Wayne B. Wheeler: The Man Who Turned Off the Taps

Prohibition couldn’t have happened without Wheeler, who foisted temperance on a thirsty nation 90 years ago

This Detroit scene was repeated across the nation, January, 16, 1920, as shoppers stocked up on the last day before Prohibition took effect. (Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)
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On the last day before the taps ran dry, the streets of San Francisco were jammed. A frenzy of cars, trucks, wagons and every other imaginable form of conveyance crisscrossed the town and battled its steepest hills. Porches, staircase landings and sidewalks were piled high with boxes and crates delivered just before transporting their contents would become illegal. Across the country in New York City, Gold’s Liquor Store placed wicker baskets filled with its remaining inventory on the sidewalk; a sign read, “Every bottle, $1.”

On the first day of Prohibition, January 17, 1920, Bat Masterson, a 66-year-old relic of the Wild West now playing out the string as a sportswriter in New York, sat alone in his favorite bar, glumly contemplating a cup of tea. In Detroit that night, federal officers shut down two illegal stills (an act that would become common in the years ahead) and reported that their operators had offered bribes (which would become even more common). On the Maine-Canada border, reported a New Brunswick paper, “Canadian liquor in quantities from one gallon to a truckload is being hidden in the northern woods and distributed by automobile, sled and iceboat, on snowshoes and skis.”

The crusaders who had struggled for decades to place Prohibition in the Constitution celebrated with rallies, prayer sessions and ritual interments of effigies representing John Barleycorn, the symbol of alcohol’s evils. “Men will walk upright now, women will smile and the children will laugh,” the evangelist Billy Sunday told the 10,000 people who gathered at his tabernacle in Norfolk, Virginia. “Hell will be forever for rent.”

But Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane may have provided the most accurate view of the United States of America on the edge of this new epoch 90 years ago. “The whole world is skew-jee, awry, distorted and altogether perverse,” Lane wrote in a letter on January 19. “...All goes merry as a dance in hell.”

How did it happen? How did a freedom-loving people decide to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions since the first European colonists arrived in the New World? How did they condemn to extinction what was, at the very moment of its death, the fifth-largest industry in the nation? How did they append to their most sacred document 112 words that knew only one precedent in American history? With that single previous exception, the original Constitution and its first 17 amendments concerned the activities of government, not of citizens. Now there were two exceptions: you couldn’t own slaves, and you couldn’t buy alcohol.

But in its scope, Prohibition was much, much more complicated than that, initiating a series of innovations and alterations revolutionary in their impact. The men and women of the temperance movement created a template for political activism that is still followed a century later. They also abetted the creation of a radical new system of federal taxation, lashed their domestic goals to the conduct of World War I and carried female suffrage to the brink of passage.

And the 18th Amendment, ostensibly addressing the single subject of intoxicating beverages, would set off an avalanche of change in areas as diverse as international trade, speedboat design, tourism practices and the English language. It would provoke the establishment of the first nationwide criminal syndicate, the idea of home dinner parties, the deep engagement of women in political issues other than suffrage and the creation of Las Vegas.

Prohibition fundamentally changed the way we live. How the hell did that happen?

It happened, to a large degree, because Wayne Wheeler made it happen.

How does one begin to describe the impact of Wayne Bidwell Wheeler? You could do worse than to begin at the end, with the obituaries that followed his death, at 57, in 1927—obituaries, in the case of those quoted here, from newspapers that by and large disagreed with everything he stood for. The New York Herald Tribune: “Without Wayne B. Wheeler’s generalship it is more than likely we should never have had the Eighteenth Amendment.” The Milwaukee Journal: “Wayne Wheeler’s conquest is the most notable thing of our times.” The Baltimore Evening Sun had it absolutely right and at the same time completely wrong: “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.


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