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Did a shootout in Nashville between two newspaper men bring on the first statewide prohibition law?

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Whiskey loves its firsts. From the first person to char a barrel for aging, to the first mention of whisky in the exchequer rolls, there seems an obsession with finding out where things started. And they are usually positive subjects.

But what about something like Prohibition? Which was the first state to go dry? That question raised its head when I heard about a famous shootout that led one state to jump to prohibition a full eleven years before the Volstead Act. Were they the first?

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.

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Whiskey loves its firsts. Whether it be the first mention of whisky in the exchequer rolls, the first person to char an oak barrel for aging, or the first distillery to occupy a particular state or country, being first can be a real badge of honor. 

But firsts are normally reserved for the better and more glorious sides of whisky. But what about something like Prohibition? Which was the first state to strike a blow for teetotallers everywhere, by being the first to enact statewide Prohibition?

This question came up recently while I was traveling through Tennessee. Multiple distilleries I visited, including Nelson's Green Brier, Jack Daniel, and Chattanooga Whiskey told stories of how their distilleries were affected by Tennessee's early march into Prohibition in 1909, eleven years before the country fell under the Volstead Act. Was Tennessee the first to enact statewide prohibition? And if not, which state did and when did they do it? 

An Internet search showed multiple states claiming to be the first in Prohibition with some trusted sources backing up each of the state’s claims. And jumbled in with that confusion were some pretty interesting stories surrounding a few of these prohibition laws - from a rum riot, to striped pigs, to a squabble between two newspapermen that led to shots fired and created a martyr for the teetotallers and the cause of prohibition.  

So which state really was the first to enact prohibition and how did they get there? It’s time to investigate. 

EARLY TEMPERANCE MOVEMENT

The first known attempt at prohibition came long before the formation of the United States. That dubious honor fell upon Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop in 1630. Envisioning a glorious “city on the hill” in Boston, he sought to pass restrictions on the access to and consumption of alcohol. The attempt failed. 

Through the 17th and 18th Centuries, the colonists would occasionally be asked to temper their alcohol use, but there was no real attempt at legislation for the general public. There were prominent voices like Dr. Benjamin Rush who spoke out strongly against the stronger spirits which he labeled as dangerous, but he was more about promoting moderation, rather than lobbying for all out abstinence.

No, the biggest concern in those days wasn’t around the colonists and their drinking habits, but instead a concern over the unscrupulous tactic of using alcohol as a weapon against the Indian nations. 

Colonial traders were finding they could get the upper hand in trade negotiations, if their counterparts were under the influence of strong drink. This led the Pennsylvania Assembly to pass a prohibition on rum sales to the Indians at the turn of the 18th century. But this deplorable tactic continued into the 19th Century so the United States Congress stepped in to stop the practice. But their legislation was weak, providing inadequate penalties, so the practice continued for several more decades. Finally in 1834, an exasperated congress passed an all out prohibition on alcohol production, sale, or trade within any Indian Territory, levying a $500 fine for any violations.

MASSACHUSETTS SOCIETY FOR THE SUPPRESSION OF INTEMPERANCE

In the first two decades of the 19th century, several changes were occurring in society that would be a catalyst for the rise in both alcohol abuse and the need for temperance. 

The Industrial Revolution brought more people into crowded cities and towns. Spirits like rum and whiskey were becoming more accessible as production increased and access to transportation improved. And more and more men were losing their weekly wages on alcohol served at the local public house. 

And the more alcohol became accessible, the more temperance societies started popping up across the landscape.

One of the first temperance organizations was the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance. Formed in 1813, its mission was to curb alcohol abuse and promote temperance. Attracting men of high standing the group quickly grew to 40 chapters of 100 men each - achieving those numbers in just five years. They published a newspaper devoted to the subject of temperance and they looked for ways to convince the public of the virtues of curtailing alcohol consumption - especially the more powerful spirits like rum and whisky. 

But as the 1830s began, there was a growing frustration among temperance societies that their work wasn’t having the desired effect. And soon organizations like the Massachusetts Society began changing their mission and the culture they were promoting.

The word went out that abstinence was the only solution and that all members must swear off of harder spirits. They knew convincing the public not to drink beer or wine would be too difficult. But it wouldn’t be long before all alcohol entered the crosshairs.

The first success for the temperance movement occurred in nearby Maine, who in 1833 enacted the first Local Option law. This legislation was meant to allow certain towns and communities autonomy in writing their own local prohibitions on alcohol. This is where the terms "wet" and "dry" began to take hold. When several Maine jurisdictions chose to go “dry” other states began to take notice.

