The headline: "U.S. Prohibition Ends; Uncertainty Faces Nation as Liquor Ban Falls." Deseret News, Dec. 5, 1933.
At 3:33 p.m. on Dec. 5, 1933, the 21 members of Utah's Constitutional Convention unanimously endorsed the 21st Amendment, ending one of the most significant efforts ever attempted by any nation to force society's conformity to a perceived good.
"Prohibition is dead!" a Salt Lake reporter wrote. "Utah, whose pioneers blazed a westward trail for the nation to follow 86 years ago, led the nation out of the bondage of Prohibition at 3:33 Tuesday." What had begun in 1920 as a "noble experiment" to protect Americans from their own thirst for destructive spirits was over.
The Beehive State was the 36th to approve repeal of the 18th Amendment, which had imposed a national ban on liquor. The Utah vote put the issue over the top and in cities across the country, thirsty citizens who had anticipated the action launched a drunken celebration.
In New York, there was brief panic when Utah officials announced they would delay the vote until 7 p.m. - a move that would have kept Easterners licking their lips in frustrated anticipation until 9 p.m. EST. Glasses poised and with a "collective groan," the New Yorkers joined others in putting pressure on the Utah commission. The vote became official at 3:33 p.m. Utah time.
The legal liquor Americans imbibed by the gallons in victory celebrations, however, certainly was not the first they'd had in awhile. The vote for repeal simply made elbow-bending on the up-and-up again, at least in the 18 "wet" states. Utah was one of the 29 "dry" states in which the end of Prohibition meant a long process for determining how and by whom liquor would legally be sold.
In fact, the Deseret News glumly reported, during nearly 14 years of Prohibition, the "nation was awash in liquor." Even on Capitol Hill in Washington, where sanctimonious congressmen had cast their votes for Prohibition, the resident bootlegger, dubbed the "man in the green hat," did a booming business.
Many Utahns, like others across the country who continued to favor abstinence from liquor, reluctantly supported repeal of the 18th Amendment because they perceived that the evils spawned by Prohibition were worse than those that accompanied legal liquor sales.
The LDS Church officially opposed repeal. President Heber J. Grant consistently spoke against removing the ban on alcohol and predicted that a restoration of legality would have negative consequences on families and individuals. There was, in fact, a drop of almost 4,000 in annual traffic deaths while the liquor ban was in effect.
"Repealists must assume responsibility for the murder on the highway, for which drinking has been to a considerable extent responsible," opponents said.
President Grant urged church members not to support repeal but said he would feel no rancor toward those who did. Relief Society units in each ward were encouraged to support the effort to retain prohibition.
Despite the official stance of the church, many prominent LDS saw the end of Prohibition as inevitable and a better alternative than the gangsterism, bootlegging, bathtub gin production, speak-easies and other illegal activities that had mushroomed under the ban.
Many support groups emerged on both sides. In a special election Nov. 7, 1933, to gauge Utah's sentiment and set up a state ratification process, there were 99,943 votes calling for Utah to support repeal and 62,437 against. The greatest support was in the cities, while rural Utahns generally favored a continuation of Prohibition.
Gov. Henry H. Blood reflected the dichotomy in a statement that "I am convinced that there is a widespread and perhaps almost unanimous desire to promote temperance . . . Surely there is wisdom enough available to meet the issue here presented." He immediately appointed a committee to study liquor issues in Utah.
The prospect of lucrative taxes on liquor was a significant factor in the minds of many. With the country beginning to emerge from the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt estimated that $210 million in liquor taxes could replace revenue from other tax sources and speed his economic recovery plans.
Legalization of liquor ended a peculiar era in the history of the United States and Utah. The determination of drinkers to continue drinking despite the national law gave new meaning to the term "scofflaw." The flow of booze simply went underground, with disastrous results. Revenuers could hardly make a dent in the illicit production of spirits.
Utahns have consistently consumed less alcohol per capita than the rest of their countrymen, but when Prohibition went into effect, the state had its share of speak-easies, bootleggers and home-brew distillers. University students trekked to 3900 South for a shot or two of bathtub gin and a couple of prize fighters had a "speak" on 200 South. Some folks with a yen for a nip got a prescription from their doctor for enough alcohol to keep them going awhile.
In a Utah Historical Quarterly article, spring 1983 edition, John Farnsworth Lund described what happened to the family of his friend, Claybourne, on the day Prohibition came to Salt Lake City.
Claybourne's mother, red-eyed and rosy-cheeked, her cupboards crammed with as much liquor as she had been able to purchase against the coming drought, declared that "Tomorrow is doomsday. The government is taking away our liberties. What's to become of us?"
Claybourne explained to his friend that his parents were being cut off from their "staff of life." He would have to remain at home with them on this sad night. Lund went by himself into downtown Salt Lake City, where many a heartfelt funeral was being staged for "John Barleycorn." An "auction" of liquor was being held next to the Orpheum Theater, and stocks were being offered from sidewalk tables all over town, he said.
The Salvation Army band was beating out its abstinence message as usual, but "there were few coins in the drum." And the Anti Saloon League had its patrol out, watching what they mistakenly thought would be "the death struggle of Demon Rum." Huge wagons specially designed to accommodate beer barrels made hurried last stops to their ports of call.
"Three days later, I went to (Claybourne's) apartment, but it was empty. I never saw them after that. Perhaps they had gone to a state where they could still buy liquor for a time," Lund concluded.
While much of the illegal activity was centered in Wasatch Front cities, Utah's southland was not immune. Another Historical Quarterly article, based on interviews conducted by Jody Bailey and Robert S. McPherson, indicates that southeastern Utah had its own stories to tell.
"The manufacture of alcohol knew no cultural, religious or social bounds," they wrote. ". . . a wide variety of people engaged in the manufacture, export and consumption of illegal brew."
One brazen bootlegger set up a still on the river just below Mexican Hat Rock "in plain sight of everybody," and sold his product to oil drillers. It took a flood to put him out of business.
Grocers got a windfall from the sale of sugar, which was the base for a fast-acting brew. A hundred-pound bag of sugar, a sack of cornmeal and yeast, boiled in 50-gallon drums" `til it quits bubbling" was ready to run in short order.
Navajo Mountain distillers favored raisins for their hooch but would use any type of fruit, the article says. One Navajo set up a still, but lacking copper tubing, he used tin. Several deaths and a lot of sickness resulted. Selling bootleg liquor on the reservations was profitable for quite a few people. One man sold whiskey to the natives out of a hollow saddle. It had big "swells" on the seat that served as reservoirs and a little spigot to pour off the liquor.
When Mrs. Hunt of Bluff found her husband "acting happier than usual," she investigated her basement and found a freshly brewed batch of ripe mash, ready for straining. She delivered a tongue-lashing to her husband and the mash to her pigs. Neighborhood children "watched with delight as the swine squealed and staggered about the field all that day and for the rest of the week until the residue was finished."
Law enforcement officers were caught in a no-win situation, high-centered between their knowledge of illicit liquor activities and their citizens' guarantees against illegal search and seizure. Stalking bootleggers without stepping over that fine line was a constant challenge.
In frustration, they listened to charges by such individuals as James Gunn McKay that Prohibition was not working only because those who were supposed to enforce it did a lousy job.
The resounding resurrection of "John Barleycorn" ended that quandary. But subsequent statistics indicated that alcohol did contribute significantly to social problems. Based on the Prohibition experience, they are problems American society, at least, is willing to countenance.