Reading Time: 12 minutes

I recently watched a documentary that said some stuff that really touched a chord in me. Thanks to it, I’m noticing some very uncomfortable parallels between the ideas it’s discussing and what I see happening in society itself: that Christians today are trying to manage other people’s morality the same way they tried to do it in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and failing for the exact same reasons that they failed back then.

A 19th-century Christian's nightmare. (Credit: Todd Barnard, CC-SA license.)
A 19th-century Christian’s nightmare. (Credit: Todd Barnard, CC-SA license.)

The American Experience: The Poisoner’s Handbook is about the birth of forensic chemistry. Midway through it describes how one scientist fought against Prohibition because he realized two things: first, that the law wasn’t working, and second, why the law was actually doomed to fail.

For those not in the know, Prohibition is the term we use both for the period of time in American history when we tried to criminalize the sale and public consumption of liquor and for the law itself that did the criminalizing. Except for manufacturing, religious, and medicinal uses, liquor — from beer and wine on up to the most powerful drinks — was banned entirely, though in many areas of the country, people could still make their own booze and consume it privately. Today we consider this idea one of Americans’ most boneheaded, but back then, it was a deadly-earnest idea that had a lot of cachet among Christians.

Rural-dwelling Christians and women’s temperance organizations (themselves usually profoundly religious in character, with one major group calling their activities “applied Christianity”) sprang up to fight American men’s use of alcohol and to discourage Americans from drinking. They soon spearheaded an amendment to the American Constitution banning liquor entirely. Though they opposed any sort of behavior they saw as harmful, alcohol abuse earned their particular ire — and for what they viewed as a good and compelling reason. Women had no real rights in American culture at the time and had few real options for supporting themselves other than marriage, so they were highly dependent on their husbands. If those husbands were alcoholics, or beat their wives, or squandered the family’s money, there was really nothing at all that the women could do about it.

As responses to serious problems go, though, this was about the most idiotic one possible, even by American standards. Instead of attacking the reasons why people might choose to drink, or to change American culture to make drinking to excess unattractive and socially unacceptable, or to outlaw domestic violence, or even I DUNNO to give women the rights they needed to avoid the whole dependence issue, temperance movements decided that the way to handle what they perceived as a growing problem in America was to simply outlaw liquor itself.

Within minutes of the law’s passing, people were already breaking it — with armed robbers stealing whiskey from a railway in Chicago, hijacking delivery trucks carrying booze, and stealing casks of proscribed liquor. And that was just on the first day of Prohibition. Things didn’t improve with time, either. A number of people became “bootleggers” — criminals who made and/or sold liquor — and made criminal empires out of these sales. Millions of decent, hardworking Americans became liars and criminals overnight.

Ignoring the moral implications of outlawing a substance that most Americans saw as harmless and enjoyable, the Salvation Army, no slouch when it comes to being judgmental asshats for Jesus, set up “saloons” that sold buttermilk and coffee instead of booze to customers in ersatz bars that had everything that a real saloon had, even brass rails. They had everything, that is, except alcohol itself. The Salvation Army folks were convinced that Americans would flock to these establishments for the companionship and community that they’d gotten from real bars. Shockingly, these “buttermilk bars” were not successful.

But speakeasies were.

The Age of the Speakeasy.

A raid in 1923 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Dewar's Repeal, CC license, government photo.)
A raid in 1923 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Dewar’s Repeal, CC license, government photo.)

