Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/December 1897/Our Liquor Laws as Seen by the Committee of Fifty



IN 1893 a group of fifteen gentlemen who had been conducting various sociological studies together formed, by adding to their number, the Committee of Fifty to investigate the liquor problem. Subcommittees on the physiological, the legislative, the economic, and the ethical aspects of the problem were appointed in the autumn of that year. The subcommittee on legislative aspects, consisting of President Charles W. Eliot, President Seth Low, and James C. Carter, Esq., engaged Dr. Frederic H. Wines, of Springfield, Ill., well known for his census reports and other investigations on the liquor question, and Mr. John Koren, of Boston, Mass., to examine the working of several typical State liquor laws. The facts obtained by Messrs. Wines and Koren constitute the first report of the subcommittee, which has been published under the authority of the whole Committee of Fifty.[1] Mr. Koren investigated the operation of the liquor laws of Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, and Dr. Wines made like investigations in Missouri, Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana.

Much light is thrown upon the question, Does prohibition prohibit? by the conditions found to exist in Maine and Iowa. Maine has been under prohibition for nearly half a century—since 1851, with the exception of the two years from 1856 to 1858. That the famous "Maine law" has never been adequate to its purpose is shown, as the committee's agent points out, by the constant efforts to strengthen it—nearly fifty amendments having been enacted since 1858. The law provides for an agent in each city or town who shall sell liquor for medicinal and mechanical purposes, but he by no means has a monopoly of the business.

According to the committee's report, liquor may be obtained in Portland from ordinary bars under police protection, kitchen bars, pocket peddlers, hotel bars, apothecary shops, bottling establishments, express companies, clubs, and the city liquor agency. The ordinary bars have little on the outside to betray their nature, but access is easy. "In the score or so of saloons of this class visited by the writer," says Mr. Koren, "from six to twenty persons were found who were there to drink, most of them young men, some of them boys between twelve and sixteen years of age. Occasionally small girls would come in to have ‘growlers’ filled. Sometimes older girls appeared, to drink and to talk with the men. The customers lounged about, smoking and drinking, with an apparent sense of freedom and security."

Mr. Koren estimated the number of kitchen bars in the city at the time of his investigation at about eighty. They are found in the poorer quarters, and rely more on concealment than on protection. They do most business on Saturday evenings and Sundays, and sell little but distilled liquor. The drinking at these bars is especially productive of intoxication, both because of the quality of the liquor sold and of the opportunity of uninterrupted indulgence.

"The pocket peddlers multiply with amazing rapidity during a period of strict enforcement, and most of them disappear as suddenly in ‘wet times.’ At the time of the present investigation not a few were found on the wharves and along the water front after dark, especially on Sundays. They supply ‘split’ at the rate of thirty cents a pint for the cheapest grade. Boys of fifteen and upward were found as venders of ‘split.’ The pocket peddler secures many victims on incoming fishing vessels and coasting schooners, which he boards at the first opportunity." "Split," Mr. Koren explains, consists of the cheapest kind of alcohol—sometimes wood alcohol—mixed with water, with a dash of rum for flavor, and some coloring matter. It produces a violent and dangerous form of intoxication.

At least five of the principal hotels sell liquor at bars. Protection costs them in the neighborhood of one hundred dollars a month, and they are occasionally raided. Beer is sold in large quantities at certain oyster houses.

From the number of the drug stores in Portland, one to each eight hundred inhabitants, and the location of many of them, it is evident that they can not all exist for the sale of drugs. When this investigation was made all but two or three had paid the United States special tax, which is prima facie evidence of violation of the liquor law. Druggists can not legally sell liquor for medicinal purposes, as this is the purpose for which the city agency exists. Not less than twenty of the forty-five drug stores in Portland are merely dramshops in disguise.

Much of the family trade is supplied by wholesale dealers and by bottlers of mineral waters, and a number of express companies are ready to place orders for their customers in Boston and other cities, while some of the local expresses fill orders for liquors from their own well-supplied storage rooms.

