64 Parishes

A Dry Spell in a Wet Town

New Orleans resisted Prohibition nearly every step of the way

Published: January 1, 2015
Last Updated: July 23, 2020

A Dry Spell in a Wet Town

Courtesy of Sally Asher

New Orleans was home to numerous breweries in the late 19th and early 20th century, including the Jackson Brewery, where these workers posed with their product.

New Orleans’ 1920 Mardi Gras celebration was long overdue. In 1917 the federal government had closed Storyville, the country’s only legal red-light district, where licentious denizens mingled in velvet parlors and ramshackle lean-tos, consuming cool drinks, warm flesh and hot jazz. World War I had cancelled the 1918 and 1919 Carnival celebrations. And just two months earlier, the French Opera House, the apex of culture as well as home to various Mardi Gras balls, had burned down. New Orleanians needed a party more than ever and as a convivial collateral, a hero appeared.

General John Joseph Pershing arrived in the city the day before Mardi Gras on a goodwill tour. Pershing was (and still is) the only general awarded the rank of “General of the Armies” while still living. Tall, with a muscular build and piercing eyes, Pershing was known as the handsomest man many women had ever seen. Police struggled to hold back the crowds as “wild” women threw kisses and climbed atop his car, young girls gave him flowers, Boy Scouts saluted him and men reached to shake his hand. Crowds clambered to rooftops and treetops hoping to catch a glimpse of the charismatic general. On Mardi Gras day, on the steps of City Hall, Pershing was awarded a medal and knighted “Duke of Victory” by Rex, to the delight of the mirthful revelers who braved the cold and rainy weather. Pershing, however, who was held up as one of the saviors of World War I, could not save Mardi Gras from the loss of one of its most treasured elements—booze.

Weeks earlier, the Eighteenth Amendment had taken effect, prohibiting the production, transportation or sale of alcohol and launching the United States, and New Orleans, into a dry new era. Prohibition imposed a draconian reality on the blithe fantasy of Fat Tuesday. Alcohol was a part of the city’s festivities, from the ritualized toasts of the elite to the casual swig of the costumed commoner. Its absence, in this predominantly Catholic city, left its citizens parched. The juice and soft drinks that substituted for the hard spirits tasted as dry in the mouths of the anti-Prohibitionists as the ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Prohibition also robbed Lent of its most popular sacrifice. Thus Carnival’s return was bittersweet, with the weather lending a further cruel irony—New Orleans’ first dry Mardi Gras was sopping wet.

The New Orleans Item hailed Carnival as a success, regardless of the weather and lack of libations, but the Times-Picayune took a more histrionic tone. Despite the general’s gallant appearance, it asserted, Carnival had never “been met with less enthusiasm than that of this year.” Citizens’ “brave efforts” could not “revive olden joys” since the alcoholic stimulants, “which warmed many past cold Carnivals, were absent.” General Pershing might have been a celebrity, but the real stars of Mardi Gras, “Bacchus, Barleycorn and Cambrinus,” were suddenly outlaws. “It cannot be denied that their presence loaned to every gathering an esprit de corps, an ebullient, effervescent, madcap liveliness, a fervent conviviality,” it wrote, “that somber, sumptuary statues never may hope to replace.” Rex’s theme that year was “Life’s Pilgrimage,” an unexpected analogy for the journey that New Orleans was on as Prohibition descended upon the city. It was a government-enforced penance that many did not want and some outright refused to accept.

Where’s the Beer?

In the years leading up to World War I, the temperance movement gained momentum and converts. Several states —not including Louisiana—passed prohibition laws, and in December 1917 Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment and submitted it to the states for ratification. Well before it took effect, however, Congress passed the first step toward national prohibition that people actually felt: the Wartime Prohibition Act. Enacted on November 18, 1918, ostensibly to save grain for the war effort (even though the war had ended a week earlier), it banned the sale of beer and alcoholic beverages with alcohol content greater than 2.75 percent. The anti-Prohibitionists, still numerous, were outraged. Labor unions nationwide began a “No Beer, No Work” movement, and many pledged to strike the day the act went into effect, putting down their tools if they could not pick up at least a 3.2 percent beer. In New Orleans, the local chapter of the Personal Liberty League of America joined in and wired President Woodrow Wilson directly, asking him to modify the law and to allow the country to vote on it. Entrepreneurs profited by printing the slogan on buttons and banners. A local department store sold “No Beer No Work” beer steins fast as it could stock them.

