If you owned one of the many saloons on Danville’s Main Street, or Westville’s State Street, you were facing ruin 100 years ago. Uncle Sam was putting you out of business.
In today’s alcohol-drenched America, it’s hard to imagine that voters in the requisite two-thirds of the states would ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, transportation and importation of booze. One-hundred years ago this fall, on Oct. 28, 1919, the Volstead Act provided federal enforcement authority for prohibition.
Not long ago, I stumbled into a little anti-saloon booklet, published in 1914, titled “The Saloon Shown Up,” by Professor Thomas W. Shannon, author of “Perfect Manhood,” “Perfect Womanhood,” “Guide to Sex Instruction” and “How to Tell the Story of Life,” illustrated.
His 59-page treatise presented arguments which, “when delivered from the platform, have stirred the hearts of many thousands and won many votes to the cause of temperance.”
“The 125,000 drunkards who die annually started their downward career as moderate tipplers,” he wrote. “They repeatedly told their ragged, hungry, pleading children and dependent wives that they could quit at any time … but the facts are, they never quit … there is but one form of self-government in the use of alcohol: teetotalism.”
The saloon, he argued, was at the root of nearly all of the nation’s problems, and alcohol was the “potent agency in begetting paupers, criminals, insane, imbeciles and epileptics; in wrecking happy homes; in causing vice and crime; in the consolidation of capital; in robbing and enslaving the poor; in opposing reforms; in corrupting the ballot, bribing officers and defeating just legislation; in desecrating the Sabbath and in impeding the work of the church.”
Alcohol providers, he said, “ruin your health, wreck your minds, rob you, your wife and children of food, clothing, education and happiness; they rob you of your reputation, blight your character … (they) rob you of all that is dear and precious in life. …
“They are public paupers drawing their sustenance from the toiling classes. They are the worst forms of human parasites, for they exist at the expense and sacrifice of the physical, social, mental and moral life of society.”
If national prohibition forced every drop of alcohol to be dumped into streams, rivers, lakes and oceans, Shannon said, “it would be hard on the fish (but) it would be a national blessing to humanity. Drinking men would be the gainers, and not one cent of wealth would be destroyed.”
But what about the thousands of jobs held by saloon keepers, brewers and distillers? Professor Shannon had an answer for that, too.
“Few conditions can be more degrading to manhood than the conscious recognition of receiving wages for service that produces nothing of value, but leaves society injured and robbed,” he wrote. “Every honest, industrious, sober man can find other employment. Prohibition will give him a reason for doing so … “
To the delight of millions, the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933.
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.