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Did Alcohol Prohibition Reduce Alcohol Consumption and Crime?



Did Alcohol Prohibition Reduce Alcohol Consumption and Crime?

It is commonly alleged that alcohol prohibition during the 1920s greatly reduced alcohol consumption and also reduced the crime related to alcohol. See for example, the description given in Chapter 6 - Role of Tobacco and Alcohol in the Drug Legalization Debate  from "Drug Legalization: Myths and Misconceptions" by the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. 

It is a question that comes up so often that it has become necessary to create  a guide which examines these assertions. Judge for yourself from some of the most prominent studies and original documents from that time.

Table of Contents

Alcohol Use Decreased

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1) "First, use of alcohol decreased significantly during Prohibition.104 This decrease in turn lead to a marked decrease in the incidence of cirrhosis of the liver.105 Finally, the suicide rate also decreased by 50%.107"

That statement is, at best, misleading. In truth, nobody really knows exactly how much alcohol consumption increased or decreased during Prohibition. The reason was simple enough -- people like Al Capone didn't pay taxes on their product and thereby report their production to the government. Licensed saloons became illegal speakeasies, and many common citizens took advantage of the high sales price of illegal booze by secretly manufacturing booze in their own bathtubs.  That's one of the major problems with all drug prohibitions -- they greatly reduce the ability to make accurate judgments about the problem. There is no good way to count the number of illegal dealers, or the people who are secretly making gin in their own bathroom. Therefore, to make such a judgment, we have to rely on a number of indirect indicators. 

By the greatest majority of indicators,  the biggest drops in alcohol consumption and alcohol problems actually came before national prohibition went into effect. Those drops continued for about the first two years of Prohibition and then alcohol consumption began to rise. By 1926, most of the problems were worse than they had been before Prohibition went into effect and there were a number of new problems -- such as a drinking epidemic among children -- that had not been there before. 

The statement of Andrew Furuseth before Congress in 1926 describes what happened in the opening years of Prohibition:

When the prohibition amendment was passed and the Volstead Act was enacted, about three months after that I came through Portland, Oreg. Now there is a certain district in Portland Oreg. where there is the so-called employment district--- it is usually amongst the working people, called the "slave market"--- and I was the most astonished man you ever saw. Before that I had seen drunkenness there, dilapidated men, helpless, and in any condition that you do not want to see human beings. This time, three months after this act was passed there was an entire change. The men walked around from one place to another looking for employment, seamen and others. And they were sober. And they looked at the conditions, and they said, "No, we will wait a little." There was more independence amongst them than I had ever seen before. That very class which is the worst and lowest class that we know of amongst the seamen and workingmen. And I became an ardent advocate of the Volstead Act.

Two years afterwards I came through the same identical place, staying in Portland for about three days, and went to the very same place for the purpose of looking at the situation, and the condition was worse than it had been prior to the passage of the law. As long as the prohibition legislation was enforced, could be enforced, as long as the bootlegging element had not been organized, and not get the stuff, everything looked well. But the moment that they could get it they got it. And they will find it when nobody else can. They will find it somewhere. If it is to be bought in the vicinity any where they will find it. And the condition is worse than it ever was, because the stuff that they drink is worse than ever.

Testimony of Andrew Furuseth, President of the International Seamen's Union of America, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  


Charts and Graphs

Deaths due to Alcohol, Cook County 1910-1926  shows alcohol-related deaths in Cook County before and during the first few years of Prohibition. 

 It is evident that, taking the country as a whole, people of wealth, businessmen and professional men, and their families, and, perhaps, the higher paid workingmen and their families, are drinking in large numbers in quite frank disregard of the declared policy of the National Prohibition Act.

The Present Condition as to Observance and Enforcement from Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (Wickersham Commission Report on Alcohol Prohibition)

The figures published by the Department of Commerce in the Statistical Abstract of the United States reflect a different picture. The average annual per capita consumption of hard liquor from 1910-1914, inclusive, was 1.46 proof gallons. "This 5-year period was before the rise of abnormal conditions coincident to the World War and may be taken as fairly indicative of the normal rate of drinking that prevailed in the Pre-Prohibition era" (Rosenbloom, 1935: 51).

The per capita rate for the Prohibition years is computed to be 1.63 proof gallons. This is 11.64% higher than the Pre-Prohibition rate (Tillitt, 1932: 35). Based on these figures one observer concluded: "And so the drinking which was, in theory, to have been decreased to the vanishing point by Prohibition has, in fact, increased" (Tillitt, 1932: 36).

. . . .

Deaths from Alcoholism. In New York City, from 1900 through 1909, there was an average of 526 deaths annually attributable to alcoholism. From 1910 through 1917, the average number was 619. It plummeted to 183 for the years 1918 through 1922. Thereafter, the figure rose, averaging a new high of 639 for the years 1923 through 1927 (Rice, ed., 1930: 122).

Total deaths from alcoholism in the United States show a comparable trend, with the gradual increase resuming somewhat earlier, about 1922 (Brown, 1932: 61, 77; Feldman, 1927: 397; U.S. Department of Commerce, 1924: 55).

Year Deaths from all causes rate per 100,000 Deaths from alcoholism rate per 100,000
1910 1,496.1 5.4
1911 1,418.1 4.9
1912 1,388.8 5.3
1913 1,409.6 5.9
1914 1,364.6 4.9
1915 1,355.0 4.4
1916 1,404.3 5.8
1917 1,425.5 5.2
1918 1,809.1 2.7
1919 1,287.4 1.6
1920 1,306.0 1.0
1921 1,163.9 1.8
1922 1,181.7 2.6
1923 1,230.1 3.2
1924 1,183.5 3.2
1925 1,182.3 3.6
1926 1,222.7 3.9
1927 1,141.9 4.0
1928 1,204.1 4.0
1929 1,192.3 3.7

The highest death rates from alcoholism occurred during the decade prior to Prohibition as did the highest death rates from cirrhosis of the liver. These statistics should be qualified by the observations of Dr. Charles Morris, Chief Medical Examiner for New York City: "In making out death certificates (which are basic to Census Reports) private or family physicians commonly avoid entry of alcoholism as a cause of death whenever possible. This practice was more prevalent under the National Dry Law than it was in preprohibition time" (Tillitt, 1932: 114-115).

