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HomeFeaturesFrom the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: The Prohibition Era

From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: The Prohibition Era


by Susan Couso

The Eighteenth Amendment was put into effect in 1920, in an attempt to quash the detrimental effects of the consumption of alcoholic beverages on society. The Volstead Act cleared up just how Prohibition would be defined and enforced. These two actions set the stage for one of our nation’s most contentious eras, the Prohibition Era.

It was a ‘touchy’ subject. Then, as now, politicians were reluctant to attach their names to an idea which they knew was disliked by the populace, but which was promoted by some powerful advocates.

The issue divided the legislature along ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ lines.

President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the act but was overridden by Congress. And, so, it became law.

In Lassen County the ‘touchy’ subject became an all-out battle. Churches and women’s groups were ecstatic. They had long linked alcohol to the degradation of humanity.

Entertainment venues were outraged. The new law would destroy their way of life and their livelihood. Not only did the Volstead act forbid the sale, possession, and transportation of alcoholic beverages, but it also allowed the authorities to search automobiles without warrants and wiretap communications for surveillance.

Interestingly, churches could continue to use alcohol for their religious ceremonies, and alcohol-based medicines could still be prescribed. The law did not forbid drinking alcohol, it only covered the sale, production, transportation, and possession of alcoholic beverages.

The creators of Prohibition must have dreamed of a pure and simple word where everyone of worth was happy and the ‘bad guys’ reformed into good solid citizens who went to church and supported happy homes. But this did not happen.

‘Speakeasies’ soon sprouted up everywhere. ‘Jackass’ whiskey, ‘hooch’, ‘bathtub gin’, ‘bootleg’, ‘moonshine’, and many other new terms became common.

Legal ‘denatured’ alcohol was alcohol with nauseating substances or poison added to deter consumption, but those clever imbibers figured out how to refine the alcohol to make it palatable. Pharmacists could prescribe alcohol for any number of ailments, and bootleggers soon learned that pharmacies made a perfect ‘front’ for their business. As always, where there is a will there is a way.

By May of 1921, bootleggers were in full production in Susanville. The authorities had little control, and frankly didn’t really seem to care. Prohibition put a huge strain on law enforcement. Leading citizens were outraged and demanded action.

The Alturas New Era newspaper from November 1921 said, “In speaking of the bomb explosion in a Mexico City church and the killing of a lot of people, the Lassen Mail says, ‘You could explode a lot of bombs in Susanville churches without materially reducing the population.’ What would be the result, neighbor, if a bomb exploded in a Susanville bootleg joint?”

The locals were split on the issue. Local attorney Grover Cleveland Julian and the Lassen Advocate editor, MacBride, got into a ‘fist fight’ over the question of enforcing the law or simply ignoring it.

But the authorities did try, many times only to have their cases dismissed by the courts. In 1923, in one week, four bootleg cases were heard. There was only one conviction, and the jury recommended that the officers use ‘cleaner methods’ in obtaining evidence.

The raids continued, with only a small percentage of convictions. Most people figured that the bootlegging industry must be fairly remunerative, since those convicted would simply pay their fines and then get back to work.

Of course, Justice of the Peace, Harry E. Wood had a ‘heck of a time’ defending himself at his trial for ‘misconduct’. It seems that Wood was presiding over the trial of some local bootleggers, but he himself, was intoxicated. These were not easy times for anyone.

Enforcing Prohibition could be pretty scary too. Karl Woodside, who was hired by the town of Susanville and District Attorney James Nutting’s office to seek out bootlegging establishments, ran afoul of the local anti-temperance folks.

Not only did Woodside need to occasionally dodge a bullet or two, but a sweet little waitress at a local restaurant accused Woodside of a ‘lascivious attack’, and bootleggers far and wide rallied to her side. Woodside declared it a ‘frame-up’. Woodside asked that his case not be tried before Justice Harry Wood and was acquitted of all charges.

In Standish, Deputy Sheriff Agustus Hunsinger, City Marshal H. W. Baldwin, and A. A. Curtis raided a suspected bootlegger’s house. The bootlegger, named Harrison, saw them coming and took off, hiding in the tall grass.

Mrs. Harrison was inside with her thirteen-year-old daughter, and immediately drew a revolver and fired at Marshal Baldwin. Fortunately, the gun misfired, and she was apprehended, along with three barrels of mash and several quarts of jackass liquor.

The battle continued, and the results of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act had repercussions which lasted for decades. Neither of these attempts to curtail liquor were successful. Instead, speakeasies and bootlegging thrived at great cost.

The intensity of the temperance advocates was matched only by the inventiveness of those who wanted to keep drinking. People are clever and creative.

The Federal Government estimated $11 billion was lost in tax revenues and another $300 million was spent on law enforcement, in an attempt to enforce Prohibition. This does not include the millions spent by local and regional governments.

But perhaps one of the most detrimental aspects of this era was the emergence of organized crime and its continued effect on our society.

By 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression, bootlegging was common and liquor consumption was at its peak. It was obvious that the Volstead Act was unenforceable, and political attention turned to more important issues, such as the economy.

The Twenty-first Amendment was passed by Congress in 1933. It effectively put an end to Prohibition and became the first and only amendment to repeal a former amendment. It put to rest many years of struggling to control the uncontrollable. The Noble Experiment was concluded.

Perhaps President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best when, at the end of Prohibition he stated, “What America needs now is a drink.”

If you are a fan of our weekly history stories you should join the Lassen County Historical Society! It’s a fun way to be a part of our county’s rich history. When you sign up, you’ll receive regular Historical Society newsletters with interesting stories and information. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in area history.

Through your membership you help preserve local history. You can download a membership application by clicking here.

Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor
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