The Prohibition Era


The Prohibition era lasted from 1920 through 1933, and was an attempt to legislate morality. It took a Constitutional amendment to enact it, and another one to repeal it. The attempt to decrease the "evils" of alcohol actually created more - and new - types of crime.

Temperance movements had swept through portions of the United States throughout the 19th century, but it was World War I that provided the first opportunity for the anti-alcohol movement to enact a national ban on alcohol. Anti-alcohol sentiment in Congress led to legislation known as the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917, which regulated food, fuel, and other commodities that might be needed for the war effort. It was argued that the grains needed to distill alcohol were needed as food and were in short supply because of the needs of the war. This effectively shut down the country's breweries and distilleries temporarily.

A permanent ban on the sale, transportation, importing, and exporting of alcoholic beverages was enacted by passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by Congress in December, 1917. It took just over one year for the Amendment to be ratified by the states. Prior to the national ban, individual states had passed local bans, and by 1916, 26 of the 48 states banned alcohol. Proponents of the so called "noble experiment" claimed that the nation's health would improve dramatically without alcohol, and that crime would drop. It was also claimed that other industries, like dairy, would prosper as other types of beverages increased in popularity to fill the void left by the absence of alcohol. Juvenile delinquency was also supposed to be virtually eliminated, and the average workers productivity was also supposed to increase, leading to an increase in economic prosperity for the nation.

While the ratification process for the 18th Amendment continued, Congress passed the Wartime Prohibition Act on November 18, 1918, even thought the Armistice ending the war had just been signed on November 8. This legislation banned the sale of beer and alcoholic beverages having an alcohol content greater than 2.75%. The Act took effect on June 30, 1919. The 18th Amendment was ratified in January, 1919, and would take effect on January 17, 1920.

By the time of the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933, it was obvious that the measure was a failure. Instead of promoting the nation's health and hygiene, the opposite was true as the illegal manufacture of alcohol filled part of the void, and those illegal products were often dangerous or much higher in alcohol content than the beer, wines and spirits they replaced. Crime also increased, since illegal activity was required to market the illegal alcohol. Criminal activity became organized and led to the rise of powerful crime syndicates that used murder, and the bribery of public officials and even law enforcement officers, to move large quantities of the illegal substance. Drug use increased, with drugs taking the place of alcohol. Worker productivity did not increase. Jails filled with people convicted of relatively minor infractions of the alcohol ban. Enforcement of the ban cost millions of dollars. Congress repealed the 18th Amendment with the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933. As a result of the legalization of alcohol, crime was actually reduced and many new jobs were created as the liquor industry expanded. This was especially important in the Depression years that began with the Stock Market crash in 1929 and lasted into the late 1930s.

Prohibition in Patterson

The Wartime Prohibition Act took effect on June 30, 1919. Patterson joined the rest of the nation in banning beverages with an alcohol content greater than 2.75%. The day before the ban went into effect, Putnam County adopted a party atmosphere as people traveled to "wet" areas to enjoy their last night of drinking. Hotels were filled to capacity, and local bars and restaurants needed extra help to service the crowds. Packed automobiles wandered County roads in search of an establishment still serving alcohol. Bars and restaurants expected to remain open after the ban went into effect, serving "light" or non-alcoholic beverages. The Putnam County Sheriff did not expect to make any arrests after the ban took effect, citing a lack of guidance from Washington on how to interpret the Act. He noted that alcohol sales were still permitted under State law, and would not pay much attention to the new Federal law. Local law enforcement agencies awaited a test prosecution case for guidance. It was generally conceded that hard alcohol was illegal, but the alcoholic content of beer was a gray area. The 18th Amendment would take effect in January, 1920, and outlaw all alcoholic beverages.

By the start of the 1930s, sentiment for the reversal of the alcohol ban was beginning to be voiced. Alcohol sales had created jobs and generated significant tax revenues. And it was not much of a secret that the number of illegal "speakeasies" serving alcohol far outnumbered the number of restaurants and bars that had previously sold alcoholic beverages legally before the ban began in 1920. In October, 1930, Long time Putnam Congressman Hamilton Fish, Jr. favored modification of the liquor ban to allow "the poor classes to obtain beer for home consumption and not rehabilitate the saloon."

The disappointments of Prohibition are the topic of this editorial cartoon that appeared in the Putnam County Courier on October 12, 1928. The cartoon alludes to Al Smith's Democratic candidacy for the Presidency in the 1928 election. Smith was opposed to Prohibition.

