly flouted the law; to a lady from a Kansas City knitting circle who single-handedly axed a saloon to splinters; to teetotaler Henry Ford's Detroit, where Ford had homes searched to make sure his workers were dry. And, for the first time, Prohibition reveals the full story of George Remus, lawyer turned kingpin of the bootleggers, whose influence reached into the highest echelons of government.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Prohibition did not go into effect until 1920, but, with the early Americans notorious for heavy drinking, numerous groups had been trying to ban alcohol for decades. Although there were several well-known temperance advocates in the early 1800s, prohibitionists were derailed by a series of more pressing national mattersthe abolitionist movement, the Civil War and Reconstruction. The "dry" cause picked up speed in 1893 with the formation of the Anti-Saloon League. Led by Wayne Wheeler, the ASL was a formidable lobbying group that was able to turn prohibition into a patriotic issue during WWI. With the conclusion of the war, and with the ASL and Wheeler at the height of their powers, passage of the Volstead Act was a foregone conclusion. Behr (The Last Emperor) tracks the 13 years of Prohibition primarily through the actions of Wheeler, bootlegger George Remus and Chicago mayor "Big Bill" Thomson, and in doing so stresses the corruption of politicians and law enforcement officials that made carrying out the 18th Amendment all but impossible. Behr calls Prohibition a disaster that helped cause some of today's problems by spurring the growth of organized crime. He also sees similarities between Prohibition and the current fight against drugs, and argues that an overhaul of antidrug legislation is long overdue. Although Behr's work is not a comprehensive examination of the Prohibition era, it is informative and entertaining from start to finish. Photos not seen by PW. (Oct.)
Library Journal
A&E, the Arts and Entertainment cable television channel, intends to produce a three-part miniseries based on this book, an interesting and readable history of the prohibition era. A journalist by trade, Behr masterly integrates family tales and expert interviews into his account of bootlegging, speakeasies, gangsterism, and racketeering. Although much of his book repeats what is already known about the troubled Twenties, it manages to break new ground by thoroughly telling the story of George Remus, a Cincinnati lawyer who became an influential bootlegger. Several chapters are devoted to Remus's business practices and associations with the likes of Harry Daugherty, Warren G. Harding's attorney general. The Remus story nicely illustrates the pervasive corruption of the period and will likely receive much attention in the upcoming television program. As A&E's interest in the book might suggest, it is written for general audiences. Recommended for public and undergraduate collections.Raymond J. Palin, St. Thomas Univ., Miami, Fla.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559703949
  • Publisher: Arcade Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/2/1997
  • Edition description: REV
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Introduction

Early one fine autumn morning -- October 6, 1927 -- a stocky, middle-aged man named George Remus ordered George Klug, his driver, to overtake a taxi in Cincinnati's Eden Park. He had been tailing it ever since it had left the Alms Hotel with its two women passengers. After driving alongside, and motioning it to stop -- it failed to do so -- Remus got the driver to swerve suddenly, forcing the taxi off the road.

The cabdriver swore and hit the brakes, barely avoiding a collision, and the two women were shaken nearly off their seats. The older one, Imogene, was Remus's wife, and she was on her way to her divorce court hearing. By today's standards, she was distinctly on the stocky side, but her opulent figure, ample curves, and huge, gray-green eyes were typical beauty canons of the time, and her clothes -- a black silk dress, patent leather black shoes, and black cloche hat from Paris -- identified her as a woman of means. The younger woman, her daughter Ruth by an earlier marriage, was a slightly dumpy twenty-year-old.

As Ruth would later tell the court, at Remus's trial, Imogene gasped, "There's Remus," when she first spotted the overtaking car. Imogene got out of the stationary cab as Remus emerged from his car, a gun in his right hand (the defense later challenged this evidence, for Remus was left-handed). Ruth recounted: "He hit her on the head with his fist." Imogene said, "Oh, Daddy, you know I love you, you know I love you!" Remus turned to Ruth. "She can't get away with that," he snarled.

Imogene shrieked, "For God's sake, don't do it!" as Ruth, also spotting the gun, shouted, "Daddy, what are you going to do?" Then Imogene screamed, "Steve [the taxi driver], for God's sake, come over and help me!" But the driver stayed put. He heard George Remus shout, "Damn you, you dirty so-and-so bitch, damn you, I'll get you."

Imogene then rushed back into the cab, pursued by Remus. That was when he shot her, once in the stomach. She had the strength to get out of the other side of the car, running, her hands above her head, with Remus still in pursuit. She then got into another car, which had come to a halt behind the stalled taxicab, and collapsed.

Rather than confront the driver, Remus walked away. Shortly afterward, he gave himself up. As the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote the following day (October 7, 1927), "Thus did the much tangled domestic affairs of George Remus, once the multi-millionaire bootlegger king of Cincinnati, come to a sudden -- and dramatic -- climax."

The trial of George Remus for his wife's murder -- and its spectacular conclusion -- became the 1920s equivalent of the O. J. Simpson case. Reporters arrived from all over the United States, Canada, and even Europe -- a special press room was set aside for them in the tiny courthouse. Proceedings were reported extensively in newspapers nationwide, the Cincinnati Enquirer running an almost verbatim account of the trial, from beginning to end.

