“When a Kansan kicks on water in his whiskey it must be nearly all water”:
Prohibition in 1893 Kansas
This was the opinion of Lem Butler, one-legged keeper of an illegal saloon in Armourdale, Kansas, after his customers began complaining about the weakness of the whiskey he was serving them. Butler bought his whiskey from a liquor dealer across the river, in prohibition-free Kansas City, Missouri. The dealer had removed five gallons of whisky from Butler’s barrel and replaced it with water.
The dealer was fined $100 and costs, the judge remarking that it was “no crime to put whiskey in water, but to add water to whisky was a serious offense against the law of society.”
“Drys” in Kansas did not take liquor so lightly. The backbone of Kansas prohibition laws dating back to 1881 was in rural areas, like the little town of Larned, whose residents drove a bootlegger from town and destroyed her home with firehoses. In contrast, people in burgeoning, industrializing cities routinely patronized the many saloons near the meatpacking plants, coal mines, railroad yards, and smelters where they worked, despite Kansas laws against the sale of liquor going back to 1881.
A Canadian delegation visiting Kansas to investigate prohibition named Kansas City, Kansas “the worst city” in the state for violations of prohibition law, or so reported the Star of Kansas City, Missouri, with the amusement that Missouri papers typically showed when covering Kansas’ prohibition efforts. The Republican Journal reported mock-seriously on a “discovery” by an American ethnologist of a band of Manchurian monkeys who “make wine as well as pottery to hold it” – evidence, the paper speculated, of the evolutionary connection of humans to animals and of the impossibility of eradicating “this taste for alcohol.”
By 1893 prohibition had become an awkward issue for politicians, especially Republicans, who had nominally espoused it since the law’s passage under Governor John St. John. Kansas Democrats, usually in the minority, hoped to make gains in the 1894 elections by opposing prohibition, in alliance with anti-prohibition Republicans. The newly elected Populist government of Governor Lorenzo Lewelling tried to satisfy all sides. The editor of the official Populist newspaper, The Advocate, thought prohibition would never work short of state government becoming the sole manufacturer of liquors.
The Populist Attorney General, John Little, got himself in trouble by informally proposing in a letter that local jurisdictions should be able to decide for themselves whether to allow licensed saloons and collect the fees: “The demand for licensed saloons is growing stronger every day,” he wrote, “and will continue to grow stronger until the people have some relief and are able to get enough money to pay their taxes and run their city indebtedness without resorting to the licensing of vile institutions.”
Little’s proposal caused a ruckus. The stalwart Republican Journal of Kansas City, Missouri, said he “counsels crime;” and accused Populists of hypocrisy for criticizing Republicans over lax enforcement of the law when Republicans were in power, then ignoring the law once the Populists were in office. Populism “wants the political support of perdition,” an anonymous Republican told the paper, and is “ready to do anything to get it.” By “perdition” the speaker meant the lower classes, “the vote of the slums,” the immigrant laborers who worked in the packing houses and smelters.
The Kansas City Times reported on the Attorney General’s efforts to wriggle out from under accusations he was no longer enforcing prohibition laws . He was simply stating, he said, “the condition of things as they existed,” and had no intention of abandoning enforcement. Annie Diggs, the well-known suffragist and prohibitionist, thought Little should be impeached and that hanging wouldn’t be inappropriate: “The logic of the letter,” said Mrs. Diggs, “is the overthrow of the constitution. You know the Chicago Anarchists were hung for that.”
Little’s climb down mollified Mrs. Diggs, but not the anti-prohibitionists, one of them writing the Journal to say that Little’s licensing suggestion had to some extent atoned for “the disgrace heaped upon the state last winter” after the Populists’ election. The Populist effort to “straddle” the issue and please both prohibitionists and “antis” was a failure.
Attorney General Little wasn’t the only Populist official trying to straddle prohibition laws. In June, Frank “Pop” Willard, mayor of the smelter city of Argentine, made an effort at enforcement, although there was suspicion he was doing so only to pressure city council to approve his choices for city jobs and that in the crackdown he was letting Populist “jointists” off the hook.
Willard himself was no teetotaler; “When you go to Argentine and get thirsty,” one Republican politician from Missouri observed, “just go to the mayor quietly and he can inform you where the best of liquid goods in that place are kept on tap.” Three months after Willard’s dubious campaign began, the Republican County Attorney, Alfred Cobb, had him arrested, based on a clause in the 1881 prohibitory law providing that any public official who knew of a place where liquor was sold and didn’t report it would be arrested, fined and removed from office. The Democratic Kansas City Star delighted at calling attention to the hypocrisy of it all: police officers knew all about the more than seventy “jointists” who paid a monthly “fine” to keep their doors open, but none of them had ever been prosecuted.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was the assiduous backbone of the Prohibition movement in both Kansas Citys. In August, the Kansas City, Missouri, chapter reported distribution in the past month of 1600 tracts, fifty-four books, and 152 bouquets of flowers. 115 religious meetings” at jails, hospitals, missions and prisons had been held. In addition, one member reported, “twenty-five visits had been made to railroad families, and nineteen inmates at the mission had been converted.” In November the Order of the Eastern Star on the Missouri side staged a temperance melodrama, the Inter-State Milkmaids’ Convention, featuring twenty-two women playing characters with names like “Zena Makefodder” and “Betsy Jane Butterpole.” Another temperance melodrama was written by a local man, Owen Nugent, formerly known as the “King of the Jointists,” who had seen the light while in jail for breaking prohibition laws. Nugent was said to have fifteen children and to have been an actor before coming to Kansas.
