A Government of Men Episode 25: Prohibition
Published Tuesday, October 9, 2012
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article may include historical materials that could contain offensive language or negative stereotypes. Such materials must be viewed in the context of the relevant time period. The Georgetown Times does not endorse the views expressed in such materials.
“I’m for Prohibition, just against its enforcement.”
A New England Vicar
By Tom Rubillo
… plans of mice and men
January 16, 1920 was the official beginning of The Great Prohibition, the nation’s well meant, but ill-fated, attempt at legislating social morality. The change in the law was a major victory in a social movement to purge the land of evil spirits. A constitutional amendment had banned manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol, turning off the steady flow of hard drink in taprooms and saloons across the nation, leaving customers standing in the cold.
In preparation for Prohibition’s start, an “Anti-Saloon League” was organized in Georgetown. Attorney Thomas J. Kames was appointed as local chairman. The group’s goal was to “finish the job” and make “the World dry by 1930.” Jumping to the end of the story, the effort failed.
Public officials in Georgetown were as unprepared for Prohibition and its consequences as everyone else in America. A taste for hard spirits had emigrated to the New World along with all the other “wretched refuse” (as described on the Statue of Liberty) fleeing from oppression, starvation and disease in Europe. They swallowed them to drown their sorrows in the old country. They continued to imbibe in their new homeland in celebration of their new found freedom ... or whatever.
Major changes in the law usually require improvements of the public infra, structure. School desegregation, for example, required a huge expansion of the amount of decent, adequate classroom space to replace facilities that had been deemed suitable for use only as “colored” schools. As to the outlawing of alcohol, the change called for expansion of jail space to accommodate additional lawbreakers.
County jails are never very pleasant places under any set of circumstances. Georgetown’s facility has never been an exception to that universal rule. Nonetheless, there have been times in its history when the physical conditions at Georgetown’s lockup have been appalling. Such was the case at the outset of Prohibition.
Built a century earlier, by 1920 the jail had fallen into a serious state of disrepair. Things were so bad there, in fact, that complaints about them had reached the State Board of Public Welfare in Columbia. As a result, a total of six separate official inspections had been conducted over a period of several years at the jail, with each successive report being harsher than those preceding it.
On May 29, 1920, the Georgetown Times reported the findings of G.. C. Williams, the State official who had toured the building on the sixth occasion.
“Georgetown County has one of the oldest jail buildings in South Carolina. No community should be proud of this distinction, however, for an antiquated jail usually means one unsuited to modem conditions and a menace to the moral and physical well- being of those confined in it.
“Theoretically there are three compartments to this jail, but two of them are in such poor repair that they cannot be used for fear that prisoners will escape through the hole in the roof after digging through the crumbling brick walls and gaining an entrance into the main corridor.
“The only safe place to keep inmates is in the steel cell block, a procedure that results in herding together all varieties of criminals and supposed criminals. At the time of this visit an insane [inmate] was confined in this cell block with another prisoner through he was violent enough to tear his blanket into shreds and to make a considerable disturbance in the jail.
“The building does not even afford protection from the weather. There is a hole through both the ceiling and the roof so that in [the] rainy season the water pours into the building, forcing the prisoners to take refuge in the steel cells.
“Georgetown County needs most of all a new jail but some of the more pressing temporary needs are: Repairing of the hole in the roof; cleaning up the Piles of trash in the corners of the rooms; the purchase of cots or bunks so the prisoners will not have to sleep on the floor; better arrangements for heating the cell block.”
Upon reviewing this report, the Georgetown County grand jury decided on its own to inquire into the matter. Grand juries have that authority.
Within a short time, the county grand jury issued its findings. It charged all three County Commissioners with violation of state law making public officials responsible for maintenance of public services and facilities. The panel also recommended charges against the three Commissioners for “negligence of duty by allowing the roof of [the] jail to stand broken for two years or more detrimental to the interest of the taxpayers and the safety of prisoners.”
The panel further recommended that convict barracks be promptly screened to keep out mosquitoes and other pests. It noted that money had been disbursed to the jail for that purpose, all without intended results, a finding suggesting that further inquiry might be necessary.
Along these same lines, the report found that “... the county is paying out for road and bridge account $19,000 annually which is practically all road and bridge account, as [the] chain gang is used exclusively on road and bridge, and consider it too much for the services rendered...,” thereby raising the specter private gain by one official or employee or another. No follow-up audit report has been found by this researcher to date.
By the time Prohibition became law, distilling and brewing had been ingrained industries for a long time. These businesses employed hundreds of thousands of people. Distribution and sale of intoxicants accounted for countless more jobs. In the year prior to Prohibition going into effect, a full one quarter of all the taxes collected by the Federal government came alcohol and beer.
