Vol. 32, No. 1
"Last Night Was the End of the World:" Prohibition in Colorado
by Tom I. Romero, II
This historical perspective was written by Tom I. Romero, II, Western Legal Studies Fellow, University of Colorado-Boulder: firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Year’s Eve, 1915, marked the end of an era in Colorado. At midnight 1916, Colorado became one of the first states in the nation to go dry [Chap. 98, Sess. Laws of 1915, amended in 1916 under Chap. 82, Sess. Laws of 1917, and by the so-called "Bone Dry Act," Chap. 141, Sess. Laws of 1919, initiated and passed by Colorado citizens in November 1918]. Mourning not only the ready availability of fine spirits, but the closing of the Western saloon as a central community institution, patrons of Denver’s Heidelberg Café sang "Last Night Was the End of the World," as the barkeepers tapped their last glasses on December 31, 1915.
The two-decade-long struggle to prohibit the sale of alcohol ended what many perceived to be the central force driving lawlessness and lewdness in Colorado. As a major component in Colorado's civic life, alcohol and its prohibition encapsulated notions of "American idealism, progressive hopes for a better society, and widespread prejudice against the sorts of people" that did not quite fit a casual definition of a Coloradan or American citizen [Thomas J. Noel, The City and the Saloon: Denver, 1858-1916 (Niwot, CO: Univ. Press of Colorado, 1996) at 111].
The legal effort to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol began almost as soon as Colorado became a state. For example, early farming and ranching towns enacted ordinances mandating that real estate titles and deeds needed to carry a provision that property would revert to its former owner if liquor were sold on the premises. The political movement to ban alcohol statewide received a major boost in 1893 when Colorado became the second state in the United States to grant women suffrage. With their enhanced political clout, members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union ("WCTU") pushed for laws they believed would not only end drunkenness, but also vice, crime, and other social ills.
The cause of the WCTU also was bolstered by a fear of immigration. Articulated most clearly by the Anti-Saloon League, many Prohibitionists associated alcohol and social disorder with anyone who "looked, spoke, or acted foreign," despite the fact that most of Colorado’s pre-Prohibition saloonkeepers were long-term English-speaking residents or that many citizens were frequent patrons. One historian stated: "Xenophobic fears that led Coloradoans to join the American Protective Association in the 1890s and the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s in record numbers also led them to vote Colorado dry in 1914." [Noel, id.]
The Colorado Bar played an active role in the passage, regulation, and end of Prohibition. Most prominent was Judge Benjamin Lindsey who publicly linked juvenile delinquency with alcoholic consumption. Nevertheless, to Lindsey and many others, Prohibition quickly proved to be a failed experiment. Rather than end lawlessness, Prohibition spawned creative circumvention of the law, bootlegging, gang warfare, and class tension. In testimony before Denver’s grand jury in the 1920s, Judge Lindsey lamented how the rich openly disregarded the law while poor men and women down on their luck went to jail for minor alcohol violations. Others, like District Attorney Phillip S. Van Cise, recognized early on that the law could not be effectively enforced. As a result of such disillusion, Colorado voters suspended the state’s Prohibition laws on July 1, 1933, several months before the U.S. Congress repealed the Eighteenth Amendment in December 1933.
The socio-legal history of the prohibition of alcohol in the early decades of the twentieth century symbolized the deep fissures that shaped law, order, and moral politics in Colorado. While moral crusaders used legal institutions to challenge what they perceived to be vice and immorality, others used legal loopholes and extra-legal authority to protect what they believed to be fundamental rights. Prohibition was the first, but certainly not the last, sustained legal and political conflict over lifestyle in the Mile High State. For Colorado’s socially diverse and politically engaged citizenry, Prohibition was not the end of the world, but, instead, resulted in early twentieth century tensions over hotly contested definitions of liberty and freedom.
An early Colorado Prohibition case to reach the Colorado Supreme Court involved the Denver Athletic Club, the Denver Club, and the University Club. In People v. Denver Athletic Club, 164 P. 1158 (Colo. 1917), the Court declared that separate 1914 charges against each club for selling intoxicating liquors was moot as a result of the passage of Colorado's Prohibition laws. The social, political, cultural, and legal history of prohibition, as well as the centrality of the early western tavern in Denver and Colorado, is recounted in Thomas J. Noel, The City and the Saloon: Denver, 1858-1916 (Niwot, CO: Univ. Press of Colorado, 1996) and William Elliot West, Dry Crusade: The Prohibition Movement in Colorado, 1858-1933 (Ph.D. Diss., University of Colorado, 1971). The role of the Colorado Bar in supporting, enforcing, and ultimately challenging Prohibition is told by Phillip S. Van Cise in his autobiographical, Fighting the Underworld (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1936). In addition, Judge Benjamin Lindsey’s evolving understanding of alcohol, delinquency, and crime can be studied in his personal papers housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The early story of Colorado women in affecting legal change, including Prohibition, is detailed in Carolyn J. Stefanco, Pathways to Power: Women and Voluntary Associations in Denver, Colorado, 1876-1893 (Ph.D. Diss., Duke University, 1987). An unfiltered account of the Colorado chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s Prohibition efforts can be found in their newsletter, housed at the Stephen H. Hart Library at the Colorado Historical Society.
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