The war on alcohol was about to enter a new phase. It was 1838, and the Massachusetts legislature, under pressure from the Boston Temperance Society, passed a highly controversial bill that ignited a firestorm that would scorch the political landscape over the next two years. 

Signed into law by Governor Edward Everett, the Fifteen Gallon Law put a fifteen gallon minimum on the amount of alcohol you could purchase at one time. While not an all out prohibition, its basic target would be the spirits drinkers that frequented the local tavern. It wouldn’t take long for opponents to figure out that the law singled out the working class and immigrants in the state. Meanwhile, the well to do would have no worries, as they could easily afford to store large quantities of liquor. It also took aim at many of the small tavern owners.

But the owners weren’t going to take it lying down. They would find any way they could to openly flout the law. They would allow a pub full of people to pool their money to purchase 15 gallons of alcohol and they would share it between them. Or they would buy 16 gallons and then sell 15 gallons back. But the most humorous and ingenious method was the striped pig strategy.

Basically, a tent would be set up and visitors would be encouraged to lay down their money to see the wonders of the striped pig. Once the money was passed into the hands of the vendor, the tent flap would open and a pig painted with stripes would be seen. Then miraculously a free supply of rum would be given as a gift. No alcohol was sold, so no law was broken. Near riots would break out when law enforcement would try to break up these events, but it wouldn’t be long before a new scheme was concocted. 

The law was so unpopular that during the next gubernatorial election, many of Everett’s supporters jumped ship and supported his opponent. With his defeat on election day, the Fifteen Gallon Law had claimed its most deserving victim and to the delight of the tavern owners and working men, the law was put aside.

RUM RIOTS

The Northeast seemed to be the hotbed of legislative activity during the mid to late 1840s. Massachusetts had passed the local option and dry laws had been passed in over 100 towns. It didn’t take long for New York State to follow suit. But Maine seemed to be emerging as the leader of the pack.

In 1846, they passed a statewide prohibition outlawing the sale of all alcoholic beverages with the exception of those needed for industrial or medicinal use.

But by 1851, tougher standards were put in place and the man who at that time was known as the "Father of Prohibition" Governor John Hubbard signed what would become known as the Maine Law. The official name of the law was ‘An Act for the Suppression of Drinking Houses and Tippling-Shops.’ (Tippling shops being akin to a saloon). But the law actually went far beyond banning sales of alcohol in these establishments. Instead it prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol - again with the exception for industrial and medicinal use.

But Governor Hubbard was not the driving force behind the law. Instead it was the mayor of Portland, ME Neal Dow. Dow was born to a Quaker family in Portland and grew up with the opinion that many of society's problems could be traced to alcohol consumption. Unlike others who had created laws and then sat back while they were lightly enforced, Mayor Dow ratcheted up the heat and made it his mission to enforce the law. He confiscated any liquor that was found and he forced the higher end drinking establishments out of business. And the smaller working man saloons would go underground to avoid the watchful eye of the Mayor - a precursor to the speakeasies of the 1920s. 

Dow became famous among teetotalers nationwide as the "Napoleon of Temperance." But he became very unpopular at home and lost the next mayoral election. So he took his act on the road, promoting the Maine Law to anyone that listened. By 1855, thirteen states had enacted their own form of statewide prohibition, and primed for a return to power, Dow ran for and won back his seat as mayor of Portland in 1855. But he almost immediately regretted his decision.

Dow had set up a committee to dispense alcohol for medicinal and industrial use and decided to store the spirits at City Hall. But he neglected to assign an official agent to it, so with it being in his name, he was in violation of his own prohibition statutes. A warrant was issued and the police seized the alcohol, but Dow was not arrested. This incited a crowd of angry anti-prohibitionists, who gathered at City Hall calling for "Neal Dow's liquor" and accusing him of hypocrisy. Most were Irish immigrants who felt the prohibition laws were discriminatory against them specifically. 

Dow had the state militia called in and the sheriff read the Riot Act to the crowd. Soon the crowd of over 1000 people started getting physical. 

Frustrated with the civil disobedience, Dow ordered the militia to fire on the protesters. One man John Robbins was killed, shot in the back.

Known as the Portland Rum Riots, the event was a stain on Dow's name and he never again held the prominence he once did. Maine would soon abolish the Maine Law, although they would find their way to a constitutional amendment banning alcohol in 1885.

Maine has long regarded itself as first to prohibition with its very influential Maine Law and it was definitely the most restrictive statewide law to date. But if we split hairs we could suggest Massachusetts’ 15-Gallon Law beat Maine to the punch a few years earlier. But if we consider any kind of statewide prohibition of alcohol to count, there is another state that beat Massachusetts to prohibition by a couple of months..

