The Push for Prohibition: Letters from the State Anti-Saloon League of Southern California, August 1910

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In this centennial year of the passage of the 18th Amendment curtailing, with few exceptions, the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in America, and, as the Homestead is on the cusp of changing out its exhibit in the Gallery, this is a good time for another post dealing with the push for Prohibition.

Specifically, we are highlighting several artifacts from the museum’s collection concerning the energetic efforts of the powerful Anti-Saloon League of California in the years leading up to the amendment, in particular some documents generated by the organization in August 1910.  These are comprised of three letters from the California Anti-Saloon Leagues and the State Anti-Saloon League of Southern California, but we have some bonus items to include, as well.

As noted in last month’s post, the Anti-Saloon League was largely a project of religious leaders, especially Methodists, and in these documents, we see that the state and district superintendents were all men of the cloth.  There were others involved in and with positions of leadership within the organization, but the role of religion was significant.

This August 1908 issue of The Searchlight, the official publication of The Anti-Saloon League of California and from the Homestead’s collection includes this article on the “anti-saloon war” and a “peerless popular uprising” led by the league.

In a August 1908 issue of the League’s official publication, The Searchlight, the front page article was titled “From Siskiyou to San Diego: The People of the Golden State are Marshalling for Anti-Saloon War.”  The use of the term “war” is particularly noteworthy given the predominance of religious figures in the League and so is a subheading, which mentions “tiding of a peerless popular uprising,” that last word being another strong activist one to use.

Five field workers were mentioned in the piece, including four pastors and a doctor, William M. Burke, who was a superintendent for the League in Oakland.  Burke was lionized for traveling to remote Modoc County, situated in the northeast corner of the state, where “he held conventions and public meetings.”

It was claimed that the quintet “found the people alive to the subject of temperance reform” and, importantly, willing to effect political change by electing local and state representatives who supported the League’s positions.  This included support for a “local option,” allowing cities and counties to pass their own temperance laws rather than have to wait for a sweeping state law.

A 2 August 1910 letter on the letterhead of California Anti-Saloon Leagues, which shared offices with the State Anti-Saloon League, was signed by the Rev. Daniel M. Gandier, the organization’s legislative superintendent.  Writing to J.P. Smith of San Diego, Gandier asked if any news was received from Jefferson K. Wilson, the chief of police in that city, about “whether or not he wishes us to send out a communication to the voters concerning his candidacy” for an unnamed office.

Using children and domestic tranquility was a common tactic of the League in its anti-alcohol work, in this case, an ad from the magazine above to push for men to register to vote (women could not vote in state elections for three more years.)

Gandier went on to discuss the fact that State Senator Leroy Wright “has positively refused to support a local option law which makes the whole county outside of cities one unit.”  Consequently, Gandier added, “we want, therefore, to send out a letter in Judge Sloane’s behalf to the voters.”  The jurist referred to was William A. Sloane, formerly of the city court, but who was appointed a Superior Court judge in 1911 by Governor Hiram Johnson, a leading Progressive.  Sloane was also outspoken in support of woman suffrage, a major theme for next year as we commemorate the centennial of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote in federal elections.

On 6 August, superintendent of the Southern California chapter of the League, the Rev. Ervin S. Chapman, who held a doctorate in divinity and a law degree, wrote to an unnamed correspondent in San Diego, perhaps to someone on the list of voters referenced in the missive from Gandier, who was Chapman’s assistant.

Chapman began with “in view of the contest for Republican nomination as State Senator from your district, it is our duty to furnish information concerning the attitude of the candidates toward liquor legislation.”  Referring to the local option legislation ardently sought for by the League, the superintendent brought up the case of Senator Wright’s opposition, with the lawmaker claiming “that all that part of a county outside of cities was too large a unit.”

Moreover, Chapman continued, Wright “wanted the bill amended so that it would permit saloons to be licensed in any precinct where a majority vote in favor of license, not matter how the county as a whole might vote.”  Though this was done, Chapman countered “we do not believe such a law would be satisfactory to the people as it would permit saloons to open in parts of San Diego and Imperial counties . . .”

A 2 August 1910 letter from the museum’s holdings from Rev. Daniel M. Gandier to J.P. Smith of San Diego concerning a possible political campaign by police chief Jefferson K. Wilson with a platform including fighting saloons.

Still, the letter went on, the League’s position was that “the whole of any county outside of municipal corporations shall be allowed to vote as one unit, and that saloons shall not be permitted anywhere in such distinct unless the majority vote in favor thereof.”  Senator Wright, though “positively refuses to support such a measure.”

Consequently, Chapman noted, former judge Sloane “is a tried and true friend of civic righteousness” and “the best things in public life,” meaning, particularly, that “he is opposed to political domination by saloons” or special interests generally.  Concluding his letter, the superintendent asked “that you not only vote for the nomination of Judge Sloane” in the Republican primary “but also urge others to do likewise, and this assure for him the largest majority possible.”

On the 9th, Robert H. Young, another League official, wrote to “Brother Smith” to say that it was the end of the business day “and those outside county lists have not come to hand,” presumably meaning voter lists for those living outside the city of San Diego and within the county.  He asked “WHAT IS THE MATTER?” in exasperation.

A long missive from this day in 1910 from superintendent Ervin Chapman to an unnamed recipient regarding state Senator Leroy Wright’s opposition to local option laws on saloons and promoting a primary challenge by former city judge (and future Superior Court jurist) William A. Sloane.

Young added the Gandier was in San Bernardino and was heading north to Visalia, but that “the letters are printed and folded and the girls [to seal and stamp envelopes?] are ready for the lists,” but “time is getting short.”  The writer hoped that “the morning mail will bring” the lists and added a postscript that most of the San Diego city lists were sent back the previous evening.

As it turned out, the attempt to unseat Senator Wright failed and he was reelected.  In fact, Wright was a conservative who was strongly against woman suffrage and opposed to the Progressive platform that brought the recall, initiative, and referendum to California in 1911.

Yet, the League continued to advocate for its temperance ideals and hoped that a 1916 statewide initiative to ban saloons would be the culmination of years of hard work, though the measure lost (it did win a solid majority in southern California.)  Gandier, however, promoted a Los Angeles city ordinance to ban saloons and which would restrict the serving of alcohol in restaurants that, in fall 1917, did pass.

A 9 August 1910 missive from Robert H. Young to Smith decrying the delay of voter lists for the local option campaign and asking “WHAT IS THE MATTER?” with getting those to him.

The Gandier ordinance, as it was known, did not remain in effect for long, however, as the push for Prohibition was successful at the federal level shortly thereafter, including the enactment of the 18th Amendment a century ago this year.  The Homestead’s next exhibit, going up very soon, will cover the Prohibition years, so look for a post on that and come out to see the display over the next several months.

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