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PROHIBITION: A Nation Of Hypocrites

The Great Depression struck the final blow against Prohibition. Here, marchers in Detroit bear signs reading, "Beer for Taxation, Jobs for Millions" ca. 1930.
Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University
The Great Depression struck the final blow against Prohibition. Here, marchers in Detroit bear signs reading, "Beer for Taxation, Jobs for Millions" ca. 1930.

Airs Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Prohibition Nationwide

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

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 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.

Episode 3: "A Nation Of Hypocrites" - Support for Prohibition diminishes in the mid-1920s as the playfulness of sneaking around for a drink gives way to disenchantment with its glaring unintended consequences.

By criminalizing one of the nation's largest industries, the law has given savvy gangsters a way to make huge profits, and as they grow in power, rival outfits wreak havoc in cities across the country. The burgeoning tabloid newspaper industry fans the frenzy with sensational headlines and front-page photographs of murder scenes, while Al Capone holds press conferences and signs autographs.


The cold-blooded St. Valentine's Day Massacre horrifies the nation. The situation becomes so dire in Chicago that a senator requests help from the U.S. Marines to control the city's murderous streets.

The wealthy Pauline Sabin begins publicly decrying that Prohibition has divided the nation into "wets, drys, and hypocrites." Nearly a century before, women had hoped Prohibition would make the country a safer place for their children. But by the late 1920s many American women believe that the "Noble Experiment" has failed. Sabin unifies women of all classes, refuting the notion that all women support Prohibition and denouncing the law itself as the greatest threat to their families.

When the Great Depression sets in, Americans begin to reexamine their priorities. More begin asking how they can justify spending money on the enforcement of an unpopular law while millions are without work, food, or shelter. Sabin and others argue that repeal will bring in tax revenue and provide desperately needed jobs.

After the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, Congress easily passes the 21st Amendment, which repeals the 18th, and the states quickly ratify it. In December of 1933, Americans can legally buy a drink for the first time in 13 years.

Special Features Online:


Visit the "Prohibition" website to view a photo gallery, explore profiles of people involved in prohibition, and watch video segments from the film on demand.

This series originally aired in 2011.