The Effect of Press and Publications on the Repeal of Prohibition

The Effect of Press and Publications on the Repeal of Prohibition

When Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment on December 1917, and the Volstead Act in May 1919, it made illegal the purchase, transportation, or production of “intoxicating liquors,” defined as anything made up of more than 0.5% alcohol.{C}[1]{C}, {C}[2]{C} Consumers around the country, theoretically, would then no longer be able to gain access to alcohol.{C}[3]{C}  Nevertheless, the Prohibition Era, lasting from 1920 to 1933, was a period when culture flourished in New York City, characterized by the emergence of speakeasies, where illegal liquor was sold as a symbol of New Yorkers’ defiance of the prohibition amendment.[4]

New Yorkers’ disregard for the newly enacted laws stemmed mainly from the local press’ perception of the amendment and of law enforcement in the city. During this decade, the media had a great influence on the public’s opinions on these topics, due to the fact that around 27 million Americans frequently read newspapers in 1920, growing to approximately 40 million people by 1930.{C}[5]{C} Numerous journalists from New York opposed Prohibition and used newspapers and publications as a platform to denounce the amendment as well as criticize the enforcement of the law in the city.[6]  They condemned Prohibition in a variety of ways, including glamorizing nightlife and downplaying the consequences of being discovered in a speakeasy, questioning the effectiveness of law enforcement, and encouraging readers to vote for “wet,” or anti-Prohibition, officials.  Although press and publications in New York City were generally biased against the Eighteenth Amendment from the start, as Prohibition went on, journalists' open opposition became clearer through the types of articles they began publishing. The more obvious denouncement of Prohibition in the press then caused the general population of the city to further disregard the Volstead Act. As a result, press outside of New York City began to portray the city's law enforcement as ineffective, which ultimately made majority of the nation’s public advocate for the Eighteenth Amendment’s repeal.

The movement for repeal grew most rapidly when the Great Depression struck, making the lavish nightclub lifestyle less feasible and causing the rampant violence that was a part of the city’s bootlegging operations to become more prominent.{C}[7]{C}  Thus, the rest of the nation’s press, which had initially been drawn to write about New York City for its unique nightlife and for the authorities’ inability to stop the population from drinking, became more aware of the unintended consequences of Prohibition and the government’s inability to prevent the bloodshed it caused.{C}[8]{C}  With the publication of the Wickersham Committee’s report in 1931, detailing the many problems law enforcement faced in New York, even papers that continued to support Prohibition could not say that the movement had succeeded.{C}[9]{C}  Thus, papers and the public came to support presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who promised to address the problems that Prohibition created, unlike the passive President Hoover.{C}[10]{C}  FDR’s victory and the repeal of Prohibition became a cause for celebration in the nation, and highlighted the media’s ability to incite change.[11]

            Initially, however, press in New York City did not write to cause the immediate repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Although journalists expressed doubts about whether Prohibition would work effectively in the city, they refrained from outright criticizing the ideas behind the amendment. Despite the fact that most of the nation at the moment was “dry,” or in support of Prohibition, an article in the New York Times highlighted how hesitant journalists in New York were about endorsing the Eighteenth Amendment. Written in December 1917, before the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, the article sent a warning to William Anderson, New York’s Superintendent of the Anti-Saloon League, an anti-alcohol organization, by stating that he “had the indiscretion to propose a popular referendum in this state on prohibition before the Legislature act[ed] on the Federal amendment,”[12] because the author believed that “no Legislature should act upon the prohibition amendment without a clear mandate from the voters,”[13] and was critical of the way Anderson went about gathering support. Instead of reaching out to voters, Anderson used the financial resources he had received from a select group in the upper class to influence politics and to attack those who did not support the Anti-Saloon League.[14] The journalist, in this instance, was not writing anything against the idea of Prohibition, but rather, was emphasizing the fact that popular support was required before alcohol could be effectively regulated. It demonstrates that initially, New York’s press was not inclined to say that attempts to regulate alcohol in the country were wrong.  Rather, journalists in New York expressed worries about how feasible and realistic a policy like Prohibition actually was, providing the opinion that “a change for all time of the fundamental law is not lightly to be assented to.”[15] As a result, the article also advocated for its readers, the citizens of New York, to think carefully about what the Anti-Saloon League’s goals would mean for the city and the nation, and urged New Yorkers to also adopt the paper’s skeptical view of Prohibition.

