Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, April 19, 2009

“It was increasingly clear that prohibition was engendering a spirit of lawlessness, and contempt not only for the Volstead Act but for all law.”

Herbert Asbury’s book has to rank as one of the greatest arguments ever written against the drug war; this book about alcohol prohibition chronicles and forecasts all of the problems with modern prohibition that we see today.

AuthorHerbert Asbury
Length330 pages
Book Rating7

Alcohol prohibition took time to develop. In Chapter 9 of The Great Illusion, Asbury writes “At the end of the first year’s attempt to enforce the dry laws, according to prohibition officials, one federal agent and one civilian had been killed. Thereafter the government men rapidly forged ahead.”

I can’t help but wonder if his writing this in 1950 as he did, before the counter-culture movement when even Consumers Reports would predict that marijuana prohibition would soon be over, that he wrote this book to do his part to end what he knew was going to become a violent, corrupt drug war. It is impossible to read this book without thinking about modern prohibition.

Asbury has a great eye for the ironic sound bite, and often pulled them out to use as chapter titles. Chapter 1 is “The Good Creature of God”, because “Liquor was called “the good creature of God” in some of the colonial laws.”

Chapter 8, which begins the era of prohibition, is titled “A New Nation Will Be Born”, and chapter 9, which begins prohibition itself, is “An Era of Clear Thinking and Clean Living”. This comes from a press release from the Anti-Saloon League, January 15, 1920:

It is here at last—dry America’s first birthday. At one minute past twelve tomorrow morning a new nation will be born… to-night John Barleycorn makes his last will and testament. Now for an era of clear thinking and clean living!”

Mr. Barleycorn’s obituary was premature. What ended up happening is that “drinking became romantic and adventurous, the correct thing for all up-to-date young folks to do.… Speakeasies were opened near the schools to tap this new and promising market.” This shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone paying attention. Ex-president William Howard Taft predicted what would happen:

The business of manufacturing alcohol, liquor, and beer will go out of the hands of the law-abiding members of the community, and will be transferred to the quasi-criminal class… In the communities where the majority will not sympathize with a federal law’s restrictions, large numbers of federal officers will be needed for its enforcement… the reaching out of the great central power to brush the doorsteps of local communities, … will be a strain upon the bond of the national union. It will produce variations in the enforcement of the law.

Meanwhile, the death toll rose. Law enforcement took part: the “contempt for all law” was, as it is today, shared by law enforcement.

Some civilians were killed by officers who invaded their property without search warrants or other warrants. Others, stopped on a lonely road by armed men who wore no distinguishing uniform, were shot down when they became frightened and tried to escape. A few were innocent bystanders, struck by stray bullets. In many parts of the country, particularly along the Canadian and Mexican borders, there was so much indiscriminate shooting by prohibition officers that respectable citizens were afraid to drive their automobiles at night. Frequently squads of agents set up roadblocks and searched all cars, without warrant or authority; many citizens who resented such illegal and highhanded procedures were shot.

Law enforcement, and the criminal justice system in general, also succumbed to bribery. Corruption was rampant. Officers who made $2,500 to $4,000 a year managed to acquire tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just as it does today, prohibition encouraged crime on both sides of the law. If you follow Radley Balko’s blog or just pay attention to drug war news, that will all sound very familiar.

Asbury’s ironic wit shines through the writing. For example, in Chapter Fifteen, “The End of the Noble Experiment”, he writes about how the Great Depression finally ended alcohol prohibition: “they held the belief, later shown to be somewhat naïve, that what the government didn’t have the government couldn’t spend.”

He chronicles how prohibition overwhelmed the courts and prisons; the hypocrisy of Senators voting to put people in jail for drinking while they themselves drank; the rise in crime to meet the demand for now-criminal consumer goods, to pay black-market prices, and to compete with others trying to meet the market. You don’t see alcohol dealers fighting it out on the streets of Chicago today, but that was the norm when alcohol was illegal. And he notes the spread of hard liquor to people who otherwise would have consumed beer and wine—or, in the case of children, no alcohol at all, but once it became illegal to sell to adults, there was much less of a barrier to selling to children. And while all this was going on, the alcohol itself became more and more dangerous. Illegal alcohol, as illegal drugs today, had no quality controls, and some of it was dangerously adulterated.

Asbury ends by underlining the one success of the Anti-Saloon League (and Roosevelt’s pandering to it even as he repealed the prohibition amendment), “There are now no ‘saloons’ in the United States. Instead there are bars, taverns, grills, and cocktail lounges.”

Asbury also wrote several other informal histories about gangs and the underworld.

The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition

Herbert Asbury

Recommendation: Purchase