Taxation of intoxication aside, in rural areas, a tradition of making tax-exempt (sort of) “moonshine” had been passed down from generation to generation. The Whiskey Rebellion, put down by a young George Washington, had to do with taxation of home stewed or brewed friendly spirits. His early military experience against Appalachian stills notwithstanding, even Washington operated one at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson did much the same at Monticello.
Whether rich, poor or anywhere in between, just about every family had at least one member with a taste for liquor or beer prior to their official prohibition. Their taste did not go away after January 16, 1920. To satisfy it, all that any quick-witted businessman had to do was to modify his business model.
The law of unintended consequences
With demon rum, etc. finally banned, Prohibitionists - many who had been former Abolitionists looking for a new moral cross to carry n thought they had triumphed. Their elation did not last long. The law was flawed. While it struck as a blow for morality on the supply side, it did nothing to appease public thirst on the demand side. That left economic scales too far out of balance. In a free enterprise system, supply and demand stay pretty much in equipoise no matter what the law may say.
Canadian distillers were still distilling. Caribbean stills still operated. Europeans never stopped brewing or drinking anything. America was too big a market for any of them to lose, so they kept up the supply side for their export market. Prohibition could do nothing to stop these extraterritorial activities. White lightning, bathtub gin, and backyard brews sated any remaining thirst. Under those circumstances, all that ever was needed for Prohibition to fail was a reliable (if illicit and risky) distribution system. In Georgetown in 1920, that was already in place.
There had been public complaints about gambling and prostitution in Georgetown that began to appear in print during this era. For just one example, in early 1920, the local grand jury identified five houses of relaxed virtue operating near the city, naming some names in the process. Nothing came of its indictment.
Also prior to Prohibition, alcohol had been sold in South Carolina — Georgetown included — for home consumption from government controlled “dispensaries.” Over the years, public auditors repeatedly took exception to loose accounting practices and sticky fingers in these places. Those negative findings, along with public complaints about public drunkenness and debauchery, had helped Prohibition become the law.
So the situation when Prohibition went into effect was this: Georgetown had, over three or so centuries, developed a taste for the traditional bread and butter of any organized criminal cabal; namely drinking, gambling and impersonal sex. From the available record, it appears that local public officials either shared in some of these appetites or had a motive to look the other way while others sated themselves.
Alcohol and beer had been served at brothels and to loosen the purse strings of gallivanters and gamblers in Georgetown and elsewhere before Prohibition. Prohibition changed none of that. A distribution system, therefore, was already in place. Supplies were readily available, both offshore and on.
Smuggling, moonshining, bootlegging and/or running a brothel or speakeasy carried risk. Being businessmen, those engaged in these trades did what they could to minimize their risks. In many places across the land, diverting the attention of public officials became part of the cost of doing business. Entertainment by ladies of the house would be one way. Easy money was another.
One hand washing the other. A wink. A nod. The stuff of symbiotic relationships.
The Roaring Twenties
The Roaring Twenties roared through Georgetown just like everywhere else. Numerous newspaper accounts throughout the decade report stills and smugglers operating from Little River to McClellanville and beyond. The region’s small and winding inlets had served blockade runners well during the Civil War. They did the same for rum runners. The woods and swamps were wide and wild with an aroma that smelled like money to many.
Beer and harder spirits being against the law, public officials had to make an appearance of enforcement of Prohibition in order to remain in office. Times and attitudes were hard and hateful back then. For one example, unlike today, the Ku Klux Klan was considered a reputable organization among many whites back then. In fact, membership in the Klan exceeded 4,000,000 in America by the mid-1920s. In the many places in Midwest and South a candidate for public office could not be elected without Klan membership or, at least, support as the Klan gained control over state legislatures, county commissions and municipal councils under the Klan slogan: “Native, white, Protestant supremacy.”
Whatever the social and political differences between back then and now, one thing then was the same as today. Although realities could differ, the appearance of morality was as important to politicians back then as it is today. But also like today, official pontificating notwithstanding, the continued existence of an ongoing, semipublic, illegal, yet highly profitable trade in contraband raised eyebrows and stirred speculation about whether public officials were protecting that trade. For example:
C. B. Colbert had replaced J.W. Wingate as mayor of Georgetown in 1924. Wingate had replaced Dr. Olin Sawyer of Atlantic Coast Lumber Co. as mayor in 1920, just as Prohibition was going into effect. Sawyer and Wingate had herded the city during some of its darkest days of racial segregation and hatred. Colbert, who had served on the city council, then stayed in office as mayor until 1929.
