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We've all heard, of course, that pubs that don't serve food are to stay closed as part of the current covid restrictions, and it has led to suggestions from the Vintners Federation that there are shebeens popping up around the country and apparently there are, and that the sale of alcohol and other licences should actually be paused for a few weeks, effectively calling for a prohibition.
So we thought that we would get a good old historian to to to remind us of that of that era. If we're going to go back to a notion of speakeasies and bootlegging and everything else in our 100 years after prohibition was introduced in America. So broadcaster and historian Moises Dongen joins me now to remind us of how that played out.
So, Miles, good afternoon.
Good afternoon, Brendan.
So tell me, how how did the whole move to ban alcohol start in the first place?
I suppose you could say it went back to the to the 19th century and to temperance movements in the 19th century right across America. And they actually banned alcohol in a number of states and a number of counties in the county of Maine or the state of Maine, for example, in 1851, it was banned. A dozen states followed that kind of petered out during the civil war and then it came back and makes a comeback in the 1980s.
Women, I believe our own father, Matthew, from Cork, the great temperance crusader, he went out to America. Did he?
He did. He spent two years in America, in actual fact. And he had a a temperance movement in America named after him. So he was there for about two and a half years. He visited 25 different states. He was accepted in the in the White House. And then he came back to he came back to the world. And at that stage was one of the many temperance movements of the late the late 19th century was it was named after the nights of Father Matthew.
You can't be a cork fanatic. Can. So anyway, he was the first wave. So tell us about the about the actual wave then that that brought that started the process to bring prohibition about? Well, it never kind of went away.
And you had particularly organizations like the Women's Christian Temperance Union and women were very prominent here. But women are not allowed to saloons in those days, which was very different to the speakeasies. And you would have women outside saloons that they would be they would have prayer meetings outside saloons. You had a very fascinating woman called Carrie Nation, for example, and she was a prohibitionist, except she was a very muscular what she was sort of known as carry the hatchet, because she would always carry a hatchet and she would go into bars, break them up before she was arrested with the hatches and arrested, I think, of something like 30 occasions.
So this movement was growing. It was very evangelical, Protestant, very Methodist, very Baptist. Episcopalians and Catholics didn't tend to get involved. And but the weird and interesting thing from my point of view and from I think anybody's point of view nowadays is that it was something that joined together and united Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives. It was a kind of hands across the aisle movement that would be absolutely unthinkable today. And this is how they were able to push prohibition through because the president at the time, Woodrow, was opposed to it when legislation was was brought to him.
He would veto it, but they actually had enough votes in the House of Representatives and the Senate. They had a two thirds majority in order to overturn those sorts of things that made it possible.
OK, so this was there was very broad agreement across all sectors about this was it was the mainstream of thinking?
Very much so in terms of the political world, as it were. And also there was a lot of the kind of nudge, nudge, wink, wink politics going on that we would very much recognize in Ireland, which was that the politicos can do what they want, but we will continue to do what we want. So Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans, you know, while they didn't actively fight against it to some extent, but they didn't do so strongly and often firmly enough authority to be able to resist it.
They were fully intent on getting on with their own lives and going on with their own lives and keeping doing what they were doing anyway. So there was, you know, just this sort of very American frication on the was on the one hand, you know, do as I say, and then on the other hand, don't do as I do.
And was there a total ban on. Alcohol Miles. Well, no, not a total ban, there was a ban on the on the sale and on the transportation of alcohol. So you weren't allowed to manufacturing it, but you weren't allowed to manufacture it. You weren't allowed to manufacture it. And breweries are distilleries anymore. You weren't allowed to sell those. You weren't allowed to transport it. So you weren't allowed to import it from Canada or Mexico, for example.
But things like ultra wine, for example, ultra wine was still allowed. And believe it or not, the sales of ultra wine in the USA absolutely rocketed during this period because everybody went back to the church because they weren't drinking.
See, that's what I suddenly precisely you can if you want to believe that, Brendan, you can't go right ahead.
And so listen, then, obviously, the real world kicks in. And, you know, the standard narrative we have of the time of prohibition is like, you know, Rome running bottle of gin speakeasies and all that. Tell us about the kind of culture that developed.
Well, it was a culture, you know, a culture of illegality, basically, because, you know, as far as people were concerned, as far as reality and reality, over a period of time, the majority of Americans, Americans were concerned this was bad law and they weren't going to have anything to do with it. And, of course, you know, in any crisis, there's an opportunity of the opportunity presented itself for criminal elements, Irish, American, Jewish, American, but particularly Italian American criminal elements who moved in and who took over the manufacture of the sale and the distribution of alcohol.
And they were distributed to speakeasies. As you say, there were thousands of of speakeasies, 5000 speakeasies on the island of Manhattan alone. And these were controlled by the same way as, you know, pubs in the U.K. are controlled by breweries. These were controlled, largely controlled by by criminal elements and operate fairly openly or operating fairly openly.
Operating pretty openly.