George Remus would have remained an obscure Chicago criminal lawyer with an interest in law reform and a passionate opposition to the death penalty had Prohibition not turned him, in the space of four years, into a megastar millionaire. His crime passionnel stemmed not only from this sudden change in fortune, but from Imogene's sudden passion for Remus's nemesis, handsome young Justice Department agent Franklin Dodge, and her own considerable greed. Overwhelmingly, American men sided with George Remus, and even many staid, middle-class American matrons felt that Imogene "had had it coming to her."

For all the sordid details revealed during the trial, enabling Remus to present his case as an avenger rather than a murderer, Prohibition itself was the real culprit. Had there been no Volstead Act, he told the court, "I would not be here." The "greatest social experiment of modern times," as President Calvin Coolidge described it, brought with it irresistible temptations in the wake of unprecedented corruption.

The story of George and Imogene Remus is all part of that "noble experiment." George Remus's background, as a German-born "new American," was relevant to the unprecedented (and, to most Europeans, at least, deluded) attempt at the regulation of social behavior, for with hindsight, the Prohibition phenomenon can be seen not just as a well-meaning, albeit absurd, attempt to stamp out drunkenness, then regarded as society's most devastating scourge (graver even than TB, the other great affliction of the time, for it affected the mind as well as the body), but as a watershed marking the end of one American era and the beginning of another.

Beyond the debate on the rights of reformers to regulate social behavior by force, restricting individual freedom in the name of better health, morality, and godliness, Prohibition was the rearguard action of a still dominant, overwhelmingly rural, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment, aware that its privileges and natural right to rule were being increasingly threatened by the massive arrival of largely despised (and feared) beer-swilling, wine-drinking new American immigrants.

Old-established Americans, most of them Protestants, of overwhelmingly British lineage, regarded themselves as the natural guardians of traditional values, and were determined to maintain their moral and religious standards by almost any means. They were also intent on preserving their own considerable privileges. As historian Andrew Sinclair later wrote, the Prohibitionists' victory in 1920, turning the whole of the country dry, was "the final victory of the defenders of the American past. On the rock of the 18th Amendment, village America made its last stand."

America's Marxists, a very small minority even in the heyday of Marxism, saw Prohibition in a very different light. For them it was a deliberate attempt on the part of the "dominant bourgeoisie" to duck the real issues -- poverty, slum housing, economic exploitation of all kinds -- using the Prohibition campaign as a pretext to deflect attention from the fact that the working classes were paying a huge price for the American industrial revolution. They argued that the ideals the Prohibitionists considered most important -- godliness, industry, sobriety, thrift -- were deliberately, and with consummate hypocrisy, advocated to compel the underprivileged to accept their fate and inferior status. Sobriety was simply a "plutocratic weapon" employers used to make wage slaves work harder and faster on the factory assembly lines. The underlying assumption was that if the workers refrained from drink, their one easily available pleasure, they could then get by on their miserable wages.

The story of Imogene and George Remus, and of their nemesis, Prohibition -- in retrospect one of the greatest of American disasters, and in its day "without a doubt the most important question in American life" -- is oddly relevant today. In its simplistic determination to strike at the root of a "social evil" without any thought of the consequences, or of the means required to enforce it, Prohibition was a striking example of the American propensity to believe that society was infinitely malleable and that all it would take to rid America of its blemishes and turn it into a promised land would be a few well-meaning laws.

It also embodied a number of righteous beliefs -- in the perfectibility of human nature and the legitimacy of the moral imperative to improve the health and well-being of the masses whether they liked it or not -- that revealed a perennial American naiveté of the type embodied by successive generations of idealist-politicians.

The persistence and skill with which the architects of Prohibition pleaded their cause over most of a century, winning state after state until an overwhelming majority in Congress voted for the Eighteenth Amendment, was a textbook example of successful lobbying. All practitioners of that art have since, consciously or unconsciously, emulated the tactics of the Anti-Saloon League and its ruthless legal adviser and political power broker Wayne Wheeler. But the incompetence that followed was equally exemplary -- as if the very politicians who had brought Prohibition into being were determined to do everything in their power to ensure its failure.

Despite its almost risible collapse, Prohibition's lessons are valuable -- and have still not been learned. Some of its methods were strikingly similar to those used today to fight drug abuse, with equally disappointing results, and today's controversy over drugs could, with only minor semantic changes, apply to the Prohibition controversy almost a century ago. "Prohibition is what makes drugs so profitable, yet the thought of legalizing their distribution, even with rigid controls and treatment programs, arouses the fear of infecting millions of addicts," wrote Max Frankel in the New York Times Sunday magazine recently. That fear, if valid, explains the central dilemma expressed two years ago by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. "The nation's choice of policy," he wrote -- legalization or prohibition -- "offers a choice of outcomes." Neither alternative seemed to him entirely satisfactory: legalization entailed increased public health problems, whereas prohibition led to an enormous increase in crime. Identical concerns were expressed by equally-baffled social reformers as far back as 1890.

For all its outrageously intolerant overtones, its hypocrisy and double standards, Prohibition represented a genuine attempt to better the lives of people. That it did them instead untold harm -- that America has never fully recovered from the legacy of those thirteen years -- should come as no surprise. As history keeps telling us -- but do we ever listen? -- the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Excerpt copyright © 1996 by Edward Behr. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Arcade Publishing, Inc.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2001

    wonderful

    i had to read a book for history class and i was like 'ahhhh no another report!'so i chose prohibition as my topic and i began to read this book about prohibition and to my releif read like a story! i really enjoyed reading this book it holds your attention taking you through the beginingg temprance movement all the way the installment of the volstead act.

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