Saloons, Carry Nation, Old Devil Whiskey & Prohibition



By: J. Marlando

An Overview of a Nation of Drinkers

Americans, especially men, have historically been heavy drinkers and, in fact, beer, wine and hard liquor traveled with the Pilgrims as they left Jolly old England on their way to the New World. (Speaking of the Pilgrims, the Mayflower never landed at Plymouth Rock but don’t go blabbing this around the next time you lift a few). Anyway, jumping ahead from the first Thanksgiving (1621?) to the late 1700’s there were already 2,579 legal distillers keeping the colonies in good supply and we have no idea of how many unlawful brewers were also making lots of profits at the same time. This, by the way, was long before the term “saloon” was even conceived of.  Nevertheless, by the very early 1800’s over 14,000 legal distillers were profiting from old devil whiskey and other alcoholic beverages that most bellied to the bar for, slugged down straight before staggering home to tip a couple from a private bottle before flopping in bed.

Early Americans always had quite a big selection of alcoholic beverages too: There was hard cider, applejack; peach schnapps and brandies just to name a few. Rum had nearly always been a favorite drink throughout the colonies which was first imported from Jamaica and Barbados but later made on the home front. Whiskey making had come from Ireland and Scotland but certain ryes and especially bourbon were all American drinks.  But also there were concoctions just for the more delicate ladies and the aged—one old-folk punch was made with whiskey, milk, sugar and a few spices so no one had to miss out on any of the fun.

Going back a few decades from the early 1800s, the Molasses Act of 1733 began to stir discontent among the people when Great Britain imposed a tax of six pence on every gallon of imported molasses. The idea was to force the people into only buying English molasses by making other imports of molasses unaffordable. This would be a major reason why our forefathers and those with them would begin whispering, “rebellion.”

Then the Stamp Act was declared which was an attempt to impose a direct tax on the colonies; a law passed by Parliament of Great Britain that, so to speak, became the spark that would eventually lead to war. Indeed, by then, John Hancock was already smuggling rum and molasses in as the other “Sons of Liberty” were no doubt busy with other rebellious acts defying England’s authority over them. Early meetings of the revolutionaries were all but exclusively in—where else—taverns.

Taverns existed in nearly every town and in every roadhouse during the periods of pre and post the Revolutionary War. Indeed Tom Jefferson lived at the Indian Queen Tavern while penning the Declaration of Independence and Francis Scot Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the taproom of the Fountain Inn, in Baltimore.

The tavern, indeed, was central to life in the colonies and where business discussions, friendly debates, and talk of philosophy and politics were always plentiful. In fact, it was at the Green Dragon Tavern that the Boston Teas Party was launched.

Actually, the western saloon would not emerge until the year 1822. It was established by a trapper by the name of Brown in a place called, “Brown’s Hole.” Brown’s Hole was located where the modern states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah meet. By then mountain men and other adventurers had made whiskey and bourbon the “drink” of the west but the West remained a true wilderness at the time since the great covered wagon migrations from the East had not yet begun. Within only a couple of decades, however, settlers and towns would begin dotting the prairie lands and then the unfolding Gold Rush of ’49 would quickly populate the mountain and seacoast areas—and the American frontier was destined to be changed forever.

After the Civil War but before the great cattle drives, frontier towns were populated by a few settlers and a great many buffalo hide and bone collectors—a major market was selling the bones to glue factories. By the time of the railroads and cattle drives, however, many towns like Dodge and Abilene where cowpokes brought their herds for shipping made rich men out of saloon owners. Abilene, Kansas, for example, had eleven saloons about twice as many drinking places than other businesses.

The Western saloonsaloons(111500)  offered a place to relax and have fun in—many had boxing matches, piano music and nearly all had “dance hall girls” who would dance with the male customers for a fee; prostitution and gambling was part of the business for most owners and this was probably a major reason why especially wives and preachers began protesting against old devil whiskey and the evils of barroom moralities. In fact, there were even barroom evangelists who preached in the saloons in the quest of reforming the patrons and of course a great many Sunday Sermons at local churches were about the evils of drink.

