The Milford Public Library hosted historian and writer Michael Dixon on Friday, October 11 as he presented a Delaware Humanities Forum, Pass the Rum: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. This program uncovered the historical attempts to regulate the consumption of alcohol over the years in the United States with a focus on the state of Delaware. Dixon stated that while the program pays deeper attention to the modern era, as the nation and the State of Delaware struggled to live with the prohibition law for nearly 14 years, it takes a much longer view. During the presentation the audience experienced colorful stories of rum runners, moonshiners, bathtub gin, intriguing personalities, complicated politics, organized crime, outgunned lawmen, and the temperance movement.
For over thirty years, Mike has worked to encourage public interest and participation in the preservation of the past and to create understandings between earlier eras and the present. He has appeared on the Today Show, Maryland Public TV and broadcast news programs as well as in National Geographic, Southern Living and Chesapeake Life. As a professional historian and award winning public speaker and author, Dixon teaches history courses at a number of area universities and colleges and offers genealogical research, oral lectures and research projects for individuals, organizations and businesses.
Beginning with the temperance movement, Dixon explored the social movement that aimed at reducing and prohibiting the use of alcohol across the country. Sussex and Kent Counties adopted their own prohibition laws as early as 1907 as the state of Delaware joined the National Prohibition movement in 1920 with the signing of the 18th Amendment. Dixon explained that in addition to the federal law, the Klair Laws in Delaware made it ilegal to posses more than one quart of alcohol, outlawed private stock and made alcohol illegal for medical use. These laws caused many unintended consequences in the First State.
“Downstate outlaws went into higher gear, hatching ingenious plans to produce and distribute whiskey,” stated Dixon during Friday’s lecture. “At that time it was dangerous to be a lawman, if you enforced it too much you could be seriously hurt and ran the chance of increasing organized crime.”
Most notably enforcing Delaware’s prohibition of alcohol was the Director of the Department of Prohibition Harold Wilson, known by local publications as Three Gun Wilson. Seen by many as caring more about prohibition than the legality of searches on Delaware citizens, Wilson’s raids were at their highest in August of 1933 when his department seized thousands of dollars in liquor sales and arrested hundreds of Delaware men. Wilson was arrested himself and accused of illegal search and seizure shortly after his raid on a Democratic League of Delaware event that was honoring the Governor of Delaware.
In addition to causing rampant corruption among law enforcement, prohibition was seen by many as increasing the bad economic climate of the state as factories that supported the alcohol industry sat empty.
“The economy was still in bad shape, twenty-five percent of people were unemployed and the banks were ready to collapse,” stated Dixon. “President Herbert Hoover was leaving office and the new President Franklin Roosevelt was looking at ways to better the economy.” In 1933 with the twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution, the prohibition on alcohol was repealed during a special convention. Mike Dixon stressed that learning about the history of social movements and their outcome can help us today when we decide public policy.
“Historically speaking we go through cycles and we make decisions based upon the conditions that existed,” commented Dixon when asked the importance of understanding social movements of the past. “By understanding the lessons from these earlier periods, we gain greater insight into public policy approaches and the outcomes associated with those actions. We can use those insights from history to provide guidance for current day activities and decision making.”