Uncle Sam's Water Wagon

uncle's sam water wagon

billy sundayThe Lawless Decade opened on a dreary note&#151unless you happened to be a Dry.

The New Year floated in on an ocean of whiskey, the last good whiskey most Americans would taste for thirteen years, but it was not a time for unconfined revelry. There was another binge in the making. The Eighteenth Amendment was going into effect at 12:01 A.M. on July 16, 1920. The more dedicated allies of the Demon Rum set aside this historic night for the "last" bender but it didn't live up to its advance notices. There were just some maudlin scenes in the drinking emporia as men wept into their Scotch or rye and proclaimed the end of the wet and happy world they knew.

There was no weeping in the enemy camp.

In Norfolk, Virginia, the Rev. Billy Sunday presided over mock funeral services for John Barleycorn in high glee. He sent the condemned man off in a horse-drawn twenty-foot mr.prohibitioncoffin and ten thousand bone-dry followers cheered his words: "Good-bye, John. You were God's worst enemy. You were Hell's best friend . . . The reign of tears is over."

The evangelist looked into the bright Dry future, too. "The slums soon will be only a memory," he cried. "We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent."

The Anti-Saloon League of New York foresaw a much better America with the cork on the bottle. "Now for an era of clear thinking and clean living!" said the League. "Shake hands with Uncle Sam and board his water wagon." In no time at all, as it happened, a great many Americans would be much too rocky on bootleg hootch to make their way aboard any kind of wagon.

The Demon Rum Indicted
"Wine is a mocker,
Strong drink is raging:
And whosoever is deceived thereby
Is not wise."

Drink always has been a problem&#151especially to the Drys. The bluenoses have traced the Poisoned Cup all the way from Noah's Ark (can you think of a time when a man needed a shot more than that?) to Colonial America to our own vale of tears.

drysloganAmerican Issue, a Dry organ, summed up the Puritan record very darkly: "Drink was godfather at every christening, master of ceremonies at every wedding, first aid in every accident and assistant undertaker at every funeral. It had come with the Spanish to St. Augustine in 1565. It had carried the Virginia election for John Smith in 1607. It was the "Dutch courage" of Manhattan Island in 1615. It led the prayers on Plymouth Rock in 1620 . . . It was the first organized treason in the whiskey rebellion of 1791. It has been the fata morgana of many millions of immigrants to this day."

wakeIt is sometimes said that the Puritans passed laws against almost everything a man could enjoy except liquor, but this is not so; and Virginia "outlawed" drunks in 1619, the year before the Mayflower brought all those people. That was the first liquor law in the New World. (The first all-out prohibition went back to the ban on selling spirits to the Indians but not many palefaces observed it.) The Colonial guzzler had a nice choice of spirits&#151Jersey Lightning, an applejack; Strip and Go Naked or Blue Ruin, gin drinks; Kill-Devil, a rum, and some blackstrap rum-and-molasses mixtures. The stuff could knock mules down, no less mere men. swankyThus the Colonies became increasingly concerned about drunkenness. Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts banned toasts in 1630, presumably because people were toasting too many things. Maryland in 1642 levied a fine of 100 pounds of tobacco on anyone caught blotto in a public place. Connecticut in 1650 limited tippling to half hour per sitting. Maryland started putting drunkards in the stocks in 1658. New Jersey in 1668 banned all drinking after 9:00 P.M. New York in 1697 ordered all saloons closed on Sundays. New Hampshire in 1719 made it illegal to sell a drink to anyone already under the influence.

None of those laws did much good.

The American of Colonial days drank at seed time and harvest time and in-between. He drank to pass the time of day with a neighbor&#151or to pass the time of day alone. In Portland and other New England villages the town bell was sounded at 11:00 A.M. to remind him to cease his labor and have a refreshing jolt. Employers recognized the need of spirits. An advertisement in the New York Gazette of December 4, 1769, offered a job to "An hostler that gets drunk no more than twelve times in a year." Provided he came well recommended, of course.

axed speakeasyEarly-day bluenoses in Georgia managed to get a Prohibition Act on the books in 1735, but the hills ran with hootch. South Carolina rum runners and other good neighbors made up any slack the local moonshiners couldn't fill. So Georgia's Dry law expired in 1742.

