Yesterday marked 100 years since Prohibition went into effect, one year after the 18th Amendment was ratified by the states. Indiana ratified the amendment on January 14, 1919. As Douglas Wissing recounts in “IN Writing: Uncovering the Unexpected Hoosier State,” former baseball player and evangelist Billy Sunday thundered on the radio from Winona Lake, Indiana:
The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon only be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corn-cribs. Men will walk upright now; women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.
Indiana had already gone dry as a result of statewide legislation passed in 1917. The Indiana Anti-Saloon League had been active in the state for decades and the “dry” legislation was the subject of a massive organizational push by the IASL. Something like 25,000 supporters apparently descended on Indianapolis in January 1917. 175,000 names showed up on petitions delivered to legislators. The measure passed the House 70-28 and passed the Senate 38-11.
The debate about alcohol had been swinging back and forth in Indiana to some extent since the state’s inception. The battle against alcohol was seen as a battle against immorality, crime, and domestic violence. By the 1840s, some counties were using a “local option” to go dry – Carroll and Cass Counties were the first. In the 1850s, the temperance movement was bolstered by the Know Nothing movement. Drinking was characterized as the habit of foreigners – Germans, Irish, Catholics and the like. Statewide prohibition was passed in 1855. The law was declared unconstitutional in 1858 and, by then, the state had other things on its mind. The slavery issue and the Civil War put the temperance movement on hold (as it put so many things on hold). After the Civil War, the temperance movement seems to have returned to the pre-Know Nothing status quo with Republicans generally supporting “local option” measures and Democrats recognizing drinking as a “social evil” but wanting to confine regulation to a licensing system. Among other things, alcohol was big business in the state: “In 1879 Indiana still had seventy large breweries and a number of distilleries producing liquor from locally grown corn and rye.”
In the late 19th century, temperance would get another big boost with the Progressive Movement. The Progressives were a mixed bag. Their impulse was to use regulatory authority to combat poverty and disease. They helped bring about women’s suffrage, push back against political machines, break trusts, clean up the food and water supply, professionalize academics and government service, and strengthen the labor movement. But, with the Progressives, you also get things like eugenics and prohibition. During this period, the Indiana Anti-Saloon League formed. In the early 1900s, they were successful in obtaining passage of increasingly restrictive liquor laws. More than 2,500 saloons closed in Indiana between 1900 and 1910.
World War I allowed the temperance movement to roll anti-German sentiment and austerity needs into their campaign. We needed grain to feed a war-ravaged Europe. Former governor Frank Hanly was active on the lecture circuit, advocating prohibition. In 1918, he railed against the brewers, saying Hoosier Brewers had “the arrogance of the Hun.” As a result of the 1917 state legislation, Indiana went dry on April 2, 1918. On January 14, 1919, Indiana ratified the Eighteenth Amendment. Nationally, Prohibition took effect on January 16, 1920. And, of course, since then, slums have become a memory; prisons have been turned into factories; men walk upright, women smile, and children laugh. We’re still working out the lease details for Hell.
I joke of course. Enforcement was a problem. Breweries closed down but prisons did not. Jails became clogged with Prohibition violators and organized crime spiked. There was a lot of corruption in Indiana, as elsewhere. As Prohibition wore on, the prohibitionists would make common cause with the Ku Klux Klan who shared their conservative politics and would use the machinery of the old White Cap organization, the Horse Thief Detective Association, to enforce the prohibition laws. That said, it’s a mistake to think that Prohibition was the work of some fringe zealots who caught lightning in a bottle, managing to be at the right place at the right time to pass Prohibition against the will of just about everyone else. It was a long term social movement with a significant base of support. It was only hard experience with the failures of Prohibition that was effective in eroding that support.