Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Ancestor Was A Prohibition Era Pharmacists, Druggists, or Doctors?

Ancestors Distributing Legal Alcohol?
When speaking of the Prohibition Era, we often overlook our ancestors who legally distributed alcohol-based 
medicine. However buried amongst the Tempest Movement, the bootleggers, and speakeasies, were doctors, pharmacists, druggists, and patent medicine vendors legally distributing alcohol within this dry nation. Although under close tight regulations, they were allowed to distribute elixirs, tonics, bitters, and other herbal and fermented concoctions under the auspices of "medicine.” 

Alcohol was the leading medicine for many diseases to include cholera. The Temperance movement protested the use of alcohol in medicines. To be fair, most of these patent medicine elixirs were grossly laced with alcohol; using high percentages of its content (up to 40%).

In Ep:05 of Hittin’ the Bricks with Kathleen caller Karen Fuller’s brickwall was complicated by the occupation of “Dr. Fuller,” a patent medicine vendor. In truth, these elixirs weren’t patented at all – just vegetable extracts laced with “ample’ doses of alcohol. 

But for genealogists and family researchers the papertrail leads us to the possible legal aspects of the profession which produced federal and state registrations, permits, and licenses  And, as the illegal bootleggers were reaping an impressive financial gain, the occupation of patent medicine vendor, druggist, or pharmacists, or self- identified “Doctor,” often included prison, court cases, and corruption activity reviews. So many resources to tracing our ancestors!

Listen here: Music

Legal or Bootleggers
Remember hearing the song Save A Little Dram for Me?  Well, The Volstead Act, aka National Prohibition Act, also allowed clergymen to use wine for sacramental services. Be sure to review the lyrics and catchy tune Save a Little Dram For Me.  Farmers, too, could possess up to 200 gallons of preserved fruit which fermented was a solid base for alcohol.

Financial Gain
A law this big did require Prohibition Commissioner. Perhaps your ancestor worked on the reporting end of the Volstead Act. During the prohibition, in 1920’s alone, physicians wrote approximately 11 million prescriptions annually. One Prohibition Commissioner, John F. Kramer, reportedly cited a doctor who wrote 475 prescriptions for whiskey in one day. Kramer was one of 1500 prohibition agents.

Not only was prohibition profitable for physicians, but our neighborhood Walgreen’s founder, Charles R. Walgreen, expanded from 20 stores to 525 during the 1920’s. Although Walgreen attributed their expansion to the introduction of milkshakes, they became a pharmaceutical empire.

There was one way to obtain alcoholic beverages legally during the prohibition years: through a physician's prescription, purchasing the liquor from a pharmacy. Physicians could prescribe distilled spirits--usually whiskey or brandy--on government prescription forms. 

In the United States from 1920 to 1933, a nationwide constitutional law prohibited the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition ended with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment on December 5, 1933.

Denatured Alcohol
In college (even in the 1970’s), I was warned not to drink out of the sinks because kool-aid and grain alcohol could kill. Or make one go blind, as it did with the cousin of our cousin Pete Tumbleson. Growing up the name of the cousin of cousin Pete was etched in my head. Visit the Mob Museum for a full story denatured and unregulated alcohol formulas.

As mentioned, the National Prohibition Act required licenses, registrations, and approvals. This allowed for legal write up of prescriptions and scripts for medicinal booze. In other words, a way for a family historian to trace and learn more of their law abiding ancestors. Our law-abiding ancestors applied for licenses that gave them the right to issue scripts for medicinal booze.

Records for both the legal distributors of alcohol and the bootleggers, should be retrieved. In addition to uncovering newspaper searches, local court records and dockets, and local /state prison records, the following should be reviewed:

3 Resources to Begin Researching Your Legal / Not-So Legal Prohibition Era Ancestor    

  1. NARA Records of the Bureau of Prohibition, NARA - Seattle, WA
    Responsible for tracking bootleggers and organized crime leaders
  2. State Records: Prohibition Commission, ie. Records of the Virginia Prohibition Commission, 1916-1934
  3. NARA: US Penitentiary (i.e.Ft. Leavenworth), Prohibition Act

Additional Resources

Kathleen Brandt
Be Historically Correct
Accurate Accessible Answers

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