TENNESSEE & PROHIBITION. 

On January 17th, 1920, a headline in the Nashville Tennessean proclaimed "Burlesque Funeral Over John Barleycorn to Be Held." The article went on to mention that on Friday at 12:30, funeral services were to take place over the dead body of one John Barleycorn. John Barleycorn was the nickname given to those spirituous beverages made from corn and barley. And Nashville wasn’t alone in mourning this great loss, services were being held across the nation proclaiming the end of the sales of beer, wine, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages. It was the start of National Prohibition.  

The placement in the Tennessean, somehow seemed appropriate, as eleven years earlier, this “dry” newspaper saw its editor meet his own end in a shootout over this same John Barleycorn. It’s a tale of friends turned rivals, that punctuated the level of passion the subject of alcohol had raised.

But before we learn more about that gunfight, let’s learn a little more about Tennessee’s fight with Mr. Barleycorn and the players who turned the state capitol into the O.K. Coral.

Two years before the first local options laws in Maine, Tennessee had been seeking a way to curb the influence of the taverns and public houses in the state. 

The initial solution came in 1831 when they forced tippling houses to acquire licenses to sell alcohol. But as temperance societies increased and alcohol abuse continued, the legislature went to work on a new, more restrictive law.  This brought about what was known as the Quart Law, and it took direct aim at liquor by the drink establishments. So, on January 26, 1838, a couple months before Massachusettes infamous 15-Gallon Law, Tennessee became the first to pass a statewide prohibition on alcohol - albeit, just limiting the quantity. But law enforcement had no interest in enforcing it, and the law would be repealed a few years later.  

The Volunteer State’s next bout with prohibition would be during the Civil War. When Nashville sided with the rebel cause, a grain shortage in the south caused the Confederacy to enact its own prohibition. Oh liquor could be had, but whereas it was 25 cents a gallon before the war, black market whiskey was going for $35 a gallon. This, along with high taxes on spirits after the war led many to distill their own whisky illegally, by the light of the moon. 

Still, distillery owners like Charles Nelson, Dan Call and Jack Daniel took the straight road, successfully established and even grew their distilleries during this difficult decade.

Across the country, states like Kansas in 1880 and Maine in 1885 begin to fall, when they add prohibition to their state constitutions. It is around this time that the Tennessee Temperance Alliance was organized with the goal of adding Tennessee to that list of states banning alcohol through their constitution. There was a groundswell of support for prohibition in the rural counties, but the cities had just enough leverage to shoot down the proposed amendment in 1887.

The prohibitionists then decided to use a different strategy. If they couldn't get the state to give up alcohol as a whole, they would use the local option and campaign county-by-county. They also crafted a Four Mile Law that restricted the building of saloons within four miles of rural county school. This law expanded multiple times over the next several decades.

Tensions between the wets and the dry's was reaching an apex by the turn of the 20th Century and not only did politicians take sides, but so did newspapers. Everything was being labeled wet and dry. And the state was splitting into factions, the cities against rural Tennessee. By 1907 every rural county in the state had banned alcohol. However, Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and the small town of LaFollette continued to serve.  

Into this hotbed of activity came two newspaper men - Duncan Brown Cooper, the editor of the Nashville American and Edward Carmack who was the editor of the Nashville Tennessean.

After you hear this story, it will be hard for you to believe that these soon to be adversaries were once good friends. The friendship developed when Carmack's paper the Nashville Democrat merged with Cooper's Nashville American in the 1890s. Carmack served as editor-in-chief of the American until he left to take a job at the Memphis Appeal. 

Cooper would head into politics and win election to the state senate, while Carmack would enter a world of racial tension, and his paper’s famous war of words with civil rights pioneer, Ida B. Wells - the co-owner of the newspaper Free Speech - would lead to an angry mob burning down her newspaper offices - luckily without her being inside. 

These actions would have consequences for his legacy far into the future. 

Carmack decided it was time to follow his old friend into politics and he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1896, serving two terms, before being elected to the U.S. Senate by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1901. 

But Carmack would end up only serving one term in the senate, defeated by former governor Robert Love Taylor. And with the governor's slot opening up in the fall, he sought the Democratic nomination for governor, pitting himself as a "dry" candidate against the incumbent Malcolm Patterson, who was the "wet" candidate. 

Carmack used every ounce of venom he could find, turning the race both personal and nasty. Patterson eked out the win and would go on to win the governorship. Carmack would return to his job as editor, this time with the new upstart “dry” newspaper, Nashville Tennessean. 

