Latest News

'Prohibition' unmasks fun, follies of speakeasy era

Like today, key issues of the time were tax reform, immigration and individual rights.

It was the dawn of Prohibition, nearly a century ago, and it's the topic of a new Ken Burns series this week on PBS.

"Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits" is one of the opening quotes from satirist Mark Twain. But outlawing liquor was more than an exercise in temperance - it was born from a movement to reverse the damage drunkenness was doing to the country.

Despite its ambitions, Prohibition spawned a gangster culture and nurtured an era of widespread disrespect for the law. Even in the temperate Carolinas, roadhouses and thinly disguised taverns called speakeasies flourished, and moonshiners found a willing market for their goods.

"All the institutions got corrupted," Burns says. "There was something exciting about going to a speakeasy. Everything about the speakeasy culture was glamorous. You could go to one in any town."

The series was underwritten by Charlotte-based Bank of America.

North Carolina was ahead of the temperance game - it was the first Southern state to outlaw alcohol, a prohibition that took effect Jan. 1, 1909, and wouldn't end until 1935. By the time the 18th Amendment took effect nationally in 1920, Tar Heel bootleggers were already well established. A rural community called Harricane west of Raleigh was described in a history book about Wake County as "known less for its farming than for blockade whiskey stills."

"People thought Prohibition would fix all of society's ill," Burns says. "Hell would forever be for rent. It turns out there was a line to get into hell. Human beings have been using alcohol as long as there have been human beings."

Little known fact: Raleigh even owes its spot on the map to a saloon. In 1788, delegates to the state constitutional convention required that the state capital be located within 10 miles of the popular establishment known as Isaac Hunter's Tavern.

Mills wanted it dry

Textiles and temperance are tightly linked in Charlotte's history. As the industry grew, management became concerned about the drinking habits of the workforce and led a campaign that resulted in the town going officially dry in 1904.

"Mill owners got bent out of shape when mill workers got bent out of shape," says Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. "There was a feeling among mill owners workers imbibed too much."

Wilkes County soon became famous for its rogue distilleries, which fed a steady supply to Charlotte's mill communities.

On the upper echelon of society, Charlotte's country clubs operated under what was called the "locker system." It wasn't illegal to drink alcohol, only to sell it. Once it was obtained by whatever measures, upper-crust Charlotteans stored their stash at the club and drank without censure, Hanchett says.

Creating the supply line meant that moonshine runners became skilled at tricking up their engines to give them an edge if the law gave chase. Racing the cars inevitably followed. Folklore has it that you can follow that line directly to NASCAR. Race driver Junior Johnson, who joined his family's bootleg business and made his first delivery run at age 14, donated an old moonshine still to the Hall of Fame. "Prohibition just created this culture of illegality," Hanchett says.

Business as usual

By the time the Great Depression took hold, it was clear that Prohibition was creating more problems than it solved. Liquor was readily available even to minors in speakeasies, ruthless gangsters were getting rich from trafficking and corruption rampant in law enforcement was rampant.

Prohibition died Dec. 5, 1933. Its passing was observed quietly in the Carolinas, which had already decided to continue abstinence by law, while unofficially looking the other way.

"Corn whiskey was available from bootleggers at $2 a gallon or thereabouts, but there was a usual scarcity of 'real stuff' at more or less prohibitive prices," The Charlotte Observer reported the day after repeal. "At speakeasies in the larger towns, 'mountain dew' was obtainable over the counter at 25 cents a glass but apparently there was no bigger business than usual."

On Dec. 6, 1933, South Carolina began taking applications from citizens for permits allowing one gallon of spirits per month - for medicinal purposes only. By the close of business that day, Spartanburg led the list of cities providing medical dispensation, granting permits to 97 people.