books, history

Columbus and Prohibition

As someone who lived in Ohio their entire life (until recently, anyway), and spent the bulk of their adulthood in the capital city, I can tell you that Columbus is a study in contradictions.

It’s a city that prides itself in, well, Pride, having one of the largest Stonewall parades in the country, but it’s still a city divided by class and race. In general, it’s not as liberal as it makes itself out to be. Public transit is almost nill. Recycling and sidewalks are hard to come by, and e-vehicle charging stations nearly impossible. It’s not a city that acclimates to change easily, which is funny since it’s a test market. I was shocked when I moved to Seattle and discovered all of the local JoAnn Fabrics were still laid out in a fashion I haven’t seen in 15 years, and our local Taco Bell still has the decor I associate with the ’90s. The Wendy’s across from one of my first jobs (incidentally, a JoAnns), has had five major remodels since I worked in that part of town, including one that necessitated shutting down the restaurant, tearing down part of it, and building an entirely new facade.

Ohio itself is considered a swing state, swaying red or blue depending on the election. But I’ve always thought of it as more of a polkadot state–It’s largely red, with bursts of blue in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and a few other areas. It’s an hourly sight to spy huge, gas-guzzling pickups with huge exhaust pipes, rubber balls dangling from the trailer hitch, and stickers covering the back windows of automatic rifles, confederate flags, and anti-immigrant slogans. There’s still an active KKK group within ten minutes of my childhood home, and in the last five years they’ve started wearing their tee shirts to Walmart, no longer afraid to be seen in the open.

I think the sad thing is that these contradictions, these prejudices, go back further than just five years.

In the 1920s, Ohio was home of the Anti-Saloon League.  This conservative Christian group blamed alcohol for all of the country’s ills. The argued that families would be safer and more economically stable without the sale of alcohol as money that should be going to food was spent to feeding alcoholic habits, instead. They hoped to lower or erase domestic violence rates by eliminating alcohol, arguing that a sober society was one without abuse, rape, or other forms of violence.

As the child of an alcoholic, I don’t entirely disagree with their logic, but I also have the benefit of looking back from 100 years later. Alcohol pre-1920 had almost no regulations or guidelines; it could be incredibly strong.

Part of the popularity of liquor was of course due to lack of drinking water. But by 1920, more and more cities were piping in clean water for residents. Sewage was a thing. Bacteria was well known, and cholera (a bacterial disease spread by infected water) was quickly becoming a thing of the past. The need for alcohol was diminishing.

From the late 1800s through WWI, Americans were looking inward more, recognizing the holes in the fabric of the nation that had been torn open by the civil war. People were more prosperous than ever, yet there were still people starving and begging on the streets. Medicine advanced by leaps and bounds between the two wars. It felt as though Utopia was within America’s grasp, if they could just reach for it.

The ASL thought they knew the way. It was simple: Just remove the ability–the temptation–to drink, and everything will be all right.

When the 18th amendment finally passed in 1920, however, it wasn’t quite as they expected. While the sale and manufacture of alcohol was illegal, consuming it was not. In addition, there were some loopholes (intentionally) in the law, such as pharmacies still selling “medicinal” alcohol or medications that contained it (If you think Millennials are over-medicated, you should have seen the number of prescriptions being filled in the ’20s). Homemade been and wine for personal consumption was also legal, and oenophilias could purchase bricks of condensed grapes to make their own. There were even bottles of grape juice sold in grocery stores with clear warning labels not to store them in specific ways, as it would cause the juice to ferment–effectively printing instructions right on the bottle to make wine at home.

The amendment was unpopular from the moment it went into effect until it was repealed in 1933, but how unpopular was it in Columbus?

Harry French, the city police chief at the time, was known for keeping Columbus dry. He was a teetotaler, staunchly against corruption, and was the first chief to bring the needs of his department directly to the taxpayer, requesting funds for an additional 300 officers and new equipment. Wildly popular with the churches and conservative groups in the area, he revolutionized policing in the state of Ohio, hiring the first female officers and using state-of-the-art equipment for his force.

Despite his claims, however, one could walk right up to a bar in downtown and still order a whisky. The hotels around the State House were an open secret, throwing wild parties allowing bootleg and illegally imported liquor to flow like water. But, as they were favorite watering holes for congressmen, senators, city councilmen, mayors, and some of the most important businessmen in the state, there was nothing the chief could do except continue to pander to church groups for support. While he didn’t appear to have political aspirations of his own, he made no secret of who he supported in local politics.

Like Ohio, Harry French is something of a contradiction, covering the less palatable part of his reputation with bravado and the achievements he did make–and for the time, they were not small. Columbus was a dry city, in just about every way that counted. But just like today, enough money and power will get you whatever you want, even if it’s illegal. And just like today, the wealthy and powerful didn’t care who saw them.

Once the home of the ASL, the city of Westerville served its first drink in 100 years in 2006, and there are still dry townships and cities dotted all across the state. 100 years from prohibition, and some things just don’t change.

Further reading:
Historic Hotels of Columbus, Ohio by Tom Betti and Doreen Uhas Sauer
The Police Journal (vol 9-10)
Prohibition in Columbus, Ohio by Alex Tebben


Like what you see? Check out my new novella, set in 1922 Columbus: Dru Faust and the Devil’s Due.