So, as it turns out, alcohol never really was prohibited in the U.S. Some might have done without, but if you wanted it, there were ways – and it wasn’t too tough, really. I know I would not have been a rum rummer, but it sounds like it was probably kind of fun. Loading up boats and keeping ahead of law enforcement, traveling, creative bookkeeping – at the very least, it would have been exciting. And lucrative. The key was to find the right people to bribe. But even if you had to hand out a lot of bribes, it really didn’t make a dent in the bottom line. I read through Chapter 11.
It wasn’t hard to find customers either. Some of them were even law enforcement (although some law enforcement planned raids for when they ran out of their own personal stash, so they could stock up for free. See, selling alcohol was illegal, but having it was not. Some made it themselves, but the very wealthy used the time before Prohibition took effect to build extra wine cellars or storage rooms and stock up on as much legal alcohol they thought they would want.
Others purchased stills and made their own. Every time I think about “moonshine,” I think of Miss Hannigan from Annie, with her bathtub gin. I always thought she was breaking the law by making her own alcohol. Now I’m wondering – did Daddy Warbucks have a private alcohol stash somewhere in that mansion of his? Was this addressed in the film? I don’t remember – do any of you?
The President of the United States had a stash – in this section of the book, the president was Warren G. Harding, and evidently he had plenty of alcohol-filled parties while in the White House. Reading about one hypocrite after another made me think of marijuana – I wonder how many politicians vote against legalization and enjoy at least a puff every once in awhile.
It was also legal to take alcohol through the United States on the way somewhere else. Some rumrunners would officially transport liquor from, say Canada to South America – if something (wink, wink) fell off the truck on the way down, well – that wasn’t anyone’s fault. One woman in Canada made her own alcohol – really, her own, just for her own use – that was what she told investigators anyway; it’s common for a single person to drink ten bottles a day, isn’t it? Another story Okrent tells is of a U.S town just across the Canadian border. There was a raid, so the people went out in the snow to hide their bottles of wine, but law enforcement found some of it. They started breaking the bottles and dumping out the alcohol. What would you do if you witnessed something like this? We are told that some dropped to the ground and started eating snow.
Honestly, to me it is a wonder that we kept up the pretense of prohibition for as long as we did. I guess the Anti-Saloon League must have been really powerful for so many politicians to vote for it when they very clearly had no intention of following the law. I feel as though the theme for this post is “history repeats itself” – so many politicians get into trouble (at least by being publicly humiliated because they did something they politically object to.
One more bit of trivia – some of the words we use today came out of this period in our history. My favorite example of this (and yes – I fact checked it) is the term scofflaw. The word was the winning entry in a radio contest to come up with a word to refer to the countless rumrunners/bootleggers who deliberately broke U.S. law in this regard.