. . .

The law could not quell the continuing demand for alcoholic products. Thus, where legal enterprises could no longer supply the demand, an illicit traffic developed, from the point of manufacture to consumption. The institution of the speakeasy replaced the institution of the saloon. Estimates of the number of speakeasies throughout the United States ranged from 200,000 to 500,000 (Lee, 1963: 68).

"The History of Alcohol Prohibition"   from Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, Commissioned by President Richard M. Nixon, March, 1972

Now, I say that the prohibition law, the Volstead Act, is not in effect, simply because you can procure, if you have got the price, almost anything you want to drink at almost any place, in the better, hotels, in the clubs, in saloons––– not so called to-day. Only within a couple of weeks I was in one of the larger cities––– in fact, the largest city of our country––– and I was invited to go to a club with some gentlemen, and I went there, and there was everything that represented the old-time barroom, with its bar, with its rail for your feet and a man mixing drinks, and everything going in first-class shape. I recite this because it may interest some of the old timers.

Not a very long-distance walk from that place was another place where they were not so particular who came in. And as one who has observed things generally, a close student of human affairs, it struck me that the whole thing was a farce––– that something had to be done.

Testimony of James O'Connell, President of the Metal Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

You will find that the workingmen of this country, 90 per cent of them, are either making wines, beer or whisky out of every known vegetable and fruit that exists. Everyone has his own special concoction. They even make wine out of parsnips and such stuff.

Testimony of William J. McSorley, President of the Building Trades Department, American Federation of Labor, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

Everywhere we, went there was plenty of distilled liquor, but seldom real beer. We found that the homes of the people had been turned into breweries and distilleries which turned out dangerous decoctions that if drunk to any extent would ruin the health of those who drank them. When asked why they drank such stuff they said there was nothing else to be obtained, and they invariably asked when were Members of Congress going to realize that the manufacture and sale of beer would make for true temperance. Women as well as men were, interested in such questioning.

Testimony of William Roberts, Representing the President of the American Federation of Labor,  The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  



Drinking by Children Increased

Drinking at an earlier age was also noted, particularly during the first few years of Prohibition. The superintendents of eight state mental hospitals reported a larger percentage of young patients during Prohibition (1919-1926) than formerly. One of the hospitals noted: "During the past year (1926), an unusually large group of patients who are of high school age were admitted for alcoholic psychosis" (Brown, 1932:176).

In determining the age at which an alcoholic forms his drinking habit, it was noted: "The 1920-1923 group were younger than the other groups when the drink habit was formed" (Pollock, 1942: 113).


Period Males Females
1914 21.4 27.9
1920-23 20.6 25.8
1936-37 23.9 31.7

"The History of Alcohol Prohibition"   from Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, Commissioned by President Richard M. Nixon, March, 1972

I have been told that before prohibition we had a saloon at every corner; since prohibition we have a distillery in practically every home, and only lately, in one of the exclusive suburban towns near Newark they have discovered the so-called community distillery, where all of the people living on one block club together and contribute to the making of synthetic gin, which is then distributed pro rata among those that were contributors to that weekly.

I want to say that in my duties as secretary I come in contact with people of classes all walks of life, but particularly among the workers in different sections of the State. Thousands of them that I have been personally acquainted with, that I knew have never touched hard liquor before prohibition, drink it now and make it in their own home, and in consequence they not alone pollute their own home but contaminate their wives and children in that respect.

Testimony of Henry Hilfers, President, New Jersey State Federation of Labor, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

"Inability of the prohibition law to enforce prohibition is causing an increase in the number of young boys and girls who become intoxicated," declared Judge H. C. Spicer of the juvenile court at Akron, Ohio, a short time ago when two boys, aged 15 and 16 years, respectively, were arraigned before him. "During the past two years," he added " there have been more intoxicated children brought into court than ever before."

"Statement by Hon. William Cabell Bruce,   The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

Pauline Sabin's concern over prohibition grew slowly. Initially she favored the Eighteenth Amendment, explaining later, "I felt I should approve of it because it would help my two sons. The word-pictures of the agitators carried me away. I thought a world without liquor would be a beautiful world."" 

Gradually, however, intertwined motherly and political concerns caused her to change her mind. Her first cautious public criticism of prohibition came in 1926 when she defended Wadsworth's opposition to the law. By 1928 she had become more outspoken. The hypocrisy of politicians who would support resolutions for stricter enforcement and half an hour later be drinking cocktails disturbed her. The ineffectiveness of the law, the apparent decline of temperate drinking, and the growing prestige of bootleggers troubled her even more. Mothers, she explained, had believed that prohibition would eliminate the temptation of drinking from their children's lives, but found instead that "children are growing up with a total lack of respect for the Constitution and for the law.""

In later statements, she elaborated further on her objections to prohibition. With settlement workers reporting increasing drunkenness, she worried, "The young see the law broken at home and upon the street. Can we expect them to be lawful?"" Mrs. Sabin complained to the House Judiciary Committee: "In preprohibition days, mothers had little fear in regard to the saloon as far as their children were concerned. A saloon-keeper's license was revoked if he were caught selling liquor to minors. Today in any speakeasy in the United States you can find boys and girls in their teens drinking liquor, and this situation has become so acute that the mothers of the country feel something must be done to protect their children.""

