June 23, 2021

When beer became sin

«Tonight, one minute after twelve, a new nation will be born. The drink demon makes a will. An era of clear ideas and clean manners begins. The slums will soon be a thing of the past. Prisons and correctional facilities will be empty; We will transform them into granaries and factories. The men will walk upright again, the women will smile and the children will laugh. The gates of hell are closed forever, ”Reverend Billy Sunday, a champion of the Dry Law told the parishioners on the afternoon of January 16, 1920. That law came into force at 00 hours the following day as a result of the approval last October of the Volstead Law – or National Prohibition Law – that prohibited the manufacture, marketing and consumption of alcoholic beverages.

The Dry Law, a thousand times recreated by literature and cinema, was the consequence of the anti-alcohol campaign unleashed in much of the United States from the 18th century. The battle between supporters of freedom of consumption and prohibitionists was gradually declining in favor of these thanks to the push of the most radical religious sects, women’s organizations that blamed family problems on alcohol, the suffrage movement and most of the health professionals (doctors, psychiatrists and pharmacists), many of them consumers, as well as the more affluent classes, who joined the moralizing campaign, thinking about limiting alcohol consumption to the private sphere, “in order to see the streets free of Drunk, criminals, syphilitics, prostitutes … ».

And is that the prohibitionist ram blamed the drink most of the social blunders. Today it seems funny a feminist proclamation of 1918, in the middle of the Great War, accusing the consumption of alcohol of “Germanophile, criminogen, ruinous for health, youth corrupter, disastrous for marriage and traitor to the homeland …”. The Dry Law did not eliminate alcohol consumption, but it was a blessing for criminals, who abandoned the dangerous trade of robbing banks for the easiest and most lucrative beverage traffic, for passing whiskey or rum trucks across the borders, under the protection of corrupt police. Thousands of Americans became agents of the ban – with the monthly salary of $ 166, lower than the price of a box of vodka – and their honesty and effectiveness speaks of the fact that a quarter were expelled from the body for stealing or complicity With the traffickers.

Haha for criminals

In the literature of the time, cases of policemen who went to work in luxury cars driven by their own driver are collected. And the plague also contaminated border and traffic police, largely paid by traffickers’ bands. A type of criminals especially favored by the Dry Law were the Italian gangsters. Escaping from the fascist harassment many chose to emigrate and in that “land of promise” and the socaire of the ban they found wonderful businesses, so they pulled their clans and placed thousands of extortionists, gunmen, thugs …, brewed and trustworthy people willing to make a fortune or leave their skin. The bands of Al Capone (400 murders), Genovese, Luciano, Torrio, Colosimo, Masseria, Maranzano, the Dutch …, are cases that transcended literature and cinema after rotting in jail or in the cemetery. The height of the crime is Valentine’s Day, on February 14, 1929, when the band of Al Capone killed five gunmen of Bugs Moran, “The Irish”, a competitor in the traffic of alcohol. The increase in crime saturated federal prisons: in 1919, they locked 4,000 criminals; in 1931, at 26,859.

Chicago, the literary and cinematographic epicenter of crime at the time, had about 3 million inhabitants and in 1925 there were more arrests there because of alcohol than in all of Britain with 40 million inhabitants. Crime multiplied by six, as did alcoholism deaths and crime by ten. New York – seven million inhabitants – was not far behind: before the ban there were about 15,000 points of sale of beverages, mainly beer, and during the ban came to work 32,000! Among the professions that profited most with the Dry Law were the health, prohibitionists in general until then, to whom the situation paved the way to prosperity: only in the first half of 1920 doctors requested 15,000 licenses to prescribe alcohol and 57,000 pharmacists to sell it as a medicine.

Investigations have concluded that during a year of the ban, 2.6 billion liters of beer were consumed in the country; 460 million liters of wine and 800 million liters of high-grade alcohols. For a country that then had 137 million inhabitants (1930), it means an annual average per capita of 17 liters of beer, 3.3 liters of wine and six liters of strong alcohols. If children, the elderly, a large part of the women, abstemious and sick are removed, the consumption of the drinkers should be 4/5 times higher (about 230 beers, 20 bottles of wine and 36 bottles of gin, whiskey or vodka).

The obcecation or immorality of those who supported that norm is surprising when, shortly after its approval, it was evident that it caused serious prejudices without solving any wrong. The Dry Law lasted because “alcohol trafficking had become the most lucrative profession in the country” and contaminated everything, even reaching the White House: it generated part of the structure and money that led Warren G. Harding to the presidency, whose death, in 1923, saved the “impeachment” and, perhaps, from prison for complicity with traffic; his secretaries of the Interior and Justice were tried and convicted.

Elliot Ness’s thirst

In April 1933, one month after arriving at the White House, President Franklin D. Roosevelt achieved the withdrawal of the Dry Law. It was one of the strengths of his presidential campaign in which he analyzed the political division, the massive social denunciation and the multiple recommendations made to him of sanitary, police and legal nature. An extraordinarily influential character at the time was business mogul John D. Rockefeller, who in 1919 had supported the Volstead Act, but in 1932 was outraged at the result: «Alcohol consumption has increased, clandestine bars have multiplied and an army of criminals has appeared». In the presidential decision its economic effect had a decisive weight: they were the hardest days of the Great Depression and, after the end of the ban, the Treasury Department recovered the significant income from alcohol taxes.

What happened when alcohol consumption became legal again? Elliot Ness, a Treasury agent who, from 1927 until the end of the Dry Law, dedicated himself to fighting illegal traffic in front of his “untouchables,” a journalist asked what he would do when the ban ended: “I’ll have a beer,” the policeman replied. Maybe it was just one. The withdrawal of the law did not imply a significant increase in alcohol consumption, nor were there any different harmful effects on the health of Americans. On the contrary, during its validity, there were poisonous alcohols that caused more than thirty thousand deaths and more than one hundred thousand patients with permanent injuries.

More consumption of bars and more crime

Studies on the Dry Law conclude that it failed to reduce alcohol consumption, but:

✹ It stimulated clandestine distillation, which produced poisonous alcohols, whose damage to health was superior to the evil that was to be avoided.

✹ Created a new type of crime, which would persist after the end of the ban, smuggling, prostitution, gambling, narcotics or arms trafficking.

✹ It seriously damaged the economy: it ruined the national alcohol industry, the State lost taxes that taxed drinks and large-scale smuggling, meant currency bleeding.

✹ He turned into an elegant and snobbish pastime the consumption of alcohol among urban youth, with the paradigmatic case of Scott Fitzgerald, a compulsive drinker author of «The Great Gatsby» (Debolsillo, 2017)

✹ Modified social habits. In the United States, before the ban, the poor or the rich drank mostly; With the Dry Law, alcohol consumption became widespread among the middle class.


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