Jan. 17, 2023

The Start of Prohibition

The Start of Prohibition

January 17, 1920. Prohibition officially goes into effect in the United States, after the passage of the Volstead Act.


Cold Open

LINDSAY: "This immaculately preserved episode of History Daily originally aired on January 17th, 2022"

It’s late at night on November 23rd, 1923.

The moon glitters on the bay of Seabright, New Jersey, where over a hundred ships are anchored in shallow waters. After sundown, Rum Row, as this place is known, becomes a floating street of vice. Open boats filled with jazz bands motor between the flotilla of larger ships. Tourists and revelers turn out each night for the spectacle, watching as scores of booze smugglers and rum runners ferry their cargo of illegal liquor to shore. 

A little ways off, rocking in the light swell, is a low, sleek schooner, the Tomoka. Standing near the wheel on deck is Bill McCoy, the notorious rum-runner. He pushes up the sleeves of his white shirt and leans on the railing, watching the water.

Behind him, in the hold, McCoy’s crew are stacking small triangular packages. Each contains six bottles of rum, wrapped in hay and sewn up tightly inside burlap sacking. They’re also crammed with salt, meaning they’ll sink if they need to be dropped overboard, but will later float back up to the surface, for collection.

But McCoy is confident that won’t be necessary. His boat is three miles offshore, which puts him in international waters. Out here, the laws prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol don’t apply.

But suddenly, there’s a shout from the lookout at the bow. A large ship is approaching, and fast. It’s the US coast guard. McCoy knows he’s not within their jurisdiction, but he can tell from the speed with which they’re approaching that these coastguard agents don’t care about the rules right now. McCoy’s not interested in sticking around to find out what they want.

So McCoy orders the anchor up on his boat and sails off into the open ocean. His schooner is smaller than the coast guard ships; he hopes to outrun them.

As the Tokomoa sets sail, the coastguardsmen respond by opening fire. The sound of four-inch guns can be heard all along Rum Row. But McCoy won’t give up without a fight. He orders his crew to return fire from a large machine gun mounted on deck.

As the sea battle ensues, the Tomoka doesn’t get far. The coastguard ship is faster than it looks. And soon, it catches up to McCoy and his crew. The coastguardsmen fire warning shots across the bow. McCoy and his crew are outmanned and outgunned. They have no choice but to stop, and surrender. Neither the Tomoka nor Bill McCoy will ever return to the business of running rum.

Instead, he will spend nine months in a New Jersey jail, after pleading guilty to violations of the Volstead Act, an act of the US Congress that bans the sale, manufacture, and transportation of “intoxicating liquors.” Prohibition, and the era of bootleg liquor and organized crime it spawned, began when the Volstead Act went into effect, at one minute past twelve on January 17th, 1920.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is January 17th, 1920: The Start of Prohibition.

Act One: The Temperance Movement

It’s 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio, twenty-seven years before the start of Prohibition.

A crowd has gathered in a church to listen to a temperance lecture delivered by the Reverend Howard Hyde Russell. Russell recently formed the Ohio Anti-Saloon League, or the ASL, a group advocating for the prohibition of what Russell calls “the murderous curse” of alcohol.

The Reverend stands behind the lectern, his mustache quivering with the righteous indignation as he rails against the devilish scourge of liquor. Murmurs of agreement ripple through the congregation, but none in the crowd are as moved by Russell’s rhetoric as twenty-four-year-old Oberlin College student, Wayne B. Wheeler.

At the end of Russell’s sermon, Wheeler rushes up to him and enthusiastically enlists in the Anti-Saloon League, pledging not to rest until America has been cleansed of this intoxicating plague.

By 1893, the temperance movement in the United States has been gathering steam for decades. During the 1830s and 40s, anti-alcohol sentiment grew out of a general reforming spirit that swept the nation – centered predominantly around Protestant communities, who urged moderation in all things. Temperance campaigners came to see alcohol consumption as another of America’s ills, along with slavery and the denial of women’s right to vote.

Temperance societies began popping up all around the country, the most visible of which was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1873 and led by prominent feminist Frances Willard. And soon the cause of women’s suffrage became entwined with that of temperance, both were argued on the grounds of morality. Many women’s rights activists, or suffragettes, associated the passage of temperance laws with their own ultimate goal of achieving the right to vote.

Another notable female temperance activist is Carrie Nation, also known as Hatchet Granny. Describing herself as “a bulldog running at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like,” Carrie Nation took a direct approach to temperance: marching into bars and smashing barrels and bottles with her hatchet.

