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Prohibition: A Nation Of Scofflaws

Airs Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 3 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid, ca. 1921. After the Mullan-Gage Act was repealed in 1923, New York police were no longer bound to enforce Prohibition.

"Prohibition" is a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed.

Prohibition Nationwide

The consequences of prohibition were felt all across the United States. Find stories near your home town. Explore the map. Click the images to learn more about each event through photos and videos.

Many Americans experimented with homemade stills to make alcohol for home consumption or to sell illegally during Prohibition. This one was busted during a raid in Detroit, ca. 1920s.
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Above: Many Americans experimented with homemade stills to make alcohol for home consumption or to sell illegally during Prohibition. This one was busted during a raid in Detroit, ca. 1920s.

Prohibition agents examine liquor confiscated from a captured rum runner in 1924. Usually, they weren't so lucky.
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Above: Prohibition agents examine liquor confiscated from a captured rum runner in 1924. Usually, they weren't so lucky.

Speakeasy-type peephole in steel door.
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Above: Speakeasy-type peephole in steel door.

A so-called "flapper" flouts the Volstead Act by carrying a whiskey flask in her garter, ca 1920s.
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Above: A so-called "flapper" flouts the Volstead Act by carrying a whiskey flask in her garter, ca 1920s.

Special Features

View a prohibition photo gallery.

View profiles of people involved in prohibition.

Watch video segments from the film on demand.

Prohibition was intended to improve, even to ennoble, the lives of all Americans, to protect individuals, families, and society at large from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse. But the enshrining of a faith-driven moral code in the Constitution paradoxically caused millions of Americans to rethink their definition of morality.

"A Nation Of Scofflaws" - In 1920, Prohibition goes into effect, making it illegal to manufacture, transport or sell intoxicating liquor. This episode examines the problems of enforcement, as millions of law-abiding Americans become lawbreakers overnight.

While a significant portion of the country is willing to adapt to the new law, others are shocked at how inconsistent the Volstead Act actually is. Many had believed that light beer would still be available, but the Act defines "intoxicating beverages" as anything containing a half of one percent of alcohol. Under these draconian terms, even sauerkraut is illegal.

As weaknesses in the law and its enforcement become clear, millions find ways to exploit it. In Kentucky, whiskey distillers sell "medicine" instead. In Cincinnati, a shrewd lawyer named George Remus buys many local distilleries and rakes in up to half a million dollars a week by bootlegging the bonded whiskey in his warehouses.

In Seattle, Roy Olmstead, a former police officer with a reputation for selling top-quality Canadian liquor, becomes one of the city's biggest employers.

In Chicago, Al Capone, Johnny Torrio and rival gangs engage in territorial beer wars in broad daylight in the city streets. Bootleggers and gangsters alike rely on bribery to stay in business; from the local police force to the members of President Harding's cabinet, everything begins to feel corrupted.

Drys had hoped Prohibition would make the country a safer place, but the law has many victims. Honest policemen are killed on the job, unlucky drinkers are poisoned by adulterated liquor and overzealous federal agents violate civil rights just to make a bust.

Alcoholism still exists, and may even be increasing, as women begin to drink in the speakeasies that replace the male-only saloon. Despite the growing discontent with Prohibition and its consequences, few politicians dare to speak out against the law, fearful of its powerful protector, the Anti-Saloon League.

When Al Smith, the Catholic governor of New York, openly criticizes Prohibition in his bid for the 1924 Democratic presidential nomination, the dry forces become energized again. There are fistfights on the convention floor, and the Democratic Party is polarized between delegates from dry, rural, Protestant America and those from the diverse, wet cities.

Republican Calvin Coolidge crushes the crippled Democrats in November, and the Drys remain confident that Prohibition can be made to work. As no constitutional amendment has ever been repealed, one senator promises, "There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars – with the Washington Monument tied to its tail."

Episode three "A Nation Of Hypocrites" will air on Sunday, October 9 at 5 p.m.

Video

Video Excerpt: Prohibition: A Nation Of Scofflaws

Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.

Video

Trailer: Prohibition

Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.

Above: "PROHIBITION" is a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed.

Video

Ken Burns talks about "Prohibition"

Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.

Video

Lynn Novick talks about "Prohibition"

Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.