Enforcing Prohibition in Cincinnati Was Easier Said Than Done

City residents had a hard time kicking the habit when alcohol manufacturing and sales became illegal 100 years ago.

It was 100 years ago that the U.S. went dry and adopted nationwide Prohibition on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Did anyone really think shutting down the nation’s fifth-largest industry overnight would be easy? Cincinnati showed just how complicated the process was going to be.

An attic room of the old Government Building was full of booze confiscated from salesmen attempting to smuggle it to Cincinnati speakeasies. It all ended up in the Ohio River.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Exhibit A was an attic in the old Government Building, filled with an estimated $10,000 worth of confiscated booze, most of it squirreled away in traveling cases toted by salesmen hoping to reward big customers or to make a lucrative sale to Queen City speakeasies. The booze was evidence and stored to be produced in court, but after conviction and sentencing, what to do with it? It couldn’t be sold or given away for consumption, so federal agents dumped it all into the Ohio River. Middletown cops dumped several cases of contraband into the Great Miami River.

A couple of weeks after Prohibition landed, the Cincinnati Brewers Board of Trade decided that it might be necessary to change their name. To announce that you were brewing anything was to confess to a federal crime. The organization settled on Cereal Beverage Manufacturers Association, but only after announcing that they held out hope the law would soon allow the brewing of 2.75 percent beer. Alas, it was not to be. The association dissolved in the late 1920s.

The Enquirer [January 24, 1920] wondered if it was necessary to change surnames:

“There are a lot of men named Beer in this country. Will they have to change their name under the Volstead Act?”

Insurance companies revised their application forms, because some of the questions accused prospective customers of engaging in criminal acts. According to The Cincinnati Post [May 14, 1920]:

“For instance, right near the beginning, the doctor asks: ‘Are you now connected in any way with the manufacture or sale of malt liquors, wines or whisky?’ Of course you are not a bootlegger and if you are does he think you could be fool enough to say so?”

The dry forces targeted their attention on liquid beverages like whiskey and beer and forgot that alcohol shows up in all sorts of things, like bakery goods. According to The Post [July 22, 1920], this oversight could have led to some bizarre activities:

“Fruit-cake jags and mince-pie sprees may become popular in some quarters as the result of a ruling by federal prohibition officials which permits use of small quantities of intoxicating liquors in manufacture of food products.”

With an indeterminate dry spell spreading out before them, Cincinnati drinkers thought up all sorts of hare-brained ideas for finding a little whiskey, like raiding cornerstones. According to The Post [January 16, 1920]:

“Corner-stones in Cincinnati buildings have attracted an interest traceable to prohibition. Recollection of a reported custom in the ‘good old days’ of putting a quart of good booze in some corner-stones along with newspapers, coins, stamps and other things is the reason. But diligent search so far has failed to uncover any clew. There are plenty of corner-stones, but the owners of the buildings all deny there is any liquor in them.”

Prohibition included a medical exemption, allowing doctors to prescribe medicinal whiskey for their patients. Suddenly, in 1920, so many patients developed infirmities requiring daily doses of liquor that doctors found themselves pressured to prescribe, if only to hang on to their patients. Within a couple of months, many doctors surrendered their permits because they found they were attracting an “undesirable” class of patients.

American shipping lines faced a serious competitive edge among foreign lines that served alcoholic beverages to passengers. “Who would go to sea on a dry ship when he can get a wet one,” asked the President of the United States Chamber of Commerce.

Bootlegging was everywhere. The Enquirer [February 18, 1920] bemoaned the rampant lawlessness in a supposedly dry country:

“Fierce pursuit of the vice of male gregariousness is being indulged in by the crime masters of the saloon-less cities of Ohio. Wickedness has left the overthrown fanes of Bacchus, Gambrinus and Barleycorn and has sought refuge in coffee parlors, poolrooms and taxi cabs, the last named being euphoniously known as ‘jitneys.’”

The federal budget allocated for enforcement of the dry law was pitiful, a reminder that, before Prohibition, taxes on beer and whiskey made up as much as one third of the U.S. treasury. One enforcement officer in Covington just threw up his hands, according to The Post [June 21, 1921]:

“Asserting lack of assistants makes him powerless to cope with the liquor situation in his territory, Harry Klaine, chief district prohibition agent in Northern Kentucky, closed his office in Covington Federal Building Wednesday. Having been granted indefinite leave of absence, Klaine will not attempt to enforce prohibition laws until sufficient aides have been provided.”

During Prohibition, it seemed like everything had alcohol in it. Food expert William Glendenin, addressing the National Kraut Packers 1925 meeting in Cincinnati, claimed—undoubtedly tongue in cheek—that a new drink called the Cincinnati Cocktail was gaining favor:

“It consists of a wine glass full of sauer kraut juice with a bit of ice. No alcohol is added. My authority for saying there is 0.72 per cent alcohol in sauer kraut is the chemical department of the University of Wisconsin.”

Drink up!

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