LaHISTORY: A Booze-Free Louisiana

Thursday marks the 99th anniversary of Louisiana ratifying the 18th Amendment, which established the prohibition of alcoholic beverages in the United States.

Ruffin Golson Pleasant, a Shreveport native, was the governor at the time, and he waited an additional week before making the ratification effective. 

Here’s a look at how it all worked out, courtesy of KnowLouisiana.org

When the law took effect in January 1920, Louisianans quickly perfected numerous methods to circumvent it. Indeed, some have argued that drinking liquor became even more popular in Louisiana after it was declared illegal. Rumrunning became a major industry; smugglers brought so many shiploads of illegal liquor to Louisiana that the price actually began to decline. A 1926 survey of social workers nationwide identified New Orleans as the “wettest” city in America. A similar 1924 report issued by the US Attorney General’s office declared southern Louisiana to be 90 percent wet. In rural upstate parishes, illicit stills concealed in the vast woodlands provided customers with prodigious quantities of moonshine liquor, ranging from “Blind Tiger” to “Busthead” whiskey.

The political atmosphere of the state facilitated Louisianans’ ability to resist prohibition. Some members of the New Orleans city council sought to have alcohol declared a food supplement in order to circumvent the law. When asked by the mayor of Atlanta what his administration was doing to enforce prohibition, Louisiana governor Huey P. Long famously responded “not a damn thing.” Scores of Louisiana residents, whether they consumed alcohol or not, simply resented the intrusion of government into what they perceived as private affairs. Thus, they refused to support enforcement of the law.

Despite such obstacles, federal agents worked aggressively to enforce their mandate. Coast Guard cutters stepped up interdiction of rumrunning throughout the 1920s, even firing on and sinking some runners such as the Canadian-registered schooner, I’m Alone, in the Gulf of Mexico. Liquor raids peaked in New Orleans in 1925 when 200 agents uncovered and destroyed more than 10,000 cases of liquor. By December 1926, New Orleans had more padlocked speakeasies or saloons illegally selling alcohol than any city in the nation. When repeal of the prohibition law occurred in April 1933, more than nine hundred retail beer permits were issued in the Crescent City in the first week.

In Louisiana, as elsewhere, prohibition did reduce the overt consumption of alcohol. Yet it also contributed to social degradation by promoting multiple forms of criminal behavior such as rumrunning, moonshining, and violent turf wars, not to mention increasing hostility toward government agents and the legal authority they represented. In the end, prohibition may have been a noble experiment, but its legacy was short lived in Louisiana. As recently as the 1980s, the Louisiana legislature proved willing to temporarily forgo federal highway construction appropriations rather than raise the drinking age to twenty-one. Consuming alcoholic beverages has proven a deeply ingrained dynamic of Louisiana culture that even the federal government cannot mitigate.

(Source: Hyde, Samuel C. "Prohibition." In knowlouisiana.org Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published February 7, 2011. http://www.knowlouisiana.org/entry/prohibition.)

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