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Wet or Dry? Alcoholic Beverages Stirred a Controversy in Early 1900s

This is part of a continued series of Looking Back articles from the Herald Times written throughout the 1980s depicting earlier life in Monroe County

By Rose McIlveen Oct 2, 1983

“We must soon again confront a controversy that will array friends against each other, cause dissension in the churches, and bitter strife among our citizens generally,” wrote the editor of Bloomington’s Star near the end of March in 1911.

Postcard depicting Marshall arresting man coming out of saloon, 1906. “I’m Strictly Temperance Here” reads the postcard. From the MCHC collection 1987.037.0040.

What was the controversy? If you guessed alcoholic beverages , you are correct.

Section 8 of the state local option bill of 1908 gave counties the opportunity to determine by local referenda whether they wanted to be “wet” or “dry.” In 1909 rural Monroe County dry voters had outvoted the city wet voters, and the local liquor traffic thereafter went underground. According to the Star, the argument put forth by the dry vote campaigners when they were lining up rural votes was that saloons in town were corrupting the rural young people.

Another argument put forth by the dries was that if the town banned saloons, it would have a real estate “boom,” Observed the editor of the Star, “In fact the biggest boom Bloomington ever had in real estate was in 1905 and 1906 when the city had licensed saloons.”

Still a third rationale put forward by dry campaigners was that the absence of saloons would lead to an increase in attendance at Indiana University. Countered the Star, “The fact is the attendance fell off in the two years following the dry vote…We were told how the boys would be ‘saved’ when in fact the past two ‘dry’ years has made more whiskey drinkers out of the ‘boys’ than a dozen saloons would have done.”

Actually on the temperance issue the Star took a moderate position. If deplored the abuses of alcohol, but pointed out on several occasions that some of the more vocal dries ordered their whiskey by mail and thus kept their own homes well stocked. Chortled the Star on July 10, 1910, “The public has been informed by the Telephone, the ‘dry’ organ of this town, that 23 barrels of bottled beer were received here at one depot last Saturday, and that 50 barrels came by freight over the same road. This is the first time that we have ever been able to vouch for anything that has appeared in the Telephone.”

As the day set aside for the referendum approached, the editor of the Star pointed out that the outcome of the dry vote in 1909 hadn’t been all that great. For example, the city and county had lost about $4500 in annual revenue from the sale of liquor licenses and “a whole menagerie of blind tigers” (speakeasies or individual bootleggers) were operating all over town.

The editor of the Star went so far as to quote a blind tiger operator, who said, “If Bloomington will vote dry for two years more, I will have enough to retire from business and promise to quit the town.”

Referring to another dry rationale that Bloomington would be safer and the police department budget reduced, the Star reported smugly that, on the contrary, it had been necessary to hire an extra policeman to help chase the drunks and bootleggers. Where, wailed the editor, were the good old days when the city had a dozen saloons and all of the drunks could be found there, instead of all over town?

The Star printed a tongue-in-cheek article about the case of the blind tiger arrested on a series of charges and some of his stock confiscated as evidence. In such cases it had been customary for the prosecutor to allow the jury sips from the bottles to verify the alcoholic contents. But in the present case, especially since the alcohol would be needed for the subsequent charges against the defendant, the prosecutor risked not passing the bottles around. After getting a conviction on the first charge, the prosecutor – three days later – resumed his case against the defendant. Unfortunately, the evidence had disappeared from the mayor’s office, where it had been put for safekeeping.

Sample ballot from the MCHC collection. 1415.004.0124.

On June 6, 1911, the Star triumphantly reported that in the referendum the county had gone wet by 22 votes (out of 2,318 cast) and added, “There is only one dry town in the state of Indiana today that exceeds Bloomington in population – Crawfordsville.”

 

If you’d like to read more about prohibition and blind tigers in Bloomington please make an appointment to come to the Research Library and look at Amzi Atwater’s scrapbook of newspaper clippings from the early 1900s. 

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