Ken Burns is at it again. Thank God.
The man who brought us such spellbinding public television series as The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, and The War, now serves up Prohibition.
“By 1830 the average American over 15 years of age drank the equivalent of 88 bottles of whiskey every year.”
Burns’ ability to sprinkle in staggering statistics amongst anecdotes and academic talking heads is his trademark.
And then there’s the endless imagery. Vintage photos and film clips married to music and actor Peter Coyote’s narration.
All adding up to another history lesson that should be mandatory viewing for history students around the globe.
The beauty of Burns’ magic is the wide variety of characters ignored by mainstream history and text books. Burns’ gift as a storyteller is how he brings these long forgotten characters back into the public consciousness.
Historical figures like Francis E. Willard, the President of the 1879 Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) – a weapon of protection from the tyranny of drink. Willard was a monumental pioneer in women’s issues, ranging from voting rights to other civil liberties. Responsible for raising the age of sexual consent from ten to 16. Wow. This woman should be a household name. But she is not.
“In America, ballots are bayonets,” said Willard the crusader.
How about Carrie Nation, who lost her first and second husband to the drink, determined to give herself over to halt what she called “the serpent drink.”
It was 1900 and alcohol was consuming the nation.
So, with an armload of “smashers” Carrie Nation strode into a Kansas saloon and busted up the joint, throwing heavy objects at the bar mirror and all the bottles below. She proceeded down the street, going in to saloon after saloon as a crowd gathered.
Nation dared the sheriff to arrest her. He did not.
She was finally arrested. A police man accused her of “defacing property.” She responded “I’m defacing nothing, I’m destroying.”
“You put me in to a cell a cub,” Nation told reporters. “But I will come out a roaring lion.”
She became a national symbol and heroine of the cause to bring down drunkenness.
Hundreds of women rallied to her, carrying stones, bricks, and hatchets. The Home Defender’s Army was on the march.
“I tell you, ladies, you don’t know how much joy you will have until you begin to smash, smash, smash.”
She called it a “Hatchetation.”
But the pro drink side had more muscle and more sway.
There was Mike “Hinkey Dink” Kenna, who oversaw the debauchery going on in Chicago’s Levy District. The Democratic National Committee head and South side Alderman ran all “500 saloons, 500 whorehouses, 56 pool halls, 15 gambling halls, and too many peep shows, cocaine parlors and bawdy theatres to count.”
He controlled the Levy. “The bar became completely intertwined with politics, so you could buy votes with a whiskey and a cigar.”
Adolphus Busch stood tallest against the Temperance movement, the best known and most powerful brewer -“An Emperor of Beer.” The youngest of 21 children, he went into business with his father-in-law, Eberhard Anheuser, and built his family firm into the largest brewery in the Western Hemisphere. He owned railroads, ice factories, bottling plants, and had five lavish homes on two continents.
As the Anti-saloon League (ASL) gained ground, saloon owners looked to Adolphus Busch. Commerce would fight back.
Saloons were opening left and right in America and by the turn of the 20th Century there were over 300,000 pubs.
“The brass rail was more than a footrest, it was a symbol of masculinity emancipate. Of manhood, free to put its feet on something.”
“The assumption was that if men worked so hard during the week, that if Friday night belonged to them, then so be it. It was an essential aspect of being a man in America.”
“The saloon was your living room, your social club. Your bartender did more for you than your local priest…or your local cop.”
The only way to solve the drunkenness was to get rid of the saloon.
The war between the “Wets” and the “Drys” was waged.
January 16, 1920. “U.S. Is Voted Dry: 36th State Ratifies Dry Amendment”
Prohibition runs this week on PBS. Check your local listings to catch it in three parts: A Nation of Drunkards, A Nation of Scofflaws, and A Nation of Hypocrites.
Tune in, sit back, and marvel at the history of this amazing country. As Ken Burns often says, “The greatest stories are the history you never knew.”