Many of us never experienced Prohibition, but we’ve heard about it or read about it. Many think almost automatically of Chicago, but Buffalo has its own contribution to Prohibition. The prohibition of liquor was enacted January 16, 1919 by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and repealed by the Twenty-First amendment on December 5, 1933.
The amendment featured the following points:
Section 1: After one year from the ratification of this article, the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
Section 2: The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Section 3: This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.
William “Wild Bill” Donovan and Buffalo NY could be likened to Eliot Ness and Chicago IL, in that he sought to enforce prohibition laws in Buffalo making a name for himself in the process, however, Donovan’s success wasn’t that of Ness’s.
Buffalo NY was the birthplace of William “Wild Bill” Donovan born on New Year’s Day in 1883. He came from a family of devoutly Catholic Irish immigrants, which influenced him to want to become a priest.
Donovan attended St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and Niagara University. He continued his studies at Columbia University, where he was a star athlete on the football team and a member of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. In 1907, Donovan graduated from Columbia Law School and entered private practice.
Donovan eventually made his way back to Buffalo where he accomplished the task of gaining the prestigious title of District Attorney. He later aspired to become the Governor of New York. A race many believe he lost because of the events that took place right here in Buffalo.
To comprehend why many in the city of Buffalo began to detest Donovan one must take a close look at the prohibition era in Buffalo NY. According to an article in The Buffalonian by Stephen Powell he describes Buffalo and their affinity for the drink like this:
The Buffalo of the 1920’s was a decidedly wet heavily industrialized Northeastern city. There was a dominant German culture here that was reflected in the amount of beer Buffalonians brewed and consumed. As Prohibition rolled in, the Northeastern industrialized cities continued to drink rivers of booze even though it was against the law to possess it. Buffalo was known as a big drinking town. In 1908 alone, this city of Buffalo, NY pumped out over 31 million gallons of beer. Every bit of it was drank locally, none went to waste. So much beer was made there that you could run it over Niagara Falls for over a minute and a half!
Buffalo’s mayor at the time Francis X. Schwab appealed not once but twice for a repeal, losing those appeals twice. Schwab had some personal stake in Prohibition in that he was part owner of the Broadway Brewing Company. The mayor himself was charged with manufacturing and selling intoxicating beer at his brewery, making headlines across the country, and was prosecuted by none other than William J. Donovan. Schwab plead no contest and paid a $500 fine.
So when exactly did Buffalonians turn on their native son, was it the incident with the mayor, no many in the Buffalo elite felt betrayed when Donovan attempted to prove his power. How, you might ask, well he raided not one but two of Buffalo’s exclusive speakeasy’s. One was The Saturn Club and the other the Country Club of Buffalo, both of which Donovan belonged too. The raids brought national attention to Donovan, the city, and the prosperous businessmen of the club.
Donovan’s raids gained national attention, arguably paving the way to his eventual role in creating the CIA, at the request of President Roosevelt, a classmate at Columbia. Donovan had lofty goals, running for governor in 1939, however he lost and Western New Yorker’s made sure that Donovan knew they had not forgotten all the raids, as he lost heavily in our counties.
Check out Stephen Powell’s article to see what other places were raided and who the mayor made enemies with trying to make drinking legal once again.
Prohibition and speakeasies are a large part of the roaring 20’s. Would you have guessed that Buffalo NY was considered the second largest center of prohibition evasion in the United States? Buffalo today is known for our chicken wings, but think about where all those chicken wings are consumed, the pub!
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