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Big Town
Chapter Nine
Chapter 9: The Noble Experiment
           In the bad old days before the Knights and Ladies of the Right set about weaning the wicked from the soothing jug, the city went in for liquid sin with a considerable measure of abandon. Booze flowed freely. The corner saloon dispensed its hearty cheer. Five or six breweries enjoyed a thriving trade. Bottled and barreled goods of all kinds were imported for the stocking of grog shops, clubs and private homes. It was the day of “ales, wines, liquors and seegars.”
          But ominous signs of approaching drought appeared. Business men, meeting the demand for greater efficiency, began to practice temperance in some measure themselves and to enforce it in even larger measure on their employees. The clergy devoted an increasing amount of time and lung power to berating Demon Rum from the pulpit. School teachers showed horrified urchins the colored charts which, they claimed, depicted the lamentable effects of alcohol on the human insides. Sunday school teachers and “Y” secretaries exhorted their flocks to sign the pledge.
          Meanwhile, neighboring states were going dry, and so were neighboring towns within the state. In the city itself the Drys were displaying an increasing aptitude for coercing the politicians and hornswoggling the voters.
          Prohibition arrived. The saloons were closed. Arrests for drunkenness for the year 1920 fell to 681 – about a quarter of the previous high record, and probably the lowest in the history of the city, considering the growth of the city.
          The Millennium had dawned.
          Then came the bootlegger, peddling left-over saloon stocks, bribing his way into distillery warehouses, importing supplies from the then flourishing rum fleet off the Atlantic coast, distributing raw alcohol converted from the industrial product, and even retailing incredibly bad whisky made in the hastily set up and inexpertly operated stills of local and near-by manufacturers.
          Not that all these goings-on were unchallenged by the Drys. Girding up their loins, they went forth into battle. The city police department organized a liquor squad. State dry agents made their appearance, working under the supervision of the Anti-Saloon League. Due process of law was discarded. Appointing shoals of deputies and swearing out warrants in blank, the embattled Dry forces battered their way into homes, clubs and places of business, and carted away all the wet goods they could get their hands on. Turmoil and conflict filled the day and night, to say nothing of the front pages of the newspapers.
          In a year or more, however, much of this uproar subsided; and both the liquor traffic and enforcement activities swiftly developed the systems under which they continue to operate.
          It has been a gay life every since. By 1925 arrests for drunkenness had reached 1178, almost double the low record of 1920. In 1929 the hoosegow extended its hospitality to 2486 inebriated guests, the largest number in the history of the city, with the exception of 1916, when 2664 were similarly entertained. And late autumn of 1930 gave promise that the year might set a new high for all time. All official figures, such as those for raids, liquor law arrests, stills and booze confiscations, reflect a steady and healthy growth in what has become one of the city’s leading industries.
          In the days immediately preceding Prohibition, there were just a few more than two hundred saloons in the city. All of them paid a thousand-dollar tax to the state for the privilege of doing business, and were under the supervision of state and county officials.
          Today there are no open saloons – that is, no ground-floor, swinging-door establishments where anyone can walk in, lay down his money, and name his poison. But, in place of the two hundred saloons, there are about seven hundred and fifty speakeasies. None of them enjoys the privilege of paying taxes to the state, nor the blessings of supervision.
          First of all, there are about a dozen old-time bars, complete with the classic brass rails and mirrors, which appear to operate as lunchrooms, but which serve to the initiated by the drink or the pint. Next come one hundred and fifty soft-drink parlors, located in all parts of the city, where known customers are accommodated. Then there are some hundred and fifty drug stores, corner groceries, tire and battery shops and even filling stations which eke out their modest profits by selling to trusted customers. Generally these minor outlets are stocked with no more than a jug or so of corn whisky, and dispensation is largely by the drink, though regular patrons can usually get a half-pint or so to cheer them through a quiet Saturday evening.
          Last, but by no means least, come four or five hundred private houses and apartments – generally known as “beer flats” or “brew joints.” Some of them sell only their own home-brew, but many also handle corn and Canadian bottled goods. In most cases mine host appears only in the evenings, being elsewhere engaged in more orthodox pursuits during the daytime; but his good wife is there to serve the trade throughout the afternoons, or even the mornings. In other cases the husband devotes his full time to the career of publican.
