Washington's Dry Spell

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

At the exact time Prohibition was repealed, Franklin D. Roosevelt was taking a swim in the White House's indoor pool. The president was wet. Now the country was wet. That night, 75 years ago this weekend, a truckload of Yuengling beer trundled up the driveway of the executive mansion and, for the first time in 16 years, the commander in chief could chug a cold one in the open.

Only not really. The District had to wait three more months to drink legally. Congress didn't know whether the states' ratification of the 21st Amendment applied to the voteless capital.

Buzz kill? Hardly.

Upon the repeal on Dec. 5, 1933, Washingtonians rushed to Bethesda and Silver Spring (Maryland was dubbed the "Free State" because it never passed a Prohibition enforcement act), and Montgomery County drank itself dry within a day. Prince George's County started selling alcohol several days later. Virginia had ratified the amendment in October 1933 but remained dry while its politicians whipped up plans for the state to profit from the wholesale of liquor.

None of this really mattered. In fact, Washingtonians started drinking more during Prohibition. In 1929, the District was a "Sodom of suds," in the words of an outraged bureaucrat. That year, one in 27 D.C. residents was arrested for an alcohol-related violation, and at one city hospital, 18 percent more people were treated for alcoholism than in 1916-17.

Washingtonians craved Maryland rye. Whiskey from Virginia was smuggled into the city, funneled into flasks and strapped to thighs for easy access. Unlike the violent turf wars in New York and Chicago, bootlegging in the District was conducted with "silky politeness" that reflected "the suave atmosphere of the city," the Washington Daily News reported.

It was a 16-year farce. And its effects can still be felt today as the country continues its clumsy affair with alcohol, tripping over double standards, competing state laws, age restrictions, licensing and arbitrary enforcement.

The District went dry in 1917, three years before the whole country, and was supposed to be a model of morality and federal reform. As early as 1833, the American Congressional Temperance Society proclaimed that "No drunkard shall inherit the kingdom of heaven." The Anti-Saloon League formed in 1893 in Fletcher Chapel, now First Tabernacle church, which still stands on New York Avenue NW at the mouth of Interstate 395. Over the next two decades, Congress finger-wagged the District with legislation, including a law that shuttered saloons on residential streets and a proposal that would punish saloonkeepers who sold liquor to a man after his wife ordered him to be cut off.

Many of these members of Congress were politically dry and personally wet. After voting for prohibitionist bills, they'd retire to their offices for a few pulls of bourbon.

Citizens weren't so sneaky. Washington was "America's greatest home-drinking city," according to writer Eugene Thackrey. Speak-easies thrived not in the backrooms of saloons but in the parlors of the people, who brewed gin in their bathtubs and beer in their basements. Washington resident John Gill, 11 years old at the time of repeal and 86 now, grew up on P Street NW in Georgetown and remembers his father's bootlegger stopping by the house in broad daylight -- in a convertible, no less -- to deliver scotch and Canadian whiskey.

"One time my father and I were going up to the courthouse in Warrenton, and a guy was selling bootleg liquor on the courthouse steps," says Gill, vice president of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia. "It was flowing then. It was sort of a game. I would hear people talking about it all the time, about where to get it, about which stuff was really good. It was very much on their minds."

Then Gill recalls his neighbor, who went blind from bad liquor. That brings up the bad stuff: 45,500 people died nationwide from drinking toxic bootlegged alcohol. Hundreds were killed at the hands of police officers during raids or stings. Revenue losses and enforcement costs totaled $12 billion, which, adjusted for inflation, would be akin to about $200 billion today. Referred to as a "noble experiment" by its supporters, Prohibition was, by the numbers, a fiasco.

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