Baltimore looked the other way during Prohibition

The alcohol flowed freely despite the Volstead Act

April 30, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

There was one mistake Baltimore never made. Baltimore, and the state of Maryland, never endorsed Prohibition. We were known as the wettest state, where beer and liquor was freely available before and after the Volstead Act's repeal in 1933. Our resistance to Prohibition was in complete violation of a constitutional amendment and federal ordinance.

Like many born in the 1950s, my view of Prohibition was shaped by the television series of that era, "The Untouchables," with actor Robert Stack as agent Eliot Ness. I was also guided by the lectures on Prohibition that my grandfather, Edward Jacques Monaghan, delivered to me as a child. He thought it ludicrous and was mightily annoyed when his supply of Wight's Sherbrook Maryland Straight Rye Whiskey was interrupted.

I also heard of the double standard about alcohol consumption that existed years ago. My great-grandfather, a chap named William Stewart, was a teetotaler. He professed not to drink alcoholic beverages. That said, every Sunday he walked to the neighborhood pharmacy and purchased a small bottle of vanilla extract. He wasn't using it to flavor a layer cake. He chugged the vanilla extract, which was virtually all alcohol, and then enjoyed a Sunday afternoon nap. But Mr. Stewart never touched alcohol, or so he said.

All this brings me to a remarkable book, "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," by Daniel Okrent, which is to be published this month. It's a rollicking read that transcends the lore of the 1920s and raccoon coats and flappers.

Okrent's book quotes an attorney as saying that the distribution of alcohol in the banned era was a "perfect carnival of corruption." I often bursted out laughing at some of the scenes Okrent painted. Under the rule of Prohibition, the manufacture and sale of beer, wine and spirits was illegal. But you could make grape juice, and we all know what grapes do when left to ferment. So many grapes were shipped on freight cars out of California, he writes, that the Pennsylvania Railroad had to enlarge its fruit pier at Jersey City.

People who never drank started making their own wine. Certainly our Guilford Avenue neighbors did. I think of the Stewart Hooppers, who were law-abiding members of Lovely Lane Methodist Church. Mr. Hoopper, an accountant for the old Merchant and Miners steamship company, made dandelion wine. Still delicious and potent 50 years later, I can see my mother and his daughter, Julia, tippling his 1921 vintage at our kitchen table. I tried it, too. It tasted like good sherry, and I wish there was more left to enjoy.

In the mid-1960s, I was helping some neighbors, on the same block, clean out an old cellar. There, under the front porch, was a dust-covered still, copper tubing and all.

Okrent's book mentions in passing Baltimore's greatest "wet," a three-time member of Congress named John Philip Hill. Hopkins- and Harvard-educated, he lived in a large, classic Baltimore home at 3 W. Franklin St., whose large backyard abutted the walls of the Old Cathedral, the Basilica of the Assumption.

Hill decided to test the patience and expose the ludicrous provision of the Prohibitionist believers (the drys) by planting apple trees and grapevines in his deep backyard, which he named Franklin Farms. He apparently was a pretty good urban orchardist and farmer. "At the Farms he had five apple trees and two beautiful grapevines … and from the home cultivation of these plants he managed to fill his cellar with their liquid products," The Evening Sun said upon his death in 1941.

In 1924, Hill was put on trial for violation of the Volstead Act. Judge Morris A. Soper threw out the charges, but the national publicity the trial attracted helped puncture Prohibition. The country was still officially dry for another nine years. In Baltimore, we looked confidently the other way.

It would be hard to imagine a dry Baltimore. When I was reading Okrent's book the other day, my brother Eddie called to discuss the perfect Manhattan cocktail. He is a recent convert to using Pikesville rye in them. OK, it's not longer distilled in Baltimore, but even though it's now a product of Kentucky, it sure goes down, as my late mother would say, like an elevator where they'd cut the cables.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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