          Trade at these establishments is quite brisk. It is usual to find from ten to fifteen satisfied customers at any time during the afternoon or evening.
          Today’s bootlegger is a different fellow from those who operated in the early days of Prohibition. Often he is a man of substance and affairs, with a large and fashionable clientele. He will deliver anything you want, from a pint up. He handles Scotch, rye, bourbon, corn, wines, liqueurs and alcohol. You can telephone your order to him, or if he thinks he has something you will like especially, he will call on you and deliver an excellent sales talk.
          This is only the retail bootlegger, of whom there are about one hundred operating in the city. In addition there are twenty-five wholesalers – gentlemen who would no more soil their hands in delivering a case of hooch then would the head of the leading department store in delivering a bundle of yard-goods. These wholesalers head an organization numbering about one hundred and fifty workers whose efforts are devoted exclusively to the broader aspects of the industry.
          Homes, offices and hotels provide the principal market for the bootlegging trade. In its present high state of development you can be sure that your order will be filled promptly and efficiently, and that you’ll get what you think you ordered, even after drinking it.
          The bootlegging fraternity can be counted on to bring into the city each week two thousand gallons of corn, two hundred cases of bottled whiskeys, wines and liqueurs, and one thousand gallons of raw alcohol which is converted into twice as much gin or cut whisky. In addition there are one hundred and fifty local stills, with an average mash capacity of one hundred and fifty gallons, and a total output, under normal trade conditions, of four thousand five hundred gallons of corn each week. In other words, a total of nine thousand gallons of hard stuff is made or imported every seven days.
          The current retail prices for these various products are as follows: $10.00 per gallon for corn, $100.00 per case for bottled goods, and $14.00 per gallon for alcohol. At these figures the gross receipts of the liquor industry are just a shade under $100,000 per week or about $5,000,000 per year. It is hard to tell much the beer sales of the speakeasies add to this total, but the best authorities say that another million dollars would be a safe guess.
          So much for those who sell the stuff. And now for those who drink it. In considering this phase of the matter the citizenry can best be divided into three classes – those with incomes of more that $10,000 a year, those between $10,000 and $4,000, and those under $4,000.
          The first class is composed of the heads of manufacturing and other business concerns, and the more successful lawyers, doctors and other professional men. It is safe to say that nearly all of them use and serve liquor to some extent. An average stock in one of their homes will consist of a case of whiskey, at least one keg of California wine, two or three gallons of gin, and perhaps three or four bottles of assorted liqueurs.
          Whenever they entertain, and that is quite often, cocktails are served before dinner, probably wine with the meal, and liqueurs, whiskey and gin afterward. Nor is drinking confined to formal affairs; the simplest hospitality almost takes a liquid form. A quiet evening around the bridge table, or a casual call on friends, is nearly always enlivened by the flowing bowl. Indeed many an informal gathering is organized for the sole purpose of hoisting a few and enjoying the consequently spirited if not highly intellectual conversation.
          At the clubs frequented by this class the same drinking customer prevail. Few golfers miss the nineteenth hole; even the parson of the fashionable church regards the playing of it with serene equanimity. And to say that dinner dances at these same places are convivial is to put the matter mildly. Nor do the gentlemen carry the load alone; ladies who formerly drank not at all can today be counted on to do their full share.
            Next the middle class, with incomes ranging from $4,000 to $10,000 a year. These will include minor executives, department heads, the more successful salesmen of such things as automobiles, insurance and real estate, and the younger professional men.
In their homes there most likely will be found home-made gin, which costs about one dollar and fifty cents per quart. This means that for the average social gathering the host can entertain handsomely for a total beverage outlay of not more than six or seven dollars, including ginger ale. But this class also consumes fairly large quantities of the more expensive bottled goods with the fancy if phony labels. And many of them brew their own beer and make their own wine, or buy corn in charred kegs and let it age for a few months.
