Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review: “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” by David Okrent

General Information

The book is 398 pages long, including the appendices, but excluding the cited material, index, and pages with the pictures. The book is broken into four main sections, each containing four or seven chapters. The first main section cover the history of alcohol in the US prior to Prohibition, to include the rise of the various anti-alcohol societies and individuals, various court cases involving alcohol, and the political scene leading to the vote for the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. The section main section covers the Volstead Act, or the methods to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, and the histories of the various legal alcohols allowed under the Volstead Act (pre-Prohibition personal stocks, wine/cider making, religious wines, medical alcohol, industrial alcohol, and near beers) and how the legal alcohol clauses were abused. The third section covers the illegal alcohol and the rise of various criminal powers. The final section is the rise of the rise of the anti-Prohibition movements and the end of Prohibition. There are three sections of B&W photographs with 61 pictures combined. Finally, this book is to be made into a Ken Burn’s documentary for PBS.

The Good

This is a very good book, period! It reads very well and the author does a great job in the flow of information from one subject to another. The author covers a lot of ground and gives a lot of information, but it never seems rushed, incomplete, or overwhelming to me while reading it. I think that this will make a great Ken Burn’s documentary.
The author did a great job discussing the various ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ factions and leaders and some of their reasons for why they were either for or against the Prohibition. Some of these groups or individuals are sort of surprising. For example, the Ku Klux Klan were a ‘dry’ faction because they viewed the power behind the alcohol industries where foreigners and that by keeping alcohol way from African-Americans, that they will not get ‘out-of-hand’. Whereas some of the more powerful ‘wet’ leaders included Pierre du Pont, the owner of DuPont Chemicals, because he was against the income tax laws. He believed that by repealing Prohibition, that the need for income taxes will cease since prior to Prohibition the alcohol taxes was so great, that there was no need for income taxes!

What is so amazing is the absolute amount of hypocrisy by the ‘dry’ leaders and organizations. The amount of corruption, ineptitude, and just out right insane logic is just amazing by the various ‘dry’ leaders. That is not to say that the ‘wet’ were plaster saints by any means, but they were not the ones claiming to be morally good either. Also, I was not aware of the Jones Law before this book. The Jones Law was passed in 1929 and it made alcohol related offences have far more severe punishments, including life imprisonment for a fourth alcohol conviction!

This book also has one of my favor titles for a chapter, “The Hummingbird That Went to Mars”. I don’t know why I really like it, but I do. The title is a reply to the remark made by the author of the Eighteenth Amendment, Morris Sheppard in 1930. When asked what he thought the chances of the Eighteenth Amendment being repealed were, he replied back, “There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tailed to its tail.” Needless to say, that this chapter deals with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Thank goodness for that hummingbird!

The Bad

I have nothing. The author was very well informed on the history of Prohibition and is a good writer. I really enjoyed it all.

Stuff of Interest for Gamers

Really, there is nothing that will be useful for a miniature gamer, like specific shootouts that can be gamed on the table. But for role-players with games set in the 1920’s, like Call of Cthulhu from Chaosium, this book is an invaluable resource for understanding the total aspects of the Prohibition. It covers the loopholes of the Volstead Act, what individuals and groups supported the “Dry’s” or the “Wets”, and key events in Prohibition.

There is one event that is talked about in the book which could make a great plot for a scenario for a detective RPG game (and could be done as a Cthulhu horror as well.) The incident happened in September, 1923, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. A 107’ Canadian steam trawler, the John Dwight, was captured and scuttled by an opposing gang. Eight of the crew’s bloated bodies were found on washed up on the beach, with three of them having their faces skinned off and the others with their eyes gouged out and their fingertips burned away by acid so they could not be recognized. The captain of the John Dwight was founded adrift in a dinghy with his skull fractured and shoved underneath the bench. This could make for an interesting game of investigating some of the upper society for bootleg / criminal ties or possibly some horrid evil cult!
It could also be a great resource for an abstract matrix game on Prohibition in the US with the players representing various factions (like the Anti-Saloon League or Pierre du Pont) on either keeping Prohibition or ending Prohibition and still getting their primary / secondary goals (such as women’s equal rights or to end the income tax laws) in as well by dealing with the other players.

Next Review

Slow Boat on Rum Row” by Fraser Miles; it is an autobiography of a Canadian rum runner.

1 comment:

Danmark said...

This is an all-encompassing view of what lead up to the creation of the 18th ammendment(and its earliest roots which went back pretty far in american history) and its eventual downfall and lightening fast repeal.
I chose this book as a Vine selection because it sounded as though it went beyond the common perception of bathtub gin, speakeasies, and G-men in a Warner Bros. movie smashing trucks full of beer kegs. In fact, it did go way beyond that. Daniel Okrent's book is a lively source of all things Prohibition.