The Temperance Union also launched a campaign to ban wine -- “genuine saloon wine,” as opposed to unfermented wine – from communion services. Her church, complained one member, “always smelled like a dirty old saloon on such occasions.” Members of the union claimed that men who’d broken their “drink habit were led back to the gutter again through their taste of wine at the communion table.”
The Kansas State Temperance Union was either flourishing or falling on hard times, depending on which brand of newspaper – Republican or Democrat – one read. The Times of Kansas City, Missouri, reported on a meeting of the Union in Topeka in October, attended by less than seventy people. The organization’s president announced that he was withdrawing from active work “on account of the failure of the friends of prohibition to support the cause financially.” He had, he complained, given up “a pleasant pastoral charge” to become president with the assurance that he would have financial support, which was not forthcoming. The paper concluded that his resignation was evidence that “prohibition is on its last legs, and its friends are ready to abandon it to its fate.”
The Journal, in contrast, said that speakers gave “an encouraging expression regarding the progress of the temperance work,” and it made no mention of the president’s lament over lack of funds.
The “private club” was one way of getting around prohibition. There was always argument about what constituted a private club and what activities were legal. In Lawrence there were reported to be half a dozen clubs patronized by what the Times called “the bon ton crowd of the city, the leading merchants, professional men and sports.” There were various kinds of clubs, according to the paper:
Some have elegantly furnished quarters in the fashionable part of the city and are fitted up with lockers, which each member is supposed to keep supplied and to drink from himself. Others keep keg beer and liquor of all kinds continually on tap and the members go at their own free will and partake of the liquors on hand. In all, they gather together nearly every night and have a jolly time.
Local Prohibitionists thought they were all “common nuisances” under the law, defined as any place where people go “for the purpose of drinking intoxicating liquors as a beverage.” Attorney General Little, wooing the Prohibitionist vote, agreed, in the aftermath of the arrest and imprisonment of several members of the Topeka Club for violating the city’s prohibitory ordinance. The club won in the courts: the accused were released by a district court judge on the basis that liquor was kept in lockers to which other members did not have access and that liquor was not sold at the club, although it was used and given as gifts. The judge happened to have been a member of the Club, along with many prominent attorneys.
Little, however, argued that the “nuisance” clause should apply to all private clubs, since, he wrote, “the law prohibits persons from assembling in or at places and drinking intoxicating liquor and it is immaterial whether the liquors so kept or drank are procured by each individual who there assembles.” The Topeka Club responded to this view by suing the Chief of Police for false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and breaking into a house without process of law.” The Chief of Police in turn made vague threats about revealing “practices of the club which would astonish the citizens.”
Later, a different district court judge dismissed an injunction against the Topeka Club, saying the Club was incorporated for social enjoyment and was not -- unlike most of the Lawrence dives – “a resort for the purpose of drinking intoxicating liquors.” Additionally, its members were “representative men, and some were ardent prohibitionists in principle and practice.” No one drunk or disorderly had been seen around the place.
The case “has been full of politics from its inception, “commented the Times : it was the Populist police who first broke into the club in hopes of currying favor with the Prohibitionists. They failed to suppress the club, however, and now have a damage suit on their hands.” The County Attorney, a Republican, had also hoped to gain favor by bringing the injunction.
Toward the end of the year another foreign prohibition investigator, H. Gilbert Stringer of New Zealand, arrived in Kansas. He "found plenty to drink," the Times gleefully reported, after visiting Kansas City, Kansas, where he visited Maltby's pool room at 4 Central Avenue and witnessed "men lose and win at roulette and curse their luck at 'stud' poker. Intoxicating liquors were being sold freely." At another saloon Stringer saw a policeman in full uniform having a beer at the bar. A local man accompanying Stringer took him to a drug store where they ordered two "cherry phosphates," and got a generous glass of Kentuck whisky with a little cherry phosphate. Things weren't much better in other towns Stringer visited. "I think it will be conceded by prohibitionists themselves that I have fairly proven that no such thing as prevention exists, that their very preventive laws offer a premium for perjuring one's self, and therefore must have a bad effect."
The Times editors commented that the "guileless" Stringer's discoveries were no surprise to "men who always go to a saloon when they want to find a Kansas City, Kan., policeman." They were, however, apparently a surprise to Governor Lewelling, who in an inteview with Stringer admitted he thought that getting a drink in Topeka was more difficult than it proved to be. Indeed, "had you not related some of your own experiences," he told Stringer, "I should from my personal observation have said such were almost an impossibility."
The “private club” issue was far from resolved by the result of the Topeka Club case: private clubs as a means to circumvent Kansas liquor laws didn’t effectively go out of existence until 1987. Kansas has yet to ratify the 21st Amendment, which ended nationwide prohibition in 1933. Thirteen rural counties were “dry” as of 2015.
June 13, 2015