The middle class, too, is the one which most often patronizes the restaurants and roadhouses, the great majority of them taking their liquor with them and mixing it with ginger ale or mineral water. On a good Saturday night at one of these resorts the gentlemen, and not infrequently their ladies, may be observed in all degrees of alcoholic indulgence, from the gentle glow to the complete passout.
What little moderation this class displays arises largely from lack of ready cash, as it is universally engaged in paying on the installment plan for homes, furniture, automobiles, electric refrigerators and similar luxurious articles.
          Finally, those sturdy yeomen whose incomes fall below $4,000. They include clerks, foremen, machinists, carpenters, plumbers, common laborers and the like.
          It will be remembered that they were to benefit enormously by Prohibition, because they would be able to no longer to spend their time and money in the saloons. Indeed they no longer do; instead they spend their time and money in the speakeasies, or in their own homes, where they drink bootlegged corn or beer.
           Seventy per cent of them are making their own beer; and American ingenuity has taught them how to make a distinctly palatable product. They make it in minimum quantities of five gallons; and they drink it as fast as they make it. In fact, their principal concern is to keep their modest homes amply stocked with empty bottles, so that they may brew one batch while the last one is aging, and while they are drinking the one before the last.
          For other than ordinary occasions they buy a pint or quart of corn. While their social gatherings may be of a simple and informal sort, none will deny that they are sufficiently festive.
          Special mention is merited by the younger generation in view of what clearly appears to be a marked difference between their attitude toward booze and the attitude of the youths and maidens of earlier days.
          Ten or fifteen years ago the boys and girls in the high schools were temperate almost to the point of priggishness. Perhaps one in ten of the young gentlemen absorbed an occasional beer. But the girls were strictly abstemious; indeed to offer one of a snifter would have been considered a sorry insult, as in those days it was held that only ladies who drank were members of a profession whose age had brought it little honor.
          Today, however, it appears that at least ninety per cent of them, both boys and girls, are given to wrestling with Demon Rum from time to time. Few, if any of them, have never wet their lips with the forbidden stuff.
          They drink frequently, occasionally or rarely, according to their individual tastes. While few of them are daily topers, most of them will take it whenever they can get it. Practically all of them may be counted on to imbibe on such occasions as the outstanding victories or defeats of the football team, or at the dances and other large affairs with which commencement and like academic events are garnished.
          The boys who drink decline to associate with the girls who won’t take a smash at the bottle when it is offered. And the girls who enjoy a nip from time to time are more than likely to inquire as to the nature and extent of the liquid refreshments before they will set forth for the evening. The young gentlemen claim – echo of Eden – that the ladies are usually the aggressors in the invitation to sin.
          Corn whiskey is their favorite beverage. It packs a magnificent wallop in a small space; a single quart contains all the good clean fun the bairns can want on almost any occasion. And it is cheap: two or three dollars will buy an ample ration for a mixed foursome of high-school age. Furthermore, it can be purchased easily and safely at any of the speakeasies which mask themselves as soft-drink parlors.
          Much of the youngsters’ drinking is done in automobiles. Any evening during any season of the year one can hear their happy carefree laughter as they careen around the corners in the family car. But there are also dances in the school buildings, and on these occasions about twenty-five per cent of the boys have supplies cached outside in their cars. They repair to these oases from time to time during the evening, polishing off whatever may be left over on their way home from the ball.
          The outlying roadhouses also attract them in parties of two or more couples. During the summer vacations many of them patronize a community-operated dancing pavilion which is chaperoned by ladies on the fringe of Society. At this latter place, the highly respectable tone afforded by such operation and patronage permits the young gentlemen and their fair companions to do their drinking under the aegis of orthodoxy.
          Once in a while the more high-spirited youths get completely plastered. But as a rule they are remarkably temperate. That such moderation is widely at variance with the drinking philosophy of the elders is almost too obvious to deserve mention.
          The work of enforcement consists largely of that of the police liquor squad, which numbers two sergeants and eight men and which works twenty-four hours a day. Yet, conscientious as these doughty minions of the law are, they seem to make little if any progress against the seven hundred and fifty speakeasies, the two hundred and fifty bootleggers and the one hundred and fifty stills.