            However, once the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act were ratified, press in New York City began to encourage citizens to continue their liquor consumption habits, thereby undermining the purpose of Prohibition, but still not attacking the policy itself.  Headlines in several city papers read “Protect Yourself Against the Dry Days,”{C}[16]{C} “Buy Liquors and Wines in Bulk NOW”{C}[17]{C} and other similar messages towards the end of 1919, in response to the impending end of the legal manufacturing and sale of alcohol.{C}[18]{C} Although technically, the consumption of alcohol was allowed under Prohibition, the press encouraged drinking to continue, despite the fact that the goal of Prohibition was to promote temperance in the United States. This would allow the drinking culture in New York to remain intact, and the existence of a demand for alcohol in the city would ultimately lead most residents to illegally produce or obtain liquor while Prohibition was in effect.[19] Thus, the journalists of New York promoted and helped establish New York’s identity as a city in opposition to Prohibition by encouraging people to stock up on liquor and continue their alcohol consumption habits.

When the vibrant, but illegal, nightlife and alcohol use in New York began to be explored in local newspapers, the nation began to pay more attention to what was going on in the city. The press had succeeded in glamorizing speakeasies and the consumption of alcohol, thereby encouraging a larger amount of New Yorkers to continue violating the Volstead Act. One magazine that did this very explicitly was the New Yorker, first published in 1925.{C}[20]{C}  Although unsuccessful at first, the magazine became more popular nationwide as it published more about the nightlife in New York City.{C}[21]{C}  The magazine did not, at first, openly criticize the ideas behind Prohibition, choosing instead to focus on the excitement that came with drinking and visiting cabarets around the city, and hinting at policemen’s inefficiency at enforcing the law. Lois Long, a writer for the New Yorker, reflected on her nightly experiences at speakeasies.{C}[22]{C} In an article from September 1925, she elaborated on a night when she was found in a speakeasy the police were raiding: “It was one of those movie affairs…It was very exciting, and…funny…[An] Irish cop regarded me with a sad eye and remarked, ‘Kid, you’re too good for this dump,’ and politely opened a window leading to a fire escape.”{C}[23]{C} Her description of the event as a “movie affair” highlighted the drama and glamour of going to a speakeasy. Although she could have been arrested, Long made it seem like breaking the law was a thrilling experience, not a terrifying one, thereby encouraging her readers to drink and to ignore Prohibition.  Evidence of an increased disregard for the prohibition law can be seen in a survey conducted by the Moderation League, which indicated that public intoxication had increased 484% from pre-Prohibition years in New York City.[24]  The article also showed policemen’s disregard for Prohibition, for despite the fact that Long was found with a drink in hand within an establishment that was illegally selling alcohol, she was not punished and was free to go.  This sent the message to readers that there would be no consequences for breaking the law by purchasing alcohol, for there was little the authorities would actually do to punish lawbreakers.

