“Your Government at Work”
In the story “The Outcast of Poker Flats” the author, Bret Harte, tells of a journey made in November 1850 by the town’s most recent outcast. The gambler, Mr. Oakhurst, a prostitute known as “Duchess,” her madam, “Mother Shipton,” and “Uncle Billy,” the town drunk and suspected thief. They were on their way to a neighboring town called Sandy Bar. Midway through the trip they were met by a young acquaintance of Mr. Oakhurst, Tom Simson and his fiancé Piney Woods. Piney knew Mr. Oakhurst because she used to wait tables at the Temperance House, where Mr. Oakhurst had frequented.
A Temperance House derived from the Temperance Movement. “The Temperance Movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries was an organized effort to encourage moderation in the consumption of intoxicating liquors or press for complete abstinence.”(“The Temperance Movement”). This was the origin of Prohibition. In the 1820's and 1830's, a wave of religious revivalism swept the U.S. Leading to increased calls for temperance, as well as other movements such as the abolition of slavery. “In 1846, Maine became the first state to enact a law prohibiting liquor consumption.” (“Temperance Movement”). A number of other states had followed suit by the time the Civil War began in 1861.
By the turn of the century, temperance societies were a common feature in societies across the United States. Women played a strong role in the temperance movement, as alcohol was seen as a damaging force in families and marriages. “In the summer of 1874 at Chautauqua, New York, organizational discussions were held by the women determined to act against the ravages of alcohol. They decided to hold a national convention that fall in Cleveland and the WCTU was formed” (“Woman’s Christian Temperance Union”). Many factory owners supported prohibition in their wish to prevent accidents and increase the productivity of their workers in an era of improved manufacturing production and long working hours.
In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson introduced a temporary wartime prohibition in order to save grain for making food. That same year, Congress submitted the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors, for state ratification. Ratified on January 29, 1919, the 18th Amendment went into effect a year later, by which time no less than 33 states had already passed their own prohibition legislation.
Both federal and local government fought to enforce Prohibition over the course of the 1920s. Enforcement was initially assigned to the Internal Revenue Service and was later transferred to the Justice Department. Prohibition was executed much more strongly in areas where the population was sympathetic to the legislation, mainly rural areas and small towns and much more lightly in urban areas. Despite very early signs of success, including a decline in arrests for drunkenness, was Prohibition really working like people thought? “Per capita consumption of alcohol increased during Prohibition, according to the federal Wickersham Commission. More specifically, it increased over 500% between 1921 and 1929, according to a study published by Columbia University Press.” (Hanson)
Those who wanted to keep drinking found more creative ways to do it. The illegal manufacturing and sale of liquor, known as “bootlegging,” went on throughout the decade, along with the operation of “speakeasies,” nightclubs selling alcohol, the smuggling of alcohol across state lines and