A Cure For What Ales You: A Prohibition Prescription for Alcoholic Medicine, Los Angeles, 10 July 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Among the many posts on this blog that reference Prohibition, the “great social experiment from 1919-1933 that sought to curb alcohol production, sale and consumption in almost all aspects of American life, but which was repealed amid a very mixed record of some decrease in drinking, but also a significant increase in crime with the law too often honored in the breach, a previous one featured a July 1928 prescription blank issued under the National Prohibition Act by the Internal Revenue Service under the Department of Treasury.

The document there, though tough to decipher because of the doctor’s handwriting (!), did have enough that could be discerned so that the post mainly discussed the principals involved. This post, however, highlights a 10 July 1923 prescription that is a great deal more difficult to transcribe, so we are going to focus more on Prohibition-related matters as found in regional newspapers during the first two weeks of that month.

What can be deciphered is that the patient was L.C. McCoy of Bakersfield, who procured the prescription from a doctor, whose name may be “E.X. Wemer” and whose office was in the C.C. Chapman Building in downtown Los Angeles. The prescription was filled at the Delta Drug Company pharmacy, situated at 744 E. 3rd Street for probably just a few years during the Roaring Twenties. Given the penmanship, it is challenging to make out the “medicine,” though there does appear to be the words “5 pts” and “tablespoonful”—beyond this, it seems sheer guesswork.

UPDATE, 11 July: Actually, it is not guesswork for Homestead supporter Jim Crabtree, who has an extensive background in the health care industry, and submitted a comment noting that the prescription is “Spts. [Spiritus] Fermenti,” Latin for “spirit (life) of the grain” or grain alcohol/whisky. The circle and line after the Latin term is an apothecary symbol. Jim pointed out that the doctor couldn’t identify a particular brand so it was left up to whatever was provided to Delta from an officially bonded liquor warehouse. He adds that there are normally lines for ounce, dram and minim for liquid measurements, though there is no specified number of ounces and he posits that McCoy would get as much whiskey as Delta would sell him. The inscription “Sig” is shorthand for directions, followed by what looks to be “tablespoonful” and then “bid,” meaning “bis in die” in Latin or “twice a day.” What is missing, Jim noted, is for what medical reason the “Spiritus Fermenti” was prescribed, though he concluded that it may simply have been “just a method to skirt an unpopular law.” Thanks, Jim, for that great info!

Long Beach Telegram, 1 July 1923.

What we do know is that there was plenty of Prohibition-related content in the press during the early part of July. Some of this was international in scope, as the federal government was grappling with how to enforce the law when it came to ships from other nations. The Long Beach Telegram of the 1st, for example, pointed out what was termed a “grave international situation” regarding the application of law “which the government officials themselves believe that congress [sic] never intended.”

President Warren G. Harding, who died just a few weeks later and was succeeded by Vice-President Calvin Coolidge, was reportedly ready to request that Congress amend the Volstead Act, which was the enabling legislation for enforcement, “so as to permit foreign ships to bring with them under seal, wines and liquors for their return voyage—the intoxicants to be used wholly without [outside] the territorial waters of the United States.”

Otherwise, it was feared, shipping in general could be so affected that America “would be as effectually shut off from the rest of the world even as some of the most ardent isolationists never dared dream.” One of the more daunting matters was regarding the Panama Canal, situated in that Central American nation but under the domain of the United States as ships were allowed to carry whatever alcoholic beverages it wanted, though these could not be consumed within the Canal Zone.

Los Angeles Times, 2 July 1923.

Still, the article noted, the federal government, in the absence of any amendments or revisions to the Volstead Act, was legally compelled to enforce it to the letter, though it was added “it is not to be wondered that the officials are going about the task with a lack of enthusiasm bordering almost reluctance.” Also observed was the growing frustration among the most ardent “drys,” or full-throated supporters of Prohibition, while many officials from other nations were unhappy about the lack of clarity from the American government.

On a national level, there was, on the 12th, new orders issued by the Department of Treasury, which was tasked with enforcement, to deal with “the disposal of contraband liquors seized aboard ships within the three-mile zone” from shore. These revised regulations stipulated that the department, in cooperation with the Department of Justice and U.S. Customs, would engage in “consigning seized ship liquors to ‘Davy Jones” locker,” meaning that customs collectors would take charge of the dumping, though this was pending federal court cases dealing with the destruction of the illicit hooch, as was done with seized jewels or narcotics under federal tariff laws.