As seen in Long’s article, most members of law enforcement were inefficient and undedicated, yet any attempts to strengthen enforcement were criticized in newspapers, causing New Yorkers to not just disregard, but also denounce law enforcement as oppressive.{C}[25]{C} District Attorney Emory Buckner tried to avoid the rampant corruption in the Bureau of Prohibition and the New York City Police Department, and assigned his employees to collect evidence of liquor sales in speakeasies themselves, then file for injunctions in a federal civil court, where a judge, not a jury, would make a decision.{C}[26]{C} If the owner of an establishment were found guilty, his property would then be closed down for a year.{C}[27]{C} However, this method, called padlocking, began to raise concerns in New York about an individual’s rights, due to the fact that those accused did not receive a hearing or due process.{C}[28]{C} This led New York press to color the law enforcement as unjust. A subheading for a New York Times article read: “Clubs in…Cities Raided and Padlocked Without Hearing for Rights,”{C}[29]{C} and it went on to say that padlocking “was a new form of attack.”[30] By writing that the government was attacking citizens to enforce Prohibition, the newspaper was making the Volstead Act seem unjust and unconstitutional.  The journalist painted the government as not adequately protecting the property of individuals by raiding and closing down these nightclubs. Thus, the press in New York turned its citizens against law enforcement, further encouraging resistance of Prohibition and continual drinking.

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, the inefficiency of law enforcement and rampant crime in New York became even more prominent in the press, and the city soon became the focus of national attention. The shift to crime coverage caused many in the nation to become more aware of the problems that Prohibition caused, and many began to advocate for repeal.[31] The support for repeal can be seen in the press’ articles regarding a 1931 anti-crime mass of 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden. The New York Times explicitly held “prohibition and the resentment against it responsible for the power of gangdom”{C}[32]{C} and believed that “public officials had betrayed [the] city.”[33] By publishing these opinions, as well as circulating quotes from speeches given at the rally, the New York Times was facilitating the spread of strong anti-Prohibition ideas.  The press was no longer subtly criticizing aspects of Prohibition, but instead adopting a highly critical tone, taking a firmer stance against Prohibition than it did previously.  In doing so, it became more persuasive and insistent that the Eighteenth Amendment should be repealed, ultimately affecting more than just the citizens of New York’s views on Prohibition.

        The changing views of press could be observed across the country, emphasized by different newspapers’ reactions to the Wickersham Report in 1931, written by a committee created by President Hoover in order to inform the nation about the status of Prohibition.[34] After the publication of the report, most newspapers were openly expressing doubts about Prohibition, showing the growing influence of New York City press.  The report indicated that the number of alcohol-related deaths was rising and that 93% of all criminal cases that were started and finished since 1920 in New York City were cases regarding Prohibition violations.[35] Nevertheless, the report concluded that Prohibition should still be maintained, and that the law enforcement should be strengthened in New York City.{C}[36]{C} In response, The Constitution, a paper published in Georgia, stated, “In [the report] the taxpayers hear what is ahead of them—a constantly augmented national police machine and drafts upon the Treasury for multiplying millions to pay for enforcement that does not enforce.”[37] The fact that a newspaper from Georgia, one of the first states to support Prohibition, denounced the Wickersham Report’s conclusion, as well as the inefficiency of movement itself, shows how the United States as a whole was beginning to be affected by the “wet” mindset that had been present in New York. The hypocrisy in the report made it less credible, and more journalists were willing to openly oppose the arguments made for Prohibition in the report, despite the fact that previously, they may have supported the Eighteenth Amendment.

It was, however, the New York press’ criticisms of President Hoover after the release of the Wickersham Report that most affected the opinions of the American population and caused political change to occur. Journalists in New York denounced President Hoover for only heeding the committee’s advice of not repealing Prohibition and ignoring all information that indicated the negative effects of Prohibition.{C}[38]{C} The New York Herald-Tribune commented that he had “completely misread…the import of the document and refuse[d]…to digest the appalling evidence it present[ed].”{C}[39]{C} Hoover was being criticized for refusing to acknowledge the problems that Prohibition created, as well as not doing anything to respond to them.{C}[40]{C} The effect of the press can be seen in the American population’s disapproval of Hoover in the 1932 elections: of nearly 40 million votes, Hoover received 15,758,397, six million fewer than he had received in 1928, while his opponent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, received 22,825,016.[41]  Hoover’s loss to a wet candidate exemplified the United States’ general discontent with Prohibition, and showed that as the press began to more openly object to Prohibition and point out the government’s inability to actually enforce the laws, the general population was persuaded to take action and vote for the candidate who would repeal Prohibition.