But despite the efforts of activists like Willard and the violence of Nation, the temperance movement lacked strong and unified leadership. Its aims were unclear, and even less clear were its methods of achieving them.

That changes when Wayne B. Wheeler joins the Anti-Saloon League in 1893. Suddenly Reverend Russell has an unremitting foot-soldier, somebody prepared to give everything for the cause. Wheeler works tirelessly to spread the message of temperance, going from town to town, speaking in churches, and recruiting supporters. He fervently believes in what becomes an abiding mission of the movement: the complete and total abolition of alcohol from American life.

Under Wheeler’s stewardship, the ASL launches a state-by-state campaign to influence government and establish the anti-liquor lobby as a serious force to be reckoned with in American politics. Local option laws are introduced, which allow individual counties to vote on whether alcohol will be permitted or banned within their jurisdiction. It's a major achievement for the ASL, but a mere stepping stone on the path to national prohibition.

But before long, Wayne Wheeler has become so influential that politicians at both local and national levels cannot afford to ignore him. The temperance movement is so large and vocal that its adherents include congressmen and senators and even members of the presidential administration. Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane looks around at the nation of drinkers and observes: “the whole world is skew-jee, awry, distorted and perverse… All goes merry as a dance in hell.”

But despite this widespread support in government, there are still persuasive arguments against national prohibition. The strongest of which is that the government still relies on income from taxed liquor. Abolishing alcohol will mean losing a vital source of revenue.

But then, in 1913, a new national income tax is introduced. By replacing the levy on liquor with this new tax, the main argument against national prohibition is removed. The ASL seizes on this opportunity, loudly announcing its new, ultimate goal: “A National Prohibition to be secured through the introduction of a Constitutional Amendment.”

For this radical ambition to be realized, Wayne Wheeler will have to skilfully manipulate the democratic system. He mobilizes his supporters to vote for whichever candidate supports their bills and reframes each election around the single issue of Prohibition. With this tactic, all across the country, opposition to anti-liquor legislation is gradually eroded.

And by the presidential election of 1916, the leaders of the Anti-Saloon League have all but achieved their ambition. Every pro-liquor measure has been defeated on every statewide ballot. And some form of anti-liquor laws are now in place in 23 states.

One reason for this success is linked to a war being fought overseas. Following America’s decision to join WWI – anti-German sentiment has been sweeping the nation. And sentiment the ASL seizes upon, many of America’s breweries are owned or worked by German immigrants. One politician named John Strange declares: “We have German enemies in this country too; their names are Pabst and Miller.”

Thanks to the efforts of the ASL and the suffragists, Congress eventually moved to enact the 18th Amendment, a constitutional ban on the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol. The amendment is ratified in January of 1919. And to give the amendment teeth, Congress passes the bill designed to enforce the ban.

With language crafted by Wayne Wheeler himself, the Volstead Act will go into effect one year after the ratification of the 18th Amendment, on January 17th, 1920. The law will spark a tempestuous thirteen years of Prohibition that neither Wayne Wheeler nor any of his fellow temperance advocates, can see coming.

Act Two: Last Call!

It’s January 16th, 1920, the night before Prohibition officially begins.

In Detroit, Michigan, a gaggle of men and women throng the sidewalk outside one of the city’s largest saloons. A sign in the window reads: “Last Call: time is getting shorter and so is our stock!” The customers frantically wave wads of cash in the air, fighting to get to the front of the line, desperate to purchase one last bottle of booze before Prohibition arrives at midnight and America becomes dry.

Similar scenes unfold all across the nation. Some bars and restaurants have been charitable. Gold’s Liquor Store in New York has stacked its remaining inventory on the sidewalk, next to a sign reading “Every bottle: $1.” Others hand out drinks for free, fuelling one final drunken party before the age of sobriety kicks in. 

Other establishments capitalize on the desperation, charging people $30 for a bottle of champagne – almost $400 in today’s money. Elsewhere, funeral hymns are played while coffins bearing images of wine bottles are carried through the crowds of drinkers, mourning the death of an American way of life and bracing themselves for a radically different one.

And then, at the stroke of midnight, the party ends; with all the alcohol drank and no more for sale, the bleary-eyed revelers trudge home in the early morning hours. Wealthier people have been able to stock up private cellars with casks of whiskey and wine. But for the majority, their next alcoholic drink – if it ever comes at all – will be acquired through nefarious means. 