Chapter 7 - Hard Times, Hopeful Times from Repealing National Prohibition by David Kyvig

Organized labor has ever been engaged in promoting temperate drinking and was making great p rogress until the enactment of the Volstead law. The continuation of such laudable activities now constitute a national crime.

Millions of homes, in the majority of which liquor was never seen, have been turned into breweries and distilleries. The youth of the land is being reared in the atmosphere of disregard for law and lack of confidence in government.

Former law-abiding citizens see nothing wrong in drinking and even in distilling liquor or making home-brew. Men and women who never drank before now seek it openly. The pocket flask may be found in almost every store and is never absent from any meeting, dinner, or dancing party.

Young and old alike do not regard the Volstead law as of sane legislative expression under the eighteenth amendment but as an impression of fanaticism clothed in the form of law . . .

Beer drinking has been forced to give way to whisky and near whisky and other poisonous concoctions.

The observance of the Volstead law is in its breach and its virtue in disregard for law.

Bribery of officials in so far as the enforcement law is concerned is no longer looked upon as a detestable criminal offense.

. . .

Private morals and personal conduct can not he controlled, much less advanced, by fiat of law. Appeal for a higher morality and improved conduct must be directed to the mind and conscience of the people, not to the fear of government.

Testimony of Matthew Woll, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

" I have gone into no community in the State, and have gone to very few homes in Ohio where I have not been offered home brew or moonshine or liquor which was said to be properly made and bottled in bond. . . My opinion is, . . . that it has been productive of more intemperance and much more ill health. I think it has resulted in the death of hundreds of men who would be good, valuable citizens to-day if they had not put poisonous hard liquor into their systems." 

Testimony of John T. Frey, President of the Ohio State Federation of Labor, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

(T)he membership of the New York State Federation of Labor are of opinion that nothing that has ever transpired has so set back true temperance in America as the eighteenth amendment and the Volstead Act.

I have had occasion to travel quite extensively, not alone in the State of New York but throughout the United States, and I have seen things in that time that, if they had been seen prior to prohibition the people of this country would have been dumbfounded.

In New York City, and in the several cities of the State of New York, I have had occasion to attend parties such as banquets, dinners, and social gatherings. And I have been invited to practically all of them, I might say, and I have never seen one yet that you could call dry.

. . .

But before I come to the unorganized question, I want to state one thing: In the meetings of our local unions, if a man appeared before prohibition, if a man dared to appear under the influence of liquor prior to this legislation, why, he would be ostracized. He would be a man they would not care to associate with. But what is the situation now? He is a hero if he comes in.

It is nothing new now to see them passing the flask around at union meetings, something that was never done before, and something that would never have been tolerated before prohibition. But now the question is asked "Where did you get it?" And they will say "How good is it?" And so forth and so on.

. . .

I have been to places where it was not an unusual occurrence at all to see a young girl take out her pocketbook flask of whisky and hand it around to her chums and associates. I have seen this on more than one occasion. And I belong to an institution in New York that we organized, and we were in a first-class hotel at a gathering, and I had occasion to go to the lavatory, the gentlemen's lavatory and I was astounded to see there three young girls with three men, and they were drinking out of a flask and handing it around.

Testimony of John Sullivan, President, NY Federation of Labor  The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

I am informed that Mrs. White, who is the manager of the Elizabeth Peabody Settlement House, situated in Boston, can testify as to the injurious effect which has been brought about by prohibition upon the poor people of the district in which the Elizabeth Peabody House is situated. That she has had 15 years' experience in the district---9 years before prohibition and 6 years since. That she will state that neighborhood dances have had to be abandoned on account of the hip-pocket flasks filled with liquor brought by boys to these dances and disseminated by them. She can also testify to the fact that many families previously in very poor circumstances have become fairly well to do as the result of having gone into the bootlegging business on a small scale. That conditions throughout the settlement are worse from the point of view of morals than at any time before prohibition.

. . . 

I am informed that she will testify that women who used to suffer from the evils of drinking in pre-Volstead days are now suffering worse evils as the result of prohibition. That liquor formerly sold in saloons is now sold direct from the homes in which it is made. That children who never were curious about alcohol are now familiar with it and the form of moral looseness that its use leads to. That a number of high schools have discontinued holding their dances as they have so much trouble with liquor carried by the boys in hip-pocket flasks that parents and neighbors complain that the well-behaved pupils are being corrupted

And last I request you to subpoena M. B. Wellborn, governor, Federal Reserve Bank, Atlanta, Ga., requiring his appearance this week before this committee.

I am informed that Mr. Wellborn, in a letter requested by Congressman Upshaw on March 3, states that when he came to Atlanta 11 years ago with the Federal reserve bank that he found there many saloons that sold beer exclusively. That these saloons were well-conducted and that no drunkenness or excessive drinking resulted from them. That he had been in Atlanta for 11 years and is satisfied from his own observations that drinking is now almost universal, not only in Atlanta but in every town in Georgia. That his observations are not confined strictly to the rich and well-to-do, but that nearly every family has whisky in their home.

Further Statement by Walter EdgeThe National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

Alcohol-related Arrests Decreased

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2) "Also, alcohol-related arrests decreased 50%. 106"

Flatly wrong.

The following chart shows the figures for major cities from 1920-25:

Arrests for drunkenness in some of the leading cities of the United States






















New York



































Wilmington, Del.




























Wilmington, N.C.







Charleston, S.C.



































New Orleans














Little Rock







St. Louis








































86 072






























Des Moines





















Los Angeles







San Francisco







Salt Lake City







* Merged in disorderly conduct cases.

from "Statement by Hon. William Cabell Bruce, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926" 

The following chart demonstrates the pattern of arrests for intoxication, intoxication and disorderly conduct, and habitual drunkards in Philadelphia from 1910-1925.  