          When caught, which is not very often, the bootleggers pay their fines and go back into business with the least possible delay. For every speakeasy that is successfully raided, at least one more opens its hospitable door to an eager public. And most of the stills are so carefully hidden that the police have never found them, and probably never will.
          A considerable part of police enforcement work results from normal police vigilance. But the great majority of it arises from the complaints of citizens who, for various reasons, want other citizens to stop drinking.
          Three times a year the Anti-Saloon League sends out letters to a list of twenty-five hundred Dry sympathizers. These letters invite their readers to report any violations of the law, or any suspicion that violations are going on. They give complete instructions by which reports can be made at any time of the day or night. A card is enclosed on which the informer may record his suspicions and forward them by mail. In all cases he is promised that his identity will be kept secret.
          In addition there are many voluntary complaints from preachers, Sunday school teachers and lay workers in the churches. These, of course, arise from a keen desire to exercise a moral control over the conduct of others. But other informers have other reasons. Grocers file complaints when they suspect that a customer’s failure to pay his bill may be due to his expending too much of his income for booze. Citizens complain against those of their relatives who they think are drinking too much. Property owners or their lawyers complain in order to protect property values in districts where speakeasies abound. Factory heads give information in order to curb drinking among their employees. Wives complain because they don’t want their husbands to convert their homes into speakeasies; or husbands complain against their wives for the same reason. Occasionally bootleggers inform on their customers, on other bootleggers, in order to get off with a light penalty. In short, snooping is at a premium, and the citizen who feels moved to inform on his neighbors, friends and relatives is given ample opportunity to do so, together with the assurance that his own participation in the affair will not become known.
          As 1930 drew to a close it became apparent that the city might probably be listed among those communities which look toward some change in the booze situation. In the Literary Digest poll of 1930 the city returned a distinctly Wet vote. Enforcement ran a poor third, modification and repeal polling almost three times as many votes as did the Drys. In the November elections, too, the Wets scored a distinct victory. In nearly all national, state and local contests in which the Wet-and-Dry issue was involved, Gem City citizens showed a marked preference for Wet candidates.
          The Wets were cheered, too, by Mr. Woodcock’s views as to the sanctity of home-brewing and wine-making, and the fact that Mrs. Willebrandt, whom they formerly regarded as an implacable enemy, seemed to be striving to relieve the draught. There was, as a result of these changes, a tremendous increase in the purchase of kegs of incipient wine. And home-brewers, though they had already been doing very well, laid in extra-large stocks of bottles, malt and other supplies, and were prepared to put their brewing on a real quantity-production basis.
          The Drys, on the other hand, were not without hope. The local Anti-Saloon League pointed to its unquestionably efficient political organization, and claimed that it could continue to elect a controlling number of Dry candidates regardless of the feelings of a mere majority of the citizenry.
          Yet the League admitted frankly that many of its most generous local supporters were disgusted with the apparent failure of Prohibition, and were declining to further finance the crusade. It seems also that there was a lamentable tendency among the rank and file of the crusaders to be contented with the disappearance of the open saloon and with enforcement activities to date. And it would apparently require the imminent threat of repeal and the return of the grog shops to reinspire these warriors with the fervor they once felt for the Dry cause.
          As this is written it seems probable that if voters are given a chance to go to the polls on the issue of Prohibition they will do so in large numbers, and the last election results indicate that the Wets will win if they succeed in building up their political organization to the same efficiency of the Drys.
          Yet there is another element in the situation which does not seem to be grasped by either the sopping Wets or the fanatic Drys – and it is an element which may have much to do with the ultimate outcome. It is the fact that the great majority of the population seems to care very little about the matter one way or the other.
          Few of them entertain the faintest moral interest in Prohibition. They do not obey the present laws, and they have no intention of obeying future laws. They can get as much as they want to drink at prices which they are quite willing to pay. If their favorite bootleggers are caught, or their favorite speakeasies raided, they know where there are others. They know they can drink safely in their own homes. They are drinking or not drinking as it suits their individual preferences. And they are not further concerned with the matter.

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