Having held office for several terms, there had been plenty of opportunities for registered voters to get a measure of Colbert. He apparently did not meet expectations. By 1929, public dissatisfaction about continuing, open operation of brothels, gambling joints and speak-easy’s in town had become a campaign issue in the mayor’s race. Negative talk about Colbert became so widespread, in fact, that Colbert wrote of an extraordinary letter to the editor of the Georgetown Times. It was printed just one week before the 1929 contested election for the office of mayor. It read:
“To the people of Georgetown,
“There has [sic] been rumors and reports about me and my efforts to enforce the liquor laws and the laws against gambling. There has [sic] been mean, cowardly rumors that I am actually receiving money from bootleggers for which I give them protection in their unlawful business! Such charges are low and cowardly and of course are whispered around in the dark by character assassins. I have always instructed the Chief of Police and every member of the department to enforce the liquor laws, gambling laws and all other laws without fear or favor on friend or foe alike and any statement that I have not done so is a lie out of the whole cloth.
Mayor C. B. Colbert.”
Voters who had not heard the rumors before this time certainly learned about them as a result of Colbert’s letter. The conundrum is called “the censors’ dilemma.”
Silence by Colbert in the face of these accusations could be taken as an admission of wrongdoing on his part. He did not want to be impaled on that horn, so he published a vehement denial The trouble was, however, that the more he protested, the wider the rumors were circulated. That was the other horn of the dilemma. Some might read the denial as if he was protesting a little too much.
In Colbert’s case, the jury of public opinion voted in the election. The count was 472 for the reform candidate to 326 for Colbert.
This, of course, is not to say that Prohibition laws were not being enforced in Georgetown. Like all other laws, they were, just somewhat selectively. For example, the names of bootleggers of color appear regularly in court records. As to public expectations about seeing white violators in court, the following story appeared in the local newspaper. It speaks for itself.
“When Judge J. K. Henry commented on the number of white defendants before him as compared with the small proportion of colored, he was not appraised of the fact that out of the seven white men, only two were residents of Georgetown County, as shown by the records in the Sheriffs office” the Georgetown Times reported.
“This of course changes the complexion of affairs considerably — two white men and six negroes, instead of seven white men and six negroes.
“Lining up seven white men and six negroes who had been found guilty or who had entered guilty pleas during the first two days of the Court of General Sessions, Judge J. K. Henry on Wednesday administered the most stinging rebuke of convicted defendants in the Georgetown court house for many a year.
“I am sorry to see so many of you white men here,’ the judge said, (it seems to show that the negroes have a greater respect for the law. I am not saying this — you are saying it by your presence here.”
On the focus of enforcement efforts, another Times story tells the following tale:
“LIQUOR CASES CONSUME MUCH TIME TUESDAY
“Outcome of Weekend Raids Made by Local Deputies and Federal Officer …
“Three liquor raids, in which three deputies from the sheriffs office, and one federal officer participated, were made during the weekend, and resulted in the arrest of three defendants and the seizure of two quart jars of whiskey and five Coca-Cola bottles of “shine.” The weekend, it appears is a favorite time for the commission of crime in Georgetown county, and every Monday and Tuesday Magistrate Higgins has hands full trying cases and holding preliminaries.
“Thomas Rhue, charged with storing liquor and Rebecca Williams, charged with transporting and having in possession two quarts of Carolina “moonshine,” were given preliminary hearings before Magistrate Higgins Tuesday morning. Both cases were fought to a finish by the prosecution and defense, and over two hours were consumed in taking the testimony.
“According to the testimony, Deputies J. B. Wilson, Porter and Cribb and Federal Officer Smiley, raided Thomas Rhue’s house in Andrews on Saturday afternoon. They found no liquor on the premises, but a few minutes after they reached the spot, saw Rebecca Williams sailing through the kitchen and into the hall. The deputies gave chase and Rebecca was forced to give up two quarts of whiskey which she had hid about her person.
“Coming into court Tuesday morning, Rebecca pled guilty of the charge of having whiskey in possession, and stated that the stuff belonged to her and no one else. The officers testified, however, that Rebecca had told them the ‘shine’ belonged to Thomas Rhue her employer.
“Rhue had begged for mercy, Deputy Porter stated, and then wanted to know why the officers went after the small bootleggers and left the ‘big fellows’ alone..., a question that lingers in modern times, albeit in somewhat different legal contexts.
Tom Rubillo used to practice law, but is now retired. He has held public office, taught government, ethics and law at area colleges and has published several books. The episodes written in connection with this project will be, at its conclusion, available in one volume, or at least that is his best laid plan.