Year Intoxication Intoxication and Disorderly Conduct Intoxicated Drivers Habitual Drunkards Total Arrests
1910 28,664 9,792 568 39,024
1911 30,455 10,806 466 41,727
1912 34,818 11,358 428 46,604
1913 39,309 14,723 760 54,792
1914 36,481 14,306 702 51,489
1915 33,186 10,202 633 44,021
1916 39,182 10,424 712 50,318
1917 33,584 9,456 562 43,602
1918 25,981 8,674 203 34,858
1919 16,819 6,794 127 23,740
1920 14,313 6,097 33 20,443
1921 21,850 5,232 494 33 27,609
1922 36,299 7,925 472 50 44,746
1923 45,226 8,076 645 177 54,124
1924 47,805 6,404 683 874 55,766
1925 51,461 5,522 820 814 58,617

extracted from Statement of William S. Vare, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  


Prohibition did not increase crime

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3) " A second reason why Prohibition was a successful program is due to the fact that it did not -- contrary to popular myth--cause an increase in the crime rate. It is true that there was an increase in the homicide rate during Prohibition, but this is not the same as an increase in the overall crime rate. Furthermore, the increase in homicide occurred predominantly in the African-American community, and African-Americans at that time were not the people responsible for alcohol trafficking.108 The drama of Elliot Ness and Al Capone largely was just that, drama sensationalized by the media of the time."

The references above have already shown that common people who had never been involved in crime before engaged in criminal activity after alcohol prohibition started. But there is far more evidence of a Prohibition crime wave than just those references.

This chart shows that there were steep increases in both homicides and prisoners in custody during Prohibition. 

Homicide Rate and Receipt of Prisoners 1910-1987 shows the number of people sent to prisons also rose during Prohibition. While a good deal of that rise was due to alcohol prohibition (see the charts linked below) a good deal of it was also due to prohibition of opiates and cocaine which had occurred just before alcohol prohibition. For example see this NY Times article from 1920.

The following charts show elements of increased crime that were the direct result of alcohol prohibition:

Arrests under the Volstead Act 

Convictions and Acquittals Under the Volstead Act 

Autos and Boats Seized under the Volstead Act 

Agents Injured and Killed Under the Volstead Act 

Liquor and Beer Seized Under the Volstead Act

Casualties per 1,000 Arrests Under the Volstead Act

Total Arrests in Philadelphia 1910-1925

1910 82,017
1911 87,557
1912 96,084
1913 103,673
1914 100,629
1915 91,237
1916 95,783
1917 96,041
1918 94,037
1919 75,618
1920 73,015
1921 83,136
1922 99,601
1923 115,399
1924 130,759
1925 137,263

 Statement of William S. Vare, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  


Prohibition was the most lawful period in US history

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4) "It was the most lawful period in US history," says  Watters of Australia, but prohibition didn't work because, unlike heroin, alcohol was an integral part of the social fabric. 

He stresses his views are his own and not shared by all ANCD members.  But at age 67, as the son of an alcoholic and after a lifetime of helping addicts, he figures he knows what he's talking about. 

This quote comes directly from Miranda Devine's op-ed piece, "It Pays To Be Tough on Drugs".

First, let me point out that Watters statement contradicts itself. If Prohibition was "the most lawful period in US history" how is it that it didn't work? 

Alcohol as integral part of the social fabric

I also find it interesting when someone argues that "prohibition didn't work because, unlike heroin, alcohol was an integral part of the social fabric." Just to give this issue some perspective, let's consider that, in the US, alcohol typically kills around 100,000 people per year, while heroin kills only a couple of thousand. On any scale of measurement of problems to society, alcohol wins hands down over heroin -- always has, always will. If heroin was killing 100,000 people per year, would Brian Watters then consider that heroin was an integral part of the social fabric and, therefore, worthy of legalization? 

But, in making such a statement, Mr. Watters inadvertently reveals the true historical reasons for drug prohibitions. What are those reasons?

It is obvious that protecting public health and safety really isn't the purpose of drug prohibition laws. If it was, then the toughest penalties would be on alcohol and tobacco which, combined, kill more people in the US every year than all the people killed by all the illegal drugs combined in about the last century. If prohibition laws were really to protect public health and safety then a good cigar should get you five years in prison.

It really isn't about morality, either. The prohibitionists talk about the degradation that comes to the lives of those addicted to illegal drugs. Heroin addiction is not pretty but in truth, it isn't any more degrading to be a heroin addict than an alcohol addict. Both addictions are a disgusting way to live and likely to cause massive problems in your life. Again, if morality was really the issue, then there would have to be tough penalties against alcohol.

So what's the issue? The issue really comes down to racism and prejudice. The drugs that are legal have always been the preferred drugs of the ruling class -- usually composed of Anglo-Saxon white males. It doesn't really have anything to do with which drugs are more dangerous -- the exemption of alcohol and tobacco from all the drug laws make that point obvious. It is because some people we don't like use those other drugs to get the same intoxication the ruling class gets from alcohol. 

Professor Charles Whitebread relates that idea in a most humorous and effective manner in his short history of the marijuana laws

My interest is in criminal prohibitions and, for my purposes, as a criminal law scholar, we could have used any prohibition -- alcohol prohibition, the prohibition against gambling that exists still in many states. How about the prohibition in England from 1840 to 1880 against the drinking of gin? Not drinking, just gin -- got it? We could have used any of these prohibitions. We didn't. We chose the marijuana prohibition because the story had never been told -- and it is an amazing story.

We could have used any of these prohibitions. We could have used the alcohol prohibition. The reason we didn't is because so much good stuff has been written about it. And are you aware of this? That every single -- you know how fashionable it is to think that scholars can never agree? -- Don't you believe that -- Every single person who has ever written seriously about the national alcohol prohibition agrees on why it collapsed. Why?