Sprouting up almost immediately after Prohibition passed, speakeasies were informal clubs that operated outside of the law. They could be started anywhere–even in a tenement apartment. They didn’t post signs anywhere; people usually had to know a code word to gain entrance to them. Once inside, folks could hang out, dance, eat, and drink whatever the management had to offer. (The term “speakeasy,” that link informs us, comes from a slang term at the time that meant to behave in a casual manner to avoid drawing attention — sort of like Han Solo’s classic line, “I don’t know, fly casual!“)

The clubs, which were operated by criminals like Al Capone, quickly became cultural phenomena. Customers could enjoy jazz music and dancing there, as well as fascinating ethnic food from the immigrants who ran them. Columnists like the irrepressible Lois Long, who used the pseudonym”Lipstick,” wrote about visiting these places without fear of retribution:

Really and truly, Mr. Buckner is not one bit funny any more, and he is far from considerate. It is hard enough trying to keep in touch with those static restaurants that often stay in place for a year, but the idea of constantly learning the new names, new passwords, and new locations that will inevitably follow this new padlocking outburst of his, is a little too much. But the most annoying part of this whole rigmarole is what seems to me, on the surface of things, to be the utter stupidity of the places that have been caught a second time. If patrons have never heard of flasks and private stock, it is too bad about them.

Lois Long especially liked Harlem’s speakeasies, as well, writing that some of them were run by the infamous “Texas” Guinan, a notorious speakeasy operator who didn’t let a few dozen arrests stop her from opening one club after the next. (And yes, Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation is totally named for her.) But every single trip taken to these speakeasies and every drop of liquor consumed in them was done at a risk–and not just of arrest. The sparkling music, dancing, laughter, and partying were like a shroud around the people there; anybody with sense knew that there was never a way to be totally sure that the stuff they drank was safe.

The government was powerless to help them. Obviously, officials couldn’t regulate something they officially didn’t allow at all. So the liquor that got sold to Americans didn’t have any kind of regulation over it. No laws dictated how pure it had to be, or what it could contain, or stopped its manufacturers from adding whatever they wanted to it.

And no laws punished anyone for creating or selling adulterated and poisonous liquor.

Now, one would think that a liquor manufacturer would be interested only in selling safe liquor to customers. Dead customers don’t buy more hooch, after all. The “invisible hand” of the free market should have guided manufacturers and salespeople alike to a happy utopia of safe booze and happy customers.

But that’s totally not what happened.

Dr. Charles Norris was the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City during the years of Prohibition–its first person in the office, and arguably the man most responsible for the field of forensic science as a whole for coming into being and becoming a respectable part of police work. And he really hated Prohibition. He’d seen from the get-go that it was not only going to fail, but that there wasn’t any other way for the law to go other than failure.

Dr. Norris discovered that in the early days of Prohibition, liquor was still pretty safe. Mostly, bootleggers didn’t have to create their own liquor; they could still obtain already-made liquor from legitimate sources and sell it. Only the poorest of the poor had to make their own liquor or risk drinking substandard liquor, so someone could avoid the worst of the lot by simply avoiding very sketchy sources of it.

But over time, that legitimate, pre-Prohibition liquor got sold and drunk, leaving bootleggers to make their own. Those bootleggers were soon distilling everything but the kitchen sink, and it seemed sometimes even that, to get their product. They discovered that you could literally distill anything organic — even sawdust or busted-up furniture. Anybody familiar with chemistry will be wincing right now because if you want to get wood alcohol, that’s how you get wood alcohol.

Wood alcohol is poisonous to humans. Among other deleterious effects, consuming it can destroy our optic nerve, sometimes quickly, sometimes over days. It’s a miserable few days, too, and can result in death.

In addition to wood alcohol, bootleggers were turning to denatured alcohol, which is regular alcohol which has been deliberately adulterated to make it nasty to drink. It’s meant for manufacturing processes for the most part, like solvent and fuel. The idea was that if alcohol gets poisoned, and it’s clearly marked as poison, then nobody sane will drink it. But bootleggers got this stuff and put it into their hooch without marking or labeling it because nobody was making them do otherwise. The “invisible hand” sure wasn’t stopping them any more than Jesus stops Christians from behaving badly.

In response to a growing awareness of unsafe liquor, folk customs abounded regarding how to tell good liquor from bad. Lipstick wrote of one of these: “We thought brandy was the only safe thing to drink, because, we were told, a bootlegger couldn’t fake the smell and taste of cognac.” But her story contrasts with one told in Sylvia Lovegren’s Fashionable Food about a man who forcefully rejected “authentic fine French cognac” because he’d only ever had the fake kind and didn’t recognize the real thing when he got it (p. 29). There wasn’t actually any surefire way to tell what liquor was harmful and what was safe short of chemistry tests–but ordinary people didn’t have those.