Also of broad national import was the role Prohibition was expected to play in the 1924 presidential campaign, it being assumed that Harding would stand for reelection. For the Democrats, there were a range of potential candidates from New York Governor Al Smith (who wound up being the 1928 nominee), who was fervently anti-Prohibition, to William Jennings Bryan, who first ran for president in 1896, was testing the waters nearly three decades later and who was strongly in favor of the law. In the end, the party nominated John W. Davis, as a compromise candidate between Smith and William Gibbs McAdoo, but, as with the other elections of the decade (1920 and 1928), it didn’t much matter as the GOP stormed to victory.

Pomona Bulletin, 3 July 1923.

Meanwhile, Harding, who was on a nationwide tour (he died in San Francisco on the eve of coming to Los Angeles), addressed the problem of dealing with states that chose not to enforce the federal law, citing their sovereignty. The Pasadena Post‘s Independence Day edition approvingly editorialized about the chief executive’s recent remarks, noting “it is a bigger question after all than whether Jones or Smith shall drink or shall not drink. It is a question whether we shall enforce a law legally enacted and standing upon the state books of the land.”

Among this comments, Harding observed that

Civilization had to travel a long way before it came to be commonly accepted that even an unwise law ought to be enforced in orderly fashion, because such enforcement would insure its repeal or modification, also in orderly fashion, if that were found desirable . . . The very basis of our political establishment is the idea of a dual sovereignty; the idea of concurrent authority and concurrent responsibility. That is so elemental in our system that to do away with it would amount to demolishing our whole scheme of government.

He warned that putting enforcement solely or largely on the federal government would be a gross imbalance and “there could be no more complete negation of states rights” in such a circumstance. Any state the demurred from enforcing Prohibition laws was likely to “discover that they have perpetuated what is likely to prove one of the historic blunders in political management.” Harding concluded, “with all good intention the majority sentiment of the United States has sought by law to remove strong drink as a cure upon the American citizen, but ours is a larger problem now to remove lawless drinking as a menace to the republic itself.”

Los Angeles Express, 7 July 1923.

The Pomona Bulletin of the 15th editorialized on “Law Enforcement” with respect to Prohibition and G. Harry White noted that “everyone recognizes a deep-seated antagonism to prohibition” he and others in support of the law, while they “respect the sincerity” of those opposed, “believe in law enforcement.” White allowed that “no intelligent observer will pretend that [the law] has yet been effectively enforced” and added that, without state participation in this, “we shall have legalized anarchy.” The action of New York State to repeal enforcement laws “comes about as close to nullifying the constitution as it is possible for the Legislature to go” and its action seemed to him to place “the liquor issue into the first place of the 1924 campaign.”

Notably, the Whittier News of the 10th published an editorial on “Lady Nicotine,” in which the paper recorded that “the use of tobacco is increasing enormously in America” and that “Prohibition unquestionably is largely responsible, for nicotine supplies part of the nerve soothing and physical stimulation that Americans used to get from alcohol.” Noting that China was experiencing something of the same phenomenon as opium was falling out of use, the paper then prophesied that “one of these days the scientists will drop a bombshell by comparing the physical ‘harm’ of nicotine with alcohol” and asked “how many cigarets [sic] are as injurious as one drink of whisky?”

The paper went on to observe that many Americans had forgotten “the larger movement FOR prohibition” and queried its readers, “Did it ever occur to you that prohibition of tobacco is far from impossible?” Decrying the idea that such a likelihood was “a laughing matter,” the News reminded that “it’s only a few years since the idea of national prohibition of alcohol, as a beverage, seemed equally ridiculous.” It did assert that trying to ban smoking entirely was a concept of “a vast army of ethically-warped” persons who simply wanted to oppose anything it didn’t like and averred that the tobacco industry with 450,000 farms and 2 million acres providing product for 60,000 factories employing 183,000 people and generating $300 million of federal revenue annually “would be a hard industry to kill.”

Los Angeles Record, 10 July 1923.

As reprinted in the Post of the 6th, a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper, the Union, even proposed, when it came to enforcement, to, in addition to using active-duty Army and Navy personnel to go after those breaking the law, National Guard should also be put to work. This would involve nearly a half million members of the nation’s military to go after their fellow citizens, but the paper didn’t stop there. Assuming the “war” would continue for a long period, it argued that universal compulsory military service be considered and it claimed that a benefit would be that

it would put the United States in a condition for preparedness for hostilities at any time with our countries. Pacifists probably would oppose it, but their attitude should not weigh against the enforcement of a federal law—provided the federal government really desire to enforce prohibition.

