by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The great “social experiment” of Prohibition, which sought to ban most production and sale of alcoholic beverages, was enacted by a rare change to the United States Constitution just over a century ago. Decades of intense lobbying by temperance and abstinence advocates from churches, women’s associations and many other organizations and individuals spread state by state through statute, wit about two-thirds of the country officially dry, before the federal initiative yielded fruit (not of the grape variety, you understand).
Prohibition officially began on 17 January 2020, but enforcement quickly proved to be easier said than done and there were simply nowhere near enough federal agents hired for that purpose. With Mexico and Canada still very much wet, it was relatively simply for many Americans in adjacent regions to cross into those countries to get their fix, while smugglers found many entry points along the porous borders through which to bring illicit beverages of all kinds into the country.
Enterprising folks manufactured their own gin, beer, whisky and other products at home and there were limits to what was legally permitted; restaurants, soda fountains, and other businesses found ways to disguise beverages; and there were a myriad of other ways to get a drink if one really wanted it.
One such example was to get a prescription from a doctor under the auspices of the National Prohibition Act through the Internal Revenue bureau of the Treasury Department and its Form 1403. The Homestead’s collection has a few of these, including the example here in this post, which was written by Dr. William Roane for Mrs. Virginia Godell and dated 18 July 1928. Godell, the wife of a streetcar conductor, lived on West 85th Street in South Los Angeles near the intersection of Figueroa and Manchester, while Roane’s home office was on South Broadway two miles to the northeast.
Shockingly, the writing is hard to decipher, but it does appear that Roane scrawled that Godell could receive “Whisky 8 oz” and that she could take a portion “before meals,” Unfortunately, the line between those is really hard to read, but may be “Sip wine glass.” The prescription was filled and then cancelled, because they were not to be refilled, on the same day by a drug store two blocks south of Roane’s office.
The writing is even harder to make out for the drug store, but the proprietor’s name was deciphered as R[oy]C. Puterbaugh, whose business was two blocks south of Roane. The name of the enterprise couldn’t be made out but it turns out that, when he registered for the draft during World War I, Puterbaugh stated that he was a pharmacist at J.A. Amundson’s Drug Company at 61st and Moneta, the latter being the old name for that section of Broadway.
None of the three principals here had, apparently, anything newsworthy or overtly public about their lives. Virginia Kelley Godell was born in Arizona in 1905, married Frank Godell in the early twenties and had a young son (who died when he was eleven) and a daughter. The Godells spent several years living in South Los Angeles and then lived in the Cypress Park area of northeast Los Angeles and Virginia was still there when she died in the late 80s.
Puterbaugh, who hailed from Clarence, a small farming town in eastern Iowa, and lived in Kansas City as a young man, perhaps came to Los Angeles because a sister resided in Pasadena. He worked for that drug store as noted above by 1917 and served four years in the Navy during World War I and afterward before returning to his profession at the same store, which he took over. He remained at that location when he registered for the draft during the Second World War and died in 1962. Recently, a Spanish-language Pentecostal church occupied the pharmacy building.
Roane was from a small northern Mississippi town called Banner, where his family also farmed and, like Puterbaugh, he served in the Navy, although this was years before the First World War. In 1910, he lived in San Francisco at the Naval Training Station, where he was a hospital apprentice. Perhaps this motivated him to take up medicine as a vocation and he was in Los Angeles within a couple of years.
He was an internist at the Los Angeles County Hospital and, when he registered for the draft during the war, he was working there as a doctor and residing a stone’s throw away at what is now the Angel Interfaith Network next door to the county coroner’s office. By the time the 1920 census was taken, he’d started his own practice in South Los Angeles and shortly afterward set up his office at the address on the prescription (there is a small stucco storefront building in front of a large two-story Craftsman home today.)
Roane remained at the South Broadway address through the World War II years, but then retired out to the eastern San Gabriel Valley, evidently because his brother had settled in Puente. Roane died in 1953 in Baldwin Park.
As for the use of Prohibition era prescriptions for alcoholic beverages such as whisky, a short online article on the Smithsonian Magazine website observed that
During Prohibition, the U.S. Treasury Department authorized physicians to write prescriptions for medicinal alcohol. Licensed doctors, with pads of government-issued prescription forms, like the one shown here, advised their patients to take regular doses of hooch to stave off a number of ailments—cancer, indigestion and depression among them.
This privilege was one of the few legal exceptions to the 13-year ban on the production, sale and distribution of alcohol, initiated in 1920 by the 18th Amendment. The National Prohibition Act, which enforced the ban, also allowed farmers to produce wine for their own consumption [so Walter P. Temple, owner of the Homestead, could have done so if he had wanted] and priests, ministers and rabbis to serve it during religious ceremonies.
Another interesting online piece from Prohibition Tours stated that “three years before Prohibition attempted to dry out America, the American Medical Association issued a resolution marginalizing the medicinal qualities of alcohol. It really didn’t help prevent infectious diseases, cure migraines (maybe created some, but didn’t cure them), and largely had no role within “modern” American medicine.”
Undaunted, doctors and pharmacists “with an entrepreneurial spirit” abandoned these views and “started issuing prescriptions for just about every form of alcohol . . .” Moreover, “whiskey, gin and brandy were determined to cure or mitigate twenty-seven medical ailments, including such things as toothaches, pneumonia, high blood pressure, and depression.” Notably, the prescription forms did not require a diagnosis.
The Prohibition Tours article added that prescriptions were typically “issued for a small amount of 100 proof alcohol that you had to purchase at the pharmacy” and that such bottles “came with handy dosage cups affixed to the top so you could never accidentally overserve yourself.” One of those who benefited mightily from the Prohibition-era trade in alcoholic medicines was Charles Walgreen, whose chain ballooned from twenty to some 525 stores during that period. Supposedly, he chalked up the mighty expansion to the store’s milkshakes!
This prescription is an excellent representation of how Prohibition era evasions, assuming, of course, that this was just that, could be done under the guise of legitimate medical practice. We don’t know of course what medical condition Virginia Godell had. She simply went to Dr. Roane, was given her prescription for whisky to be taken before meal times, and then headed two blocks to Puterbaugh’s pharmacy for her “medicine.” Did it do the trick or did she need to return later for more? That we don’t know, but presumably lots of people did continue with a regular regimen of alcoholic medicine to treat whatever it was that “aled” them!