On Flag Day of 1919, over 7,000 laborers, soldiers, and members of legions and women’s auxiliary groups marched on the nation’s capitol to retain their right to drink beer, the first time in history a permit was granted for a group to assemble there to protest legislation from Congress. Six days later in New Orleans, almost 3,000 “lovers of Bibulous liberty” and “defenders of Bacchus” paraded. The Times-Picayune encouraged all who had a “kindly spot in their hearts for the feel of a brass rail under foot and are gratified when the foam is on the schooner and the schooner on bar” to attend, and they did, with marching bands, banners and signs, and chanting their slogan. One man held a sign that read “Dixie Social Club. We want beer in our saloons. Not in the cellars of the Rich.” The speakers argued that since the act was passed after the armistice, it was now invalid because its preamble said it was for war purposes, and further, Prohibition was “the mother of Bolshevism.”

All the movement’s protests and threats were ineffectual. On July 1, 1919, the Wartime Prohibition Act went into effect. New Orleanians took this defeat more with a hoarder’s mentality than a partygoer’s, leaving bars with more bottles of beer in their bags than in their bellies. Shortly after midnight, a procession of brewery wagons with a calliope paraded down Royal Street as a farewell. Bands in restaurants and bars played funeral marches. As the Cosmopolitan Hotel’s clock struck its final chord, signaling the death of regular beer, the jazz orchestra broke into “How Dry I Am!” Customers sang slowly and quietly at first, then as their voices grew in sound and pace, everyone grabbed the closest goblet, bottle or tumbler and hurled it to the floor. The New Orleans Item called it “John Barleycorn’s Requiem.”

Many parishes in Louisiana were already dry, but numerous saloon owners could not believe that one of the “wettest climates” in the country would actually turn dry. Approximately half of the 1,000 saloons in New Orleans remained open, chancing that the government would not classify 2.75 percent beer as intoxicating. Others cut their losses.

Henry Ramos, originator of the Ramos Gin Fizz and “the most famous mixologist of the South,” owned the Stag saloon with his brother William. The Stag was elegant, with a tile floor and a 50-foot-long bar with six bartenders and at least nine “shakers,” whose primary job was to slowly shake Ramos’ gin concoction for two minutes. Locals and tourists lined up (sometimes for an hour) for his drinks. Ramos was considered a gentleman artist and a scientist of the cocktail, even though he was a teetotaler. Drunkards horrified Ramos, and with a subtle point of his finger, those who were too loose with their language or their liquor were escorted out. Equally horrifying to him was the idea of breaking the law. After more than 40 years in the bar business, Ramos severed all connections. His parting gift to the city was publishing the recipe for his world-famous namesake drink. The Stag became a bank and its contents were sold at auction. Newspapers grumbled that the “lethal club of national prohibition” beat the Stag to the earth, and decried the tragedy of its signature items being sold for a fraction of their value. Its six prized elk heads went to the local Elks lodge. Its copper sinks, glass canopy and solid marble oyster counter were dispersed. Jack Sheehan (who owned a roadhouse in Jefferson Parish) purchased the cherished oil paintings, including the 1867 canvas “Life on the Metairie” by V. Pierson and Theodore Moise, which depicted a day at the racetrack for society’s elite. Ramos kept only the clock with the cathedral chime for himself. After being an international beacon for beverage lovers and the fashionable for decades, it took less than two hours to dismantle Ramos’ “palace.”

Last Call

The Cosmopolitan Hotel also capitulated early in the war against booze. It had two buildings, one on Royal and one on Bourbon, which were connected by a passageway. That July, the owner sold one of the buildings, and the new owner removed the bar and closed the walkway. The Times-Picayune’s headline announced: “CLOSING OF FAMOUS PASSAGE IS EVENT IN CITY’S HISTORY.” The article mourned the loss of the “most historical passageway in New Orleans” and the closing of the cabaret that was a “mecca” for its “pussy-footed” politicians. It complained that without liquor, the Cosmopolitan lacked the “punch to provide confidential conversations.” Its “magnet” for holding crowds in political discussion was gone. Now, the paper lamented, politicians wanting to get from Bourbon to Royal had to actually walk around the block. The newspaper fretted the probability of one politician walking in one direction and one walking in the other, causing them to “wander all forlorn” and never find each other.

