Prohibition – “The Great Experiment”


By Bob Boldman - Contributing Columnist



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In Portsmouth in 1874 local churches began a crusade condemning the selling of liquor. It was estimated that there were eight wholesale liquor houses in the city accruing a handsome profit. Forty-nine saloons with booming businesses were raking in the cash, from many a thirsty patron. In the Elmer Swords book; “The Story of Portsmouth,” he describes, “Bands of women from the churches visited the saloons and prayed almost daily for two months, convincing 17 persons that they should quit selling liquor, and obtained almost 1,000 signatures on a pledge to quit drinking.” It would take around 45 years for the government to intercede and declare complete abstinence from all forms of alcohol.

Defined by American president Herbert Hoover as “a great social and economic experiment”, the Volstead act became the law of the land. Prohibition affected every city, town and village – thus creating an unquenchable thirst for years to come. Portsmouth would cease to hear the raucous roar of the saloons and parlors, where the devils brew was served. Through examination, I traveled back in time to see how prohibition began and why it became a law.

In the British Magazine “History Extra,” it states – “With America’s entry into the First World War in 1917, prohibition was linked to grain conservation. It was also aimed at brewers, many of whom were of German descent. Limits on alcohol production were enacted first as a war measure in 1918, and prohibition became fully established with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and its enforcement from January 1920 onward. Described by Herbert Hoover, US president from 1929-1933, as “a great social and economic experiment”, prohibition had a considerable impact on American society before its repeal in 1933. The 18th Amendment to the constitution prohibiting the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcohol was adopted by both houses of Congress in December 1917 and ratified by the necessary two-thirds of the states on 16 January 1919. The amendment was implemented by the National Prohibition Act (known as the Volstead Act after Andrew Volstead, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a leading prohibitionist) in October 1919. Under the terms of the act, prohibition began on 17 January 1920. The act defined ‘intoxicating liquor’ as anything that contained one half of one per cent alcohol by volume, but allowed the sale of alcohol for medicinal, sacramental, or industrial purposes.”

Portsmouth went dry, and all those filled with a hankering for liquor – would get their just punishment. Repent and be cleansed, might have been the cry of the Prohibitionist! But did the alcohol cease to exist and/or be acquired? Not in the least, stills and clandestine brewing hide-a-ways – were located throughout all of Scioto County. It was now becoming a lucrative business for some and a giant headache for the law to enforce.

In the Swords book, it is told that a still was raided on Court Street in Portsmouth. “In October 1929, Prohibition was rounding out its tenth year. It had been proved to be unpopular with a large segment of the population, and homemade stills were found in many places. On October 27, 1929, patrolmen Kenneth Carter, Leslie Hunt, William Aubrey and George Sheets went to a house at Third and Court streets in search of liquor. Two of the officers went into the basement and two searched upstairs. Hunt and Carter found a trap door in the wall of the basement which led to another room. The officers tried the door, but it was locked. And the persons inside refused to unlock the door. Hunt picked up a shovel and tried to pry the door open without success. He then backed away and struck the door with his shoulder. It opened and the impact of the door struck one of (two) women inside and knocked her to the floor. She started screaming and claimed Hunt had struck her with the shovel. Her screams attracted a large crowd to the scene as the officers took the women and 10 gallons of home brew mash to the station.”

The period of Prohibition lasted From January 1920 until December 5th, 1933. During those years many a crook made a pile of money-thus the advent of organized crime. Speakeasies and other dens of iniquity would spring up – mostly in the larger cities. In Scioto County with its hills and hollers’ many a still was being tended and if you were to venture in the vicinity of one of those stills – most likely you would be met with a volley of buckshot.

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By Bob Boldman

Contributing Columnist

Bob Boldman is a local historian. He can be reached by email: g.boldman5@gmail.com

Bob Boldman is a local historian. He can be reached by email: g.boldman5@gmail.com