Eight-five years ago today
This day is so wonderful to The Legal Genealogist that a blog post recognizing it should be automagically scheduled to run every year on the fifth of December without fail.
As it is, this is the fourth time I’ve taken the time — at this time in December — to send out a special thanks to the State of Utah.1 And it most assuredly won’t be the last time.
You see, December is always a tough month, what with all the running around for the holidays and end-of-the-year work projects and deadlines and–and–and…
I don’t mean to suggest it isn’t fun. It is fun, and also exhilarating … and exhausting.
And but for Utah, 85 years ago today, it would be a lot harder to relax at the end of one of these exhilarating and exhausting days. Because, for some of us, relaxing can involve something more than slightly alcoholic in nature, and it was exactly 85 years ago today that Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st amendment to the United States Constitution. The amendment that ended Prohibition.2
Prohibition began on 17 January 1920, one year after the 18th amendment calling for the ban on “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States” was ratified by the states.3
That amendment had passed Congress in December 1917, and was ratified when, on a single day — 16 January 1919, it was approved by North Carolina, Nebraska, Missouri, Wyoming, and — fittingly — Utah. Utah was only the 35th state to vote to enact the amendment; the state that put it over the top was Nebraska.4
From a genealogist’s standpoint, the 18th amendment was a marvel. An absolute explosion of criminal cases flooded the courts, 1500 new enforcement agents were hired by the federal government, and records were created everywhere. In my own family, I’ve found prison records of at least four cousins in Alabama for bootlegging5 and I’m sure I haven’t even scratched the surface.
Records created because of Prohibition can be found in just about every repository you can think of. Just as one example, the National Archives has a set of records called Identification Card Files of Prohibition Agents, compiled 1920 – 1925, documenting the period 1919 – 1925.6 If you need more, NARA also has a whole set of records about official corruption — payoffs from bootleggers to police and local officials — in the Seattle, Washington area.7
And if that’s not enough, think of the local records you might find. The Denver Public Library has a scrapbook on the career of James W. Melrose, a Colorado State Prohibition Agent, kept by his daughter.8 The Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan has records of the Michigan Woman’s Christian Temperance Union starting in 1874.9 The Library of Virginia has an entire set of records from the Virginia Prohibition Commission, set up by statute in 1916 “for the protection of the State, for the protection of the public health, peace and morals, and the prevention of the sale and use of ardent spirits.” 10
So there’s a lot to be grateful for, as a genealogist, when thinking about Prohibition.
But at the end of these long days of December, one very weary and very grateful Legal Genealogist raises a glass to Utah, and its vote 85 years ago today, on 5 December 1933, to ratify the 21st amendment: “The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.”
Once again, I can only say: Thank you, Utah.
- See Judy G. Russell, “Raising a glass,” posted 6 Dec 2012, “Thanks to Utah!,” posted 6 Dec 2014, and “So grateful to the Beehive State,” posted 5 Dec 2016 The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Dec 2018). ↩
- Amendment 21, United States Constitution. ↩
- Amendment 18, United States Constitution. ↩
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” rev. 4 Dec 2018. ↩
- See generally Judy G. Russell, “Consequences of crime,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Mar 2012 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Dec 2018). In addition to Quitman and Ross Battles, Jeff and McKinley Battles also spent time in the same prison system for the same offenses. ↩
- Identification Card Files of Prohibition Agents, compiled 1920 – 1925, documenting the period 1919 – 1925; Records of the Internal Revenue Service, 1791-2006; Record Group 58; National Archives II, Washington, D.C. ↩
- Seattle Conspiracy (Olmstead) Investigation, 1931 – 1935; Investigative Case Files, compiled 1924 – 1933; General Records of the Department of the Treasury, 1775 – 2005; Record Group 56; National Archives, Seattle. ↩
- A. Brown, “Prohibition in Colorado,” Western History & Genealogy Blog, posted 1 Aug 2012 (https://history.denverlibrary.org/blog : accessed 5 Dec 2018). ↩
- Michigan Woman’s Christian Temperance Union records: 1874-2006; Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan; Ann Arbor. ↩
- Virginia Prohibition Commission Records, 1916-1934, Accession No. 42740; State Records Collection; Library of Virginia, Richmond. ↩
Judy, I just realized this year what a profound effect Prohibition had on my family. My grandparents married in 1916 and I have a newspaper report of quite va fancy wedding. By the time the 1920 census was taken my grandfather was unemployed, they had three small children, then a miscarriage in 1922. My grandmother died two weeks after my mother was born in 1925 and my grandfather ended up living with the boys in a hotel and working as a laborer. He abandoned them and they ended up in foster care by 1930. I couldn’t understand it until I realized he was a wine steward! Not many opportunities in the 20s
That’s really stunning, Kathy — he really had nowhere to turn… 🙁
We don’t stop to think about how these things affected our families. Thankfully, we have records to help us understand what they were going through. What a sad time for him, he lost his job, his wife, and had no way to support his family.
The area where I grew up had a long history of smuggling and a rich legacy of local folk tales about wreckers, spies and smugglers, set against the background of a couple of hundred miles of rural coastline, pocketed with secluded bays fed by thousands of hidden streams with private docks where every kind of small boat imaginable could be moored without being observed. Prohibition added a new layer of bootleggers to the area’s oral tradition, but comparatively few records, because very few of the particupants in these adventures were ever caught.