June 22, 2016

The Bookworm: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition


Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent. 438 pages. Scribner. 2010.

In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure. It encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy. It deprived the government of revenue, stripped the gears of the political system, and imposed profound limitations on individual rights. It fostered a culture of bribery, blackmail, and official corruption. It also maimed and murdered, its excesses apparent in deaths by poison, by the brutality of ill-trained, improperly supervised enforcement officers, and by unfortunate proximity to mob gun battles. (p. 373)

Believe it or not, I’m still reading — I just have not been able to read as much as I would like. (I hope to change that soon, though.) On Saturday, however, I was finally able to finish Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, a well-written and insanely interesting history of the rise, reign, and fall of the federal prohibition of intoxicating alcohol in the United States.

Don’t ask me why I remember this, but I bought Last Call at the Haunted Bookshop on Halloween in 2014. At the register, the store’s owner told me that her small hometown in Iowa was essentially ruled by a teetotaling matriarch who kept the town dry until her death in the fifties or sixties. It’s a nice little tidbit I thought I would mention, and also a testament to Prohibition’s lasting legacy and effect on the country.

Last Call traces the path to the Eighteenth Amendment with a history of America’s alcohol-sodden formative years, the teetotalers and temperance movements of the nineteenth centuries, and brewery-tied saloons. It shows how “a popular movement like none the nation had ever seen — a mighty alliance of moralists and progressives, suffragists and xenophobes — had legally seized the Constitution, bending it to a new purpose (p. 1).” Okrent profiles the powerful Anti-Saloon League and its leader, Wayne B. Wheeler, who wrote the book on lobbying and political pressure, and according to an ASL associate, “controlled six Congresses, dictated to two Presidents, held the balance of power in both Republican and Democratic parties, distributed more patronage than any dozen other men, supervised a federal bureau from the outside without official authority, and was recognized by friend and foe alike as the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States (p. 41).”

Even after Prohibition became the law of the land, Americans kept drinking, and Last Call recounts the many ways in which alcohol was made available. From the flotilla of boats that crisscrossed the Detroit River, satiating Detroit with cargoes of booze from Windsor; the entrepreneurs who smuggled alcohol via the island of St. Pierre, a French territory conveniently located next to Newfoundland; the booze cruises to Caribbean islands; the Rum Rows of alcohol-laden ships anchored off major coastal cities; the exceptions for medicinal whiskey, sacramental wine, and industrial alcohol that were exploited to extremes; to the over-the-counter kits that told customers specifically what not to do to turn the product into wine or beer. Okrent spotlights the hypocrisy of politicians and officials who were publicly dry but privately wet, the vast bribery and corruption that crippled local enforcement in major cities, and the impossible burden on the court system to process Volstead Act violations.

Less than fourteen years after it began, Prohibition was dead, the victim, Orkent shows, of its own overreach and intrusion into Americans’ private lives, blatant socioeconomic hypocrisy (the rich believed in Prohibition so long as it did not affect them), the prospect of replacing the income tax with money generated from alcohol sales, and the Great Depression.

Last Call is well-written and enjoyable. It reshaped and refined my view of Prohibition. Based on the basic history I received in high school and its portrayals in pop culture, Prohibition always brings to mind images of barrels of bootleg booze broken open by axes, their contents flowing into gutters, and speakeasies only accessible by passwords passed through peep holes. There was some of that during Prohibition, but for the most part it was nowhere near as universal as I had believed. As recounted in Last Call, Prohibition was a logistical nightmare and useless uphill climb in districts where it was strictly enforced. In other places, like San Francisco, it was completely ignored.

I don’t usually drink beer when I read, but needless to say, I could not resist thoroughly enjoying a cold one while reading about the “dry” times in Last Call.