In contrast to the previous episode that covers a hundred years, “A Nation of Scofflaws” looks at only the early and mid-1920s. This short span of years allows Burns and Novick to develop stories. Since the time period is relatively recent, “Scofflaws” can provide brief comments by people who were children during Prohibition. They include sons and a daughter of bootleggers and a Supreme Court Justice who grew up in a teetotal family. “Scofflaws” emphasizes the widespread and increasing defiance of National Prohibition. It acknowledges that total alcohol consumption declined at least during the early 1920s. Although there is little or nothing about upper middle class “flappers” dancing and drinking at speakeasies, there is plenty about illegal drinking and legal drinking too. The Volstead Act that interpreted the Eighteenth Amendment’s ban on the manufacture and sale of intoxicating drink was both severe and riddled with holes. Some people had expected that beer and light wines would remain legal, but the Volstead Act allowed only the weakest “near beer.” On the other hand, drinking was never illegal and there were all sorts of exceptions about access to alcoholic beverages.
Prior to the effective date for prohibition, the Yale Club stocked a fourteen-year supply of liquor that didn’t run out before Repeal. With the help of a rabbi’s certification, Jews could obtain alcohol for household religious observances. The membership of Jewish congregations grew ten-fold. “Scofflaws” documents the failures of enforcement, in part because most states failed to provide the federal government support. Federal agents were few and often corrupt. The energetic Mabel Walker Willebrandt (1889-1963), assistant attorney general, stands out as the exception in federal law enforcement.
The two stories of bootlegging that dominate “Scofflaws” concern Roy Olmstead (1886-1966), a former Seattle police lieutenant, and teetotal George Remus (1876-1952), a one-time defense attorney. Olmstead illustrates the danger that prohibition enforcement could violate individual rights. He was convicted and imprisoned, based in part on wiretap evidence. Remus illustrates the weakness of the Volstead Act. He purchased distilleries to sell their stock of liquor to dummy drug stores. His men hijacked his own legal shipments. of booze. By the way, “Scofflaws” doesn’t mention that Olmstead was converted to Christian Science in prison and spent his many years of freedom in religious work. When Remus got his own freedom, he discovered that bootlegging had been taken over by gangsters, so he made a respectable living selling real estate. “Scofflaws” implicitly contrasts early and later bootlegging when it mention that Olmstead wouldn’t let his men carry weapons. There is a brief account of Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Polish gangs. Presumably there will be more about Al Capone in the final episode. In “Scofflaws” Capone still worked for Johnny Torrio. Definitely an entertaining and informative episode, “Scofflaws” would benefit from a clearer explanation of how effective prohibition enforcement was. If it had been completely ineffective, there would have been no opportunity for bootleggers to make fortunes.
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.