The power of the press in New York was what caused so many in the city to disregard Prohibition, and the opinions of journalists from New York, over time, began to influence those of reporters across the nation.  Local publications and newspapers in New York encouraged New Yorkers to disobey the law and participate in the speakeasy culture.[42] The growing influence of publications like the New Yorker, which glamorized this lifestyle, drew the nation’s attention to New York.[43] The many failures of government officials, from the city level, where Buckner’s padlocking plan did little, to the federal level, where Hoover refused to acknowledge the problems Prohibition was causing, were publicized in the press and influenced voters nationwide to choose FDR for president.{C}[44]{C}, {C}[45]{C} By electing him, Americans chose to go against Prohibition, and in December 1933, the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed.{C}[46]{C} Newspapers and magazines’ ability to change the opinions of the American population on Prohibition exemplifies the amount of power that the freedom of press, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, allows journalists to have.  “Wet” writers from New York capitalized on this ability in order to sway the public’s opinion of the law, and as a result, changed the course of American history, demonstrating the influence the media has in the United States. 



 “20,000 See Crime War Launched.” Rochester Journal, August 25, 1931.

“Campbell Advocates Repeal of Dry Law.” The Evening Independent, July 1, 1930.

““Fixers” Invade Court Precincts, Buckner Charges.” The Miami Daily News, April 7, 1926.

“New York City Called Unsafe.” Rochester Journal, August 25, 1931.

“Prohibition Best, Says Noted Doctor; Chauncey M. Depew Disagrees.” New York Tribune, April 22, 1918.

"Two Giants: Hoover and Al. Smith." The Sydney Morning Herald, September 22, 1928.

“War on Gangs Opened Today in New York.” Florence Times Daily, August 25, 1931.

Anderson, Harvey. “‘St. George’ Whalen to Meet Dragon of Many Tentacles.” The Miami Daily News, December 23, 1928.

Broun, Heywood. “It Seems To Me.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 27, 1930.

Chapman, Arthur. “What Volstead Has Done to New Year’s.” New York Tribune, January 1, 1922.

Knappen, Theodore M. “Prohibition Can and Will Be Enforced, Officials Say.” New York Tribune, January 18, 1920. 

Marshall, Marguerite M. “Man Not for a Dull Life; Drinking is a Safety Valve, Says Dr. Brill, Alienist.” The Evening World, May 19, 1919. 

National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Walker, Stanley. The Night Club Era. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1933.

New Yorker Primary Source Articles

Garrett, O. H. P. "Fourteenth Street and Broadway." New Yorker, August 29, 1925.

Long, Lois. “Tables for Two.” New Yorker, September 12, 1925.

Markey, Morris. “Mr. Buckner Explains.” New Yorker, November 14, 1925.

Markey, Morris. “A Reporter At Large. Jubilate!” New Yorker, April 10, 1926.

MacKaye, Milton. “The New Crusade.” New Yorker, October 22, 1932.

New York Times Primary Source Articles

“Legislatures and the People’s Will.” New York Times, December 17, 1917.

“Making a Joke of Prohibition in New York City.” New York Times, May 2, 1920.

“Dry Raid Empties Jack’s Secret Room.” New York Times, January 7, 1922. 

Haynes, Roy A. “Wide Corruption Sprang Up with Coming of Prohibition.” New York Times, August 5, 1923.

“Izzy and Moe Raid Seven Drug Stores.” New York Times, April 3, 1925.

“150 Dry Agents Lose Jobs Here.” New York Times, November 14, 1925.

“Drunkenness Gains, Volstead Act Fails, Says League Report.” New York Times, November 23, 1925.

 “Dwyer is Indicted with 60 Others in Wide Liquor Plot.” New York Times, January 27, 1926.

“Huge Bootleg Profits.” New York Times, April 8, 1926.

"LaGuardia Makes 2.84 Beer in Office." New York Times, June 20, 1926.

