This Week In Illinois History: Prohibition Begins (Jan. 17, 1920)

Jan 18, 2021

W. Hurd Clendinen, mayor of Zion City, Illinois, pours out 2 of 80,000 bottles of beer seized en route to Chicago.
Credit Library of Congress (88715937)

One hundred and one years ago, America’s non-drinkers really hornswoggled everyone who loved their booze. Prohibition began at midnight, January 17, 1920, a Saturday. Americans had one last Friday to imbibe or sock away their sauce.

In a state known for bootleggers and violence, the transition actually happened without much fanfare.

Newspapers ran headlines like “Huge Army of Booze Sleuths Seek Violators” and “Midnight Strikes Fatal Hour for Booze Disciples.” The Alton Daily Telegraph ran a mock obituary for John Barleycorn, noting that, though he had many friends in town, few showed up for the funeral.

The Rock Island Argus reported that “several little parties” were held “in memory of the passing of John Barleycorn.” One led to a free-for-all street brawl over stolen liquor.

In Chicago, six gunmen raided a train yard stealing $100,000 in booze. Even so, one paper reported “Chicago was safely dry today. It reached aridity at 12am without an arrest and with no unusual festivities.”

A slick Chicago businessman took advantage of the situation. He began advertising his instruction booklet on making a still for “medical, sacramental, and industrial purposes.” The ad was explicit that the Bourbon, Gin, Rum, Whiskey, Brandy, Wine, and Beer it would teach you to make, were “not to be used for BEVERAGE purposes.”

Only two prohibition violators were arrested in Illinois that first day: two men transporting truckloads of whiskey outside Peoria.

The real fanfare began Sunday, January 18, when churches across Illinois celebrated America’s new status as a saloonless society.