As bad as the 2.75 percent alcohol limitation was, a worse fear for New Orleanians lay yet ahead. The Eighteenth Amendment had been ratified on January 16, 1919, so it was only a matter of time before a complete dry doom befell the city. Already, Prohibition not only restricted New Orleans’ freewheeling ways, it committed an even greater crime in citizens’ eyes—it endangered their history. Drinking was as much a part of the city’s heritage as cuisine, bloodlines or colonial intrigue. Establishments that hosted locals’ relations over time became branches on their family tree. Saloons created roots in communities and crossed class lines—whether you were a porter, patron or proprietor, if you had a similar story to share, you had a connection. Some argued that as creatures of habit, the only habits New Orleans held on to were its sinful ones, but to natives, these habits were integral to their history, and they did not want them dissolved.

In late 1919, all sides in the Prohibition debate carefully watched to see just which way the tap would turn. In October, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act (known as the Volstead Act) to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, but President Wilson vetoed it. This meant the “emasculated” 2.75 percent beer, which was first “scorned, then tolerated, and finally loved” would remain on sale for the time being. Citizens of New Orleans were delighted; the Times-Picayune stated that never before had the president been so loved as he was that day, regardless of his daylight savings “stunt.” Their joy was short lived, however, as Congress overrode Wilson’s veto the next day and the Volstead Act became law on October 28, 1919. The law had two mains sections, the first of which served to immediately adjust the Wartime Prohibition Act’s 2.75 percent alcohol content limitation down to 0.5 percent. Though the fuller restrictions of the act, and Prohibition, would not take effect until the Eighteenth Amendment did a few months later, the next bell had tolled, and New Orleans was heartbroken.

On “Blue Wednesday,” a “great damp sponge” descended on the city in “dry hearses” sopping up beer and wiping out the saloons’ clientele. The Times-Picayune said New Orleans had become New Sahara because Prohibition had taken the “leans” out of Orleans, “since no one cares any longer to lean against the vapid and unresponsive bar.” There were nine surviving breweries left in New Orleans, and they all made “near beer,” the only legal alcoholic drink, which, sure enough, contained 0.5 percent alcohol content. To most, near beer was nowhere close to the beloved beverage. It was “Hamlet minus the melancholy Dane, a honeymoon without a bride, an empty, angelless heaven. It is a mocking counterfeit, a fair-seeming fraud, an insult to the palate and an abomination in the mouth.” To add insult to injury, the imposter beer cost the same as its predecessor. For centuries, New Orleans built its reputation on dining and drinks: fizzes, Sazeracs and juleps. Now its table had been cleared of glasses, leaving the meals incomplete and patrons thirsty. The camel joined the pelican as the state’s national emblem.

The city enjoyed a brief rain on the dry law when in November 1919 Judge Rufus Foster did a bit of a legal Cajun two-step and declared the Wartime Prohibition Act invalid, granting an injunction on its enforcement. Within an hour barrooms were jammed, the sound of cash registers ringing, glasses clinking and voices singing for the nomination of Foster for President of the United States. The newspaper interviewed a manicurist who was “crunching on turkey legs with wet goods and two-six-bits chasers” and crooning the praises of Foster to “Gawd.” But the jubilation only lasted a week; the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction. The intoxicating oasis in the desert of Prohibition dried up as quickly as it had materialized.

In the weeks leading up to full establishment of Prohibition, many in the city tried to make the best of a bad situation. It was not yet illegal to drink alcohol in public, just illegal to purchase it, and restaurants effectively became B.Y.O.B. New Orleanians drank heartily yet purposefully, the collective tone more elegiac than festive. It was hard to live it up, knowing they had to give it up.

On Saturday, January 17, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment at last took effect, prohibiting the manufacture, sale or transportation of “intoxicating liquors … for beverage purposes,” defined by the Volstead Act as any containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. It was illegal to import alcohol and any remaining had to be exported; by midnight the day before, liquor had to be outside the three-mile limit of American waters. The Times-Picayune, once again in dramatic form, described how whiskey, the “amber lake of bottled joy” awaited its “final exile” from the country of its birth. “Whiskey,” it wrote, “loses all freedom of action. It exists under a sort of martial law. It may not be taken out for a walk, it must not be seen in any public place.” The Volstead Act included myriad other limitations on the public and private use of alcohol. Even images were illegal—billboards advertising liquor had to be removed or painted over within 48 hours. But alcohol’s undiminished magnetic force drew many patrons discreetly behind closed doors, latched shutters and even elaborately-rigged trapdoors. New Orleans may have been called “the city that care forgot,” but New Orleans itself did not forget its carefree customs and remained determined to hold onto its traditions and festivities. In short, New Orleanians found a way to drink.