Of the one place in the city where liquor is legitimately sold, Mr. Koren says: "On the occasion of the writer's first visit to the Portland liquor agency he was greeted with these words by one of the attendants: ‘This is nothing but a legalized rum shop—that's all.’ The statistics abundantly vindicate this assertion. It was explained that certain formalities were observed. Thus the name and address of each purchaser are recorded. ‘Of course,’ the informant went on, ‘there are some we don't sell to and won't sell to (for instance, intoxicated persons and habitual drunkards), but if a respectable person comes in we don't ask questions.’"

The inquiries of the committee's agent were not confined to cities. Farmington, the county seat of Franklin County, sixty miles back from the seacoast, was spoken of by well-informed prohibitionists as a place where the law worked under the most favorable conditions. The town contains four villages and had three thousand two hundred and seven inhabitants in 1890, of whom only one hundred and seven were of foreign birth. Yet here liquor selling is far from being unknown. "Five United States special liquor taxes were paid for by residents in 1894. At two of the hotels both malt and distilled liquors are supplied to guests in their rooms, and not infrequently to others who drop in; but there are no bars. At one of the three drug stores, at least, liquor can be bought by any trusted customer. Furthermore, it is said by old residents that illicit sales are carried on intermittently at from one to three other places, but their identity is not easily revealed. An official, whose duty it is to enforce prohibition, is quoted as saying that ‘from one to six packages of liquor arrive by express every day.’"

The report contains a review of the working of prohibition throughout the State by counties. Every city in Maine, except Auburn, has its United States licenses, and in no manufacturing town with a large number of French-Canadian operatives has the prohibitory law ever been strictly enforced. The tipplers of Auburn find prohibition endurable, for a short bridge connects their city with Lewiston, where, an official is said to have declared, "One might as well try to turn back the current of the Androscoggin River as to stop rum-selling." The existence of summer resorts in some counties prevents a rigid enforcement of the law.

Massachusetts has had since 1881 a local-option law which provides for the granting of licenses only in cities and towns voting at the annual election or town meeting to authorize their issue. Places voting "No" may grant druggists' medicinal licenses. Two communities in this State were chosen for study: Boston, the chief city and center of the liquor trade, and North Adams, in the western part of the State, one of the smaller communities under license. Various supplementary acts have been passed since 1881. License fees have been raised, so that a license to sell all kinds of liquor to be drunk on the premises now costs one thousand dollars. The number of saloons has been limited to one for each five hundred inhabitants in Boston and one for each thousand in other places.

Mr. Koren reports that "open and flagrant violations of the liquor laws by licensed dealers are no longer of frequent occurrence. This is the testimony not only of the police but of private organizations directly interested in the question. The licensees realize better than before the nature of their privileges, and know that failure to observe the conditions imposed is likely to result disastrously. Sunday sales by saloons are practically unknown. Innholders may be found, however, who resort to peculiar methods of registering guests in order to sell liquor after hours under a guise of legality. Those who are bolder are pretty sure of punishment when found out. Few liquor shops would now dare to sell to minors where their minority is obvious. Sales to intoxicated persons occur commonly, as a matter of course; and any one can obtain, without the slightest difficulty, enough drink to produce intoxication. On the other hand, numerous dealers persistently refuse persons visibly under the influence of liquor." Illicit selling is confined within steadily narrowing limits. There are still some kitchen bars in the poorer sections of the city, whose best customers are the persons who come in from the surrounding no-license towns on Saturday evenings and Sundays for the avowed purpose of obtaining drink.

The population of North Adams contains a large element of factory hands, nearly all of whom are of foreign birth or extraction. The saloons are confined within a small section where they are under close supervision. "The general provisions of the law," Mr. Koren reports, "such as those against maintaining screens and selling after hours, are well observed. Sunday sales by licensed dealers even in hotels are practically unknown. The revocation of licenses for this cause has had a wholesome effect. A system of posting intemperate persons in saloons is in vogue, and admirable results are claimed for it."

As to the rest of the State, Mr. Koren says: "That the sale of liquor is as well regulated in all the other large cities and towns of Massachusetts as in Boston and North Adams is much to be doubted. In most of the license cities the bane of the influence of the liquor element in local politics is strongly felt; as a result, enforcement is lax and defiance of express provisions of the law common." We are not told whether or not liquor is sold in places where no licenses are granted, but Massachusetts probably does not differ much from Maine in that respect. The largest cities and towns that usually vote no license year after year are circled around Boston, "where a no-license vote removes the drinker a short and not seriously inconvenient distance from the base of supplies."

