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Mr. Miami Beach | Article


"If anyone wants to go to hell in a hurry," a distressed minister told the "New York Times" in 1925, "there are greased banks aplenty in Miami." During Prohibition, Miami Beach joined many American cities in openly flouting the 18th Amendment.

Miami prohibition 1921-1932 LOC 3b42139r.jpg
Bottles and barrel of confiscated whiskey, 1921-1932, Library of Congress

Prohibition movements had cropped up across America throughout the 1800s, spearheaded by religious groups who considered alcohol, or at least drunkenness, " a national curse." Since the end of the Civil War, saloons had become increasingly violent, regarded by many as a menace to the American family. In 1873 the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), born in Ohio, advocated abolishing the trafficking of alcohol. By 1900 the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), also formed in Ohio, joined the WCTU in its crusade to solve "the liquor problem," endorsing political candidates and lobbying for anti-saloon legislation.

By 1916 almost half the states -- 23 out of 48 -- had adopted anti-saloon legislation. Many of these states went so far as to prohibit the manufacture of alcoholic beverages as well. Support for these measures was tremendous, and after the congressional elections of that year, "dry" members -- those in favor of Prohibition -- outnumbered "wet" ones.

In January 1919, the states ratified the 18th Amendment, Prohibition, which placed a nationwide ban on the manufacture and transportation of intoxicating liquor.

Although Congress passed Prohibition overwhelmingly, the members did not provide additional funds for anything beyond token enforcement. The 18th Amendment was difficult to enforce, "always… more of an ideal than a reality." The Volstead Act of 1919, named for its author, Minnesota senator Andrew Volstead, made provisions for Prohibition's enforcement, but it contained loopholes that invited abuses. Volstead gave federal agents great freedom in investigating and prosecuting violations. It also defined intoxicating liquor as having .5 percent alcoholic content; but liquor used for medicinal, sacramental or industrial purposes, no matter the alcoholic content, was legal. Likewise for fruit or grape beverages prepared at home.

As the '20s wore on, Prohibition was blamed for distorting the role of alcohol in American life and for escalating disregard for the law. More concretely, Prohibition was held responsible for the rise in organized crime in American cities. As law enforcement cracked down on Prohibition violations -- sometimes in justified raids, sometimes not -- alcohol production and transport was forced deeper underground.

Miami Beach had a healthy bootlegging industry. South Florida's proximity to the Caribbean didn't hurt. One account of Prohibition-era Miami Beach had "[l]imousines lined up at the wharfs to welcome the boats laden with bootleg liquor that came in from Havana, Bimini, Nassau, and people drove off with their 'fish' neatly wrapped in brown paper." At other times, that 'fish' was shipped north in refrigerated railroad cars, under cover of grapefruit, tomatoes or avocados.

Although Dade County had voted itself dry in 1913, the law was not enforced, and residents and visitors never wanted for a drink. Even as Prohibition was legislated nationally, the liquor continued to flow. On his post-inauguration visit to Miami Beach in 1921, President Warren G. Harding shared several drinks with Carl Fisher and his cronies. Fisher himself became interested in alcohol once Prohibition was established.

Gambling casinos and prostitution flourished during Prohibition in Miami and elsewhere. In Chicago Al Capone amassed a fortune in his bootlegging and speakeasy operations and redefined the American gangster for generations. Prohibition, critics said, ushered in a period of "moral decay and social disorder" when it was designed to do the opposite.

By the late '20s, a movement for repeal was afoot. Many feared Prohibition's infringement upon the American tradition of individual freedom more than they feared alcohol. The early years of the Great Depression raised still more concerns. With unemployment paralyzing the nation, it was forcefully argued that Prohibition denied workers jobs and governments revenue.

In 1933, largely through the work of the nonpartisan Americans Against Prohibition Association (AAPA), as well as public disillusionment over the "noble experiment," the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition was ratified in Congress, with 93 percent voting in favor of repeal.

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