If There’s a Still, There’s a Way: Prohibition Ends… In Stages (Part 3)

If There’s a Still, There’s a Way: Prohibition Ends… In Stages (Part 3)

George Harris, Al Morton, and Charles Yound in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Otto Plaga Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

SWEETWATER COUNTY– Throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s the cat-and-mouse game continued, involving local, state and federal officials trying to enforce an unenforceable law, and saloons, bars, and private citizens servicing a demand that would not, did not, go away.

Organized crime found a marketing niche which allowed them to expand their operations beyond anything seen before. Men like Al Capone and Bugs Moran became rich and famous, even respected.

By the early 1930s, with evidence mounting that Prohibition enforcement was not proving effective and likely never would be, movement for repeal of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Volstead Act and state Prohibition regulations was reaching a loud crescendo. Contrary to popular belief, however, repeal of Prohibition was not a one-day event. Repeal occurred in various stages.

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The U.S. Congress was working on the 21st Amendment to the Constitution in early 1933, and ratified it on February 18 of that year, too late for the Wyoming state legislature to ratify the proposed anti-Prohibition Amendment during its regular session that year, according to “Prohibition Repeal: Wyoming’s Second Constitutional Amendment and the Repeal of Prohibition” by Phil Roberts of the University of Wyoming in Wyoming Almanac and History of Wyoming.

Efforts had been made during the 1931 state legislative session to either vote for outright repeal of Prohibition or else to curb law enforcement of its provisions. These efforts failed and, in fact, the 1931 Wyoming legislature provided authorities with additional duties for Prohibition enforcement. The beginnings of the Wyoming Highway Patrol can be traced to this era of continued efforts to control bootlegging, the Roberts article says.

The 1931 state legislature furthermore increased the penalties for the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors. For manufacture, conviction could bring about a fine ranging from $250 to as much as $1,000 and imprisonment for three months. A second offense conviction could mean a fine of from $400 up to $2,000 and a prison term of from 1-5 years. The fines were significant for the time, at the height of the Depression. A fine of $1,000 in 1931 is the equivalent of $15,604.53 today (in 2019), according to Dollar Times.

Voicing Opinions Against Prohibition

Local legislators nevertheless voiced their opinions in 1931, including some support for Prohibition repeal. The state legislature passed a law introduced by State Representative Charles Spence (D-Sweetwater County) to solicit public opinion regarding the possible repeal of Prohibition.

Moreover, support for the organizations which had brought about Prohibition was waning. The “Anti-Saloon League” no longer had the financial resources to fight for the maintenance of Prohibition. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was still around, but other women, who now could vote nationwide, were forming organizations in support of Prohibition repeal, groups such as the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, founded in late 1931.

Efforts to tighten Prohibition’s grip nonetheless continued apace, especially by federal agents who were unimpressed by state and local support for scaling back Prohibition enforcement. According to the Roberts article, where much of the information for this section originates, from mid-February through June 1932 in Sheridan County alone, more than 100 suspected Prohibition violators were arrested.

If nothing else, the 1932 Sheridan raids demonstrated that nothing had really changed in the time since the big 1921 raid in Sweetwater County.

In January 1932 a list of 5,000 signatures was sent to the Wyoming congressional delegation urging repeal of the 18th Amendment. A large proportion of the signatures—1,700—came from Rock Springs.

Interior of the Oxford Club in Green River with bartender Jimmy Passerelli (in white coat), manager Henry Rizzi (behind bar) and barmaid Mae Kizer (standing at right) serving customers, 1937. New Studio photo, Courtesy of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum.

However, there were people and different groups who supported continued Prohibition, Roberts’ article says. One such individual was the Reverend J.P. Pigott, who in early 1933 declared, “The day the 18th Amendment is repealed because it cannot be enforced will be date the enthronement of the liquor oligarchy as political overlord of the American people.”

One of the key reasons for passage of the 18th Amendment in the first place and its continued support in some more conservative Wyoming communities was concern about the previously raucous Wild West saloon culture.

Others felt that kind of thinking was preposterous. State Representative Clement Gillearr (D-Sweetwater) reportedly said, “There can be no return of the saloon in Sweetwater County because saloons never left there. Our people don’t know that the Volstead Act was passed.”

Repeal Finally Takes Place in Wyoming in 1934

Momentum continued for repeal of Prohibition. In early 1933, Governor Leslie Miller recommended to a willing legislature that the State Law Enforcement Department, which had been specially created to enforce Prohibition, be abolished. In June 1933, the number of federal Prohibition enforcement agents was drastically cut.  Governor Miller also called for delegates to be elected to a state Constitutional Convention to consider Prohibition repeal.

Adding still more fuel to the repeal fire was a state law in late February 1933 permitting sale of 3.2 percent alcohol beer in cafes and restaurants that had been in business for at least one year (but not saloons).

The state Constitutional Convention convened in Casper on May 25, 1933, All of the convention delegates except those from Platte County supported repeal of Prohibition. Later when it came to a motion to ratify the proposed 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to repeal the unpopular 18th Amendment, the vote was 64-0 among the convention delegates to support repeal. One delegate did not vote.

Wyoming’s ratification of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was based upon strong support among state residents to repeal Prohibition, a sentiment which had changed from the early 1920s.

Men in a bar in Sweetwater County. Photo courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum.

The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the states on December 5, 1933, when according to “This Day in History”, a History Channel website, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the Amendment. However, this passage did not mean the end of Prohibition in Wyoming, due to the law passed by the 1919 state legislature. It took a vote by the public on November 6, 1934 to repeal the state law on Prohibition. The vote was 71,126 in favor of repeal and 23,404 against. By executive proclamation, Governor Miller declared the new law to be effective on December 1, 1934. Prohibition in Wyoming was finally at an end.

The entire Phil Roberts article, all 35 pages of it including source material, is available here.

Lessons learned from the failure of Prohibition contain wide applicability to any number of other sociopolitical issues in 2019. Perhaps the most important lesson is that sweeping, broad national public consensus, conviction and support is necessary before a federal law regulating social conduct can actually be made to stick. Failure beforehand to obtain this broad national consensus and support may only doom such laws to years of futile enforcement efforts and eventual repeal.

This is the final part of a three-part series on the story and history of Prohibition in Sweetwater County and Wyoming. Check out Part 2 here. The historic photos throughout this series are courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum and the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center.