Worse, as Prohibition progressed, adulterated liquor found its way into the speakeasies and homes of respectable citizens. Now nobody could be sure of what was in their shotglasses or bottles. Nobody could feel totally safe drinking liquor unless they’d made it themselves–and most people didn’t have the facilities or room to do that.

Dr. Norris discovered that all these poisons in the liquor were killing people in greater and greater numbers. He was a loud voice in the campaign to end or at least seriously reform Prohibition, and people heard him loud and clear.

The government’s response?

To double the amount of poison in denatured alcohol.

Making the consumption of alcohol even more dangerous would do the trick, they thought, since making it dangerously poisonous hadn’t already worked. As a result, bodies piled up in Dr. Norris’ office, and he recorded their names and circumstances faithfully in an endless litany of misery. Very quickly he realized that the number of deaths from drinking adulterated liquor would soon outstrip the number of people killed in World War I.

“Nearly 10,000 in this city will die this year from strong drink,” he wrote. “These are the first fruits of Prohibition. This is the price of our ‘national experiment’: an extermination.”

One can almost hear him asking himself, How many bodies will be enough? How many deaths will it take to make the American government recognize that it has made a mistake?

Did people back then think, “Oh, anyone who drinks deserves to die anyway”? Did they consign these poor wretches to death without judge and jury simply because they were doing something unvirtuous to their own bodies, under their own recognizance, in their own homes, and by their own consent? Did the dominant voices of society at the time callously ignore all these miserable and horrifically painful deaths because the people involved didn’t adequately arouse their sympathy?

Yes, actually. That’s exactly what happened.

It’s just so weird, isn’t it, to think that “Jesus” wasn’t making more people compassionate back then, even though this time-period is one of the golden eras in fundagelical imaginations and it was Christians who were largely responsible for the entire idea of Prohibition.

Instead, just as one finds forced-birthers today who think that women who die from illegal abortions don’t deserve any sympathy because they are “murderers,” the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ back then generally didn’t give a single fetid fart about the people who died from drinking tainted alcohol. One newspaper editorial asked, “Must Uncle Sam guarantee safety first for souses?” Anybody who risked showing sympathy for “souses,” much less suggesting that denatured alcohol maybe shouldn’t be so gratuitously poisonous, was accused of being soft on crime.

A Reprieve from Misery.

The stock market crash that occurred on October 29, 1929 (“Black Tuesday”) and subsequent Great Depression brought about an end to Americans’ patience with “the great experiment.” People began to clamor about the failures of the law.

Criminalizing alcohol sales and consumption had only resulted in making honest Americans into criminals. Making alcohol more dangerous had only resulted in more deaths.

Worse, though, was the sense of disappointment that engulfed the country over this experiment. It had promised prosperity, but the country now faced a horrifying financial catastrophe. It had promised that politics and society itself would be cleaned up because nobody would be drunk in public, but instead the law had brought about the worst criminals our country had ever seen, and those criminals flouted the law in the grandest possible manner. They’d promised peace, but instead the country’s violence levels only seemed worse. It had promised that it would better people by removing their access to demon rum–but instead it’d delivered bodies: bodies, upon bodies, upon bodies, deaths in the thousands, pages filled with names in ledgers recorded faithfully by frustrated doctors who screamed into the wind about what they were seeing.

The people backing Prohibition had made a lot of promises to Americans. They and their treasured law had not kept a single one of those promises.

Gosh, Who’d’a Thunk?

Who’d have thunk that criminalizing something people felt was their right to do would only result in death and misery?

Who’d have thunk that making such an activity increasingly dangerous wouldn’t dissuade anybody?