Because it violated that iron law of Prohibitions. What is the iron law of Prohibitions? Prohibitions are always enacted by US, to govern the conduct of THEM. Do you have me? Take the alcohol prohibition. Every single person who has ever written about it agrees on why it collapsed.

Large numbers of people supported the idea of prohibition who were not themselves, opposed to drinking. Do you have me? What? The right answer to that one is Huh? Want to hear it again?

Large numbers of people supported the idea of prohibition who were not themselves, opposed to drinking. Want to see it?

Let me give you an example, 1919. You are a Republican in upstate New York. Whether you drink, or you don't, you are for the alcohol prohibition because it will close the licensed saloons in the City of New York which you view to be the corrupt patronage and power base of the Democratic Party in New York. So almost every Republican in New York was in favor of national alcohol prohibition. And, as soon as it passed, what do you think they said? "Well, what do you know? Success. Let's have a drink." That's what they thought, "let's have a drink." "Let's drink to this." A great success, you see.

Do you understand me? Huge numbers of people in this country were in favor of national alcohol prohibition who were not themselves opposed to drinking.

I just want to go back to the prohibition against the drinking of gin. How could a country prohibit just the drinking of gin, not the drinking of anything else for forty years? Answer: The rich people drank whiskey and the poor people drank what? -- gin. Do you see it?

Let's try the gambling prohibition. You know when I came to Virginia, this was a very lively issue, the gambling prohibition. By the way, I think it's a lively issue in California. Are you ready for it?

Have you ever seen the rhetoric that goes around the gambling prohibition? You know what it is. Look, we have had a good time. We have been together yesterday, we have been together today, I have known a lot of you guys for ages. How about after the talk, we have a minute or two, let's go on up to your room and we will play a little nickel, dime, quarter poker. Want to play some poker this afternoon? Why not? It's a nice thing to do.

Would we be outraged if the California State Police came barreling through the door and arrested us for violation of California's prohibition on gambling? Of course we would. Because, who is not supposed to gamble? Oh, you know who is not supposed to gamble -- them poor people, that's who. My God, they will spend the milk money. They don't know how to control it. They can't handle it. But us? We know what we are doing.

That's it. Every criminal prohibition has that same touch to it, doesn't it? It is enacted by US and it always regulates the conduct of THEM. And so, if you understand that is the name of the game, you don't have to ask me, or any of the other people which prohibitions will be abolished and which ones won't because you will always know. The iron law of prohibitions -- all of them -- is that they are passed by an identifiable US to control the conduct of an identifiable THEM.

We can see this issue over and over in the reasons for the original passage of these laws. For example, the first laws against opium in the US were really attempts to discriminate against Chinese immigrants who smoked opium. (Chapter 6 - Opium smoking is outlawed, Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, 1972)  Cocaine was outlawed largely because of fears that superhuman Negro Cocaine Fiends would go on a violent rampage and rape white women and shoot white men. ("Negro Cocaine Fiends, New Southern Menace", NY Times, Feb. 8, 1914) Marijuana was outlawed because "All Mexicans are crazy and marijuana is what makes them crazy." History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the US, by Professor Charles Whitebread. 

 For a good summary of that history, I always recommend The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs   

We have already seen above that homicides, prisoners, Volstead Act prosecutions, illegal production of alcohol by ordinary citizens, arrests for drunkenness, and a host of other crimes increased dramatically during Prohibition. But that is far from the end of the story.

Here are just a few more of the references already in the online library that address the subject. You be the judge.

Widespread Disregard

It should first be noted that by 1923, authors were already noting that Prohibition was treated with "widespread disregard". "Chapter XXXVII - Prohibition" from The American Government By Frederic J. Haskin, 1923. If the prohibition law itself was treated with widespread disregard, then it is unlikely that it had any beneficial effect on other crime.

Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform

Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform was founded, stating in its declaration of principles that Prohibition was "wrong in principle" and "disastrous in consequences in the hypocrisy, the corruption, the tragic loss of life and the appalling increase of crime which has attended the abortive attempt to enforce it" 

"The History of Alcohol Prohibition"   from Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, Commissioned by President Richard M. Nixon, March, 1972

Police Corruption

"As to corruption it is sufficient to refer to the reported decisions of the courts during the past decade in all parts of the country, which reveal a succession of prosecutions for conspiracies, sometimes involving the police, prosecuting and administrative organizations of whole communities; to the flagrant corruption disclosed in connection with diversions of industrial alcohol and unlawful production of beer; to the record of federal prohibition administration as to which cases of corruption have been continuous and corruption has appeared in services which in the past had been above suspicion; to the records of state police organizations; to the revelations as to police corruption in every type of municipality, large and small, throughout the decade; to the conditions as to prosecution revealed in surveys of criminal justice in many parts of the land; to the evidence of connection between corrupt local politics and gangs and the organized unlawful liquor traffic, and of systematic collection of tribute from that traffic for corrupt political purposes. There have been other eras of corruption. Indeed, such eras are likely to follow wars. Also there was much corruption in connection with the regulation of the liquor traffic before prohibition. But the present regime of corruption in connection with the liquor traffic is operating in a new and larger field and is more extensive.

. . .

But of even more significance is the margin of profit in smuggling liquor, in diversion of industrial alcohol, in illicit distilling and brewing, in bootlegging, and in the manufacture and sale of products of which the bulk goes into illicit or doubtfully lawful making of liquor. This profit makes possible systematic and organized violation of the National Prohibition Act on a large scale and offers rewards on a par with the most important legitimate industries. It makes lavish expenditure in corruption possible. It puts heavy temptation in the way of everyone engaged in enforcement or administration of the law. It affords a financial basis for organized crime.