More locally, The Hollywood Citizen, in its edition of the 2nd, ran an editorial titled “Who Is Worthy?” in which it reported on a Los Angeles minister quoted as suggesting that, when it came to Prohibition, “he who raises his voice against any amendment of the Constitution is unworthy of the heritage of liberty.” While the paper agreed that enforcement was necessary, but countered that the pastor “has the wrong theory of what our heritage of liberty is.”

Record, 11 July 1923.

The Citizen expressed the view that “liberty . . . means that a man [person] has a right to express his opinions regarding the justice or the wisdom of any section of the Constitution or of any law.” The distinction was that the same person could not decide to disobey the strictures of the nation’s governing document or its statutes. Beyond this, if a dissenter, or perhaps more likely, a large number of them “can convince the majority of the people that the law is unwise or unjust then it will be changed or rescinded.”

Moreover, the paper pointed out that “we have in this country today a dangerous element working under cover of high-sounding names that is striving to suppress the right of a man to advocate a change in the Constitution” and it found this “contrary to the very spirit of liberty upon which the Constitution is founded.” The piece concluded with the admonition that “he is worthy of his liberty who gives to the other man the same right to liberty that he demands for himself.”

Pomona Bulletin, 11 July 1923.

A week later, the News reported on a talk given by the California State Anti-Saloon League’s Dr. A.H. Briggs at the Quaker City’s Methodist church in which he claimed that,

The political wets like Governor Smith of New York and President [Nicholas M.] Butler of Columbia university are more dangerous to the enforcement of the provisions of the constitution than all the bootleggers . . . The wets of the world are united against the enforcement of the prohibition amendment in the United States . . . But beer and light wines . . . are not coming back. The old world is going dry.

In its edition of the 2nd, the Progress covered a presentation given at the city’s Baptist church by Hester Griffith Miller, former president of the state’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union, in which she urged the audience to understand that the fight for Prohibition was far from over and would be essential in the next year’s presidential election. She considered that “all eyes are on America” because if the country “fails in the enforcement of Prohibition the world will fail.”

Times, 10 July 1923.

She assailed the propaganda of the “wets” and the obscuring of “the true facts concerning the operation of the eighteenth amendment from the public press” so that the only way to get the unvarnished reality was through having the temperance publication, the Union Signal, in every house. She also claimed that public officials were bribed into not enforcing the law and urged that “the prohibition forces will need to be awake” to forestall the progress of anti-Prohibition organization and their allied liquor, wine and beer interests.

With respect to enforcement, there were some reports of the arrests of transgressors of the law in greater Los Angeles. On the 2nd, the Venice Vanguard reported that the manager of the People’s Drug Store in that still-independent city (it was annexed to Los Angeles three years later) was fined $1,000 “and had his ‘prescription book’ cancelled” after he provided prescriptions to federal agents, pled guilty and then was out on bail when the sentence was passed down. Nine days later, it was reported that a local judge was to be called to federal court in the case of noted amusement operator Max Ames, whose arrest “came as a great surprise and sensation” in the coastal burg.

Five days later, Emma Weeks, reported the Los Angeles Express, was nabbed by private detective agents and deputy sheriffs at her Long Beach residence and charged with supplying illegal wine and moonshine to workers in the oil fields of Signal Hill. It was added that Weeks had a “cleverly arranged tipping and supply device,” while her house was used for parties and “had become notorious in the Long Beach district.” The same article noted a marijuana bust at the home of José and Ramón Ayala in Artesia, with $12,000 in product seized, considered enough “to make the entire Mexican colony laugh themselves to death,” as if only Latinos smoked “the devil weed.”

Burbank Review, 13 July 1923.

The Los Angeles Record of the 10th noted that Louis Gaitan, who lived at the base of the Elysian Hills, below where Dodger Stadium is now, was nabbed by agents who found 25 gallons of liquor and it was alleged that his store in what became the current Chinatown district was where he served the contraband alcohol. Incidentally, it was added that Gaitan “is a movie actor . . . [who] takes ‘sheik’ parts in desert productions, having a face like an Arab knight” and it was recorded that “he is said to have an expensive clientele in Hollywood.”