Speak Easy To A Blind Tiger

“Johnson’s in town,” the New Orleans States wrote on January 28, 1920, referring to Jesse Johnson, the Prohibition director in Louisiana. “You may not know him now,” the newspaper warned, “but those of you who like to take a little nip of bootleg whiskey or other kind of potion occasionally will know him before long.” Johnson promised to make New Orleans so dry “that a dust storm on an alkali desert will be as the falling dew in comparison.” Johnson and a small staff set up shop at the U.S. Custom House and went to work.

Jack Sheehan, who purchased Ramos’ famous paintings but did not acquire his penchant for abiding by the law, was one of the first arrested. Previously indicted for gambling, selling liquor to soldiers and poll tax fraud, Sheehan was nabbed a week after Prohibition went into effect by Internal Revenue Service officers at his roadhouse, the Suburban Gardens. The officers alleged he had sold them liquor the month before. A couple of days later, Sheehan announced he was closing his club and going into the tire business, but after some months, bored, he reestablished his club, thus opening the door to more arrests.

On New Year’s Eve in 1921, Prohibition agents raided Sheehan’s home next to his club and found liquor valued at over $50,000. Sheehan said he had purchased it before Prohibition for his personal consumption, but the agents insisted that Sheehan’s ship, the Mercedes, had smuggled back cases of alcohol on a recent trip to Cuba. Sheehan countered that his ship was sent to buy coconuts but was lost at sea, and he had no idea where it was. After months of legal battles and various “sightings” of Samuel Reed, the ship’s captain, Sheehan won his case. Judge Foster, who had famously lifted the Wartime Prohibition Act for one week, declared that the booze was seized on information illegally obtained by the agents. Four large trucks returned the liquor, and Sheehan, who was forever dubbed the “Coconut King,” threw a party to celebrate.

Throughout the 13 years of Prohibition, the newspapers told stories of raids where agents seized “wine and women,” busted in on youthful patrons enjoying a “merry tinkling” of glasses and “cut their way to the bar” with axes. One proprietor dove out of a second-story window to avoid capture when his speakeasy was raided. A blackstrap molasses trail led agents to John Difatso, his son and Harold Hano, who ran a 100-gallon still at a vacant house in Algiers. Mary Elizabeth Hill, a pretty redhead, ran a popular speakeasy dubbed “Betsy’s Place” in her Uptown basement that catered to the collegiate crowd—until it was closed. Hundreds of spectators on Thalia Street mournfully watched as agents dumped batches of liquor into sewers and then dismantled the copper still to be sold to benefit the policemen’s pension fund. But these raids did not just attack the enterprising upstarts; many struck at the established and the elite. The president of the exclusive Boston Club, James J. Butler, and seven of his directors were raided and arrested. Arnaud’s Restaurant was padlocked amid allegations that employees sold liquor to undercover agents whom the newspaper deemed “spies.” The Old Absinthe House, which according to the Time-Picayune was “symbolic of the bon vivants responsible for this city’s reputation for gaiety and brilliance,” was raided and eventually padlocked just weeks before its 100th anniversary. Even Prohibition agents themselves were at risk, from Oliver Evan, who impersonated an agent (poorly), to John Carter and Claud Hebson, who were actual New Orleans Prohibition agents indicted on rum running charges. Regardless of the frequent reports of arrests in the newspapers, though, New Orleans continued drinking.

And working—the city was a bootlegger’s dream. The Mississippi River was a major artery for shipping, and the dense swamps, fishing camps and rural acreages surrounding the city provided exotic cover for anyone with room for a still and a little ingenuity. The city’s nooks and crannies, too, afforded clandestine wet spots. Isadore “Izzy” Einstein, one of the most famous undercover Prohibition agents, took his own personal poll and ranked New Orleans as the quickest city in which to obtain a drink. Thirty-five seconds, to be exact. A 1930 poll in the Literary Digest showed that New Orleanians were against Prohibition 13 to 1. Over 50 percent of those polled in Louisiana favored repeal, dramatically more than in neighboring Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas, where on average only 24 percent of the respondents wanted complete repeal. Prohibition officials grudgingly admitted that despite their vigilance, New Orleans did not suffer for alcohol.

