Top 10 unintended consequences of Prohibition — Mistakes Were Made

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The purpose behind the 18th amendment (Prohibition) was pure. Its advocates thought the law would cure the country of alcoholism, family violence, and political corruption. Sounded good in theory, but the actual practice of Prohibition opened up a lot of unintended consequences that weren’t foreseen. In the 13 years Prohibition was alive, a lot of secondary effects popped up that made Prohibition a mistake. I will discuss the top 10 of many unintended consequences of Prohibition.

When prohibition took effect in January 1920, it put many bars out of business. Americans’ thirst for alcohol never ceased. Whenever there is a demand in the market, supply will meet it and these factors led to the rise of illegal speakeasies. The number of illegal speakeasies exploded during the Prohibition era. In New York City alone, there were between 20,000 -100,000 illegal speakeasies in operation.

Speakeasies were private unlicensed barrooms. the name speakeasies, originates from the need to speak the password low so as not to be overheard by law enforcement. Operation areas of speakeasies ranged from fancy clubs, to dingy backrooms, basements and rooms inside apartments.

Speakeasies were ill-kept secrets. Owners routinely paid off police officers to look the other way, enjoy free drinks or tip them off about upcoming raids by prohibition agents. The owners went through great lengths to hide their liquor stashes. In the 21st Club in New York City, the owners had the club architect build a custom camouflaged door, a secret wine cellar behind a false wall and a bar that would drop liquor bottles down a shoot and then crash and drain into the cellar.

When Prohibition was repealed the speakeasies closed or morphed into licensed barrooms and resumed serving liquor that’s subject to federal regulations and taxes.

2. Underground distilleries

Family moonshiners were among many small and big time illegal alcohol producers during Prohibition. Most of these operations bottled their own liquor. Bootleggers operated in large cities, rural areas, farms, forests. Wherever a bootlegging operation could be set up, bootlegging was occurring. The Prohibition Bureau agents seized almost 697,000 stills nationwide from 1921 to 1925. From 1928 to 1929, the bureau confiscated 11,416 stills, 15,700 distilleries and 1.1 million gallons of alcohol. Commercial stills could put out 50 to 100 gallons a day at a cost of 50 cents a gallon and sell each one for between $3 — $12.

Bootleggers got the materials needed to bootleg from regular hardware and grocery stores. With the simple purchase of gallon stills, bottles, malt syrup, corn sugar, corn syrup, hops, yeast and bottle cappers, an average American could get into the liquor bootlegging business. Popular grocery store chains like Kroger and A&P sold malt syrup, which was a popular beer making ingredient in cans. The bureau estimates 700 million gallons of homemade beer made in 1929.

Mobsters bought up closed breweries and distilleries and hired former employees to make their old products illegally. Other mobsters “convinced” brewers of near beer to make real beer.

Homemade winemaking was exempted under the Volstead act (laws that defined the rules of Prohibition.) This omission led to a surge in home fermented wines and related businesses during Prohibition. From 1925 to 1929, 679 million gallons of homemade wine was consumed- triple the amount they drank in in the five years leading up to prohibition. The acreage of wine grapes grown in California expanded from 97,000 to 681,000. Prices for those wine grapes went from $9.50 in 1919 to $375 in 1924. Wine companies that are still around today that were open pre-prohibition stayed afloat by making wine bricks they sold to consumers and sacramental wine. Most wineries today in the U.S. opened after 1933.

4. Rise of organized crime

The demand for outlawed alcohol was so great during Prohibition, that it made household names out of people who could fulfill those needs, people like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. Prohibition made them and other mobsters very rich. The mob kingpins are projected to have pulled in as much as $100 million a year in the 1920s (1.4 billion in 2020). The mobsters were also spending half a million dollars a month in bribes to police, politicians, and federal investigators.

The mobsters were making so much money they had to figure out ways to hide it. Money laundering was one way, the mobsters used to hide their money. Loads of Prohibition revenue went into funding and building new casinos in Nevada. They sent money to Switzerland, where bankers would cover the mobsters money trail and reinvest the funds into legitimate businesses. Loan sharking became a major industry for the mobsters. In the latter years of Prohibition, when the Great Depression was in full swing, the mobsters were the only ones rolling in cash. The mobsters loaned out the money at high interest rates and if payments weren’t fulfilled, broken bones among other things occurred.

After Prohibition was ended, The mob reinvested into secondary businesses like drugs, gambling and prostitution.

