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Drying Out America: Prohibition Begins

Even before the country’s formal inception, Americans had been a hard-drinking bunch, and the social and private costs they paid for it had been high. But on January 16, 1920, the nation undertook a “noble experiment” to rid itself of the effects of “demon rum.” It was called Prohibition, and it was a spectacular failure.

There is some statistical evidence that Americans drank less after Prohibition started than they did before it began. But overall, the ban on booze was a bad idea. For one thing, it encouraged otherwise law-abiding citizens to visit speakeasies where alcohol was sold illegally.

The number of “speaks” in New York City at the end of the decade, for example, was probably double the number of legal saloons at the beginning.

Gangsters like “Scarface” Al Capone and George “Bugs” Moran made fortunes selling bootleg booze, and they became celebrities doing it, despite the violence that was their normal business tool. Capone’s Chicago mob took in $60 million a year at its peak — and murdered more than 300 people while doing it.

But bullets weren’t the gangsters’ only tools. They also bought off or bullied scores of federal, state, and local officials to look the other way, which only added to public disrespect for law and government.

Part of the disrespect for government was well deserved. Even though Congress and a string of presidents paid lip service to the idea of Prohibition to make the anti-liquor lobby happy, many of the politicians were regular customers for the bootleggers. Congress provided only 1,550 federal agents to enforce the ban throughout the entire country, and criminal penalties for bootlegging were relatively light.

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