Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Another one for induction into the historian hall of shame, this book is “about as lucid as a swamp,” to quote the author’s own words (although his were to malign Carry Nation’s autobiography). I wish I could be more tolerant of author’s prejudices seeping into their writing, but it’s all too evident in this book. Okrent tips his hand early on, expressing dismay, “How did it happen? How did a freedom-loving people decide to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions upon millions since the first European colonists arrived in the New World?” Substitute slavery for alcohol production/sale/transportation and you have the same question, albeit on a smaller scale. I, too, am fascinated by this issue, but more around how the hell were we able to pass and ratify this Constitutional amendment whereas the Equal Rights Amendment languished and died in the ratification process.

He devotes the early chapters to the influence of women and then promptly ignores them. A blessing in disguise, as I’m able to more quickly plow through the remaining words. In December 1873 Dio Lewis swept through Hillsboro, OH, characterized by Okrent as “a man famous for advocacy of abstinence, chastity, gymnastics, health food, loose clothing, and the rights of women.” The next morning, a group of 75 women were led by Eliza Jane Trimble Thompson through saloons, hotels and drugstores to pray on the sawdusted floors for the next eleven days, causing nine of the thirteen saloons to close, and ultimately depriving the federal tax collectors of $300k. Ah, but here comes the sad trombone sound, “… every establishment selling liquor yielded to the hurricane set loose by Eliza Thompson. But hurricanes don’t last, and within a few months this one was spent,” as Okrent attempts to take the wind out of Thompson’s sails. But the hurricane morphed and breezed into thousands of lives, including Frances Willard.

Of course, there had been women who preceded Thompson’s efforts – Susan B. Anthony’s first public speech in 1849 to the Daughters of Temperance, but not allowed in 1852 to address the Sons of Temperance because “the sisters were there not to speak but ‘to listen and learn.'” This happened again in 1853 to Anthony and also Amelia Bloomer.

But back to Willard, she’s continuously portrayed by Okrent in terms that mock her followers, “a near deity” and always qualifying Anna Gordon (Willard’s secretary) as her “lifelong companion.” Once, I get, but to continually beat the drum of “lookie here, I think we caught us an unnatural woman!” seems egregious. Compare the description of Willard’s work to that of Wayne Wheeler:

“[Willard] began each day with a devotional reading, and then immediately after breakfast… would charge into eight hours of dictation… She traveled constantly, in one year addressing audiences in every state in territorial capital… She also traveled abroad… Books poured out of her…[She campaigned] for suffrage, prison reform, free kindergartens, vocational schools, eight-hour day, workers’ rights, and government ownership of utilities, factories, and (she was nothing if not eclectic) theaters. Along the way she also took up the causes of vegetarianism, cremation, and less restrictive clothing.”

Sounds impressive, no? But Okrent can’t resist a dig, “As exceptional as Willard was, her determination to connect Prohibition to other reforms was neither original with her nor uncommon.” And later he seems almost gleeful that the Anti-Saloon League has taken over the control of the movement from WCTU, saying that the leaders of WCTU “preferred to devote their energy and their accumulated political capital to the beatification of their beloved leader.”

Hmm, ok. Well then, let’s meet Wayne Wheeler. “How does one begin to describe the impact of Wayne Wheeler?…[quoting obituaries] New York Herald Tribune: ‘Without Wayne B. Wheeler’s generalship it is more than likely we should never have had the Eighteenth Amendment.’ … The editorial eulogists of the Baltimore Sun had it absolutely right…’nothing is more certain than that when the next history of this age is examined by dispassionate men, Wheeler will be considered one of its most extraordinary figures.’ No one remembers, but he was.” I need a shower to cleanse myself from this drooling praise. But wait, he’s not finished. Wheeler takes control of the ASL, and was described by a former classmate as a “locomotive in trousers,” which Okrent explodes further, “In fact, ‘power plant’ was more like it.” Then goes on gushingly for too many pages to count about Wheeler’s deeds, which sound suspiciously similar and yet less than Willard’s efforts.

The author saves particular humiliation for Carry Nation, “six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache.” How I wish Nation could pummel Okrent in the face and give him a real toothache. Nation, for those uninitiated, in 1901 wielded a hatchet in Kansas saloons to smash them up for the temperance cause. This warrior is laughed at by Okrent as he delights in recounting the Yale undergraduates who “tricked her into posing with a tankard of beer while they puddled into laughter behind her.” Okrent dismisses her autobiography as “a document about as lucid as a swamp.”

He then turns the rest of the story over to the dudes, because really, that’s who makes everything happen in this country, right? Save yourself the pain of reading biased historians, skip this one.