Story last updated at 6/13/2012 - 2:16 pm
Do high school civic classes talk about the prohibition amendment to our constitution and its subsequent repeal? The time the United States decided to rule morals of its citizens is so long ago it may remain a mystery to many younger generations. Nor will they hear many amusing stories of "justice" in Alaska's frontier during that era.
It was around the start of World War I, that the prohibition movement began in earnest. All those drunks, mobsters and women of ill repute. Men were drinking in bars and beer parlors shirking their duty as fathers and husbands. The rowdy territory of Alaska was a prime target for prohibition enthusiasts.
They were successful. Alaska passed a prohibition law in 1917, earlier than the U.S. passed the constitutional amendment. The Alaska Bone Dry Act made it against the law to sell or consume liquor. By 1919, both this act and the National Prohibition Act were in full force in Alaska. Hard liquor, wine and beer were all illegal for Caucasians and Natives alike.
Great numbers of people were not willing to stand for that. Alaska, as well as all over the U.S. and its territories, was never without alcoholic beverages in its many forms from 1917 to December 5, 1933, with the return of legal consumption of hard liquor. However, beer taps cracked legally at midnight April 4, 1933.
During the days Alaska was supposed to be "dry," many violations of the law occurred. Here is one of my favorite stories from a Juneau paper in 1919, which took place in Wrangell.
A stranger in town reported to the police officers that he had drunk booze at a house of ill repute conducted by Mrs. O. R. Stumpf at her place on Front Street. His grievance was she had kicked him out, and when he came to, he found his money had disappeared.
As a consequence, U.S. Deputy Marshal H. J. Wallace and the town marshal Earl West raided Mrs. Stumpf's house. In her possession was a ten-gallon wooden keg of home brew. The marshals filed a complaint with the U.S. Commissioner of Wrangell as a violation of the Alaska Bone Dry law.
The charge, in legalese was: "[she] did dispose of, for sale, certain intoxicating liquors, apparently home brew, evidently made on the premises... the sale was by the drink, to-wit, 50 cents per drink, and the complainant became intoxicated therefrom."
Mrs. Stumpf, as most bootleggers, pleaded not guilty. This meant a jury trial before the commissioner. The trial began on a Saturday afternoon, and the stranger testified that he had purchased drinks for 50 cents each. Another witness testified that he had seen her sell the stranger booze. The commissioner then said, "Mrs. Stumpf, did these men have anything to drink in your house?" Despite having plead not guilty, she glanced down and said coyly, "Y -es, I guess so."
Soon, the jurors were left alone to reach a decision. In view of the overpowering evidence, everyone expected a verdict of "guilty" would be a matter of form that would require only a few minutes. Not so. After deliberating at length, the jury reported it could not reach a decision because two jurors held out for an acquittal.
The commissioner dismissed the case against Mrs. Stumpf.
Of course, the verdict was the talk of the town in every home, bar and café. How could, some said, this questionable character, who engaged in the manufacture of booze, be tolerated in a town like Wrangell. Many arguments took place over whether a drink at 50 cents was too much. Maybe it was too little and undercut other local manufacturers of alcohol? And, to top it off, the ten-gallon keg of booze was brought into the courtroom and made the court room smell like a "fourth rate saloon."
Others wondered how could anyone hold out for acquittal. Some gossipers insisted the two hadn't listened when she said she served drinks. Another indignant person said that the jurors had held up their right hands and solemnly swore, "I will render a true verdict according to the law and the evidence, so help me God." How could someone swear to uphold the law and then not do so?
As for Mrs. Stumpf, she expressed regret at having lost the ten gallons of home brew.