Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center
Morris County residents enjoyed a good drink from the days when George Washington and Alexander Hamilton lived in Morristown, to elaborate Gilded Age Morris Township parties, and of course those who now frequent the county’s many restaurants, bars, and clubs. But by the early 1900s, a chorus of religious and political movements resulted in passage of one of the nation’s most divisive federal laws: the 18th Amendment, or Prohibition.
Temperance supporters cited the loss of productivity and household income from men who headed straight for the tavern upon clocking out rather than taking care of their families at home. These crusaders also noted that children brought into taverns by neglectful parents were often exposed to a multitude of other vices, including gambling, prostitution, and drug use, in addition to being subjected to adult predators.
Passing a constitutional amendment requires building support across a wide swath of voters who often held differing political philosophies; in addition to pietistic Protestants supporters of the Volstead Act, Temperance supporters, and Progressive medical professionals, other groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, supported Prohibition because they despised the proliferation of immigration from non-Anglo Saxon Christian nations whose ethnic and social activities involved the consumption of alcohol, particularly Catholic Germans, and those from Southern and Eastern European countries.
Opponents of the Temperance Movement pointed out that the law imposed the moralistic rules of a vocal group upon all of society, and that it’s enforcement turned otherwise law abiding citizens into criminals overnight. Moreover, outlawing the sale of alcohol fueled the spread of organized crime that arose to manage illicit manufacturing and distribution operations, which made a mockery of the rule of law.
With legal sales outlawed, but no additional funding to support local enforcement, organized crime spread throughout the country; crime bosses coordinated the work of distilleries and breweries, storage warehouses, transportation networks, and of course the speakeasies, restaurants, and gambling houses where alcohol was served. Morristown was no exception to this illicit booze, although some politicians, businesses, and police officers handled the issue differently.
Morristown resident, Cora Welsh, spent years hosting temperance meetings in her home and speaking out against evils of liquor before Chief Herbert Wildey appointed her the town’s first policewoman in 1927. During her tenure, Officer Welsh targeted child abuse, domestic violence, and continued to speak in support of Prohibition, as she had done as president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Even after the 18th Amendment was repealed, Cora remained active in the Temperance movement until her death in 1942.
As Prohibition stretched on, the number of residents who openly flouted the law grew beyond the ability of law enforcement and prosecutors to keep pace. The Jerseyman newspaper printed daily accounts of raids on hotels, illegal bars, and other businesses caught selling illegal wine and liquor, with some also found offering gambling, prostitution, and drugs. In some cases, individual officers who sent to break up illegal speakeasies were confronted by angry crowds who yelled threats or hurled stones; the perception of an unjust and discriminatory law led to an erosion of respect in authority figures and the rule of law by some.
Like many towns in 1920s Morris County, Morristown struggled to keep reign over the speakeasies that operated in town, even as the repeal of the Volstead Act became more likely in 1933. Police Chief Herbert Wildey directed numerous raids of illegal bars during his career, but with legal alcohol again on the horizon, Mayor Clyde Potts was anxious to ensure the businesses that handled sales and distribution would no longer be managed by gangsters. On August 4, 1933 Mayor Potts ordered the police department to “close up every place selling beer without a license and close up every licensed place that is permitting gambling or any other form of commercial vice.”
While the Daily Record reported a few police raids over the next several months, Mayor Potts accused Chief Wildey of being lax in carrying out this order; in one day Potts himself supervised three raids of illegal bars that were openly operating around town, and on September 27, 1933 he suspended Chief Wildey for failing to aggressively enforce the town’s anti-vice laws. Ironically, one of these speakeasies operated out of the building where Police Headquarters was located when Wildey first became an officer. Despite Police Chief Herbert Wildey’s exemplary career in law enforcement, Chief Herbert Wildey never returned to the force
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act making it legal to sell beer and wine with an alcohol content less than 3.2% by volume. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the 21st Amendment on December 5th, 1933 repealing Prohibition on the federal level but leaving it up to states whether or not to allow the sale the alcohol, as well as how to regulate the sale and distribution. In the years since, debates over the consumption of alcohol have continued, especially over issues of drunk driving, underage consumption, and alcohol-related violence; nevertheless, New Jerseyans still maintain a strong appetite for a drink now and then.