The operation of the National Prohibition Act has also thrown a greatly increased burden upon the federal penal institutions which seems bound to increase with any effective increase in enforcement. The reports of the Department of Justice show that the total federal long term prison population, i. e., prisoners serving sentences of more than a year, has risen from not more than 5,268 on June 30, 1921 to 14,115 on June 30, 1930. The number of long term prisoners confined in the five leading federal institutions on June 30, 1930 for violation of the National Prohibition Act and other national liquor laws was 4,296 out of a total of 12,332. The percentage of long term violators of the National Prohibition Act and other national liquor laws to total federal prisoners confined in the five leading federal institutions on June 30, 1930 was therefore something over one-third. This constituted by far the largest class of long term federal prisoners so confined, the next largest classes being made up of those sentenced for violation of the Dyer Act (the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act) and the Narcotic Acts, the percentage of whom on June 30, 1930 were, respectively, 13.2% and 22% of the total.

 Bad Features of the Present Situation and Difficulties in the Way of Enforcement from Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (Wickersham Commission Report on Alcohol Prohibition)

The early experience of the Prohibition era gave the government a taste of what was to come. In the three months before the 18th Amendment became effective, liquor worth half a million dollars was stolen from Government warehouses. By midsummer of 1920, federal courts in Chicago were overwhelmed with some 600 pending liquor violation trials (Sinclair, 1962: 176-177). Within three years, 30 prohibition agents were killed in service.

Other statistics demonstrated the increasing volume of the bootleg trade. In 1921, 95,933 illicit distilleries, stills, still works and fermentors were seized. in 1925, the total jumped to 172,537 and up to 282,122 in 1930. In connection with these seizures, 34,175 persons were arrested in 1921; by 1925, the number had risen to 62,747 and to a high in 1928 of 75,307 (Internal Revenue, Service, 1921, 1966, 1970: 95, 6, 73). Concurrently, convictions for liquor offenses in federal courts rose from 35,000 in 1923 to 61,383 in 1932.

"The History of Alcohol Prohibition"   from Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, Commissioned by President Richard M. Nixon, March, 1972

One of the most imposing promises made by the friends of prohibition before the eighteenth amendment was that by abolishing drink crime would be decreased to a minimum. That promise has not been fulfilled. Crime has increased in such amazing proportion that it has become the dominant consideration of most of the State and municipal governments of the Nation. A national crime commission of distinguished men from every section of the country, has been formed, and a bill is now pending in the New York Legislature which has to do with the appointment of a joint committee, to be joined by citizens to determine the came and possible remedies to reduce the tremendous wave of crime that is sweeping not only the country but New York as well.

I need not quote statistics to this committee, I am sure, to demonstrate that this is the most lawless country on the face of the earth. I go a step further. I assert that prohibition is one of the largest contributing factors to that disgraceful condition, by reason of the conceded, failure or inability of Federal and State authorities to enforce the law; it has created a disrespect for law which, starting with prohibition, has gone all along the line.

Statement of Judge Alfred J. Talley, Judge of the Court of General Sessions of the State of New York, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

"Federal judges have told me, and their names I can supply if required, that the whole atmosphere of the Federal Building was one of pollution, that the air of corruption had even descended into the civil parts of the court, and reports were made to the senior United States judge of attempts to bribe jurymen even in the toilets of the building." 

Testimony of Hon. Emory R. Buckner, United States Attorney, Southern District of New York, "The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"

The corrupt prohibition agent or policeman is just as much a part of the bootleg industry as the bootlegger himself. Last year it took two Pullman cars to transfer to Atlanta the convicted policemen and prohibition agents corralled in a single round-up in Ohio. In May, 1925, a special grand jury in Morris County, N. J., was reported in the press as returning at one time 28 indictments against county officers and others for violations of the Volstead Act. About the same time, the Rev. Marna S. Poulson, superintendent of the New Jersey Anti -Saloon League, was reported in the New York Times as saying, in an address at a prohibition rally at Atlantic City, "I don't know of anyone who can make a dollar go further than policemen and dry agents. By frugality, after a year in the service, they acquire automobiles and diamonds."

Since the organization of the prohibition service to February 1, 1926, 875 persons have been separated from the Prohibition Unit mostly for official faithlessness or downright rascality. Nor does the total that I have given include delinquents not dismissed but only allowed to resign. Neither has the Coast Guard, that nursing mother of brave and devoted men, military as its discipline is, by any means escaped the contamination of prohibition. Since the duty was assigned to it of preventing the smuggling of liquor from the sea into the United States, 7 temporary warrant officers, 11 permanent enlisted men, and 25 temporary enlisted men have been convicted of yielding, in one form or another, to the seductions of money or liquor in connection with prohibition work. I am unable to say how many members of the force have been arrested but not convicted. On December 10, 1925, a United Press dispatch reported that the entire crews of two Coast Guard patrol boats which had been assigned to patrol duty off the coast of Florida had been court-martialed for conniving with bootleggers. On March 8, 1926, a dispatch to the New York Times from Providence, R. I., announced that Capt. Eli Sprague, who had been for 12 years the commander of the New Shoreham (Block Island) Coast Guard station, and had shared in the rescue of more than 500 persons, had been held for trial on two secret conspiracy indictments. On or about February 18, 1926, the Washington Daily News reported that Boatswain's Mate Joseph Libby, who had walked barefoot through ice and snow to obtain succor for his comrades whom he had left unconscious from extreme cold on patrol boat 126, had been dishonorably discharged from the Coast Guard for bootlegging.

In view of what I have said, it is not surprising that Dr. Horace Taft, head master of the Taft School at Watertown and brother of Chief Justice Taft, should have said a few days ago at a law-enforcement meeting at Yale, "The United States is threatened with the rotting of her moral foundations and of her political and social structure as a direct result of prohibition."

