Prohibition-era New York
History of New York
Virtual Guidebook of Prohibition New York
Throughout history, dating back millennia, mankind has consistently accomplished two things, no matter the terrain, distance, or culture. These two things have shaped human history, they are two of the leading causes in conflict and conflict resolution, and governments have ineffectively attempted to ban both from their nations, watching them instead thrive underground and flourish in the fall of those laws. These two things that are integral to the very creation of human civilization are religion, and alcohol. Although more than a few nations and faiths have fought with alcohol before, the American Prohibition movement can trace its roots to the 1820’s, with the religious-based Temperance movement. Although it would not actually come to be law until a hundred years after, it built the foundation which would become the 18th amendment. Although the law only lasted a little over a decade, in a busy trade city with a massively diverse immigrant population like New York, the results were distinct and profound. From police raids on suspect secret breweries to the mafia smuggling alcohol, New York during prohibition was a beast of its own.
To decision to outlaw the production, transportation, and distribution of alcohol did not sweep the nation overnight. Although the idea of temperance can’t be put on a calendar, a major milestone in the movement would be the foundation of the American Temperance Society on February 13th, 1826(1). Initially founded in Boston, the ATS would spread across the nation and similar organizations, such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. Although the roots of the movement are found in a Christian base, the reasons for temperance expanded past that. The temperance movement was primarily championed by women, and as such is even today looked back on as a “Women’s Issue”. This was due to alcoholism becoming a growing problem in the working classes, and alcoholism being directly correlated to domestic abuse. Success was limited at first, gaining support in a handful of rural religious communities, but the rising tide of the Progressive era brought the social reform of temperance with it. Bundled with the ideas of child labor laws and reform for women’s work, temperance was brought to center stage as a solution to the poor living conditions of the urban working class. Still, many cities were slow to take on legislature to ban alcohol, and none were slower than the “Liquor Center of America”(2), New York City.
It would be fair to say that New York City never truly accepted prohibition. Laws were passed, an amendment ratified, and even police task forces trained to enforce these laws, but the City of Immigrants never gave in. As mentioned before, every culture has alcohol, brought to New York by the immigrants who came seeking a new life. In a city as diverse and hard working as New York, drinking was the only the thing all the different ethnic and cultural groups had in common. Try as hard as they might, alcohol was something older than law itself, it wouldn’t be so easily taken away. Prominent leader and lobbyist of the Anti-Saloon League William Anderson came to New York, expecting a gritty ten to twenty year war of attrition against the city in an effort to bring Prohibition to the largest city in the country after having personally shut down half of the saloons in Philadelphia. Instead, it took five years for the 18th amendment to be ratified by 36 states, New York included(3). Anderson believed this was a victory he could retire on, not only had national Prohibition been achieved, but New York itself had supported it. What Anderson and many other teetotalers did not understand was that although state politicians had written a law, enforcing the law was a war of its own.
The United States government established the Bureau of Prohibition to fight this new war, a federal task force with the sole purpose of cracking down on illegal alcohol trade and manufacturing. It met moderate success, and brought down numerous large scale operations and speakeasies across the country. Unfortunately, in the early days of the Bureau, many agents hired on were not the veteran detectives of local departments, they were new hires and budgeting the Bureau was an unforeseen obstacle. As such, many of these new federal agents were undertrained, underpaid, and underprepared for the coming war with alcohol. One such anecdote is that of the Bornstein brothers, a duo who ran a warehouse that imported alcohol and distributed it to speakeasies and other businesses. One night, Agent George Golding investigated the warehouse, and found a truck full of liquor ready to be shipped. He questioned the two brothers, asking if they had the proper permit to allow such business. The brothers responded not only by saying they did not need one, but also said they were surprised any officer would come to their warehouse, on account of them paying off the majority of the department. They offered Golding a $200 bribe, and when he refused, they offered $20,000(4). The brothers were arrested, revealing that bribery was more than common practice, it was a business expense. Within the first year of the Bureau’s run in the state of New York, more than 100 of the 200 agents were dismissed and the State Director Frank Boyd resigned, saying that the job was “A hopeless and thankless task”(5)
As the Bureau reconsidered its methods and magistrates began to swelter under enormous piles of new criminal cases, “businesses” such as the Bornstein’s continued to grow. It would be this era of Prohibition, known as the “Roaring Twenties”, that the infamous Mafia would make a name for itself. Originating as Italian run shipping ports, these crime families had humble roots as numerous groups of Italian and Sicilian families who saw the opportunity that was presented to them(6). Many Italians that worked the docks had a strong tie to the homeland culture and poor relations with much of the WASP community, and so they banded together to establish smuggling rings that imported alcohol from foreign nations that had no such Prohibition laws. Already being prejudiced against by law enforcement, many of these “bravados” or in Sicilian, Mafia, had no moral qualms about opening and operating saloons and clubs across the city. It did not take long for the business to grow, and within a few years these speakeasies would make $5000 a week(7). Much to the chagrin of the dry crusaders, most neighborhoods in New York had no desire to change their lifestyles, and carried on as they always had. The only difference at this point in time was that rather than have the trucks drop the beer off in front of the restaurant, the men had different accents and pulled up around back.