The same day’s edition of the Los Angeles Times broke the news that Ventura County Sheriff Robert Clark, federal agent H.H. Dolley and a posse of officers swarmed on a “bootleggers’ wharf” in an isolated area near Point Mugu—this long before the building of Pacific Coast Highway through the rugged coastal section. The site included a road built through a marsh and a drawbridge to cut off outside intrusion and $15,000 was said to have been invested in its development.

Notably, while four white men who were driving to the site early in the morning with the lights out in their vehicle were arrested and then released because of a lack of evidence, the purported lessee, a Japanese man, was already out on a $25,000 bond in another bootleg case and was nabbed. It was explained that the car with the four white men approached a vessel seeking a landing, but the tide did not allow for this, so the craft, said to have sailed down from Canada, could not dispense smaller gas-powered craft to make the connection and it apparently got away.

Times, 12 July 1923.

Other coastal smuggling efforts in early July were thwarted off Anaheim Landing (Seal Beach), where a fishing boat said to be from México was captured, after some exchange of gunfire with agents, and said to be part of a large “rum-running” organization, and another near San Luis Obispo, with the craft said to have sailed from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, though this latter involved “rum pirates” who overpowered the ship and eluded Holley and his agents.

In Burbank, that city’s Review of the 13th, noted that local moonshiner, Raymond Lee, was again in custody after making bail but then jumping and it was said his new bond was set at a whopping $50,000. Lee was reported to have had a still on Scott Road, presumably in the undeveloped areas at the north edge of town and it was added that the federal agent who collared him was a former Burbank city marshal, George Cole.

On the 11th and 12th, the Times recorded that three drug stores were raided by agents under Dolley’s supervision, one on Main Street just south of the Plaza, where whisky was found, another at Burlington Avenue and 7th Street near Westlake (now MacArthur) Park, where gin was purchased, and the last at Pico Boulevard and Hill Street downtown, where whiskey was sold. Near East Hollywood and Los Feliz, a raid yielded four aluminum stills and 100 gallons of moonshine and, while no one was at the house, a an soon arrived in a car with a bottle of hooch in it and he was taken into custody.

Progress, 12 July 1923.

Not far from the Homestead in what became the city of Walnut, Ygnacio Juan Forster, whose paternal grandparents were Isidora Pico, sister of former governor Pío and noted general of Mexican armed forces Andrés, and the English-born John Forster and whose mother was Josefa del Valle, daughter of the prominent figure, Ygnacio, and brother of politician Reginaldo, was fined $50 for possessing illicit alcohol.

Forster, a Croix de Guerre recipient for his heroism with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I who resided off Valley Boulevard near Lemon Avenue and who was married in 1920 to former actor Mildred Marsh, whose sister Mae was a major star during the period, pled guilty. It was reported in the Progress of the 12th, however, that Forster “had the liquor because he believed it lawful to keep a supply on hand or his own use.” The paper added that his attorney claimed that “people of Spanish, Italian, French or other Latin races often make the mistake.”

A federal prohibition agent was tipped off to Forster by the constable at El Monte who said “young men of that city had been getting liquor at the Forster ranch.” After an investigation, a raid was conducted and a substantial amount of wine was taken to Pomona and, while Forster remained jailed until he could remit the fine, his lawyer requested the return of the seized product, only to be told by the judge that it would, by law, have to be destroyed.

Record, 14 July 1923.

Forster, who had three children by Marsh before a divorce, and who married a second time and had another child, suffered from lung trouble because, as with so many soldiers from that terrible conflict, he was gassed before chemical weapons were outlawed. He remained at the ranch until the mid-1930s, but his condition deteriorated and he was confined at a veterans hospital in San Fernando, where he died in 1936 at age 36.

Finally, it is worth noting a local legal matter that was taken all the way to the United States Supreme Court during this period. Merlin W. Hixon was among several druggists arrested early in the Prohibition period for selling more liquor by prescription than was allowed by the Gandier local ordinance, passed before the federal amendment and enabling legislation, which allowed more quantity to be prescribed than the City of Los Angeles.

Supported by the Retail Druggists Association, Hixon appealed the matter up the legal chain and his counsel filed on the 11th for a hearing with the highest court in the land. The matter did not come up before the justices until the end of May 1924 and on the 26th, they ruled against Hixon. The decision also applied to cases pending in Montana and New York and had a demonstrable effect on pharmacists and their prescriptions to customers concerning local ordinances in relation to federal law.

We have more Prohibition-related artifacts in the Homestead’s collection and will continue sharing those here from time-to-time, including a Christmas Eve prescription form for whiskey, so keep an eye out for those!

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