The Volstead Act only outlaws the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor; drinking it remains perfectly legal. The problem people face is getting their hands on it. And already, opportunistic criminals across the country plot a lucrative solution to the problem.

Less than one hour after Prohibition comes into effect, the first armed robbery occurs in Illinois. Six masked bandits plunder two freight train cars filled with whiskey, making off with $100,000 worth of booze. This heist marks the beginning of a new era of criminality across the US. One city, in particular, becomes synonymous with organized crime during prohibition: Chicago.

The largest criminal gang in the Windy City is an Italian-American crime syndicate formed from the street gangs of the South Side of the city. They are known as the Chicago Outfit.

At the start of prohibition, a tough twenty-year-old Brooklyn native spies an opportunity. He moves to Chicago to become a bouncer for the Outfit. And thanks to his nimble mind and his talent for brutality, he quickly makes a name for himself. Soon, everyone’s heard of Alphonse Gabriel Capone.

By 1925, Al Capone is the new boss of the Chicago Outfit. A knife fight in his bouncer days earns him a grievous injury and a new alias: ‘Scarface’. It’s a name he hates. But it does help him forge a larger-than-life persona that will become a touchstone of the era.

Al Capone oversees a rapid expansion of the Chicago Outfit, accompanied by unprecedented violence. In 1925 alone, 133 gangsters are murdered. Chicago’s law enforcement agents – headed up by American prohibition agent Eliot Ness – try to stop Capone, but the gangster has grown too rich and too powerful. In turn, Capone’s attempts to bribe Ness and his agents repeatedly fail, earning the Chicago crime squad its own nickname: The Untouchables.

But despite the efforts of the Untouchables, the Chicago Outfit’s operations continue to grow, reaching as far as the Canadian border, which has become a major hotspot for alcohol smugglers. 

Some smugglers opt for subterfuge; lumber trucks with secret compartments, or big saloon cars with false floors, and hollow seats. Other rum-runners prefer speed. Fast cars are made faster, their engines beefed up and their suspension improved to handle the weight of illicit booze.

And some smugglers even take to the skies. Recently out-of-work Army pilots realize they can make a lot more from bootlegging than crop-dusting, and they begin to fly liquor down from Canada. In the east, planes set down in Long Island in the dead of night. They’re met by fast cars and trucks that can deliver the liquor straight to the speakeasies of New York.

And behind the bars of these secretive watering holes, America’s new drink of choice is emerging: the cocktail. While cocktails were around prior to Prohibition, this new political reality makes them a necessity. Flavored sodas and fruit juices disguise not only the visible contents, but they also mask the taste of “bathtub gin” or bootlegged industrial alcohol. 

The speakeasies aren’t only wildly popular, but hugely profitable, and difficult to eliminate. When raided by police and shut down in one location, they spring back up just as quickly in another. Sometimes they’re hiding in plain sight, as legitimate entertainment venues. Other times they’re tucked away behind freight elevators and soda machines.

And in many speakeasies, there's a right of dancing and jazz. Rather than drinking as an accompaniment to a social event, people are now going out to drink for the sake of getting drunk. You never know when will be your last drink.

But the Roaring Twenties will soon come crashing down. Economic catastrophe will strike in 1929, compounding many of the crime and health problems already brought about by Prohibition. And by 1933, the great social experiment brought on by the Volstead Act will be over.

Act Three: Repealing the 18th

It’s October 29th, 1929, nine years after the start of Prohibition.

This dark day is known as Black Tuesday, following a catastrophic crash of the stock market. Hundreds of Wall Street traders stream from the trading floor and out onto the chilly plaza, dazed and frightened: a huge fortune has been lost in mere hours, $14 billion over $220 billion today. This is the beginning of a severe economic downturn, to be called the Great Depression.

By 1932, the criminality associated with Prohibition is pushed even higher by the grim realities of the Depression. Across the nation, support for the ban of alcohol plummets.

That year, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt runs for president, promising to repeal the 18th Amendment, and create more jobs by legalizing the liquor industry once again. Roosevelt will win in a landslide, and by the following year, Prohibition will be over, as the American people vote conclusively to turn the taps back on.

The great social experiment to turn America into a dry nation ultimately fails. But during the age of Prohibition – which began so abruptly on January 17th, 1920 – United States experienced transformative years which remain among the most storied and iconic in its history.


Next on History Daily.January 18, 1788. Britain’s First Fleet begins to arrive in Botany Bay, sparking the British colonization of Australia.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham. 

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner and Danny Marshall.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.