By 1875 an Anti-Saloon League had been formed and the launching of an early call for prohibition evolved—Carry Nation was soon to be on her way!

Carry Nation


Actually there truly were a lot of domestic problems that resulted from booze but it wasn’t the saloon or the liquor itself at the root of the problems—it was undisciplined men who found a great escape in barroom conversations and drinking themselves free from the encumbrances of everyday life. For one thing the saloon and barroom served as an open social club where successful and unsuccessful men were made equal—the laborer could make friends with the banker as the environment itself had no class distinctions—rich and poor, smart and not-so-smart rubbed shoulders equally; a place where the prude could feel like a good-old-boy and the good-old-boy could feel equal to all other men regardless of his social status. And, both had their opinions on politics, religion and women; popular topics that even surpassed sports at least most of the time! When card playing was illegalized in most saloons, billiards was popularized in many drinking places so the “bar” also served its customers as an adult playground.

Another major problem was that there was something else that wealthy and poor men shared—after a night of drinking, it was not unusual for a man to go home drunk…and amorous. He would either woo or coo his lady to accept his advances or… simply push himself on her, having his way before rolling over into deep sleep. This was not only degrading for most wives but also dangerous. The biggest killer of women at the time was childbirth and there were no safe contraceptives to prevent it—and, some women were virtually kept pregnant by such unromantic encounters. So women had many reasons to hate the devil’s brew. After all, for a lot of them it truly made life a living hell. For another thing, it was not unusual for many men to drink up their money before paying rent or putting food on the table.

Carry Nation it seems was married to a man much akin to this and who had died of heavy boozing now she was close to divorcing a second husband who was probably a drinker also. In any case, we cannot ever know all her reasons for hating saloons and bars as she did but she tells us that in1900, on precisely June 6th, she threw herself down on her bed, surrendered to the Lord and asked him to use her to suppress the “dreadful curse of liquor.” On the following morning, she heard a voice before getting out of bed that said, “Go to Kiowa and I will stand by you.” 

Now Carry was a big woman—nearly six feet tall and weighing 180 pounds—so strong that it once took four policemen to, as historian *Richard Erdoes says, to subdue her.

She began her “war against saloons in Kiowa but her first major attack was in Wichita where there was dozens of drinking places. Richard Erdoes suggests that this is probably because Carey’s Saloon displayed “Cleopatra at the Bath” naked, with a “background of thinly veiled handmaidens and leering eunuchs.”

She ended up breaking the huge mirror behind the bar, damaged the painting and destroying a great many bottles containing choice whiskey, breaking, it is said, every glass in the place. She left the barroom shouting, “Glory to God! Peace on Earth! Good will to men!

She became well known, as said, overnight.

She smashed bars, bottles, mirrors and pictures all over Kansas and began moving her strong-arm tactics into other states.  Soon enough she had a small army of other women joining her crusade.

How could she afford all this traveling? She sold souvenir hatchets and published to magazine—the Smasher’s Mail and the Hatchet.

Do not think that Carry and her followers simply walked in and wrecked places, however. Carry herself was knocked down and beaten but she continued forward demanding prohibition all the way.

As a result of Carry, ministers and a great many women were strongly involve in creating Prohibition. By the time it arrived nationally there were already 30 states gone dry or almost dry.

Historically it seems that only freedom loving Montanans refused to comply, calling the law unconstitutional. They kept their saloons open in spite of the law so the government sent federal agents into Montana to put a stop to the illegal sale of alcohol—those agents were either paid off or they simply ended up never being seen again.

The actual legality of prohibition can still be questioned today since it was a product of Big Brother politics creating a crime out of a non-criminal offense; a consensual crime which, as the saying goes, would have made our forefathers turn over in their graves.

In any case, Probation had arrived and Americans in general began drinking more than ever.

First arrived the moonshiners followed by the gangsters.