Pennsylvania has its "Brooks law," which went into effect in 1888. It is a high-license measure and embodies various restrictions. Much improvement in the character of the liquor trade has been secured under it in Philadelphia, chiefly through the efforts of the Law and Order Society of that city. Licenses are granted by the Court of Quarter Sessions in each county. The work of the license court in Philadelphia is highly praised. Owing to the connection which the liquor interest maintains with politics the full intent of the Brooks law is not carried out. Every application for a license has to be indorsed by twelve reputable electors of the ward, borough, or township in which the saloon is to be opened. In Philadelphia, school directors, members of city councils, police magistrates, clerks of the Courts of Quarter Sessions, State senators and representatives, officials of Protestant churches, and members of Congress frequently sign from one to thirty applications. It has been said by one well acquainted with existing conditions that "few men, least of all those connected with politics, dare refuse requests to aid applicants for licenses." There is an average of one saloon to each five hundred and sixty-two of the population. Liquor dealers are largely restrained from illegal practices by the fear of losing their licenses. "The improved character of the saloon," says the committee's agent, "is remarked upon by all observant citizens. Sunday selling has ceased, and minors are usually kept out of the saloons. The wholesale dealers have stopped selling liquor to be consumed on their premises. In many places great care is taken not to sell to persons already visibly under the influence of liquor."

The agent reports a large number of "speak-easies" or "kitchen bars" in Philadelphia which political entanglements or bribery prevents the police from suppressing. Liquor-selling goes on also in a multitude of clubs, so called, some of which are recognized political factors. Pittsburg, with its large element of mill workers in its population, and most of its more intelligent citizens absorbed in money-getting, has only a lax enforcement of the liquor law, while in the large towns of the mining districts conditions are still worse.In Berks County, an agricultural region, are many inhabitants of German descent who insist on having plenty of hotels where they can get their beer.

Prohibition has been thoroughly tried in the West, in the State of Iowa. When the Clark act, which materially strengthened the prohibitory law already existing, was passed in 1886, it closed saloons by wholesale. At the same time it greatly stimulated the trade of drug stores in alcoholic liquors, and led to many sham drug dispensaries being opened.

"But the drug store was by no means the only source of supply," says Dr. Wines, who reports on this State. "Secret and illicit sales were common. The amount of supervision and espionage necessary to prevent them was beyond the reach of municipalities, even where there was a disposition to suppress illicit traffic. The schemes adopted in order to avoid detection were varied and ingenious. The man who went around with a concealed bottle upon his person, and dispensed drinks of the vilest composition in back alleys, was known as a ‘boot-legger.’ Few dealers sold openly. They had a store of liquor in one place, from which hidden pipes conveyed it to another, where it was dispensed; the faucets through which it was drawn were cunningly placed, out of sight, in the most extraordinary places. Or the liquor was in a cellar or subcellar beneath a secret trapdoor, and was sent up, on receipt of the price, by means of a concealed hoist or dumb waiter; or a step in a stairway was so constructed as to lift up, on hinges, and reveal a well-filled glass; or the glass was sent in through a partition wall by means of a revolving closet. There was no end to these devices, in most of which the customer did not see the man who supplied the liquor, nor the dealer the man who drank it." In rural and temperate communities these evils did not exist. On the other hand, there were counties in which the law was evaded with the collusion of officials, or was openly defied.

Prohibition had been inaugurated as a political move, and for some years served its purpose well. But the party that had taken it up found it growing unpopular, and in 1894 an end was made of prohibition in Iowa by the passage of a mulct law.

The idea of the mulct law was borrowed from Ohio. By the Dow law of that State the traffic is neither prohibited nor licensed; it is simply taxed, and many of the usual restrictions are thrown around it. The tax is two hundred and fifty dollars a year, and is a first lien on the premises occupied. The dealer is civilly liable for loss and damage resulting from the intoxication of any person to whom he may have sold or given any intoxicating liquor, and this liability extends to the owner of the premises. The guardian or any near relative may enjoin the sale of liquor to any individual. The law provides also for local option as to prohibition.

