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Alton Prohibition Stories - Part 4

By Ann Davidson, Genealogy & Local History Volunteer

Prohibition 9

John Barleycorn's Grave

America Goes on the Wagon—The 18th Amendment Passes

In 1919, the 18th Amendment passed, prohibiting the manufacture, transport, and sale of intoxicating liquors. The Volstead Act would outline a complex set of rules for the enforcement of the law.

There were loopholes. Citizens could make wine at home and drink it, since drinking was not prohibited by the 18th Amendment. The Telegraph reported that you could own and store booze and share it with friends and family, but you could not sell it.20 However, the days of stepping up to the bar for a cool one or buying a bottle to take home were over. Clergy could use sacramental wine and give it to parishioners. According to Robbi Courtaway in Wetter Than the Mississippi: Prohibition in St. Louis and Beyond, doctors could prescribe medicinal alcohol and did so liberally for everything from fever to flu and ptomaine poisoning to tuberculosis.21

As the photos below show, at least one Altonian received 100 proof whiskey as medicinal alcohol for non-beverage use in 1931. The box has a sticker showing that the U.S. Internal Revenue Service had inspected the three-gallon crate containing 24 pints.

Prohibition whiskey box 1Prohibition whiskey box 2

Prohibition whiskey box 3Prohibition whiskey box 4

Last Call

On July 1, 1919, the day when Prohibition went into effect, the Telegraph ran the front-page headline, “Revelry and Joy Mark Barleycorn’s Passing. Mourners Celebrate. New Year Spirit Prevails in Alton as Mirthful Crowds Sing Requiem of Drink and Hail Prohibition.”22 John Barleycorn was a popular term for alcohol. It came from John Barleycorn Must Die, a British folksong about the cereal grains used to make whiskey. (Hear Steve Winwood’s acoustic version)23 In 1913, Jack London had published John Barleycorn about his experience with alcohol.

The Telegraph reporter elaborated:

John Barleycorn, after centuries of unquestioned rule, conquest after conquest, after fighting off opposition, last night followed the beaten path, trodden by Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon and many other nearly as great. Like all others John Barleycorn could not stand success, hence he followed the beaten trail to his doom.

Alton men with the aid of automobiles saw Barleycorn depart. . . . West Broadway last night was lined with automobiles. . . . Many, many times men were seen climbing, (the word is used carefully) into automobiles with their arms laden with bundles. . . . Parties of four or five conducted little wakes all their own, to pay respects to the last remains of him, who was to pass away.

At the end of the first week of Prohibition on July 9, the Telegraph reported that soda water sales were booming by 25‒50 percent.24 Sales of Coca-Cola had increased 100 percent. (Although Coca-Cola officially denies it, cocaine from coca leaves is rumored to have been part of the formula at the time.) Only one “drunk” (the term used at the time) was in the police court that week.

Overnight, many law-abiding citizens lost jobs and even businesses as a result of the new law. Brewers, glassworkers, barrel makers, bartenders, waiters, and others in liquor-related jobs lost employment. The Turf Bar, a local landmark at the corner of Broadway and Piasa, survived until 1921, when it closed its doors. Owner Charles Conley resurrected the Turf a short time later a few doors away, and it eventually became the very popular Rex Billiard Parlor.

Alton had two breweries at the time. Bluff City Brewery continued to make near beer called Special Brew, a popular root beer, and ice, surviving into the 1950s. But Reck Brewing Company closed down, with the exception of the ice manufacturing plant. Herman Reck of Reck Brewing Company said, “We are awaiting permission to make 2.75 beer” and would be able to “turn out the first brew in one week.” That permission did not come, and Reck Brewery soon closed.25

The Dark Side of Prohibition and Enforcing the New Law

Prohibition 11

In reality, Prohibition did not stop the drinking of liquor but rather pushed it underground. Some people did drink less. But ironically, by the end of Prohibition, more women had started drinking.26 Many tippled in illegal speakeasies, playing cat and mouse with the law.

Although many people lost jobs, others found new employment of the illicit variety. The Prohibition era got off to a shaky start as federal, state, and local officials scrambled to figure out how to enforce the new, complicated law.

Within hours of the amendment’s going into effect, bootleggers began stealing liquor from warehouses to sell on the black market. The term bootlegging originated in America in the 1600s to denote persons smuggling illicit goods by hiding it in their boots. Rumrunners smuggled illegal hooch over water. Moonshiners fired up their illegal whiskey distilleries to produce white lighting.

One of the first successful raids in Alton took place at a bicycle and auto accessories business at 512 East Broadway in May 1920.27 After all-night surveillance, Police Chief Peter Fitzgerald arrested the proprietor and an accomplice for running a distillery and took them and the steaming still to the police station as evidence. Federal Prohibition enforcement officer at East St. Louis M. T. Kiggins took the case from there.

Later, Police Chief Fitzgerald complained in the Telegraph that two prisoners were being held in Alton on federal violations for an extended period of time.28 Meanwhile, the city was not being reimbursed for the big expense, and the prisoners were taking up room in the jail. He feared that if other prisoners came in, he would have to put them in the part of the jail that was cold and unsanitary. He declared that the city would not retain further federal prisoners unless federal agents transferred the two current prisoners to the Springfield facility in a timely manner.

Public support for Prohibition continued. Women from the Alton WCTU met with the police department to demand better enforcement in November of 1920.29 They demanded that federal, state, and local law enforcement cooperate efficiently. They objected to the handing out of fines instead of sentences for second offenses.

By August 1925, the police were running out of storage space for all the confiscated booze and stills held as evidence.30 Booze raids had happened nearly every other day for three months. They planned to build an additional 20 x 20 foot “booze vault.” The room was to be stoutly constructed and protected by heavy locks to prevent anyone from tampering with the contents. In the meantime, they started dumping the contraband down the drain.31 They poured out 50 cases in October 1925, followed by another 200 gallons in April 1927.32 Seventy pounds of sugar to be used to make liquor in the still were sent to the Catholic Orphanage.



20. “Regulations Will Tie Up Booze,” Alton Evening Telegraph, January 21, 1920, p. 2.

21. Robbi Courtaway, Wetter Than Wetter: Prohibition in St. Louis and Beyond, Reed Press, St. Louis, MO, 2008, pp. 262‒263, 388.

22. “Revelry and Joy Mark Barleycorn’s Passing,” Alton Evening Telegraph, July 1, 1919, p. 1, c. 6.

23. Steve Winwood’s acoustic version of John Barleycorn Must Die

24. “First Week of Prohibition Passed,” Alton Evening Telegraph, July 9, 1919, p. 1, c. 1.


26. Courtaway, p. 389.

27. “Still Taken, Man Arrested by Police Chief,” Alton Evening Telegraph, May 13, 1920, p. 1, c. 3.

28. “Indefinite Stay of Two in Jail Worries Police,” Alton Evening Telegraph, date unknown.

29. “Dry Law Lid Demanded by Alton Women,” Alton Evening Telegraph, November 5, 1920, p. 10.

30. “Storeroom for ‘Evidence’ Here Being Planned,” Alton Evening Telegraph, August 7, 1925, p. 1, c. 2.

31. “Home Brew to Be Dumped to Provide Space,” Alton Evening Telegraph, October 13, 1925, p. 1, c. 2.

32. “Evidence in Liquor Cases Being Dumped,” Alton Evening Telegraph, April 23, 1927, p. 1, c. 3.

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