The enemies of the bottle took heart in 1785 from a pamphlet reporting on An Inquiry into the Effect of Spirituous Liquors on the Human Mind and Body. The author was a substantial citizen&#151Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon-General of Washington's Continental Army&#151and his little essay was devastating. He found no food value (or any other value) in the hard stuff, no sir. The doctor said liquor would make a man a drunkard or something akin to an ass, a mad bull, a tiger, a hog, a he-goat&#151or maybe a killer. And he said it had other faults too.

brass railThe pamphlet gave such impetus to the earliest Dry movements that Dr. Rush came to be known as "The Father of Temperance Reform," and even today the bluenoses look back on him with much longing. He was the first to furnish medical testimony against the Demon Rum. Before then (and even afterwards) some doctors prescribed a snort for practically anything that ailed a man.

"Get Away from those Swinging Doors!"
"A reformer is a guy who rides
through a sewer in a
glass-bottom boat.
&#151James J. Walker

dr. rushThe first of the silver-tongued temperance orators was John Henry Willis Hawkins, a reformed alcoholic. Hawkins developed a taste for spirits in the 1830's while apprenticed to a Baltimore hatter who dealt liquor rations to his workmen to keep them happy. This was a common practice among employers in those days.

The hatter said he reeled through fifteen years all but mad on rum but quit the habit cold one wintry day when his little daughter Hannah pleaded, "Papa, please don't send me for whiskey today." Hawkins said the evil of his ways penetrated the alcoholic fog at that very moment and made him a Dry. The next year, 1841, he roamed far and wide out of Baltimore bespeaking the virtues of abstinence. He got 100,000 elbow-benders to sign no-drink pledges for the Washington Temperance Society while Hannah, bless her, carry nationachieved lasting fame as the heroine of a hair-raising true-life booklet called Hannah Hawkins, or, The Reformed Drunkard's Daughter, written by the Rev. John Marsh.

State Prohibition laws began to appear within ten years after John Hawkins demonstrated that the woods were full of men who could live without bottled stimulants. Maine blazed the trail in 1851 under the persistent hammering of Mayor Neal Dow of Portland, New England's leading Dry, and by 1855 that first Prohibition wave had taken in New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York. The water wagon broke down along the way, however. In some states Prohibition was declared unconstitutional. In others the abolition fight and the Civil War put temperance in the discard. The movement then languished until the weaker sex breathed some fire into it.

"Mothers, to the Barricades!"
"Here sighs, plaints and voices of the deepest woe resounded through the starless sky. Strange languages, horrid cries, accents of grief and wrath, voices deep and hoarse, with hands clenched in despair, made a commotion which whirled forever through the air of everlasting gloom, even as sand when whirlwinds sweep the ground."
&#151DANTE, The Infernoella boole

The way Ella A. Boole looked back on it in 1929 from her lofty pinnacle as president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the nineteenth century was a most dismal time. Indeed, she said Blue Monday wasn't so-called because the girls had to do the wash, but because the men were barely over their weekend binges and either didn't get to work or couldn't eke out a day's wages if they did get there.

And that was far from the worst of it. "The poorhouses were filled with old men and old women, rendered penniless by drink," Dr. Boole said. "There were women who disgraced themselves and their families by getting drunk, for a drunken woman was always repulsive&#151then, as now. The saloon filled the brothel; the brothel filled the saloon." But salvation lay around the comer, in our time, as Dr. Boole reconstructed it in 1929 in her book, Give Prohibition Its Chance: "Women prayed for deliverance; they prayed in the home, they prayed in the midnight hours; they prayed with their hearts breaking, and their eyes filled with tears. And God hearkened to, and answered their prayers!"

annie wittmeyerGod or no, a crusade did spring from the rum-and-blood-soaked soil as the nation licked its Civil War wounds. The Woman's Crusade of 1873, in Ella Boole's words, "swept across Ohio and the Middle West like a prairie fire of the pioneer days." It swept clear to New York, where Dr. Dioclesian Lewis organized it into the WCTU. Pretty soon embattled women were descending on drinking resorts, armed only with Bibles and boundless zeal, and shaming grogshop proprietors into pouring the Devil's Brew into the gutters; here and there the cobblestones ran with the stuff.

