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Jacques Kelly: A new history book explores 'wet' Baltimore

Michael T. Walsh, a local writer and historian, has written a book about Baltimore in the era of Prohibition.
Michael T. Walsh, a local writer and historian, has written a book about Baltimore in the era of Prohibition. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

My grandfather, a Maryland rye imbiber, routinely railed against Prohibition and its ardent champions, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. He would blast soft-drink companies based in the South, which he claimed spent money to persuade politicians to keep outlawing beer and liquor.

A new book, “Baltimore Prohibition: Wet and Dry in the Free State,” shows that my grandfather had a lot of company here. Baltimore consistently voted against Prohibition, and Maryland was the only state among the then-48 to decline to pass an enabling law to back up the federal Volstead Act. All 47 other states passed so-called Baby Volstead Acts. Maryland said no.

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Michael T. Walsh, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County administrator who teaches history at Community College of Baltimore County, writes that Baltimore’s role in the Prohibition years has been neglected by other historians.

“It was soon evident to me that the topic was worth exploring — the prohibition of alcohol under the 18th Amendment — and was ripe for scholarship.” He told me he grew up visiting his Canton grandmother and used to marvel at the old breweries (Gunther and National) he passed to the way to Fait Avenue.

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The Prohibition years from 1920-1933 saw a glut of doctor-prescribed alcohol across the United States.

Using vote counts from Baltimore’s wards and precincts, he demonstrates that Baltimore was a super-wet city. Individual Baltimore neighborhoods generally voted upward of 75 percent in favor of open sales of beer, wine and liquor to adults. A handful of neighborhoods, around Walbrook, Forest Park and Windsor Hills, registered a few more drys than did Little Italy and Oldtown, which voted 89 percent against prohibition.

Walsh argues that Baltimore’s ethnicity and the religions practiced by its residents had much to do with that. Romans Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans represented 58 percent of the city’s population in 1916. The Catholics and the Lutherans included German immigrants, who liked their beer and were often associated with the brewing industry. Cardinal James Gibbons spoke out against Prohibition, though he advised moderation in drinking.

“Cardinal Gibbons felt that Prohibition infringed on personal liberty and individual rights,” Walsh writes. “He also believed that much stronger alcohol-based drugs were available over the counter at the local pharmacy and should have been been banned before alcohol.”

Walsh notes that not all prominent Catholics agreed with Cardinal Gibbons. Monsignor Michael Foley, who led St. Paul’s Church in the Oliver neighborhood, supported Prohibition.

The Methodist Church was a strong proponent of Prohibition. Its local leader was the Rev. J. Fred Heisse, pastor of Union Square Methodist Church at Lombard and Calhoun streets. Heisse was president of the Maryland Anti-Saloon League. Methodist Bishop James Cannon, a strident national voice for Prohibition, was born in Salisbury in the Eastern Shore, which was dry in comparison to Baltimore.

Other players in the Prohibition story include Gov. Albert C. Ritchie, a staunch wet, and Baltimore Sun writers H.L. Mencken and Hamilton Owens, who coined the term “The Free State” to describe Maryland’s stance on Prohibition.

Legal beer finally arrived in 1933, after the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who delivered an anti-Prohibition manifesto while speaking at the Fifth Regiment Armory on Howard Street during the 1932 election campaign.

The day beer returned, Walsh writes, was a rainy April 7, 1933. “Crowds gathered outside the the Gunther and Globe breweries as beer trucks took their shipments to their destinations,” he said. “The celebration continued over the weekend as thousands of glasses were poured in private homes and at the Lyric Theatre, Baltimore’s first theater to open a bar for patrons who were attending a Bach sonata.” Stronger spirits arrived in December. Stewart’s department store at Howard and Lexington streets opened a “Repeal Corner” that offered barware and cocktail shakers.

Walsh notes that Prohibition-era cocktails are now fashionable and that hotels and some bars now lay a claim to being former speakeasies. But the identities of Baltimore’s main bootleggers remain in the shadows.

“There may be information out there,” he said. “It’s not in the newspapers. It may be there anecdotally.”

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