Given Kentucky is as famous for its bourbon as it is its fried chicken, it’s difficult to think that the Bluegrass state ever turned down sipping a lowball glass of spirits. But it did. In November 1919, Kentucky narrowly voted to ban sale and distribution – but not use – of alcohol, two months before Prohibition started nationwide.
What followed afterwards put the roar into the 20’s. Whiskey businesses were shut down overnight. Bootlegging and bandits cropped up out the woodwork as illegal activities spiked. Large caches of whiskey were confiscated by thieves, underground tunnels were used to shift merchandise, and speakeasies cropped up all over. While consumption of spirits did drop dramatically, organized crime became a much more fruitful enterprise.
Why, oh why? You may ask. Remember, this was a country returning from World War I, a conflict that saw over 100,000 American soldiers not return from battle. Alcohol consumption had risen sharply. It was also a time when women had taken positions as railway guards, police, firefighters and bank tellers while the men were overseas. It was a time of social turmoil, but also a time where the concepts of societal rights and wrongs were rapidly shifting.
The temperance movement had grown significantly for over a decade, and marches and rallies targeting alcohol were common. The concept of banning the drink was seen as progressive and an attempt to cure social ills – drastic measures for a drastic situation.
One of the more well-known and radical members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was a native Kentuckian named Carry A. Nation. Her husband was an alcoholic, and she took it upon herself to bring her famous hatchet to saloons and tear them apart with what must have felt to her like acts of righteous vengeance. Her rampage lasted from 1900 to 1911 when she passed away.
The ban decimated Louisville’s thriving Whiskey Row. It is gauged that about 6,000 to 8,000 distilling jobs disappeared overnight. While the city has done a fabulous job at reconstructing its bourbon industry, many distilling families blinked out of existence. Those that remained could only target the medical community to stay afloat. Prohibition also had a huge effect on ancillary businesses, such as cooperages, bottle manufacturers, taverns and even farmers. A lot of people were put out.
Prohibition was harder on the Bluegrass state than most. Kentucky’s terrain and rurality made it an ideal spot to mix up some moonshine and earn a great deal of untaxed income. Given that corruption was high and public figures were being paid to look the other way, Prohibition underlined just how broken the system was. Instead of upping morality, it unwound it. The ban on booze also meant that people weren’t having a slow sip at dinner, but downing buckets at illegal speakeasies. Additionally, the government was no longer collecting taxes on alcohol, instead it was funding organized crime.
A large centre of Louisville’s backdoor trade was the luxurious Seelbach Hotel. Built in 1905 by Bavarian brothers Otto and Louis Seelbach, the lodging was constructed with many modern amenities not yet seen in the state. Even though Louisville had its own city water, the brothers dug wells and had sewer tunnels built. Additional tunnels were built when the hotel became a large provider of steam for neighboring businesses. These unused basements and tunnels were an easy railroad to freedom should authorities come knocking.
In fact, legend has it that F. Scott Fitzgerald based his titular character of The Great Gatsby on the infamous George Remus, who he met at the hotel’s illegal drinking business. Seelbach became a magnet to some of the more colourful mobsters of the 20s. Besides George Remus, coined King of the Bootleggers, the hotel also saw the likes of Lucky Luciano and Dutch Shultz pass through its doors. Today you can sit where Al Capone himself would play blackjack and poker and smoke cigars. According to local lore, the front desk had a button to press should law enforcement show up so that Capone could quickly tunnel for cover.
End of an era
By the 1930s, the damage Prohibition had caused the country was evident. Both parties running for the 1932 election agreed that the 18th amendment to stop the sale of booze should be struck. The noble experiment was not seen as a success in Kentucky; over 80% of voters called for repeal. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, the Prohibition era officially ended on December 5th, 1933. Distilleries were reopened and Louisville began construction of its – now legal – bourbon empire. Let’s raise a glass to that.