Prohibition in Duluth (1916–1933)

Duluth’s “Tenderloin” district in 1905. The indicator “FB” on insurance maps meant “Female Boarding Shanty,” code for bordello. St. Croix Avenue later became South First Avenue East and is Canal Park Drive today. (Image: Zenith City Press)

1900 – 1915: The Movement Picks Up Steam

In the first decade of the 20th-century, women’s suffrage came closer to fruition, and together with it, the trending idea that alcohol was not just an innocent diversion, but also a cause of many of society’s ills. The general idea was that no true woman or right-thinking person could support a business that pressured impoverished men to drink in exchange for a meal, and took them (and their wages) from hearth and home, where they belonged.

This cultural tension came in large part from the middle and upper class, where companionate marriage was coming into vogue. Working class men tended to believe that as long as they took care of their dependents and administered discipline occasionally, they could step out as much as they wanted. A relevant study in New York City in 1913 showed that most working class men routinely spent half their free time away from the home. A popular temperance song called “Come Home Father” by Henry Clay Work illustrated the attitude:

Father, dear Father, come home with me now,
The clock in the steeple strikes one,
You said you were coming right home from the shop
As soon as your day’s work was done.
Our fire has gone out, the house is all dark,
And Mother’s been watching since tea,
With poor brother Benny so sick in her arms,
And no one to help her but me.
Hear the sweet voice of the child,
Which night winds repeat as they roam,
Come home! Come home!
Oh Father, dear Father, come home.

As for the husbands of WCTU activists, they seemed to be victims of cultural schizophrenia. On the one hand, many of them believed that enjoying a cigar and a fine scotch with their fellow club members was a manly—though perhaps naughty—act. It might be classed with things the missus might not need to know about, right along with mistresses and poker games. How they voted was one thing; how they lived was quite another.

Local newspapers shifted their editorial stance on temperance about this time. Before the turn of the century, Duluth News Tribune editors attempted to point out that there was a difference between temperance, abstinence and prohibition. Temperance was required by “both divine laws and the laws of nature,” and abstinence from intoxication was a virtue. However, Prohibition was an intolerant reform movement that could neither be enforced nor proved efficacious.

In 1910 E. O. Perry, the new owner of the Spalding Hotel, spoke out against Minnesota going for Prohibition, saying it was unenforceable and led to criminality. He referred to the experiment in Maine, which had been dry since 1851 and where the term “bootlegger” was invented. He also reflected the opinion of many hotel owners and politicians—both hotels and governments depended upon the revenue of liquor sales.

That same year, August Fitger traveled to the meeting of the United States Brewers’ Association in Washington D.C. Members apparently spent the convention reassuring themselves that a backlash would save them from prohibition. He told the Duluth News Tribune on his return, “The consumption of beer through the country is increasing steadily and it is expected that the United States Treasury will receive over $6,000,000 in revenue from this one source this year.”

Fitger went on to declare that all the “anti-saloon agitation of the past few years” was not accomplishing anything beneficial, despite the claims that half of America lived in Prohibition districts. He relayed the warnings of a delegate from Maine, who told the conventioneers that Bangor—population 2,500—had experienced 2,500 arrests for drunkenness, despite the fact that it had no saloons. “The dealers in those cities handle the poorest kind of liquor,” Fitger said, “and beer is not much in evidence, except in the clubs of the wealthy.”

Prohibitionists wisely attacked the weakest link in the liquor trade: blind pigs. These illegal, unlicensed liquor establishments were found anywhere: a friendly kitchen table where you could buy a snort, a full-scale bar in the neighbor’s basement, even candy stores. Sal DeSanto, great uncle of Duluth District Court Judge John DeSanto, owned a confectionery on South Lake Avenue and ran afoul of the law at least twice: once for running a blind pig, another time for operating an immoral house. (The term “speakeasy” never seemed to take hold in Duluth—the preferred term was always “blind pig.”)

Prohibitionists could count on licensed saloon owners to join in their hatred of blind pigs, and rumors of poisonous, poorly made alcohol fueled the fire.

A Duluth News Tribune editorial dated November 11, 1907, stated:

It is just such unlawful selling of murderous liquors that has caused the recent successful crusade in many states, for county option which means prohibition. It is not the licensed saloon conducted conservatively as a business enterprise that the people rebel against, but the “blind pig” and the low groggery.

Every city has its share of the latter where men are permitted to drink themselves into unconsciousness and a disgusting state of bestiality. It is this abuse of license and the flagrant disregard of both the letter and the spirit of the law against which all respectable citizens revolt until as a last resort they vote for prohibition, not because they believe in it or think it is politically wise, but as a last resort.

By 1914, Minnesota had passed the “local option,” which left townships, villages and cities the power to vote themselves wet or dry. In Duluth, running a blind pig became a misdemeanor, carrying a fine of $50–$100. Indian territories, which included much of the Iron Range, had long been alcohol-free zones. In fact, the Iron Range became the focus of the aggressive efforts of vehement prohibitionist William E. “Pussyfoot” Johnson.

In 1911, Johnson had successfully made Brainerd “Dry” for a month using arguments that liquor trafficking and saloons violated an 1855 treaty with the Chippewa (Ojibwe), which banned the sale of alcohol in what was then considered “Indian Country” but had since become known as the Iron Range. Brainerd—considered part of the Cuyuna Range—voted itself dry April 19, 1915, and the vote was followed by raids on establishments that continued to sell alcohol. In September 1915 his newspaper—the New Republic, a temperance publication produced in Westerville, Ohio—ran a scathing article on Hibbing, Minnesota, calling it the “worst-governed community in America.” Johnson arrived in Duluth on November 30, 1915, the day before Judge Morris declared the 1855 treaty constitutional and ordered saloons in Hibbing and Chisholm shuttered. Subsequent raids led by Johnson that December led to many arrests for alcohol trafficking, and Indian agents photographed the violating establishments and ran a photo essay of the raids in the New Republic.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.