Prohibition was falling apart at the seems. The nation was falling deeper and deeper in to depression, and crime across the board was on the rise. The only people that seemed to be making money, and it looked as though they were making more of it than before, were those in the alcohol business. From the lowest rum-peddler selling watered down beer out under a bridge, to Lucky Luciano running the East Coast mob, it seemed the only money that was changing hands was that going in to booze. This was bad enough on its own, but the nail in the coffin of Prohibition was the fact that the only market that was still turning a profit and making jobs, wasn’t paying any taxes. Before Prohibition, nearly 15% of the nation’s income came from alcohol(8). With that, the United States government was given two options. Spend money it didn’t have to hire an army of police officers to comb the nation for bathtub breweries and mob distilleries, or bury the 18th amendment and reinstate the alcohol tax. On February 20th, 1933, Congress proposed the Twenty First amendment, which would repeal the 18th. Within a year, the amendment was overwhelmingly ratified. On December 5th, 1933, Americans across the nation rose a glass to the death of Prohibition. In New York, they rose the entire bottle. Alcohol returned to the top shelf, and alcohol taxed money helped usher in a wave of infrastructure development and job creation that brought New York City out of the Great Depression, one bottle at a time.
1: “The Alcoholic Republic: Temperance in the United States.” The Journal of Presbyterian History (1997-) 81, no. 1 (2003): 61
2: Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, Harvard University Press, 2009. Pg. 14
3: “PROHIBITION IN NEW YORK CITY.” Outlook (1893-1924) (Apr 28, 1920): 741.
4: Hamm, Richard F. “THE RADICAL PROHIBITION MOVEMENT AND THE LIQUOR INDUSTRY.” In Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment: Temperance Reform, Legal Culture, and the Polity, 1880-1920, 19-55. University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Pg 192
5: Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, Harvard University Press, 2009. Pg. 71
6: Mangione, Jerre. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience, New York, 1993. Pg 341.
7: Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, Harvard University Press, 2009. Pg. 71
8: Rohs, Edward, and Judith Estrine. “New York City in the Nineteenth Century.” In Raised by the Church: Growing up in New York City’s Catholic Orphanages, 13-20. Fordham University Press, 2012. Pg 17
1. PRIZE PAPERS ON PRACTICAL QUESTIONS. (1890, 08). Belford’s Magazine (1888-1891), 5, 399. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.shu.edu/docview/124517152?accountid=13793
a. Anti-prohibition piece that argues prohibition greatly restricts and infringes on constitutional freedom, and the right to a free market but banning the transportation and creation of alcohol, and how NYC and its commerce is hit hard.
2. “PROHIBITION IN NEW YORK CITY.” Outlook (1893-1924) (Apr 28, 1920): 741. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.shu.edu/docview/136987473?accountid=13793.
a. Pro—prohibition news article, saying prohibition has decreased number of injuries and ambulance calls in NYC
3. Case, G. L. (1889, 02). THE PROHIBITION PARTY: ITS ORIGIN, PURPOSE AND GROWTH. Magazine of Western History (1884-1891), 9, 373. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.shu.edu/docview/137690406?accountid=13793
a. Newspaper article outlining with some details the creation of the temperance party and the foundation of the Prohibition movement, specifically New York. Article focuses on the meeting that would be the foundation for the entirety of the prohibition movement and the 18th amendment.
1. HAMM, RICHARD F. “THE RADICAL PROHIBITION MOVEMENT AND THE LIQUOR INDUSTRY.” In Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment: Temperance Reform, Legal Culture, and the Polity, 1880-1920, 19-55. University of North Carolina Press, 1995. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.shu.edu/stable/10.5149/9780807861875_hamm.5.
a. This book focuses on the relation between prohibition and its effect on industry and commerce. Although it does touch on the lives of people, it mostly focuses on the legal and social fight, and how it affected liquor and the industry tied to it.
2. “The Alcoholic Republic: Temperance in the United States.” The Journal of Presbyterian History (1997-) 81, no. 1 (2003): 60-63. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.shu.edu/stable/23336440.
a. This journal is brief, but focuses on the religious aspect of the temperance movement, why it succeeded at first but eventually failed. It focuses on the religious heritage of the entire temperance fight as well as the historical significance.
3. Rohs, Edward, and Judith Estrine. “New York City in the Nineteenth Century.” In Raised by the Church: Growing up in New York City’s Catholic Orphanages, 13-20. Fordham University Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.shu.edu/stable/j.ctt13wzxsn.8.
a. This book is focused on New York City as whole during the 1800’s, so although most of the book has minor relevance to the topic of prohibition, the last few chapters do address the rising temperance movement
4. Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, Harvard University Press, 2009.
a. A book entirely on New York City during prohibition, it covers the beginning of the movement, the ratification of the amendment in the city, life during the 18th, and life during and after the repeal. It is my most invaluable tool during this assignment.
5. Mangione, Jerre. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience, New York, 1993
The 18th Amendment banned the sale, transportation, and production of alcohol. This effectively prohibited the existence of alcohol in daily life in America. But by the letter of the law, ownership of alcohol was perfectly legal, so long as it was made pre-Prohibition and it wasn’t sold or moved elsewhere. This meant ...
At the end of a long, hard day in New York City, men and women from all races, countries, and classes treated themselves to a well-earned drink at their local bar. When all the bars shut down in January of 1920, all these people had no where to go, and more importantly, no where ...
The United States government established the Bureau of Prohibition to fight this new war, a federal task force with the sole purpose of cracking down on illegal alcohol trade and manufacturing. It met moderate success, and brought down numerous large scale operations and speakeasies across the country. Unfortunately, in the early days of the Bureau, ...
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles make for more than just a setting for a movie. If it moved, smugglers found a way to load it up with booze and bring it to market. Although plenty of trucks, trains, and people brought alcohol in to the city, it was hard to match the shipping industry ...
Music, dancing, having a good time with friends and strangers alike. What’s not to love about a night out on the town, enjoying New York’s nightlife? It certainly didn’t hurt that Speakeasies were the best way to get a drink in a Dry America. Bars didn’t just undergo a name change with ...
Prohibition didn’t just happen over night, so much as it was the result of decades of lobbying and fighting on a local and national level for the ban of alcohol. Starting in rural America and working its way in, the Temperance movement saw alcohol as the cause of most social issues that Progressives were ...