Verne G., Dorothy L. and the “demon rum”

Posted by Preston G. on October 7, 2011 at 4:14 pm
Oct 072011

I have noted before that both Verne and Dorothy were strongly in favor of Prohibition. Verne saw the contrast between Arizona, which instituted statewide prohibition at the beginning of 1915, coincidentally at the moment when the Garrisons moved to San Simon, and New Mexico, which was only a few miles away and still wet. As expected the N.M. towns were full of saloons and all that went with that.

I have still wondered why Verne was so strongly a “dry.” There is no evidence that anyone in Verne’s immediate family had a problem with alcohol. When Verne had come in from a trip to N.M. very tired and gone to bed his father had all but accused him of coming off a bender, something which caused a temporary rift between father and son. But it is clear from the letters that alcohol never held any attraction for either of them. Verne liked to play poker and smoke cigars, but he gave up both of these activities for Dorothy, and he never gives any sign that he cared to drink at all.

Ken Burn’s PBS show on Prohibition has shed some light on this for me. The temperance movement had been gathering steam on and off since the 1830′s and by the early 20th century had become the major single-issue focus of politics for many people. Baptists and Methodists were most strongly committed publicly to the cause, and the Garrisons were Methodists, but all the major Christian denominations eventually supported Prohibition except the Episcopalians.

It is very likely that the Dallas public schools had required classes on temperance when Verne and Dorothy were in school, as it was very common at the time. And of course the kids were told very exaggerated stories about how little alcohol it could take to wreak a life and family, very much like the lies that were told in the “Reefer Madness” film and anti-drug classes that my generation experienced decades later.

You would think that adults would learn eventually that when you tell kids lies about part of the story, that they will come to assume that the whole story was lies, as many of my generation concluded about drugs, but I guess nothing every really changes. I remember bringing a bottle of wine to some friends that I visited and their 4 year old was terrified of what would happen if the adults had a glass of wine. I noticed the same young man, now grown up and married, bragging on Facebook last week about eating a large meal and drinking 3 Lone Stars with it. Hmm. Maybe this is my fault. :)

It’s interesting how other issues of the time helped Prohibition support reach the status of a majority position. The income tax was started in 1913, which meant that the federal government was no longer dependent on tax money from alcohol. Women’s suffrage was nearing acceptance and the woman’s vote was always critical for Prohibition. Arizona had passed suffrage and that made the passage of statewide Prohibition possible. Texas passed a limited suffrage for women to vote in primary elections. Dorothy worked in the Prohibition campaign and her first vote was in a local election that concerned Prohibition.

In short, in the second decade of the 20th century it seemed that Prohibition was an idea whose time had come. I think it is likely that Verne’s tea-totaling tendencies were probably just the result of the pervasive influence of the temperance movement during his youth combined with what he saw in New Mexico as a young man and the social climate of the day. As in other matters, Verne was a remarkably sensible person. He recognized that there were segments of society like the New Mexico ranchers for whom having a few drinks at a dance was not a sign of moral turpitude – it was just part of their culture. He had a Catholic friend in Dallas, and I would guess that he may have had glimpses of the Catholic social use of alcohol as well.

National Prohibition was passed by Congress in 1918 and ratification by 2/3 of the states was achieved by early 1919 and went into effect a year later, a few weeks after Verne and Dorothy got married. WWI (“the war to end all wars”) was over, the flu epidemic had died down, Britain had declared in favor of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine, and many people thought that Prohibition would bring in a golden age where there was no alcohol and no drunkenness. It must have seemed for a moment that the world was getting better in every way.

Of course the multiple unintended consequences of Prohibition were soon evident – the gang wars, the lost tax revenue and loss of jobs for countless people, the widespread poisoning and blindness with wood alcohol (methanol) and other solvents that got into the illegal supply and the widespread disregard for the law. It wasn’t noticed much that Woodrow Wilson, one of Dorothy’s heroes, had gotten distracted in pursuing his utopian fantasy of the League of Nations and neglected to restrain France and Britain from imposing a punitive treaty on Germany, setting the stage for WWII as a more delayed unintended consequence of the idealism at the end of WWI. And of course a far more malignant form of idealism was starting to play itself out in Russia.

There is a lesson here – if we could just somehow communicate it to young people – utopian idealism always has terrible consequences down the road. Human nature lashes back. The more extreme the idealism the worse the ultimate consequences are.

It will be interesting to see in the later letters if and when Verne’s opinion about Prohibition changed as all this played out.

Preston G.

Retired biochemist. One of 16 grandchildren of Verne Garrison and Dorothy Logan Garrison.

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