One hundred years ago this week, on Oct. 28, 1919, the National Prohibition Act became law.
The measure had been passed by Congress in order to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment, which had been ratified in January 1919 and which prohibited the production, sale and transport of "intoxicating liquors." The national prohibition law prevented the sale of beverages containing more than 1/2 of 1% of alcohol.
In Tennessee and in Chattanooga, residents hardly noticed. The state had passed its own prohibition law a decade earlier and burnished it with additional statutes in 1913, 1915 and 1917.
Citizens, by then, either were well practiced in abstaining from alcohol or were deep in the illegal manufacture of it or could get all they wanted.
A Chattanooga Daily Times timelime published days after the state ratified the 18th Amendment in 1919 said that although the state prohibition law was passed in 1909, "[it] was practically ignored in Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga until passage of the nuisance act in 1913."
And even the constitutional amendment didn't stop those who wanted alcohol. Indeed, a May 18, 1919, article noted that "in every state where prohibition laws are in operation there has been a tremendous increase in the number of illicit distilleries."
At the time, it was estimated Tennessee had some 5,000 of them, which were able to produce from one to 10 gallons per day.
A week later, on May 25, the Times printed the observations of Louis Siebold of the New York World, who had toured the country and written a series of articles on prohibition in already dry states. One of his stops had been Chattanooga.
"There is little question," he wrote, "but that whisky (now usually spelled whiskey) is easier to obtain in Tennessee than any other southern states I visited. The influence of propinquity, reinforced by the open market over the Kentucky border, is largely responsible for the fact that a great deal of hard liquor finds its way into Chattanooga, Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis, and other centers and that it is not so hard to buy under the circumstances that are less discreditable than in some of the other states in which I experimented."
Siebold also observed that "the average citizen of Tennessee appears to be no less fearful of the threat of the antisaloon league agents than are the people in most of the southern states. He frankly does not regard it as a crime to get whisky by the most convenient means and with the least expenditure. The result is that a lot more people talk about whisky in Tennessee than in the surrounding dry states. Almost any bellboy or cabman can direct you or take you to a place where you can buy a drink of standard brand, and even the prohibition leaders admit that bootleggers are driving a brisk and prosperous trade."
However, he said while in Chattanooga he learned of an incident in which police were informed that a 250-gallon still was "being operated in the cellar of the most fashionable apartment house in town, and that a local society leader was reaping a large income by distributing the product among the elect." In order to make an example of the individual, H. Kelso Haily was sentenced to year in jail and fined $300, he wrote.
On the temperance side, various Times stories cited its popularity among citizens and city leaders in the desire to enforce the law.
For instance, a Feb. 12, 1919, article described how tempers flared between incumbent city attorney Frank S. Carden and election challenger Thomas H. Crutchfield over which of the two was stronger on prohibition.
On June 3, 1919, as states were dealing with ramifications of the 18th Amendment, antisaloon league missionary Dr. George R. Stuart told a filled Chattanooga First Baptist Church that worldwide prohibition would happen within a short time. Only 25 years previously, he said, he told a Knoxville audience the day would come when a licensed saloon could not be found in the state of Tennessee nor in the United States, and he had been called a fool.
Later in the year, on Dec. 20, 1919, following the passage of the National Prohibition Act, Chattanooga Mayor A.W. Chambliss was called upon at a Hotel Patten luncheon in which Chattanoogans were asked to contribute to a nationwide campaign to elect congressmen favoring the enforcement of prohibition.
The city commission, he told the crowd, "had determined to enforce it to the letter" and police were "using every effort to stop all bootlegging."
However, in a curious and unexplained addition, he intimated a deep regret over the invasion of the home of Mrs. Nolan, in South Chattanooga, which he characterized as an unfortunate occurrence. But he said in efforts to enforce the laws strictly that such things would happen without direct intention of officials to violate any rights of private property.
Over the next decade and a half, social acceptance of ignoring prohibition laws grew, and organized crime became heavily involved with the illegal manufacturing and sale of alcohol. So, in 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed. States, however, could retain their own laws, and Tennessee did before finally repealing it in 1937.