In October, 1931, hunters alerted the Patterson Fire Department of a fire in a house located near Towners. Firemen found the house to be unoccupied, but discovered an illegal beer brewery. Putnam County Sheriff Newcomb was notified, and he launched an investigation. Federal authorities were notified because alcohol possession was a Federal offense. Federal agents arrived and immediately destroyed the beer making equipment, leaving the strong odor of hops and malt in the air. It was estimated that the operation could have produced 500 gallons of beer per day, and had the equipment to bottle it. 300 gallons of beer was found in barrels. Sheriff Newcomb interviewed neighbors, who reported that there was frequent automobile traffic to and from the house. It was assumed that the car trips were moving supplies into the house and beer out of the house. The owner of the house, Mrs. Lillian F. Lloyd, was discovered to be vacationing in California, and she had been renting to the presumed brewers, unaware of their plans for her home. The fire was believed to have been ignited by a burning cigarette butt, and caused hundreds of dollars in damage. The brewery operators were not found.

In March, 1932, 60 Federal "dry agents" raided fifteen restaurants, inns, stores, and private homes located throughout Putnam County, including Patterson, Putnam Valley, Kent, Carmel, and Philipstown. The Putnam County Courier, quoting the New York Times, noted that "women turned out by the hundreds and cheered" as the agents removed truckloads of liquor, including thousands of bottles of beer, hundreds of jugs whiskey and wine, and dozens of barrels of cider. Twenty men were arrested.

Not only was Prohibition causing the loss of significant tax revenues for all levels of government, but enforcement was proving to be very expensive. In April, 1932, Putnam County District Attorney Alvin D. Pond submitted a bill for $655 to the County Board of Supervisors. This bill was part of a $2,200 bill from Hutchins Bureau of Investigation, a private detective agency that had investigated illegal alcohol operations for the District Attorney. The Board balked at the charges, and Hutchins was informed that the bill would not be paid because no money had been budgeted for it.

A local Patterson business escapes prosecution, as reported in the Putnam County Courier on June 17, 1932.

The end of Prohibition came in 1933 with the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, much to the relief not only to those who missed drinking alcoholic beverages, but also to businesses that made money on liquor sales, and all the levels of government that benefited from the taxes on alcoholic products. Eager to avoid some of the perceived abuses of alcohol sales, the State and County governments created a licensing system to control - and tax - proprietors of businesses selling alcohol. The Putnam County board was formed in June, 1933, and was to be bipartisan. One member was to be appointed by the State liquor board, and the others were to be appointed by the chairman of the County Board of Supervisors. Compensation to board members was paid at the rate of $10 per day, not to exceed $350 per year. The board was charged with the responsibility to receive alcohol license applications, and to issue the licenses. Service on the board was very popular, and both the Democratic and Republican parties were swamped with applications. The first licenses covered beer sales. The board set rules for the sale and serving of alcohol. Beer could not be sold between the hours of 3 AM and noon Sunday to avoid conflicts with church services. Beer could be sold at bars only if the bar had a State permit, and beer could be served without food. Brewers were not permitted to have a financial interest in any establishment selling beer. By June, 1933, 62 beer licenses had been approved locally, including the Grand Union Store in the Patterson hamlet. By the end of July, Putnam County had already received a share of the new licensing fees, in the amount of $1,921.

The appearance of beer at local supermarkets after 13 "dry" years was big news, as reported in the Putnam County Courier in June, 1933. The paper reported that a crowd gathered to watch cases of Rupert's Knickerbocker Beer being unloaded from a delivery truck, and that sales began immediately. Bottles of beer at A&P stores retailed at 10 cents each or 3 for 25 cents. Beer ads became common after supermarkets started to sell beer. This ad appeared in the Courier on January 3, 1936.

The end of Prohibition did not bring the end to all liquor related crimes. Now that liquor was legal, it was also taxable. Liquor related crimes moved from illegal manufacturing of alcoholic beverages to crimes of tax avoidance. Illegal stills still produced beer in the woods around Patterson, and restaurants and stores were occasionally cited for non-payment of taxes. Drunkenness and rowdiness also became problems, as they had been before Prohibition was enacted. In June, 1939, Ralph Scapperotta, owner of a dance hall and restaurant in the Patterson Hamlet, was found guilty after a jury trial of creating a public nuisance. Scapperrotta was given a six month suspended sentence. Putnam County District Attorney Donohoe had asked the court to make an example of Mr. Scapperotta as a warning to other business owners that even though they held licenses, they were required to maintain respectable businesses that would not offend their neighbors. The State Liquor Authority cancelled Scapperotta's liquor license after it expired shortly after his indictment. In January, 1942, a Patterson man received a 3 month sentence for his role in a bootlegging ring that operated in southern New York State. 60 other members of the ring were also indicted. It was estimated that unpaid liquor taxes were costing the government more than $1 million.

Scaperotta's on NYS Route 311 in an undated photo probably dating to 1940. The photo was probably taken after the establishment closed because the sign is no longer on the building. The building still stands and is used a private residence. Businesses selling or serving alcohol were required to post notices of their liquor licenses. Patterson Chemists, Front St. in the Patterson Hamlet, posted this notice in the Courier on July 27, 1939. The Knight Club, on Fairfield Dr. in Putnam Lake, posted its notice in the October 19, 1939 edition of the Courier.