One battalion of Crusaders tilted with a resolute defender of the drinker's faith in Cincinnati. This saloonkeeper set up a cannon in the town square as the bone-dry delegates advanced for a prayer meeting.Mrs. Annie Wittenmyer, the WCTU's first national president, set down for the record the flaming defiance of a Mrs. Leavitt, otherwise unidentified, who glared into the mouth of the artillery piece and spoke as follows: frances willard"If God wants to take me, as He took Elijah, to heaven in a chariot of fire, I would just as soon go that way as any other."

Nobody touched off the cannon, so the issue was not joined.

Frances E. Willard, Mrs. Wittenmyer's successor, was a strong believer in words as well as deeds in the battle on the Poisoned Cup. She made at least one speech a day for ten years. In 1883 she managed to carry the Dry word into each and every one of the states and territories, preaching not just temperance, but also brotherhood&#151sober brotherhood&#151between capital and labor. She composed this pledge for her youth battalion, the Loyal Temperance Union:

I promise not to buy, sell or give
Alcoholic liquors while I live;
From all tobacco I'll abstain
And never take God's name in vain.

For youngsters reluctant to save America by joining the Crusade, Mrs. Willard had this item prepared:
Young man, why will you not sign
the pledge,
And stand with the true and brave?
How dare you lean over the
dangerous ledge,
Above the inebriate's grave?
The children also had a slogan built just for them:
Tremble, King Alcohol, we shall grow up!
carry nationKing Alcohol proceeded to tremble almost at once. A second Prohibition wave, in the eighties, produced some scattered state Dry laws, though they didn't hold up.
The WCTU registered a small victory in 1892 when it turned back at the very gates a delegation of alleged maidens sent here to introduce the English barmaid system to our backward nation. In 1903, the WCTU got liquor banished from the Senate and House restaurants in Washington, and at Ellis Island, too. The women long had fretted about the drinking capacities of new arrivals. Dr. Boole, also known as "The Iron Chancellor of Prohibition," talked about the need for special diligence by the Drys "among foreigners who brought with them from other lands drinking habits and customs and needed to know the curse of the liquor traffic." That theme would be sounded all through the Prohibition Decade. The Drys invariably found a way, however slick, to air the view that it was the immigrant much more than the 100 percent American who needed the splendid discipline of Prohibition.

andrew volsteadThe WCTU found itself a formidable ally in 1913. The Anti-Saloon League&#151"an army of the Lord to wipe out the curse of drink"&#151had been content for twenty years to fight for nothing more ambitious that local option laws and statewide Prohibition. Now the WCTU and the League elected to make common cause in a nationwide assault on Mr. Barleycorn, and the joining of the sexes paid off fast. The Drys, controlling huge blocs of votes, loaded Capitol Hill with men pledged to their cause (at least in principle). Now they could push the third Prohibition wave, which had started in 1907 and made much headway in Southern legislatures, onto the national scene. They made quick work of it: the Eighteenth Amendment rode through Congress with healthy majorities in December, 1917. It would take another year voted dryfor the necessary thirty-six states to ratify, still another for Rep. Andrew J. Volstead of Minnesota to put across his enforcement act, and still another for the billion dollar liquor, wine and beer industries to walk the Dry plank. And what would happen after that? This is the way Herbert Asbury looked back on it in his history of Prohibition, The Great Illusion:

"The American people . . . had expected to be greeted, when the great day came, by a covey of angels bearing gifts of peace, happiness, prosperity and salvation, which they had been assured would be theirs when the rum demon had been scotched. Instead they were met by a horde of bootleggers, moonshiners, rum-runners, hijackers, gangsters, racketeers, trigger men, venal judges, corrupt police, crooked politicians, and speakeasy operators, all bearing the twin symbols of the Eighteenth Amendment&#151the Tommy gun and the poisoned cup."

That was Prohibition, American-style.


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