5. Abuse of medicinal use alcohol

Another exemption under the 18th Amendment was the ability of physicians to write prescriptions for medicinal alcohol, As crazy as the idea seems today, physicians gave out prescriptions for alcohol pre- Prohibition, so the exemption kept the practice in place. Patients could pay $3 for a prescription and another $3 or $4 to have the prescription filled with a pint of booze. Both sides abused this exemption, as doctors saw it as a way to make extra money by prescribing bogus prescriptions and patients saw it as a legal way to get alcohol. It is estimated that they gave 6 million alcohol prescriptions out during Prohibition.

The windfall from legal alcohol sale helped a small pharmacy chain named Walgreen’s grow from a minor operation of 20 locations to 500 in the 1920s and set the groundwork for it to become the chain you know today.

6. Rise of sacramental wine usage

Another exemption was wine for religious sacramental purposes. Church attendance increased during Prohibition. There was also a subsequent increase in fake priests or rabbis. According to Kathleen Morgan Drowne in her book “Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz age literature, 1920–1933,” “One of William Faulkner’s own personal bootleggers was allegedly a young New Orleans priest who took his customers orders in the belfry of the St. Louis Cathedral.” Georges de Latour was a Catholic and friend of the archbishop of San Francisco and also a bootlegger. One perk of this friendship was the archbishop insisted all the priests in his diocese buy their wine from Latour. They still make sacramental wine today, though at a much lower rate and only for religious ceremonies.

7. Individual states refusal to enforce Prohibition.

The 18th Amendment and the Volstead act stipulated individual states should enforce Prohibition within their own borders. A few states never enforced the Amendment or spent a scant amount of resources on enforcing it. Maryland never enacted an enforcement code. New York repealed its measures in 1923. The Governors of New Jersey and Washington flat out stated they wouldn’t enforce the 19th amendment.

8. Poor quality alcohol killed U.S. citizens.

Alot of the alcohol made by these budding bootleggers was not of the best quality or up to the standards of professional alcohol makers. To get their hands on alcohol, many of the bootleggers used industrial alcohol, which was intended for uses in fuel and medical supplies. The Federal Government, seeing the rise in use of industrial alcohol, ordered producers of industrial alcohol to add quinine, methyl alcohol and other toxic chemicals. The government ordered these additives to deter the use in bootlegging. The act did not deter bootlegging or consumption, and it’s estimated that at least 10,000 people were killed by consuming the poisoned alcohol.

9. Rise of alcohol smuggling

Alcohol craving customers with income to spare were rejecting foul tasting and industrial alcohol blended alcohol and wanted the real thing. In steps rum runners to fulfill the need and market.

Shipments of whiskey from Great Britain traveled to Nassau and other Caribbean countries for illicit importation to America’s east coast and New Orleans. Ships smuggled whiskey distilled in Canada or across land to the west coast, Midwest and east coast. Rum, imported champagne, and other alcohol also made it to U.S. soil. One stretch of ocean from New York to Atlantic City was known as “Rum Row.” It was conveniently 12 miles out in international waters to avoid the U.S. Coast guards.

Smugglers used many ways to hide their stash during transport. Ship captains sailed boats with false bottoms filled with liquor. Automobile smugglers would hide their liquor under false floorboards, fake gas tanks, tires, or even on school buses. Large smuggler ships sold their cargos for $200.000 or more. A single smuggling run could fetch thousands of dollars.

Many drivers would change their cars for speed and handling to evade law enforcement. Even after Prohibition ended, some smugglers still transported moonshine down south illegally to evade taxes and the people who collected them. Races between these cars started being featured in the 1940s. These races became so popular in the South, that it eventually morphed into what we know today as NASCAR.

10. Harder to get a drink after Prohibition ended.

One of the many ironies of Prohibition is that it was harder to get a drink after it ended for some folks then while it was in law. Age limits to drinking were introduced after Prohibition. Some counties till this day have laws stating no selling of alcohol on Sunday’s. Bars close after certain hours, whereas illegal speakeasies stayed open 24/7. 10 states still contain counties where alcohol sales are prohibited outright. Kansas and Oklahoma remained dry until 1948 and 1959. Mississippi didn’t allow liquor sales until 1966.

Originally published at on November 21, 2020.

Written by

recovering Lawyer, History buff who wants to share my knowledge with the world . To teach them lessons from our past. see all of the stories on

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