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The Day My Grandfathers Cried

By the 1930s, it was apparent Prohibition was a failure and unenforceable. The 18th Amendment did little to stop the sale and consumption of alcohol. Organized crime became big business in America.

The government was losing necessary tax revenue during the depths of the Great Depression. Money became more important than morality. It was estimated that ending Prohibition would employ between 250,000 and 500,000 people in alcohol-related businesses, from farming, production, transportation, and the manufacturing sector.

In February of 1933, Congress passed the 23rd Amendment, repealing Prohibition. Many legislators who voted for Prohibition voted to repeal it. States voted to ratify the Amendment. It was ratified on December 5, 1933. It was the day both my grandfathers cried. They both brewed beer, made wine, cooked alcohol, and sold illegal booze.

Happy days were here again. The liquor flowed, and the people celebrated. The tax revenue rolled in. During the first year after repeal, the government collected $258 million in taxes on alcohol, 9% of that year’s tax revenues. Those additional revenues helped fund President Roosevelts New Deal programs in the years following.

Prohibition was a failure from the day it went into effect. Americans liked their alcohol and were not going to let a little old law or a bunch of religious zealots who pushed for Prohibition stop them from drinking or selling booze, beer, or wine.

The government only funded 1500 Prohibition Agents for the whole country. They were poorly paid and barely trained, leading to vast corruption, dooming enforcement from the beginning.

During Prohibition, Chicago was awash in alcohol, beer, and wine. Bootleggers ran whiskey in from Canada, besides the alcohol they produced in the neighborhoods. Prohibition gave rise to the Capone mob, which eventually became the Chicago Outfit. During and after Prohibition, the Outfit grew. Its tentacles reached into legitimate businesses, City Hall, the County Building, and the courts. They became a power unto themselves.

The Capone mob took corruption to new and higher levels in Chicago. It appeared everyone was on the take, from the cops on the beat, the prosecutors, judges, and various politicians. The mob got way more in return than they paid out.

Besides liquor, the mob ran prostitution and gambling dens, especially in some of their speakeasies. Some were like high-class casinos. Chicago was not alone in vice. Other major cities became vice havens. Americans started to blame Prohibition for the decay in society’s values and morals.

Prohibition did have some positives on American culture. It brought changes in men’s and women’s fashion, made jazz popular, and created new entertainment venues, though they were illicit. There was a sense of liberation in people going to speakeasies to drink, socialize, and be entertained. Women could drink in public in the speakeasies. Popular culture brought us the gangster genre of movies and fiction.

The “Noble Experiment” failed on all levels. Amazingly, the government took 13 years to realize its epic mistake.

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