Burying John Barleycorn
Part II on the Prohibition Centennial
A considerable number of counties in the United States turned “dry” as the temperance lobby influenced local politicians and subsequently local laws in their favor. Maps from 1910 illustrate the many counties where alcohol was entirely banned.
Although last month’s piece focused on Carrie Nation, the work of prohibition was not solely the doing of women inspired by religion.
At the turn of the 20th century Billy Sunday, a successful baseball player turned Christian, committed himself to the cause for decades to come. He was a real showman and spoke the language of the common folk. One of his much-repeated one-liners was “I’m going to knock John Barleycorn out of the box.” On stage he took his jacket off and fought an imaginary devil personifying alcohol
The National Prohibition Act was enacted on January 16, 1919 and went into enforcement exactly one year after the bill was passed. Billy Sunday performed his last act at the “funeral of John Barleycorn.” During a service in Norfolk, Virginia, a 20-foot-long coffin was driven in by horses, followed by a rejected and utterly disappointed devil. The once famous baseball ace welcomed the “Noble Experiment” with the words, “Goodbye John. You were God’s worst enemy. You were Hell’s best friend. I hate you with a perfect hatred.”
The boxing world knew a big proponent of alcohol banning, too. John L. Sullivan, the “Boston Strong Boy.” He lost the championship match against James J. Corbett in 1892 and at first, he found solace in heavy drinking, but soon repented and converted to Christianity. The teetotalers immediately presented him as “Horrible Example No. 1” — a down-and-out sportsman turned repentant prodigal son.
Public figures and religious zeal were not the only motives that inspired Prohibition. The political powers also started to rear their heads, albeit in back chambers. A person who worked for both camps was the deeply religious William Jennings Bryan, a politician who had been appointed secretary of state in the Woodrow Wilson government at the start of the 20th century. He’d accepted the job on the one condition that he was not obliged to serve alcoholic drinks during state dinners. Instead he offered the guests water and grape juice.
Originally Bryan advocated free choice for every state regarding Prohibition. Step by step, he came to the conviction that the only solution would be a nationwide ban of alcohol. For 30 years he was one of the most popular speakers in the nation addressing the topic of abstinence and he traveled extensively. Unlike Billy Sunday he didn’t concentrate on the cities but chose the countryside — the corn belt, the cotton belt and the tobacco belt. In these rural areas his message against “Demon Alcohol” fell on fertile soil. During a 30-day tour he managed to raise a staggering $400,000 for the Anti-Saloon League. He also took care of himself, pocketing $11,000 to pay for his travel expenses.
Bryan was a bit of a loser. When things got tough, his career went downhill. Three times he ran for president and three times he lost. Disaster after disaster followed in an endless stream. He wanted to counterbalance the dollar with silver instead of gold and even enthused a group of Democrats to support this cause, but in the end the proposal was rejected. Bryan voted against a war with
Germany and resigned when the U.S. became involved in World War One. Although Bryan was seen as an eloquent speaker, a great statesman and a powerful leader, in the end he was nicknamed “The Champion of Lost Causes.”
It befitted him since Prohibition, the cause for which he had invested decades of his life, turned out to be a failure from the start. When the Volstead Act was accepted in 1920, Bryan was reduced to a marginal player, standing in the sidelines, watching his country going under in an orgy of booze, corruption and crime. He didn’t live to see repeal in 1933, as he died from a cardiac arrest in 1925 a mere five days after he had acted as district attorney in the internationally famous Scopes Monkey Trial.
When Bryan changed earthly for eternal life, the horrendous consequences of National Prohibition began to surface. Gangs of murderers and thugs killed each other with unheard of cruel methods and police officers earned a little money on the side, looking the other way when illegal drinks were trafficked into cities. The Scots joyfully sustained the illegal smuggling practices by exporting whisky not only to Canada but also to the Bahamas, from where it would find its way illegally into the U.S.
The Whisky Couple