Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal is a thoroughly-researched young adult book that delves into the history and outcomes of Prohibition, the first constitutional amendment to be repealed by another constitutional amendment in the United States.
After starting with an account of the alarming events of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre when Al Capone’s men (who were heavily involved in the manufacture and distribution of illegal alcohol) killed members of a rival gang in a particularly bloody way, Blumenthal asks a simple but important question about Prohibition,”How had such good intentions gone so terribly, terribly wrong?”
To answer the question, she goes back to the early history of the colonies. Did you know that the Pilgrims brought alcoholic beverages with them on the Mayflower? In those days before sanitation, it was presumably safer to drink alcoholic beverages than straight water. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that people began to seriously question whether it was healthy to drink large quantities of alcohol. Temperance groups sprung up and by the end of the century they had incorporated strong anti-drinking messages in textbooks and other materials used in schools (mostly propaganda). Morris Sheppard, the Congressman who was later to become the so-called “Father of Prohibition,” attributed his distaste for alcohol to his early exposure to those materials in his sixth grade science class. Eventually Prohibition was passed, which led its supporters to hope for a better, alcohol-free America.
As we now know, it had the opposite effect. Instead of lowering crime rates, Prohibition made regular citizens into lawbreakers and criminals into harsher, richer criminals. After it was repealed, lawmakers used Prohibition as a cautionary tale against writing national laws that are neither enforceable nor accepted by large portions of the population.
The storytelling is compelling, although it did bog down a bit towards the end. For example, the author suddenly introduces Al Capone’s brother, Richard Hart, who turned out to be a lawman who arrested bootleggers and shut down stills. The contrast between the brothers is a startling one, but Richard Hart is only mentioned for two short paragraphs and then he disappears. I think the contrast epitomized how families were torn apart by Prohibition, yet the storyline was not developed.
Another point that was introduced but not followed up was how our government relied on taxes on alcohol as an important source of revenue. Blumenthal mentions that the first tax imposed on American-made goods was on hard liquor in 1791. She doesn’t mention, however, the likelihood that the re-imposing of the national income tax in 1913 freed the government from having to rely on alcohol taxes, thus paving the way for Prohibition.
Those points do not detract from an otherwise well-written book. Like Sugar Changed the World, it is interesting to see how our human cravings for a product can change our behavior and ultimately our history. It was also intriguing to see how the emerging role of women in politics and women’s suffrage were intertwined with the story of Prohibition.
Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition would be great reading for an American history or women’s studies course, or for anyone interested in American culture. This book was nominated for a Cybils award in the MG/YA nonfiction category.
Reading level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 160 pages
Publisher: Flash Point (May 24, 2011)