"Statement by Hon. William Cabell Bruce, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"



That the law is unenforceable; that it has created more crime than there ever was prior to prohibition; that the morals of our Nation are worse by far than prior to prohibition; that it has forcibly illustrated that you can not change habits of centuries by laws without creating contempt for that particular law and also for all laws in general; that the average working man feels that the Volstead Act only benefits two classes–––

1. The fanatic who wants to reform and regulate everything by law.

2. The second beneficiary is the bootlegger.

. . .

The Volstead Act has been the direct result of creating more crime in the State of New Jersey than there ever has been before.

It has endangered the life and limb of those using the public streets, through autos being operated by drunken drivers; it may be that there were just as many auto drivers that drank before prohibition, but what they drank did not affect their ability to run an automobile with safety. To-day one or two drinks create a menace to life and limb to those who use our streets and highways.

Statistics have shown that drivers of automobiles arrested for drunkenness have increased 100 per cent in the last few years. Some one may ask where do they get it?

If some one would ask the question: Where can't you get it? It would be more difficult to answer.

Testimony of Henry Hilfers, President, New Jersey State Federation of Labor, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"

Nothing is and nothing could be more certain, from all the evidence, than that prohibition is an unqualified failure and a colossal calamity to the Nation.

Whatever promotes drunkenness and drug addiction and all forms of intemperance also promotes crime of every kind.

We have the unimpeachable evidence of our senses that certainly more than half the crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated throughout the land and sensationally featured and headlined in the newspapers are crimes which are the result of prohibition.

Prohibition is a double-headed hydra of lawlessness, for we have on the one hand the crimes that infract the law of prohibition, and crimes that result from alcohol and drug intemperance that follow in the wake Of prohibition; and on the other hand we have the crimes of attempted enforcement of prohibition and the crimes of punishment, which are no less crimes because they have the sanction of expediency of prohibition law enforcement.

Testimony of Hiram Maxim, Inventor of the Maxim Machine Gun, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"


It Pays to be Tough on Drugs

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Finally, let's examine the assertion that "it pays to be tough on drugs."  Just looking at the information compiled above, we can readily see that it did not pay to be tough on alcohol. Quite the contrary, in fact.

But how about the other drugs? Surely, the laws against those make more sense than trying to prohibit alcohol -- don't they? Not really. You could get a quick answer if you just went to the Rand Corporation's analysis of the cost-effectiveness of various strategies to control drugs. They found that interdiction and law enforcement were the least cost-effective of all the available strategies. But that's on a different web site, so let's not even count that one.

One of the best places to start such a discussion is with what I consider to be probably the best single overall review of the subject ever written, the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs. It gives a good overview of what happened before and after the drug prohibition laws were passed in the United States.

Prior to 1906, there weren't any national drug laws in the US.

There were some local laws that were motivated by racism rather than any real concern for public health and safety. For example, opium smoking was outlawed in San Francisco in 1875. They didn't outlaw all forms of opium, just smoking opium, because that custom was peculiar to the Chinese. It was an attempt to punish the Chinese immigrants who were competing with whites for jobs. (Chapter 6 - Opium smoking is outlawed, The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs)

 There were no laws on drug quality, no age restrictions on buyers, and no licensing of sellers. There weren't even any laws requiring drug makers to list the contents on the label. Many people were taking concoctions of perhaps fifty percent morphine with no real knowledge of what it was. It was, as one historian noted, "a dope fiend's paradise." However, even under those extreme conditions, it was not considered a major social problem.

Nevertheless, there was very little popular support for a law banning these substances. "Powerful organizations for the suppression ... of alcoholic stimulants exist throughout the land," 25 the 1881 article in the Catholic World noted, but there were no similar anti-opiate organizations.

The reason for this lack of demand for opiate prohibition was quite simple: the drugs were not viewed as a menace to society and, as we shall demonstrate in subsequent chapters, they were not in fact a menace.

Chapter 1 - Nineteenth Century America - "a dope fiends paradise"  from The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

But it obviously wasn't a good idea for these drugs to be sold even without any labeling of the contents or controls on purity so the Pure Food and Drugs Act was passed in 1906. This was a regulatory law, not a criminal prohibition of drugs. It established the Food and Drug Administration and gave it the power to regulate foods and drugs. In addition:

The 1906 act required that medicines containing opiates and certain other drugs must say so on their labels. 2 Later amendments to the act also required that the quantity of each drug be truly stated on the label, and that the drugs meet official standards of identity and purity. Thus, for a time the act actually served to safeguard addicts.

The efforts leading to the 1906 act, the act itself and subsequent amendments, and educational campaigns urging families not to use patent medicines containing opiates, no doubt helped curb the making of new addicts. Indeed, there is evidence of a modest decline in opiate addiction from the peak in the 1890s until 1914. 3

Chapter 7 - The Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs,

The opiates and cocaine were not prohibited on a national level until 1914 with the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act.  The purpose of the proponents of the bill was to institute a national prohibition on these drugs. But they knew that an outright national prohibition law would be considered unconstitutional, so they didn't prohibit it, they just taxed it and worked the prohibition through the tax system.  ( see Whitebread's History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States )

On its face, moreover, the Harrison bill did not appear to be a prohibition law at all. . . . 4 The law specifically provided that manufacturers, importers, pharmacists, and physicians prescribing narcotics should be licensed to do so, at a moderate fee. . . . Far from appearing to be a prohibition law, the Harrison Narcotic Act on its face was merely a law for the orderly marketing of opium, morphine, heroin, and other drugs. . . it is unlikely that a single legislator realized in 1914 that the law Congress was passing would later be decreed a prohibition law.

. . .

The effects of this policy were almost immediately visible. On May 15, 1915, just six weeks after the effective date of the Harrison Act, an editorial in the New York Medical Journal declared: 

As was expected ... the immediate effects of the Harrison antinarcotic law were seen in the flocking of drug habitues to hospitals and sanatoriums. Sporadic crimes of violence were reported too, due usual1y to desperate efforts by addicts to obtain drugs, but occasionally to a delirious state induced by sudden withdrawal....

