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Prohibition in Michigan, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Beginning in the early years of the 20th century a movement intent on banning the sale and use of alcoholic beverages began to grow louder and more forceful. Those who opposed the use of alcohol believed it to be a serious threat to civil society and something that posed a significant public health crisis. There were a number of different organizations on the side of the “drys” –those who opposed the use of alcohol- and the divide between the “drys” and the “wets” –those who opposed prohibition- was often split along rural and urban lines. There was a strong religious component to the argument as well; many of the “wets” were rural Protestants, while many of the “drys” were urban dwellers, and often Catholics (Mason, p36). The “drys” were, in the end, more well-organized and well-funded, and they eventually succeeded in pushing through the passage of the 18th Amendment. The state of Michigan had already experimented with prohibition a few years earlier under the passage of the Damon Act, though this law was struck down in the state prior to the passage of nationwide prohibition. The 18th amendment, and the Volstead Act, which provided the legal mechanism for enforcing prohibition, had serious and lasting negative consequences for the state of Michigan and throughout the U.S.

The Damon Act passed the Michigan state legislature in 1916 and went into effect in 1917. Many of the problems that would plague the U.S. during Prohibition were seen in Michigan in 1917 and 1918, when the statewide ban on the sale of liquor was in effect. Ferries running between Canada and Michigan provided one easy route for smugglers intent on bringing booze into the state, and the proximity to cities such as Toledo also made it relatively easy for smugglers to circumvent Michigan’s prohibition law (Mason, p42). As the state’s supplies of alcohol began to dwindle in 1917 and 1918, smuggling became increasingly common, and very lucrative. Whisky and other liquor brought into the state by smugglers was often worth almost ten times as much as it was in its places of origin (Mason, p43), and these potential profits helped spur the rise of organized crime, first in Michigan and later throughout the country.

When the 18th amendment was passed the problems and negative consequences seen in the state of Michigan became national concerns. The waterways between Canada and the United States, which had already provided smuggling routes during Michigan’s statewide prohibition, became one of the primary means by which smugglers brought alcohol into the United States. By some estimates, nearly 75 percent of all alcohol smuggled into the United States during Prohibition entered the country in Michigan (Mason, p44). An entire illegal shipping industry grew up around the smuggling operations between Canada and Michigan, as dockworkers that might otherwise be unloading legal goods learned to strip smuggler’s boats of alcohol quickly enough to evade police. The enormous profits provided by smuggling helped t fund the development of notorious criminal organizations such as Detroit’s Purple Gang, which developed a monopoly on the import and distribution of alcohol in the region (Buhk, p62).

The operations of organizations such as the Purple Gang became increasingly sophisticated throughout the 1920s. Smuggling was a year-round affair; when the waterways between the U.S. and Candida froze over in the winter, smugglers simply drove trucks and pulled sleds full of liquor across the ice (mason, p39). Once the alcohol arrived in Michigan, it was often diluted in buildings know as “blind pigs.” The diluted liquor was then either shipped locally and regionally for use in the state or smuggled into other states, where it could be sold for even greater profits. The Purple Gang developed a statewide system of speakeasies where it sold liquor to willing buyers eager to pay exorbitant prices for the chance to take a drink (Buhk, p63).

The impact of Prohibition on the state of Michigan and throughout the U.S. was profound. As the profits from the import and sale of illegal alcohol made criminal organizations rich, they funneled millions of dollars into maintaining their operations (Mason, p41). Along with funding the actual smuggling and shipping of alcohol, criminal gangs paid enormous sums of money to police, politicians, and other public officials to look the other way while hey conducted their operations. Many of these same public officials were customers of the speakeasies and other outlets, giving them an even greater incentive to help keep smuggling operations intact. One report estimated that the alcohol that was shipped into the U.S. from Ontario in the first year of national Prohibition was worth $219 million (Mason, p41), making it easy to see why so many people had a vested interest in ensuring that smuggling went on without interruption.

There were other consequences to Prohibition, most of which were economic. Bars and other businesses that had sold alcoholic beverages legally prior to prohibition were driven out of business, first by the Damon Act and later by the Volstead Act (Mason, p45). The illegal speakeasies that were developed to fill the needs of drinkers were typically controlled by criminal organizations, not the former owners of the legal bars. The revenue from smuggling, speakeasies, and other illegal-alcohol operations was largely untaxed, which meant a decline in revenue corresponding to the decline of legal businesses that had sold alcohol prior to prohibition (Mason, p45). The prices for alcoholic beverages during prohibition were exponentially higher than they had been when alcohol was legally available; this increase in prices mean that drinkers were spending inflated sums of money on alcohol, money that was no longer entering local, regional, and national economies where it could support legal business and be subject to taxation.

It took the United States well over a decade to finally abandon Prohibition. In that time the conditions that had spurred the development of organized crime had been lucrative enough that many of these criminal organizations remained intact, or even grew larger, in the aftermath of Prohibition. The experiment of Prohibition had largely been a failure, one that had significant economic, political, and social consequences (Parker). Despite the repeal of the 18th amendment, however, parts of Michigan remained dry or tightly restricted for decades to come, though by the end of the century most laws banning the use of alcohol and the state had finally been abandoned.

Works Cited

Buhk, Tobin T. True Crime: Michigan : the State’s Most Notorious Criminal Cases. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2011. Print.

Mason, Phillip P. Rum Running and the Roaring Twenties: Prohibition on the Michigan-Ontario Waterway. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1995. Print.

Parker, Ross. Carving Out the Rule of Law: The History of the United States Attorney’s Office in Eastern Michigan, 1815-2008. Bloomington, Ind: AuthorHouse, 2009. Print.

 

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