While the loss of the primary was frustrating to Carmack, what really set him off was the assistance Patterson's campaign received from his old friend Duncan Cooper, who was still running, the “wet” newspaper Nashville American.

With the Tennessean editorial pages at his disposal, Carmack started lobbing venomous attacks against Cooper and Gov. Patterson. Cooper had finally had enough and apparently reached out to Carmack, threatening that if he didn't stop his attacks Cooper would retaliate.

The details of what brought on the altercation, on November 9th, 1908 are sketchy at best. One of the nieces of Governor Patterson suggested that Duncan Cooper and his son Robin came by that morning to let the governor know they were looking for Carmack and they were going to kill him. In that account, the governor's wife had to restrain him from following the Coopers. 

Another account has it as a chance meeting at the corner of 7th and Union, one block from the state capitol. In this version, the Coopers are walking downtown, when Carmack, seeing his adversary - and remembering Cooper’s threats, pulls a gun and shoots at Cooper to keep from being killed himself.

What is apparent is that it was Carmack that shot first. One of the bullets hit Cooper's son Robin, who fell but returned fire, killing Carmack where he stood.

This street battle of the "wets" and "drys" was enough to throw the state Legislature into a frenzy and within eight months, the restrictive Four Mile Law was passed statewide and the production of alcohol in Tennessee was made illegal. Both bills were vetoed by Governor Patterson, but both vetoes were overturned.

Yet, Tennessee was not completely dry. Citizens could still buy alcohol that was bottled out of state and it was not illegal to consume it. And law enforcement was completely lax. Mayors like Memphis' Edward "Boss" Crump not only ignored prohibition, he tried to find ways to make alcohol legal despite the law. But the state legislature retailiated and passed the "Ouster Law" in 1915, which gave the power to the state to remove any official who did not enforce state laws.

As for Duncan and Robin Cooper, they were forced to face a jury under the charge of second-degree murder. They were both found guilty and sentenced to twenty years in prison. However, Duncan's assistance in the governor's race likely secured him a pardon in the event - saving him from a jail cell. Robin requested and was granted a second trial, but the prosecutor dropped the case and he was set free. And while Cooper went back to a somewhat normal life, the pardon ended up dooming the governorship of Patterson who lost handily in the next election.

But what of the legacy of the vindictive newspaper man, former Senator Edward Carmack. Well initially he was seen as a martyr for the cause of temperance. The shootout near the capitol steps grew in stature to mythical proportions. The legislature immediately commissioned a statue in his honor, to be placed on the grounds of the state capitol. The statue was completed and moved to the capitol in 1927 during the height of prohibition.

But his stinging commentary and veiled threats against civil rights icon Ida B. Woods finally came back to haunt him, when on May 30th, 2020, his statue at the state house was toppled by George Floyd protesters. 

As for John Barleycorn, he would rise again. In fact, during the first few years of Tennessee's Prohibition laws, alcohol consumption actually increased in the state. But National Prohibition stifled that practice and brought back the art of distilling illegal moonshine.

And then, when most of the rest of the country clawed its way out of Prohibition in 1933, Tennessee held as long as it could. Finally repealing the law in 1937. As for the distillers, they didn't have as much luck. Lem Motlow, the nephew of Jack Daniel, finally had to run for the state house and then state senate before he could get the county rules loosened up so he could reopen the Jack Daniel distillery. And Jack would remain the only distillery in the state of Tennessee until Schenley Distilling Company of New York had neighboring Coffee County opened up to distilling, bringing George Dickel back to the market in 1964. It wouldn’t be until 2010 that the laws loosened enough to have more than 3 distilleries in the state. There are now around 35 currently on Tennessee Whiskey Trail.

Before the passage of the 18th Amendment, old John Barleycorn had quite a tussle with teetotalers and the law. And while Maine had the first of the aggressive prohibition laws, Tennessee did its fair share to satisfy teetotalers. Being first in Prohibition is probably not something many states really would like to boast. Its failures are highly evident. From turning average everyday citizens into common criminals, to causing firey displays in the streets of Nashville. But as much as we feel a desire to seek out the best firsts in whiskey, it’s likely the worst firsts will teach us more about ourselves and our natures, and how to make sure we don’t fall into those same mistakes in the future. Long live John Barleycorn.

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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I hope you enjoyed todays episode and thanks to Nelson Eddy and Lucas Hendrickson of Jack Daniel’s Around the Barrel podcast for turning me on to the story of the shootout in Nashville. Look for an x20min episode featuring Jack Daniel’s chief historian Nelson Eddy coming up next weekend. I’ll be back in two weeks with another fresh story, so make sure you’re subscribed to Whiskey Lore on your favorite podcast app.

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