The really serious results of this legislation, however, will only appear gradually and will not always be recognized as such. These will be the failures of promising careers, the disrupting of happy families, the commission of crimes which will never be traced to their real cause, and the influx into hospitals to the mentally disordered of many who would otherwise live socially competent lives. 8

 Six months later an editorial in American Medicine reported: 

Narcotic drug addiction is one of the gravest and most important questions confronting the medical profession today. Instead of improving conditions the laws recently passed have made the problem more complex. Honest medical men have found such handicaps and dangers to themselves and their reputations in these laws . . . that they have simply decided to have as little to do as possible with drug addicts or their needs. . . . The druggists are in the same position and for similar reasons many of them have discontinued entirely the sale of narcotic drugs. [The addict] is denied the medical care he urgently needs, open, above-board sources from which he formerly obtained his drug supply are closed to him, and he is driven to the underworld where lie can get his drug, but of course, surreptitiously and in violation of the law....

Abuses in the sale of narcotic drugs are increasing. . . . A particular sinister sequence . . . is the character of the places to which [addicts] are forced to go to get their drugs and the type of people with whom they are obliged to mix. The most depraved criminals are often the dispensers of these habit-forming drugs. The moral dangers, as well as the effect on the self-respect of the addict, call for no comment. One has only to think of the stress under which the addict lives, and to recall his lack of funds, to realize the extent to which these . . . afflicted individuals are under the control of the worst elements of society. In respect to female habitues the conditions are worse, if possible. Houses of ill fame are usually their sources of supply, and one has only to think of what repeated visitations to such places mean to countless good women and girls unblemished in most instances except for an unfortunate addiction to some narcotic drug-to appreciate the terrible menace. 9

 In 1918, after three years of the Harrison Act and its devastating effects, the secretary of the treasury appointed a committee to look into the problem. . . . Among its findings 10 were the following: 

  • Opium and other narcotic drugs (including cocaine, which Congress had erroneously labeled as a narcotic in 1914) were being used by about a million people. (This was almost certainly an overestimate; see Chapter 9.)
  • The "underground" traffic in narcotic drugs was about equal to the legitimate medical traffic.
  • The "dope peddlers" appeared to have established a national organization, smuggling the drugs in through seaports or across the Canadian or Mexican borders-especially the Canadian border.
  • The wrongful use of narcotic drugs had increased since passage of the Harrison Act. Twenty cities, including New York and San Francisco, had reported such increases. (The increase no doubt resulted from the migration of addicts into cities where black markets flourished.)

To stem this apparently rising tide, the 1918 committee, like countless committees since, called for sterner law enforcement. it also recommended more state laws patterned after the Harrison Act. 11

Congress responded by tightening up the Harrison Act. In 1924, for example, a law was enacted prohibiting the importation of heroin altogether, even for medicinal use. . . . In 1925, Dr. Lawrence Kolb reported on a study of both morphine and heroin addiction: "If there is any difference in the deteriorating effects of morphine and heroin on addicts, it is too slight to be determined clinically." 12 President Johnson's Committee on Law Enforcement and Administration of justice came to the same conclusion in 1967: "While it is somewhat more rapid in its action, heroin does not differ in any significant pharmacological effect from morphine." 13 

The 1924 ban on heroin did not deter the conversion of morphine addicts to heroin. On the contrary, heroin ousted morphine almost completely from the black market after the law was passed.

An editorial in the Illinois Medical Journal for June 1926, after eleven years of federal law enforcement, concluded: 

The Harrison Narcotic law should never have been placed upon the Statute books of the United States. It is to be granted that the well-meaning blunderers who put it there had in mind only the idea of making it impossible for addicts to secure their supply of "dope" and to prevent unprincipled people from making fortunes, and fattening upon the infirmities of their fellow men.

As is the case with most prohibitive laws, however, this one fell far short of the mark. So far, in fact, that instead of stopping the traffic, those who deal in dope now make double their money from the poor unfortunates upon whom they prey. . . .

The doctor who needs narcotics used in reason to cure and allay human misery finds himself in a pit of trouble. The lawbreaker is in clover. . . . It is costing the United States more to support bootleggers of both narcotics and alcoholics than there is good coming from the farcical laws now on the statute books.

As to the Harrison Narcotic law, it is as with prohibition [of alcohol] legislation. People are beginning to ask, "Who did that, anyway?" 14 

Chapter 8 - The Harrison Narcotic Act (1914), The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

I could certainly go on with references that show that the drug laws never did make any sense, and it is doubtful if they have ever produced any measurable benefits. Certainly, the overwhelming weight of the evidence is that the prohibition laws do more harm than good. A good place to start reading the evidence is at Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy. Start with The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs.

What kinds of bad effects does this policy produce? One major bad effect is that it makes it easier for kids to get drugs, and even encourages their use. Historically speaking, the biggest single cause of drug epidemics among US children is anti-drug campaigns. See, for example, the references above on the problems with children drinking during alcohol prohibition. See also:

Chapter 30 - Popularizing the barbiturates as "thrill pills"
Chapter 38 - How speed was popularized
Chapter 44 - How to launch a nationwide drug menace
Chapter 50 - How LSD was popularized, 1962-1969
Chapter 51 - How the hazards of LSD were augmented, 1962-1969
from The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

That is hardly the end of the evidence on the subject, of course. There is a ton of stuff I could reference here in the Schaffer Library already, and there are several cabinets full of additional research at my local university research libraries that I haven't begun to put on the net. But, if you read the books referenced above, they will give you a good summary of what you would learn if you read all the other thousands of documents, and more.

If you want to comment, or if you think you have some online references that tell the story better, please send me an e-mail at cliff_schaffer@yahoo.com.

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