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Prohibition

Temperance revival poster, 1902Efforts to limit or prohibit the use of intoxicating beverages in the U. S. began early in the 19th century. Local option laws were advocated by the 1830s.  During the territorial period in Kansas, prohibition became a leading political, social, and moral issue.

Territorial legislation, which continued during the early years of statehood, made the existence of dram- shops or taverns a local option. Many citizens believed "that the retailing of liquors [had] a great tendency to retard and prevent the growth and improvement socially, morally, and politically of all communities and neighborhoods." They fought to arrest "the further spread of this moral and political curse" by working to deny operating licenses to businesses engaged in the dispensing of liquor.

The state's first temperance organization, the Independent Order of Good Templars, was founded in the 1850s. After the Civil War, the Kansas State Temperance Union (K.S.T.U.) and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union joined the Good Templars in the struggle for state-wide prohibition. Drucilla Wilson was the Kansas W.C.T.U.'s second president. During her three-year administration, Kansas became the first state to write prohibition into its constitution.

By 1878 the temperance movement was well organized and had influence throughout the state. Pushing toward constitutional prohibition, supporters staged the first National Temperance Camp Meeting in Bismarck Grove near Lawrence. The twelve-day gathering was held in late August and early September of 1878.

Efforts in Kansas to organize a Prohibition party failed. By the mid-1870s, however, Kansas Republicans had adopted the major temperance principles as their own. In 1878, voters elected Republican prohibitionist John St. John governor. In his inaugural address to the state legislature, the new governor called for decisive action to deal with the liquor issue.

The legislature responded to the governor's speech, by passing a constitutional amendment that prohibited "the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors" in the state. It was ratified by a majority of the voters in November 1880, and took effect on January 1, 1881. The Kansas Legislative passed a law that made manufacturing alcohol a misdemeanor, which took effect May 1, 1881. Laws and amendments alone, however, could not "dry up" the state; they had to be enforced. The Senate Saloon was only one of 43 "joints" still operating in the state's capital city in 1883. Proprietors kept their businesses open and liquor flowing, according to one report, by paying a monthly fine of $100.  Loopholes and lax enforcement of the law, according to the Oberlin Eye, actually led to an increase in the number of saloons in some towns.

The temperance movement went into decline during the 1890s but came back with renewed zeal before the turn-of-the-century. The K.S.T.U. began publishing and distributing the Kansas Issue throughout the state, and its annual meeting drew bigger and bigger crowds. This revitalized movement drew support from a new progressive reformers who were politically active and influential.

While the established organizations worked to get stronger laws and better enforcement, radical prohibitionists tired of waiting. Led or inspired by Carry A. Nation of Medicine Lodge, women and men throughout the state took up the hatchet.

Carry NationNation, who changed the spelling of her first name to "Carry" in 1903, used rocks to smash her first saloon in Kiowa in June 1900.  Frustrated after five futile years of conventional temperance activity in and around Medicine Lodge, Nation began a campaign that attracted national attention. After Kiowa, she took her campaign to Wichita, Enterprise, and Hope. Finally, on January 26, 1901, she arrived in Topeka which would be her home base for the next four years. At nearly every stop, Nation endured ridicule, arrest, and jail to promote the cause to which she was committed.

During February 1901, in addition to leading raids on Topeka joints, Nation and State Librarian Annie Diggs met with the governor. Nation also addressed a joint session of the Kansas legislature, went on a lecture tour, and began publishing the Smasher's Mail, a temperance newspaper.  A former Populist, Mrs. Diggs was an active member of the W.C.T.U. Like other temperance organizations, the W.C.T.U. did not always agree with Nation's tactics but endorsed her objectives.

Carry Nation attracted a great deal of attention to the liquor issue. It was 1907, however, before real enforcement of the existing prohibition laws began. In addition, during Governor Hoch's administration the legislature revised and strengthened the statutes. The 1909 revision closed the major loophole in the old law that had allowed druggists to sell liquor for "medicinal purposes."

Kansas really seemed to be on a course toward the prohibitionists' goal. At least violators became much less open. Atchison's "liquor policy," explained the Kansas City Star, "has always embraced the maintenance of saloons without let or hinderance, an amendment to the constitution of the state of Kansas notwithstanding." By July 12, 1909, however, the Star could report: "Atchison is now so dry that it is sometimes necessary to sweep the dust from the Missouri River in order to cross the toll bridge to East Atchison without personal discomfort, while an appropriation for a municipal marine sprinkling apparatus is among the possibilities."

By 1914 the country was moving closer to national prohibition. While many looked to Kansas as an example, Charles Sheldon of Topeka's Central Congregational Church and others worked to make their state "bone dry."

For these crusaders, the goal was the total elimination of alcohol from the state. To accomplish this they were forced to attack the private use of liquor in the home. Finally, in 1917 Kansas took what many believed to be the final step toward real and effective prohibition.

In February 1917 the legislature passed, and Governor Capper signed, the so-called "bone dry" bill. Under this new statute, it became unlawful for anyone "to keep or have in his possession, for personal use or otherwise," any intoxicating liquors. The lone exception was communion wine. Anti-liquor forces across the country held Kansas up as an example for what should be done on a national scale. In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution made this prohibitionist dream a reality.

For 14 years national, state, and local law enforcement officials tried in vain to "dry up" the country. Most people believed that the "noble experiment" was a failure, and the amendment was repealed in 1933. Kansas, however, maintained its' state-wide ban on alcohol until 1948. In that year, despite the efforts of the W.C.T.U. and other "drys," voters rejected prohibition by a vote of 422,294 to 358,485. Kansas was once again placed under a local option law, similar to what had been abandoned nearly 70 years before.

Entry: Prohibition

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 2001

Date Modified: March 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.