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Ken Burns' 'Prohibition' Recalls A Law So Strict It Was (Tee)totally Doomed

Agents pour out alcohol into the gutter during a raid. Ken Burns' Prohibition airs beginning Sunday night on PBS. (New York Daily News)

"We were awash in alcohol in the 19th century," says documentarian Ken Burns in a discussion with Audie Cornish on Weekend Edition Sunday. Burns' Prohibition, beginning Sunday night on PBS, serves as the follow-up to his past series on topics as diverse as the Civil War, Jazz, the National Park system, and baseball.

The early installments of Prohibition paint the America that got itself into Prohibition as a nation that indeed had a massive drinking habit — several times as much alcohol as we consume now. That habit, Burns says, led to a temperance movement initially intended to encourage people to drink less, not nothing. But its goals gradually became more and more extreme until the law that ultimately passed to enforce Prohibition was far stricter than many had intended — so strict that it could not stand.

At the same time, the history of Prohibition is a history of exceptions and the observation of a law in the breach. Religious congregations that were permitted to serve sacramental alcohol saw their numbers swell; physicians prescribed booze for medicinal purposes.

Perhaps most notably, Burns says the fallout from a law doomed to be ignored included the birth of modern organized crime. There was so much money to be made from the inevitability of illegal drinking that it attracted far more sophisticated criminal enterprises than were created — or really needed — before. Organized crime was, he says, "the great unintended consequence."

Anyone who doubts the openness with which Prohibition was defied by the population meant to be ruled by it need only consider what is clearly Burns' favorite piece of trivia from the time: At one point, what was supposed to be a dry nation had become the number one importer of cocktail shakers.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

Bootleggers, scofflaws, teetotalers - all kinds of vocabulary from the Prohibition era lives on today, as does the fascination with that period in American history. From HBO's drama "Boardwalk Empire" to the speakeasy-style bars that have popped up around the country with early 20th century alcohols and mixers. Some go as far as to adopt the secret passwords and rituals of that era.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAGTIME MUSIC)

CORNISH: Now a new series by the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns tells the full story of the rise and fall of the 18th Amendment and the culture it spawned. It begins on PBS tonight and Ken Burns is in our New York studio to talk more about it.

Ken Burns, welcome to the program.

KEN BURNS: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: At the beginning of the documentary, you set the stage with a voice-over reading from a gentleman named Captain Frederick Marryat and his views on the American people's drinking habits in the 19th century. Let's have a listen:

JEREMY IRONS: (as Captain Frederick Marryat) They say the British cannot fix anything properly without a dinner, but I'm sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink. If you meet, you drink. If you make acquaintance, you drink. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice. If not, they drink and swear. They commence it early in life and they continue it until they soon drop into the grave.

CORNISH: Ken Burns, who was Captain Frederick Marryat and why was his general perception...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...sound so close to what I might think about modern day America?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BURNS: Yeah, he was an astute British observer of our times. We were awash in alcohol in the 19th century. Our first of three episodes is called "A Nation of Drunkards." That's what we feared we were becoming, drinking five, six seven times the amount of alcohol that we consume today; towns littered with inebriates; asylums filling up with drunkards. And very understandably, a temperance movement was begun initially to drink less - a very understandable thing.

CORNISH: You actually - in the movie, there's a description of a women's movement in which women go out and pray outside of saloons.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS OF FIRE ENGINES AND A MOB)

PETER COYOTE: (Reading) In Cincinnati, fire companies sprayed the praying women with freezing water. Bartenders pretended to welcome them inside, drenched them with buckets of beer, then drove them back out into the snow.

BURNS: Yes, in Ohio in the 1870s, Eliza Jane Thompson leads a congregation of women outside of her church. And they close down some apothecaries - which were selling alcohol for, quote, "medicinal purposes," and saloons and taverns. And it's a movement that takes off. It's the women's crusade and it's one of these wonderful things where they're finding themselves, and they can't - no longer as, one person comments, goes back to, you know, a sewing and keeping house. They've turned themselves into activists.

BLYTHE DANNER: (Reading) They can hardly ever again persuade themselves or others that they are content to let the men attend to the politics of the country, while they played Pretty Polly or Bridget.

CORNISH: What are the things that surprised you about the rise of the Prohibition Movement?

BURNS: Well, I think there's almost everything that surprised us as we were getting into it, from the minute details to the larger issues that resonate today - the anti-immigrant aspect of it; the notion that America was changing and a group of people in the country felt they were losing control of their country and wanted to take it back. They would employ tactics that seem so utterly modern in the execution of their objectives.

All of that just resonated with us and it was - it went beyond the Flapper in her short dress and bobbed hair, dancing drunk on a speakeasy table, or the Model T careening around rain-slicked Chicago streets, Tommy guns blasting. We have that, but it seemed much more interesting in how this came about and how it was initially applied once the Prohibition amendment went into effect. And, of course, then how the house of cards came crashing down.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ PIANO AND A CAREENING CAR)

COYOTE: (Reading) Just a few minutes after Prohibition went into effect, six masked bandits with pistols emptied two freight cars full of whiskey. Another gang stole four casks of grain alcohol from a government-bonded warehouse. And still another hijacked a truck loaded with bourbon.

CORNISH: Alcohol at the time was sometimes prescribed for various ailments...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...by your doctor.

BURNS: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: And...

BURNS: That was one of the loopholes...

CORNISH: That was one of the loopholes; a great many people went to get their prescriptions filled.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Also, I remember one part of the film talked about houses of worship also had a loophole.

BURNS: Well, one of the exceptions was of course the sacramental uses. And so you find congregations in Jewish communities growing ten-fold and suddenly having rabbis named O'Shannahan and Kelly, and all of this stuff as people were seeking desperately to find access to alcohol.

I mean, human beings have been drinking alcohol for as long as there have been human beings. And all of a sudden we have this law that said you can't do what you've done just as a matter of course, in your daily life. You can't do what is a part of the rituals of your culture or of your faith.

And it began to crumble almost immediately by the unenforceability of it, by how unequally the law was applied, and by the monumental hypocrisy in its application, and in some of the people who publically supported it and privately continued to drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "STOMPING AT THE SAVOY")

CORNISH: Another interesting aspect of this is that by the time the Prohibition era is coming to its end, a nation - that is effectively supposed to be dry - is now the largest importers of cocktail shakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: And that it essentially invigorated the culture it was trying to end.

BURNS: Yeah, that's exactly right. And the violation of the law became attractive, sort of sexy - something one did. The speakeasy culture was glamorized in songbooks from Tin Pan Alley, and in newspapers and magazines, and in the movies and on the radio. And it was popular. It seems so crazy now in retrospect to think of something that was illegal being so sort of commonly celebrated in popular culture, but it was.

I love that statistic -the largest importers of cocktail shakers. It just shows you the inherent impossibility of really applying this law.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "STOMPING AT THE SAVOY" AND A COCKTAIL SHAKER)

CORNISH: Ken Burns, thank you so much.

BURNS: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "STOMPING AT THE SAVOY")

CORNISH: Ken Burns, he along with co-director Lynn Novick, produced the documentary "Prohibition." The series begins tonight on PBS.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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