Yes. No, I mean, you they were clubs and there was a code word. So you had to kind of knock three times and ask for Joe type of thing. But, you know, they were operating openly because they had their insurance policies and their insurance policies would not have been taken. Those with major insurance corporations, they would have been taken out by bribing and corrupting local politicians and local policemen. So more or less they were left alone.
The only people who weren't really involved in this corruption, where the feds were, you know, organizations were the IRS, for example, and there was a bureau prohibition. So these were federal government institutions which were not susceptible to corruption in the same way policemen in Chicago or New York would be. And they were the people who got stuck into the gangsters and who attempted to close down a lot of these speakeasies. But, you know, with the speakeasy was absolutely rampant.
And like, I suppose a lot of what we think of as the culture of the roaring 20s is kind of is actually kind of speakeasy based, isn't it? Like the coffee club, for example, and, you know, that whole Jazz Age thing.
Yeah, we've always been led to believe on kind of bathtub gin was that well, you have to wonder whether a lot of the culture of the 1920s of the so-called roaring 20s would have happened anyway. But, you know, probably not. You mentioned the Cotton Club, which was although it was in Harlem and although its associated with black performers, it was actually owned by a supposedly Irish American criminal. Odioma was actually born in Leeds, but he was from an Irish family.
But I mean, you know, whether whether the Charleston would have happened, whether songs like Basin Street Blues, Honeysuckle Rose, Everybody Loves My Baby would have happened, whether novels like The Great Gatsby would have happened. Gatsby himself is obviously suspected of being a bootlegger. Whether these things would have happened, who knows. And also, one of the crucial things about speakeasies was that women were welcome in speakeasies in a way that they never were in saloons and women had just got the vote.
So to some extent, it was part of that kind of gender. Gender was democratisation of America. But, you know, it was all illegal and there was rampant disrespect for the law because the law was bad, law fell into disrepute.
And why was it a success on any level, prohibition? Well, on some levels it was a success. I mean, first of all, excuse me, historians dispute the level of illegality at the time. But the important thing, I think, is that there was a huge perception of illegality, whether there was a huge and a massive upsurge in. Organized crime, who knows that it certainly did help was the first rung of the ladder for organized crime.
But yes, I mean, one thing you can quantify are some of the things you can quantify is that there was a reduction in alcohol consumption, but there was an improvement in the physical and the mental health of Americans. And, you know, that has been that has been measured. So in that sense, prohibition wasn't all bad, but it was still he was described as the noble experiment. It was still when it comes to oil and when you add in all the factors, it was still a failure.
And how did they get rid of it then? Well, it came to an end because it increasingly fell into disrepute. Even its initial supporters became disillusioned with it. You then, of course, towards the end of the 1920s, you have the Wall Street crash, you have the Great Depression, and you have a huge problem with revenues, because one of the things that occurred during this period was that government revenues fell because obviously excise duties and taxes on alcohol weren't being collected.
And that was fine in an era of Republican domination where taxes were being cut and whether it was, you know, where the economy was booming. But when the economy began to falter and that ultimately failed, there was a huge need for these taxes to be restored. So that was one of the reasons why, you know, people like FDR and even Herbert Hoover, when he ran against FDR to try and retain his presidency in 1932, advocated the end of prohibition, but also because of the fact that during the progressive era you had hard at which, you know, prior to the First World War, you had had the beginning of the end of the corruption of local politics, for example.
That was a big clean note. Unfortunately, prohibition simply reimposed that level of corruption, of policing of government officials, of, you know, of officials at all levels of politics and an administration. So, you know, that had to that had to end or that had to begin to end, as it were. And it did begin to end with the end of prohibition.
OK, fascinating. Gary Murphy still here with me.
As much as I know, there was a great phrase. You know, FDR, you've nothing to fear but fear itself. Deponent that at the time was there is nothing to fear but fear itself, which kind of summed up the ludicrous nature of of prohibition. As Miles pointed out, it was clearly in tune with the sort of religious fervor that dominated the United States in the first two decades of the 20th century. You know, that drink was the work of the devil and and whatnot.
And yet it also came with the whole point of the deregulation of business during the 1920s.
But it had only by FDR are we seeing a bit of that moral fervor around here.
Know that kind of around like young people are congregating, drinking what we discussed earlier on?
No, we are clearly and put you know, young people have to live their lives will be my view. And that's one of the difficulties as regards the whole of the Lockton culture. But on prohibition itself, you know, it wasn't even a noble experiment on the grounds that there was no no ability to deal religious and carry on of local politicians and policemen who not only turned a blind eye, but, you know, put their at the same time to collect vast amounts of money from their speakeasies.
OK, miles long. And that was fascinating. Thank you very much. And I do want to correct one thing. A lot of angry texters. Father Matthew was actually from Tipperary.
OK, I'm happy to correct that. And you know, what can I say on behalf of Coffeeville? You could have. You can have them. All right. Let's take a break.
Email Brendan at Desai.