Banning the sales and drinking of alcohol became a national progressive issue called the Temperance Movement.
Although calls for banning alcohol began at least in the early 1830s, it became a national crusade in the 1880s into the 1900s with temperance organizations formed throughout the country.
Some people opposed the drinking of alcohol for religious reasons. Others thought that drinking adversely affected on-the-job performance and increased crime. Women’s groups thought that excess drinking caused domestic violence and that men would spend household money on alcohol.
The Tennessee Temperance Alliance was organized in 1885, with the goal of adding a state constitutional amendment banning all alcohol. A vote was taken in 1887, but failed to pass despite support from many rural counties. Dig Deeper: What is the difference between temperance and prohibition?
The prohibitionists then used a different strategy. Instead of a statewide ban on alcohol, they would gradually eliminate it county by county. In 1877, a law was established requiring that saloons be at least four miles away from any school.
Rural counties banned alcohol entirely by 1907. Because county and city governments were separate, the cities of Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and LaFollette continued to serve alcohol.
Gunfight on the streets of Nashville
This issue contributed a famous gunfight on the streets of Nashville in 1908. Edward Carmack, a former U.S. representative and senator from Tennessee, had run against Malcolm Patterson for governor. Carmack was supported by the prohibition forces while Patterson was supported by anti-prohibitionists. The election was bitter with a lot of charges and name-calling.
Carmack lost the election, and became the editor of the pro-prohibitionist newspaper, The Nashville Tennessean. He used the newspaper to continue to attack Patterson and his former friend, Duncan Brown Cooper, who had supported Patterson in the election. Cooper warned Carmack to stop the attacks, but Carmack didn’t.
The two met accidently on the street, and Carmack, fearing Cooper and his son, Robin, pulled a gun out and fired at them. Although wounded, Robin shot back, killing Carmack.
Although it was self-defense, prohibition forces led by his newspaper made Carmack out to be a martyr. It was probably this incident which let the state legislature to completely ban the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol in 1909
Governor Ben Wade Hooper had a difficult time enforcing the prohibition law as some Tennesseans resisted giving up their liquor. Even though alcohol was banned in the state, it was still readily available.
Bars and clubs, known as “speakeasies,” sprung up, offering liquor to their customers. An article in the New York Times in 1929 describes how officers raided speakeasies in Johnson City, Tennessee, and confiscated “Jamaica Ginger,” a medicine that contained between 70-80 percent alcohol.
Moonshining has a long tradition in Tennessee, even before Prohibition, because homemade liquor was not taxed.
With the advent of prohibition, however, the moonshining business became extremely dangerous. Law enforcement officers attempted to stop the practice, and sometimes moonshiners fought back. In some East Tennessee conflicts over prohibition and moonshine were especially fierce.
After the 18th amendment, liquor could no longer be transported, so trafficking became even more secret. Blockade runners in cars and trucks made regular trips with barrels of alcohol to sell. This business became increasingly dangerous for both revenuers and bootleggers as authorities tried to enforce the law.
In 1892 a party of bootleggers led revenuers into an ambush in Flintville in Lincoln County. Two people were killed and another wounded. Though violent confrontations were a dangerous possibility for many moonshiners, most were able to survive and profit considerably during this era.
Mayors like Hilary Howse of Nashville and Edward Crump of Memphis openly ignored the prohibition law and didn’t enforce it. Crump especially infuriated state officials who passed a state law allowing them to remove city officials from office for neglecting his duties.
When the law was upheld by the State Supreme Court, Crump resigned from office rather than wait to be thrown out. But he plotted on how to get back in control, and how to get rid of prohibition. Although the federal government ended prohibition, Crump eventually gained the political control of Memphis and some argued, the entire state.
Longtime Tennessee companies like Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, and George A. Dickel in Tullahoma had to relocate their production companies out of the state or face criminal charges.
Popular support for prohibition failed, especially after illegal liquor manufacture and distribution was taken over by crime syndicates. By the time Franklin Roosevelt became president, an amendment to repeal the 18th amendment received wide support.
- Photograph showing two lawmen with a captured moonshine still. The two men are shown in suits, posed with their pistols, standing beside the still. The words, “Captured Sept. 30, 19” are written on the still. University of Tennessee.
- Photograph entitled, “Bottles and barrel of confiscated whiskey.” This photo was taken sometime between 1921 and 1932. Library of Congress.
- Photograph showing a liquor raid. This photo was taken on April 25, 1923. It shows policeman and other men seizing liquor while several others watch. Library of Congress.
- Photograph entitled, “Policeman standing alongside wrecked car and cases of moonshine.” This photo was taken on November 16, 1922. Library of Congress.
- Photograph entitled, “Breaking up a still.” This photo was taken in 1920 in Jonesborough, Tennessee. It features a group of men standing around a destroyed still. East Tennessee State University.
- Photograph of Edward Ward Carmack and son, Ned. Carmack is shown sitting on porch steps, while Ned is sitting in his lap. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
- Popup picture is a painting of Governor Ben Wade Hooper. This painting was created by Willie Betty Newman. Tennessee State Museum Collection, 76.52.
Photograph of Duncan Cooper and Family. They are shown seated on the steps of the Riverwood mansion. Riverwood Mansion.
Photograph from the March 13, 1909 edition of Harper’s Weekly newspaper entitled, “The Murder Trial that is Stirring the Nation.” The photo shows a scene during the trials of Col. D. E. Copper, Robin J. Cooper, and John D. Sharp, who were charged with the murder of Edward W. Carmack. Colonel Cooper is shown on the witness stand in the center. Harper’s Weekly.
Confronting the Modern Era >> Life in Tennessee >> Making Life Better >> Prohibition