Mississippi, here's your sign. (Credit: Natalie Maynor, CC license.)
Mississippi, here’s your sign. (Credit: Natalie Maynor, CC license.)

In February 1933, Congress voted to repeal Prohibition at last. The vote was actually a new amendment that walked back the first one, so this repeal would require a certain number of states’ agreement to pass fully. A great many states opposed that repeal–including Kansas and Oklahoma, with a number of states seen as unfriendly to the idea (Idaho, most of the Deep South except Florida and Louisiana, etc). Eventually enough states signed on to make the federal repeal official with the passing of the 21st Amendment that December, though it’d be 1966 before Mississippi finally opened a liquor store, making it the last state to end Prohibition within its borders. (Some Christian-heavy counties and cities are still “dry,” which, in my observation, does absolutely nothing to curtail alcohol consumption; the dysfunction that results may actually benefit the religious leaders of these areas.)

In this “great experiment,” we learned that making something dangerous intentionally doesn’t stop people from doing it if they think it’s their right to do. They’re likely to play roulette with their lives if necessary, but if they really want to do it, then they will. Those who disapprove of a particular behavior can make the risks for engaging in that behavior as dizzyingly high as they like on the supply side, but if they don’t engage with the demand side of the equation, behaviors won’t change.

(I hope I don’t need to draw a clear distinction between behaviors that are directly harmful to other people and behaviors that are largely perceived to be moral dangers. But that’s the world we live in, so consider the distinction drawn.)

A century ago, many Christians believed that removing liquor from men’s hands would prevent them from misbehaving and harming those around themselves. That proved not to be the case. While some lowering of alcohol use did occur during Prohibition, which likely had an effect on domestic violence since alcohol is a factor in most abuse cases, the situation wasn’t nearly as cut-and-dried as that.

The National Institute of Justice informs us that in the case of domestic violence, what proved far more useful in lowering abuse rates was the raising of public awareness about the issue and better and more effective laws protecting people from violence. And, too, a woman who is stuck in a marriage that’s abusive or otherwise undesirable can leave and end the marriage if she wishes without having to get either her husband’s or a court’s permission to do so — though many TRUE CHRISTIANS™ seem distinctly pouty as well as willfully ignorant about why no-fault divorce is so important in a country that values freedom and personal liberty.

Our country went about fixing a societal problem bass-ackwards by trying to criminalize the sale of liquor. Then it did the right thing by repealing that ban and working to find effective ways to address the problem. The solution to an unwanted behavior is not as simple or as easy as making that behavior as risky, illegal, and dangerous as possible.

And look, for crying out loud, Christians should know that better than anybody.

After all, they’re the ones who still do stuff they know is sinful even though doing so puts them into the direct path of Hell. I don’t know what a bigger or more dangerous risk there could possibly be, to someone who believes in that nonsense. But this fear doesn’t ever seem to dissuade a Christian from doing something out of bounds, immoral, or illegal. I never heard a Christian say that while I was Christian myself, and clearly few Christians are saying it now.

“Threats aren’t working — add more threats!” doesn’t work any better than “Relationship not working — add more people!” does. But that sentiment appears to be many Christians’ main strategy for dealing with behaviors they say they don’t want.

Right-wing Christian models of relationships, behavior, childrearing, and everything else are without exception failed models based on faulty reasoning and bad ideas, and they don’t produce the results that these Christians say they want in the real world. But worst of all, not content with ruining their own lives, they’re trying to force all these failed models, faulty reasoning, and bad ideas on the rest of us.

The systems Christian meddlers have designed don’t result in a lessening of the behaviors they say they don’t want, so what society needs are ideas that do work. I just hope that Christians and their leaders aren’t too upset when we finally do hammer out those ideas without them, because we’re inching closer and closer to ones that work and we’re rejecting the failed ideas more vehemently every day.

In a weird way, because Christians are doing every single thing they can to ensure their religion’s waning power and dominance, the rest of us have been set free to find ways to avoid repeating our culture’s past mistakes.

I hope you find that as nice an idea to start a week with as I did.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...