To the great relief of many, the prohibition on the sale of alcohol was repealed on Dec. 5, 1933 at exactly 5:32 pm Eastern Standard Time. That’s when Utah became the requisite 36th state to ratify repeal, following Pennsylvania and Ohio earlier that day.
Attempts to discourage alcohol consumption had a long history in New England. In 1657, the puritanical General Court of Massachusetts made it illegal to sell strong liquor “whether known by the name of rum, whisky, wine, brandy, etc.”
Maine was the birthplace of Prohibition. When the state went dry in 1851, people called the ban on alcohol “the Maine law.” Neal Dow, mayor of Portland, pushed the law through the Legislature (inspiring a rum riot in the process). He then ran for president of the United States on the Prohibition Party ticket in 1880 and lost.
The entire country had gone dry one year after the 18th amendment to the Constitution was ratified, on Jan. 29, 1920.
Honored More in the Breach…
That didn’t stop people from making, or selling, or transporting or drinking alcohol.
The law was so widely flouted the Boston Herald held a contest in 1924 to come up with the best word for someone who flagrantly ignored Prohibition. There were 25,000 entries. Two readers split the $200 prize, as they came up with the same winning word: scofflaw.
The Coast Guard needed a fleet of rum chasers to apprehend the rum runners — like the famous I’m Alone — that plied the waters from Canada to the Caribbean.
Under Oliver Garrett, the Boston Police vice squad made 25,000 raids n speakeasies and 17,000 arrests in nine years. It didn’t get any harder to find a drink. The mayor of Boston, England, visited the city in 1930 and proclaimed upon his return, “You can swim in liquor … you can drown in it.”
One reason? Oliver Garrett was on the take.
The public became disillusioned with the lawlessness, corruption and scofflaw-ing of Prohibition. And governments needed the revenue from taxing alcohol. In 1925, H. L. Mencken wrote,
Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.
It then took less than eight months for the states to repeal the 18th amendment starting in April 1933. Rhode Island was the third state to ratify repeal (May 8, 1933), followed in New England by Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Maine, appropriately, brought up the rear, ratifying repeal of Prohibition the day after Utah cast the decisive vote.
This story updated in 2022.