Richard Erdoes tells us this: “One answer to Prohibition was moonshine—White mule, Field whiskey, white lightening, farm whiskey, Blue John, chock beer, Mountain Dew, Utah Valley Tan, Old Tows,  Purple Jesus, Sneaky Pete, cow whiskey, and Scorpion juice. The very word “bootlegger” originated in the West—in western Kansas and the Indian Territory during the 1880s, because when the operator of a  pot still went to peddle his stuff, he carried it in pint bottles hidden in his bootlegs. In the wide open spaces, the bootleggers and their moonshine were unlike the gangsters of Chicago or New York and their stuff. The western moonshiner was a folk hero, a good neighbor, and “a mighty” ‘commondatin’ man.”

Prohibition that swept across the 1920s and very early 1930 became a gangster’s paradise. Brooklyn born Al Caponesaloons(111502)  the best known gangster of all times became Chicago’s Mafia boss and made millions upon millions of dollars as did others such as Lucky Luciano and men like Dutch Schultz—a Jewish-German—mobster.

Prohibition also created a new American ethic and morality—nearly everyone became lawbreakers—Ordinary citizens were making home brew in their kitchens and wine in their bathtubs while the more affluent were going to speakeasies in the cities. In New York it is estimated that there were somewhere between 32,000 and 100,000 thousand illegal drinking places at any given time during most of the 1920s into the 1930s.

It was really not the gangsters, however, that put the roar into the roaring 20s. It was the sudden change of values and attitude by the women folk: The flapper emerged in 1922, hem lines went to the knee and the Charleston became popularized—the wildest, sexist dance most American’s ever imagined and all in 4/4 time.


The 1920s also produced a freer sexuality—for one thing, during the early 20s diaphragm entered and so for the first time in history women were finally in charge of their own bodies—they could, after all, enjoy sex without the worry of pregnancy. And because of this freedom, she could also decide when she wanted it and when she did not as males had been doing…well, forever.

In any case, as a result of a kind of women’s liberation the diaphragm delivered, back-seat love affairssaloons(111505)  and one night stands became common as did cohabitation. Indeed, one American judge condemned the automobile as being a “house of prostitution on wheels.”         

The truth of course is that prohibition had been in the American eye-sight since colonial times but when the moralists finally achieved it, it simply backfired as a temperance movement and legal enforcement. Indeed, not even many cops stopped lifting the jug during the years of prohibition and a great many went on the payrolls of bootleggers and rum runners. It was as historian Kenneth C. Davis tells us: “For the rich, there were ‘speakeasies.’ saloons(111506)The ostensibly private clubs, requiring a code word entry that often operated under the watchful eye of the corner cop. For the poor there was bathtub gin. Pharmacists wrote prescriptions for “medical” doses of alcohol, and more Catholics must have gone to mass, because production of legal sacramental wine increased by hundreds of thousands of gallons.” 

During the 14 years that prohibition remained the law—alcoholism no doubt increased as did unnecessary deaths especially due to the use of rubbing alcohol in homemade liquors and gangland murders over territories, power and money. All of this, including the Saint Valentines Massacre, was indirectly the result of a governmental attempt to legislate morality in private life.

The truth is that the Prince of Walessaloons(111507) visiting the U.S., revealed the attitude of the masses when in 1925, he was asked what he thought of Prohibition. “Great,” he replied, ‘When does it begin?”

Anyway, the prohibition law was repealed in 1933 with Utah being the 35th state to ratify. Only Montana with it attitude of freedom and determination had not been very affected by the law but of course most of us have all heard the old cowboy code that tells us never to complain and never to explain. The Montanans has never done much of either to this day.


Immediately after Prohibition went away so did the gangsters and with them the rampant murders, the territorial wars and scores of street crimes. Indeed, nothing in U.S. history had ever given rise to such corruption. And, indeed the immediate taxing of alcohol even helped at least a little to ease the serious unemployment problems of those post-prohibition days.

In view of all this, it seems to me that the great human error is not that we make mistakes, it that we simply never seem to learn from them.


 Davis, Kenneth C. * Don’t Know Much About History * Avon Books

Davis, John H. Davis * Mafia Dynasty * Haperpaperbacks

Erdoes, Richard * Saloon of the Old West *Gramercy Books