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A Reading Life

When America went on the wagon

By Katherine A. Powers
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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Prohibition, or the “noble experiment,” as Herbert Hoover dubbed it, to the derisive glee of its many foes, went into effect 90 years ago last January. It lasted 13 years, 10 months, and 19 days, and by the time it was over, the country had been transformed, in part because of the amendment’s corrosive and socially liberating effects. Among those it most irked was H.L. Mencken, goading him into some of his finest hyperbole: “It seemed,” he wrote in recollection, “almost a geological epoch while it was going on, and the human suffering that it entailed must have been a fair match for that of the Black Death or the Thirty Years’ War.” Having to go without drink in Cleveland during the Republican Convention in 1923, he said, was “ in many ways . . . the worst adventure of my whole life, though I have been shot at four times and my travels have taken me to Albania, Trans-Jordan and Arkansas.”

Two admirable books have just been published which revisit this strange, though far from arid, passage in American history: Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” (Scribner, $30) and Jonathan Eig’s “Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster” (Simon and Schuster, $28).

Okrent begins with the question of questions: “How did it happen?” How did freedom-loving Americans alter their sacred Constitution to destroy a right immemorial and, in doing so, put the kibosh on the nation’s fifth largest industry? Certainly, as Okrent shows, Americans did drink a lot, and much antialcohol sentiment was a response to the havoc wrought by drunken men on their families. But such a radical measure would never have succeeded had not a concatenation of social forces, organizations, and potent individuals come together in the two decades that preceded the amendment’s passage. Simply put, the forces were racism, progressivism, populism, suffragism, and nativism spiked with a pungent dose of anti-popery, all handily unpacked and scrutinized by Okrent. The organizations ranged from the Ku Klux Klan to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union; and the individuals from Billy Sunday to Susan B. Anthony. And then there is Prohibition’s forgotten superhero: Wayne B. Wheeler, a “locomotive in trousers,” an attorney and lobbyist for the most powerful organization of all, the Anti-Saloon League. It was Wheeler who not only invented the expression “pressure group,” but first demonstrated its tremendous power.

The maneuvering that brought the ratification of the 19th amendment and the subsequent passage of the Volstead Act, which enforced it, is a lesson in political ruthlessness, strange bedfellows, and lucky breaks. The luckiest break of all, in a manner of speaking, was the entrance of the United States into World War I, the resulting anti-German hysteria making fiends and saboteurs of brewers, most of whom were of German origin. That distillers were predominantly Jewish didn’t make that sector much more acceptable. Still, xenophobia and paranoia, even combined with the forces of uplift and reform, wouldn’t have been sufficient to bring about a national ban on alcohol, that “vehicle of joy,” to quote Hoover again, had not a source of revenue been found to replace the tariff on booze, which constituted a huge portion of government funds. Enter the 16th Amendment: Most urgently sought by progressives and ratified in 1913, it permitted the federal government to levy income tax on its citizens. It sealed the deal — and in the end was as instrumental as rampant lawlessness in undoing it.

The movement to repeal Prohibition was a vexed and convoluted affair itself, well explained here; but before taking it up, Okrent brings us through the wild years of Prohibition. He describes in entertaining detail the ingenious casuistry and lucrative operations that arose out of the law’s permitting the use of potable alcohol for medical and religious purposes and its allowing a household to produce 200 gallons of fermented fruit juice a year. He also traces the changes in culture and society wrought by illegal drinking: most notably the appearance of women carousing in public, the popularity of entertaining at home, the growth of such tourist destinations as the Caribbean and Las Vegas, and, of course, the evolution and dominion of bootlegging and the rise of organized crime, Prohibition’s most terrible legacy.

Which brings us to Eig’s “Get Capone,” a thoroughgoing account of the rise and fall of America’s most famous bootlegger and gangster. If there is a problem with this excellent book it is only that this reader, at least, kept recoiling from its central character. Al Capone — unlike the subjects of Eig’s previous books, Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson — was a loathsome man. Not in every respect, perhaps: As a bootlegger, or “bootician,” to use Mencken’s term, he did provide a public service. Furthermore, one can’t really criticize him for running gambling operations as even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts does that. But he was a racketeer, brothel owner, and cold-blooded killer who peddled an oily line of ham to the press. “What does a man think about when he’s killing another man in a gang war?” he asked rhetorically during an interview. The answer lay, he explained, in God’s understanding of the “law of self-defense,” and this, he believed, covered “killing a man in defense of your business, the way you make your money to take care of your wife and child.”

It was, in the end, Capone’s love of celebrity and penchant for yakking to the press that doomed him. Resembling a “milk fattened shoat lolling in a mud puddle,” in the words of one uncharitable reporter, Capone became the symbol of the lawlessness and gang warfare sweeping the cities. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was pretty much the last straw — though, as Eig argues convincingly, Capone had nothing to do with it. In fact, thanks to Capone’s keeping his involvement with his organization loose and indirect, it was impossible to nail him with the murders and criminal operations for which he was actually responsible. The man who, in the end, brought him down was district attorney and tax sleuth, George E.Q. Johnson. He is a particular favorite of Eig’s who had the good fortune to gain access to a large cache of Johnson’s papers, neglected for years. Among other revelatory things, they contained transcripts of phone calls tapped by Eliot Ness, another publicity hound, though, as it emerges in this wonderful book, utterly useless in the matter of bringing gangsters to justice.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@verizon.net.