Iowa's Prohibition Leaders

Officials Disassembling a Liquor StillWhen the 18th Amendment passed in 1919 making alcohol illegal, there were differing viewpoints about the passage of the amendment. Some people liked the idea, while others were opposed to banning alcoholic beverages. People became known as "drys" and "wets." Drys believed alcohol should be illegal, and wets believed in the legal manufacture of beer, wine and liquor. Many wets worked to repeal this amendment. Iowa had three well-known dry leaders who fought for Prohibition in the early 1930s.

Ida B. Wise

Ida B. Wise joined the Iowa's Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) as a young mother and eventually held almost every office. She served as state WCTU president for 20 years from 1913 to 1933. She earned respect because she was a strong and determined leader but friendly and well mannered. In one speech, she proclaimed, "Iowa citizens have set high standards in the liquor laws of our state. Let us observe and enforce them. In our attitude toward the 18th Amendment join in the slogan of the WCTU— 'Observance and Enforcement—Not Repeal.'"

Although enforcement of Prohibition became difficult and expensive, most Prohibitionists did not expect public opinion to turn quite so quickly. By the 1932 presidential election, both political parties considered repealing the 18th Amendment to increase tax money and employment.

A turning point for Wise occurred at the Republican National Convention in the summer of 1932 when Republicans failed to support Prohibition in their platform. Wise was shocked at many Republicans' inaction during strategy meetings. President Hoover tried a middle-of-the-road attempt. He proposed that states decide whether to make liquor legal or illegal. But for those states that voted to remain dry, federal protection would be made available. Many drys felt angry, frustrated and betrayed by Hoover’s idea.

Wise's disappointment increased when some young men carried beer mugs into the convention hall. Officials did nothing about the illegal activity. Disappointed, Wise spoke with a tired voice: "I am heartbroken tonight over it all. I love my country. I have always had a real obsession for my country. That's why I have worked so hard for Prohibition in order to make it a better country."

Despite her convention disappointments, Wise-Smith (the name she began to use after her marriage to a man named Smith), recovered her spirit and energy by the time of the WCTU annual meeting in October. In her speech at the meeting she began, "Let Iowa, let all our nation think clearly now of the grave dangers we face, and vote, not impetuously, but prayerfully and soberly."

However, in the national election held in November of 1932 the Democratic candidate for president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and other Democratic candidates won the state of Iowa which had been traditionally Republican. The 21st Amendment—which repealed the 18th Amendment— passed quickly and easily in 1933.

Still, Wise-Smith was elected to the national position of WCTU president after the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Iowa's strongest Prohibition leader led the nation's continued Prohibition efforts throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Smith Wildman Brookhart

Senator Smith Wildman Brookhart was a lifelong dry and spoke out about temperance throughout his career. He began his temperance works as a county attorney in Washington County, Iowa, in 1904. There he opposed the local option Prohibition laws, fearing his home county would return to liquor sales.

He became a U.S. senator from Iowa in 1926. Some referred to Brookhart as "a fervent dry." When fellow senators received invitations to what Brookhart called "a Wall Street Booze Party," he spoke out against their attendance. In January 1930 he began a national Prohibition tour to stop any repeal attempts of the 18th Amendment. Brookhart debated a New York senator in Sioux City, clashed with a Congressman in Cleveland the next month, and argued against lawyer Clarence Darrow in New York City in March.

In Cleveland Brookhart faced a tough but friendly debate with Congressman Fiorella LaGuardia even though the crowd shouted "never" when Brookhart took the floor. "Prohibition can be enforced. I have enforced it," he thundered. "As prosecuting attorney of Washington County, Iowa, in the old local option days, I drove the bootleggers out of the county. As a National Guard officer, I drove liquor out of our camp. America is dry; there are a few wet cities, but a few wet cities cannot overthrow America."

Brookhart's Prohibition beliefs were mostly economic. He proposed increasing the budget for Prohibition by $240 million annually. But his Prohibition activities did not play well within the senate nor Depression-era Iowa. Sometimes he was embarrassing. But he was consistent, determined and reflective of many Iowans. One reporter joked that the Iowa senator's favorite song must be "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes."

His lack of style and unwillingness to compromise, as well as his disagreements with President Hoover, signaled the end of his senate career. Brookhart, always proud of his temperance reputation, stated, "To me liquor is a poison and drinking is a crime."

John Brown Hammond

Another Prohibition leader with Iowa connections was John Brown Hammond. During his career, Hammond would be credited with drafting 95 percent of Iowa's laws applying to liquor and moral behavior.

John Brown Hammond was just four years old when his cousin and famous namesake, John Brown, was hanged on December 2, 1859, for the failed raid on the Harpers' Ferry federal arsenal. Brown and his loyal followers (several from Iowa) had tried to invade the military base and steal guns to arm local slaves to rise up in violent action against their masters. John Brown had believed that only violent action would end the evil of slavery; John Brown Hammond believed in forceful action to end the evil of drink. In 1899 John Brown Hammond took a chair and wrecked "a blind tiger" (old slang for speakeasy or private bar) at Bunker Hill, Iowa.

However, usually during his Prohibitionist career John Brown Hammond turned to professional associations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (men could support the women's organization), the World Purity Federation, and the Bone Dry League. In addition to his Prohibition activities, he argued against issues such as prize fighting and marathon dancing.

By 1930 his list of temperance accomplishments was long. He led the state liquor law enforcement during World War I. He reduced the number of Des Moines druggists (pharmacists) who held liquor permits from 410 to 12. Druggists could sell medicines containing alcohol but needed state permits.

After Hammond became Des Moines Police Force chief, his officers raided Raccoon River railroad jungles (homeless camps) where "bums" strained "canned heat" (homemade alcohol) through handkerchiefs. Hammond ordered police to use sledgehammers to close up "temp bars." Once he fired his entire police force based on rumors that the liquor squad was selling confiscated alcohol.

In 1932 Hammond ran for governor in Iowa. Hammond believed Republicans were doing little to stop the possible repeal of Prohibition, so he ran on the Prohibition Party ticket. Though he fought hard in the campaign, Hammond only received 1,415 votes.

Hammond never grew discouraged. During his years of policing and campaigning, he continued writing a book titled "The Rise and Fall of Prohibition." He only stopped when cataracts affected his vision. After an operation, he returned to the book and his letters to "his companion fighters against 'Demon rum.'" Four months before his death in 1938 he was still organizing from his nursing home bed a group called "The Eighteenth Amendment Rescue Association."

Shortly before his death, Hammond told his son, "In years to come this country will be through with liquor forever— not right away, but eventually." His friend, Ida B. Wise-Smith, commented, "Few Iowans know of all the worthwhile contributions he made to the life of the state he loved so well. Courage, bravery, and consecration were marked attributes of his character."

Sources:

  • McDaniels, George William. Smith Wildman Brookhart: Iowa's Renegade Republican. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1995.
  • State Historical Society of Iowa Library and Archives. Ida B. Wise-Smith Clippings File (alphabetized under last name of Smith).
  • State Historical Society of Iowa Library and Archives. Prohibition Clippings File.
Lisa Ossian

 

 


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