“Politics Disclaimed in Big Dry Raid Here.” New York Times, June 30, 1928.

"Dry Force Mobilized by Doran for Drive to 'Mop Up' New York." New York Times, July 1, 1928.

Monk, John E. “Observations from Times Watch-Towers.” New York Times, July 8, 1928.

“Mrs. Willebrandt Ordered Bar Raids.” New York Times, July 22, 1928.

“Alcoholic Deaths Rise in Dry States.” New York Times, October 21, 1929.

“Can Prohibition be Enforced? Two Views.” New York Times, January 19, 1930.

“The Debate on Prohibition: A Summing Up.” New York Times, March 30, 1930.

“Views of Nation’s Press on Wickersham Report.” New York Times, January 21, 1931.

 “Wickersham Report Assailed by Thomas.” New York Times, January 25, 1931.

 “Wickersham Report Used in Repeal Move.” New York Times, March 22, 1931.

 “20,000 at Meeting Protest Gang Reign; Police Start Drive.” New York Times, August 25, 1931.

 “Wets Shift Fight to Legislators.” New York Times, February 21, 1933.


 Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1996.

 Burns, Ken. Prohibition, DVD. Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Washington, D.C.: WETA, 2011.

 Drowne, Kathleen Morgan and Patrick Huber. The 1920’s. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2004.

 Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 2000.

 Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

 Maran, A. G. D. Mafia: Inside the Dark Heart. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008.

Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Last Laugh, Inc., 2010.

Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House, Inc., 2007.

[1] David E. Kyvig, Repealing National Prohibition (Kent: The Kent State University Press, 2000), 13.

[2] Edward Behr, Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America (New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1996), 80.

[3] Stanley Walker, The Night Club Era (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1933), 1.

[4] Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Last Laugh, Inc., 2010), 208.

[5] Kathleen Morgan Drowne and Patrick Huber, The 1920’s (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2004), 189.

[6] Arthur Chapman, “What Volstead Has Done to New Year’s,” New York Tribune, January 1, 1922.

[7] Ken Burns et al., Prohibition, DVD, (Washington, D.C.: WETA, 2011).

{C}[8]{C} “War on Gangs Opened Today in New York,” Florence Times Daily, August 25, 1931.

[9] "Views of Nation's Press on Wickersham Report," New York Times, January 21, 1931.

[10] Milton MacKaye, “The New Crusade,” New Yorker, October 22, 1932, 22, 24.

[11] Michael Lerner, Dry Manhattan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 303.

[12] “Legislatures and the People’s Will,” New York Times, December 17, 1917.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Lerner, 38.

[15] “Legislatures and the People’s Will.”

[16] Lerner, 43.

[17] Lerner, 43.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Huge Bootleg Profits,” New York Times, April 8, 1926.

[20] Burns.

[21] Lerner, 137.

[22] Burns.

[23] Lois Long, “Tables for Two,” New Yorker, September 12, 1925.

[24] “Drunkenness Gains, Volstead Act Fails, Says League Report,” New York Times, November 23, 1925.

[25] Burns.

[26] Lerner, 154.

[27] Lerner, 154.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Mrs. Willebrandt Ordered Bar Raids,” New York Times, July 22, 1928.

[31] Drowne and Huber, 190.

[32] “20,000 at Meeting Protest Gang Reign; Police Start Drive,” New York Times, August 25, 1931.

[33] Ibid.

[34] National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States. (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931).

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] “Views of the Nation’s Press on Wickersham Report.”

[38] “Views of the Nation’s Press on Wickersham Report.”

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Jean Edward Smith, FDR (New York: Random House, Inc., 2007), 287.

[42] Long.

[43] Burns.

[44] “Mrs. Willebrandt Ordered Bar Raids.”

[45] “Views of the Nation’s Press on Wickersham Report.”

[46] Burns.

Belinda Zhou
Age 16, Grade 11,
Hunter College High School
Gold Key

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