The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition

When I was writing The Cartoon Guide to Recreational Drugs I scoured the local libraries and bookstores looking for useful and interesting historical works. The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition is one of my sources.

The parts I generally took notes from were either about the drugs themselves or the prohibition of drugs. You’ll find the information garnered from these books throughout the Prohibition Politics section of this site. It will also have informed some of my own postings stored in the older Prohibition Politics archive.

If you find this information useful, you will want to search out the books themselves to read the text in context. All of the books here are at least moderately interesting.


By Herbert Asbury, this “informal history” of alcohol prohibition is as good an argument against the prohibition of recreational drugs as any written.

Alcohol prohibition is probably the greatest argument against prohibition ever created. Herbert Asbury’s Great Illusion deftly outlines the rise and fall of that era, and becomes a grand argument in favor of legalization of all recreational drugs.

…for more than a hundred years [the American people] had been indoctrinated with the idea that the destruction of the liquor traffic was the will of God and would provide the answers to most, if not all, of mankind’s problems. It is even clearer that they had no conception of the fearful mess they were getting into, and that their revulsion was thorough once they had seen prohibition in action. They had expected to be greeted, when the great day came, by a covey of angels bearing gifts of peace, happiness, prosperity, and salvation, which they had been assured would be theirs when the rum demon had been scotched. Instead they were met by a horde of bootleggers, moonshiners, rumrunners, hijackers, gangsters, racketeers, trigger men, venal judges, corrupt police, crooked politicians, and speakeasy operators, all bearing the twin symbols of the Eighteenth Amendment-the tommy gun and the poisoned cup.

Pushing alcohol into the black market ensured that selling alcohol was a profitable business for criminals, just as we’ve done today:

When the United States entered the first World War the standard price of a cocktail or a highball at first-class bars was fifteen cents or two for a quarter. On the night of January 16, 1920, an ounce or so of dubious whiskey cost from forty to sixty cents in the cheapest saloons, and from one to three dollars in the swank cabarets and restaurants. The price of a fifth of whiskey ranged from twelve to eighteen dollars in New York, and from ten to fifteen dollars in San Francisco.

Where the Anti-Saloon League expected “an era of clear thinking and clean living”, only a few, such as William Howard Taft, understood what was truly about to 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… large numbers of federal officers will be needed for its enforcement… elections will continuously turn on the rigid or languid execution of the liquor law, as they do now in the prohibition states.

And just as some modern drug dealers are willing to sell to children, black market alcohol dealers also found that, as they were not bound by the law in any case, that children were a profitable market:

Speakeasies were opened near the schools to tap this new and promising market, and bootleggers appeared who catered exclusively to the youngsters, foisting upon them even worse liquor than their parents were buying.

Colonel William L. Barker, (head of the northern division of the Salvation Army), said in 1925 that:

Prohibition has diverted the attention of the Salvation Army from the drunkard in the gutter to the boys and girls in their teens.… We have girls in our rescue homes who are fourteen and fifteen years old, while ten years ago the youngest was in the early twenties.

As many others have noted about modern prohibition, “It was increasingly clear that prohibition was engendering a spirit of lawlessness, and contempt not only for the Volstead Act but for all law.”

Law enforcement began killing indiscriminately, exercising what would today be called no-knock raids, killing the innocent and guilty alike, as they do today. And as we hear today, some considered the carnage worth it. Senator Smith W. Brookhart, Iowa, in the Senate, said on June 19, 1929:

When we get senators in this chamber talking sense, instead of all this gush stuff about murders by men who make mistakes once in a while, we will have a better attitude toward the bootleg question.

Senator Brookhart would fit right in with today’s drug warriors. Other prohibitionists pre-echoed today’s constant claims that we’re winning the war on drugs:

Commissioner Roy A. Haynes seemed oblivious to the whole thing. In 1922 and 1923, he said “the home-brew fad is taking its final gasp.… bootleg patronage has fallen off more than 50 percent.… the redistillation of denatured alcohol is now impossible.… moonshining in the cities is on the wane.… the death rattle has begun.” Wets suggested that perhaps what he thought was the death rattle was actually the sound of submachine guns in Chicago.

One of the problems with prohibiting drugs is that more concentrated and less pure versions become the only marketable forms of the drug. The coca leaf becomes cocaine; opium becomes morphine becomes heroin. But not only are the drugs more concentrated, they are also cut with whatever comes to hand. Alcohol during prohibition fell to the same market forces:

Of 480,000 gallons of confiscated booze analyzed in New York in 1927, 98 per cent contained poisons.

Thousands of moonshine plants were equipped with lead coils instead of copper. The acids in the distillate pick up the lead.

This is a dangerous cumulative poison; a little may do no harm, but it remains in the body until enough has accumulated to cause lead poisoning.

Probably the worst drink that appeared during prohibition was fluid extract of Jamaica ginger, popularly known as Jake, which was almost 90 per cent alcohol.… The principal buyers were poor people, and boys and girls, who couldn’t afford more than one drink at a time and wanted something that would start them off with a bang.… As far as is known, nobody died from drinking it, but even small quantities nearly always caused a terrible form of paralysis.

At the end of the book, Asbury writes a eulogy for alcohol prohibition that could be taken word for word for modern prohibition:

It must be remembered, however, that the fourteen years from 1920 to 1934 were not only the era of unparalleled crime and corruption; they were also the era of the Big Lie. The drys lied to make prohibition look good; the wets lied to make it look bad; the government officials lied to make themselves look good and to frighten Congress into giving them more money to spend; and the politicians lied through force of habit.

Asbury’s Big Lie still lives with us today in the corruption, dangers, and violence of modern prohibition. If you are interested in the history of drug prohibition, this is a great book to read; its facts and anecdotes argue as strongly against the drug prohibition of today as they do against the drug prohibition of the twenties.