By 1931, after a decade of increasing crime, excess and trouble, national opinion was turning against Prohibition. On May 14, 1932, “beer parades” were held all over the country. In New Orleans, more than 10,000 protestors marched, carrying banners and signs such as “Swat the Dry,” “Drown the Wolf” and “Beer and Liberty,” and crying, “We want beer!” They were joined by Mayor T. Semmes Walmsley and Joseph Skelly, commissioner of public property, as well as war hero Bill Kennedy, who rode in a car with a poster on the side reading, “I gave my legs for my country; let our country give us our rights.” Social and civic clubs, women’s organizations, brewery workers and labor unions all marched. The mayor, chastised by the anti-saloon league for his participation, rejoined that under current law anyone who wanted beer got it, yet the government did not get any taxes. The event ended with a fireworks display.

Happy Days Are Here Again

Less than a year later, the parades and prayers of beer lovers were triumphant. Shortly after President Franklin Roosevelt entered office, the Cullen-Harrison Act was passed, making beer up to 3.2 percent alcohol content legal again. Louisiana repealed its own Prohibition law, the Hood Act of 1921, two days later. And at noon on April 13, 1933, beer returned to New Orleans. Its citizens were ready. The Beverage Department at City Hall issued 911 permits to sell beer in one week. Railroads advertised special rates for residents of dry border towns to come in to celebrate. Hotel reservations surged. Newspapers ran special beer advertising sections. Crescent City Refrigeration advertised its new refrigerator that could hold at least a dozen bottles of beer, stating, “You are going to need more bottle space.” Maison Blanche department store cheered, “Here’s to Beer—drink it down, drink it down!” and advertised barrel-shaped jugs, pretzel servers and beer steins. Local grocery stores advertised “REAL BEER” with crackers, cheese and meats. Beer was everywhere, including meteorologist Dr. I. M. Cline’s weather forecast, which promised that the cool and cloudy weather would not affect beer drinking—it wouldn’t be “ideal beer-drinking weather,” but it would not be “unpleasant for welcoming back the beverage.”

Thousands lined the streets to hail beer’s return. The Times-Picayune described the moment the clock struck noon, signaling that the drought was over: “Whoop! Bang! Wheeeeeee! Twelve o’clock!” Sirens screamed. Waterfront boats blew their foghorns. Train whistles cried. Crowds of men and women applauded and cheered. Bands played German drinking songs. Beer was back, and the city greeted it by consuming 488,000 gallons in a few short hours. The police reported 18 arrests for intoxication between noon and midnight (which was below average). The next day, Good Friday, many churchgoers with bent heads thanked the Lord for the return of beer and prayed they would not topple from their pews. The taps were open, and out flowed an unstoppable wave that would swamp the temperance movement.

Less than eight months later, with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment in December 1933, Prohibition officially ended. After all of the upheaval, the end came in a “surprisingly unobtrusive manner” since many saloons had been operating wide-open for weeks in anticipation. Many bartenders blamed the relatively sedate denouement on its falling on a Tuesday and complained that the repeal should have happened on a Saturday to be more lucrative. But there was still a celebration. Bartenders brushed up on classic New Orleans drinks to return the fine art of mixing to its “abstruse science.” The Roosevelt Hotel had the first case of legal whiskey in the city delivered to its front steps. And for the first time in 13 years, one of the city’s leading French restaurants (presumably Arnaud’s) was able to lower its lights to watch the glow of flaming brandy on its beloved café brulot. The city, in its toasting, drinking and joviality, was at peace.

The story of Prohibition in New Orleans was much like the costume of a 1920s Mardi Gras reveler. Dressed as a whiskey bottle with the wry caption “I’m still with you” on the label, the man danced through the streets, visible, merry, perhaps almost defiant. As the rain came, the dye on his costume trickled amber drops that looked startlingly like the real thing. And as he bobbed through the crowds, appearing and disappearing in the mist, people were left asking: Was it real? Did this all really happen?


Sally Asher has a masters degree in English from Tulane University in New Orleans and is currently pursuing a masters degree in history. Her book, Hope and New Orleans: A History of Crescent City Street Names, was published by History Press in March 2014. She is currently writing a book about the history of a notorious scandalmongering newspaper that operated in late 19th-century New Orleans, The Mascot. Asher is also the public relations photographer for Tulane. For more information, visit her website, sallyasherarts.com.