Statistics indicate some decrease of drunkenness in public since the law has been in effect. The law has not taken the saloon out of municipal politics, although there has been in ten years only one election of State officers in which the liquor question is thought to have affected the result. The dealers are impatient of any restrictions, and are constantly working against a strict enforcement of them. That against selling on Sunday is especially irksome to them. In Cincinnati the police declare it to be impossible to close the saloons on that day. The dealers are arrested, but juries can not be got to render verdicts of guilty. Public opinion is not behind the Sunday-closing law.

No recent attempt of any State to solve the liquor problem has attracted so much attention from the rest of the country as the dispensary system of South Carolina. It has become conspicuous from the vigor with which it has been enforced by Governor Tillman, who suggested it, and the resistance that has been offered to this enforcement rather than from novelty in the plan itself, for its chief feature is simply the town and city liquor agency of Maine adopted from Athens, Ga., where it had been tried with success. The dispensary law provides for one dispenser at the county seat of each county, and permits county boards of control to establish dispensaries in other towns. There is a State commissioner who buys the liquors, and is required to give a preference to distillers and brewers in the State. Every package of liquor must be sealed and bear a certificate that it was bought by the commissioner; a package shall not contain less than a half pint nor more than five gallons. The local dispenser shall not break the seal of any package; he must sell by the package only, and the purchaser shall not open a package on the premises.

The law effected a general closing of saloons throughout the State, but many unlicensed dramshops, called "blind tigers," took their place. At the time of the committee's investigation there were eighty-one dispensaries in operation. Buying the dispensary liquors from South Carolina distillers has led to the purchase of much liquor that was not sufficiently aged, and hence highly intoxicating. Many ardent prohibitionists denounce the participation of the State in the "unholy traffic." Well-digested statistics show an unmistakable decrease of drunkenness and disorder in the cities, but in some country districts an increase is reported. In the opinion of Mr. Koren, "so far as the cities and towns are concerned, the dispensary system has already reached the limits of its usefulness as a temperance agent. Any further addition to the State liquor shops in the cities where they already exist would be a direct invitation to drink. "With the law so generally and rigidly enforced as at present, any multiplication of dispensaries in semi-rural districts can have no other purpose than to raise revenue and put more wheels into the political machine."

From the reports prepared by its agents the subcommittee draws the following conclusions: Prohibition has abolished or prevented the manufacture on a large scale of alcoholic liquors within the areas covered by it. Its success in suppressing the retail traffic depends upon the state of public sentiment in each locality. The efforts to enforce it have led to hypocrisy and unfaithfulness in public officials, to bribery and corruption, and to disrespect for law. Its general effect with regard to diminishing drunkenness remains a matter of opinion, no demonstration being yet attainable after more than forty years of experience. The prohibition over small areas that is secured through local-option laws has the advantage of always having public sentiment behind it. One of the chief objections to the license system is that it compels the liquor traffic to be in politics for self-protection. The enforcement of common restrictions on the sale of intoxicants is also dependent on public opinion. The removal of private profit from the liquor traffic is a desirable end for which no American legislation has yet proved effective. It can not be positively affirmed that any one kind of liquor legislation has been more successful than another in promoting real temperance. The influences of race or nationality are apparently more important than legislation. It is often said that restrictions on drinking at public bars tend to increase drinking in private, and there is probably truth in this allegation. All things considered, however, the wise course for a community is to strive after all external, visible improvements, even if it be impossible to prove that internal, fundamental improvement accompanies them.

Birds have curious ways in the selection of materials for their nests. An oriole's nest found by M. Marcel. Plaideau near Lille, Belgium, was composed of white wool and Morse telegraph paper, which the bird bad to go three kilometres to the nearest telegraph office to get. It might be suggested that the bird knew in some way bow warm a covering paper makes; but then we hear of nests near Besançon, France, made of watch-spring steel; and a bird is told of that robbed a St. Bernard dog of his hairs to construct a nest.
  1. The Liquor Problem in its Legislative Aspects. By Frederic H. Wines and John Koren. An Investigation made under the Direction of Charles W. Eliot, Seth Low, and James C. Carter, Subcommittee of the Committee of Fifty to investigate the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Pp. 342. Price, $1.25.