Prohibition in Seattle

Years before the 18th Amendment went into effect in January 1920 and prohibition became national law, regulating the manufacture and consumption of alcohol was already a regular part of the business of Seattle city government. The very first ordinance passed by the newly-incorporated city in 1869 established penalties for public intoxication. Ordinance 10 was passed a month later and required saloons and "drinking houses" to be closed on Sundays. In the years following, more City ordinances were passed governing the availability and consumption of liquor in Seattle.

City government was also responsible for granting or denying applications for liquor licenses to dance halls, cabarets, saloons, and related businesses. Seattle citizens would sometimes submit petitions or letters in support of, or against, granting a license. Calls for increased enforcement of liquor laws often cited how such laws were necessary for the collective benefit of Seattle's citizens. In 1889, a petition appealing to City Council to support the enforcement of laws prohibiting underage drinking and smoking was signed "in behalf of sobriety, in behalf of decency, in behalf of our boys, our homes, our fair city, and of good citizenship for our country." That same year, hundreds of citizens petitioned the City to temporarily ban the sale of liquor after Seattle's catastrophic Great Fire, citing the need "to encourage the rebuilding of our city in the shortest possible time and with the best workmanship."

Although the existence of City rules controlling the sale and consumption of liquor was a long-standing reality in Seattle, complete and widespread prohibition was not popular with everyone. When Washington voters passed statewide prohibition in 1914, the majority of voters in Seattle voted against it. However, when the law went into effect in January 1916, Seattle was obliged to comply.

Seattle Police Department Dry Squad, 1921

Seattle Police Department Dry Squad, 1921. Item 64762, Record Series 9910-01

Statewide Prohibition

Prohibition began in Washington in 1916, outlawing the manufacture and sale of liquor across the state. Certain exceptions through a special permitting system allowed limited amounts of legal liquor, which had been manufactured out of state, to be imported by individuals and businesses who had applied for and received permits from the county.

Even with these exceptions, illegal drinking in Seattle soared. City government struggled to keep up with the administrative and financial demands necessary for enforcement of the new laws. City liquor ordinances were revised more than once, and emergency funds released to cope with budgetary contraints. Seattle Mayor Hiram Gill increased enforcement efforts by establishing a Dry Squad unit of the Police Department and endorsing regular raids of homes and businesses.

Mayor Gill's so-called "strong arm" tactics won some public support, but also criticism. Amidst increasing arrests, accusations of bribery and corruption were leveled at members of the Dry Squad and Mayor Gill, including a federal lawsuit accusing them of colluding with bootleggers. Despite an eventual acquittal, City Council members demanded additional explanations from the accused, who eventually admitted to accepting private monies to assist with a "secret investigation" against violators of the liquor laws.

Federal Prohibition

In January 1920, federal prohibition went into effect. The special permitting system allowed under Washington state prohbition was gone, and the federal rules were more strict. Seattle again revised its liquor ordinances, and the SPD Dry Squad continued its work alongside federal enforcement officers.

Rumrunners and bootleggers busily sourced an ever-increasing demand, and made extensive use of Seattle's boundary waters and the City's proximity to Canada. In August 1922, Mayor Edwin Brown purchased a prowler boat for use by the SPD to patrol Elliott Bay. According a police report two months later, the boat produced quick results and contributed to October's record-breaking number of liquor arrests, confiscations, and fines.

Despite these increased efforts, accusations of police corruption and active complicity among City officials persisted. While Mayor Edwin Brown was away from the City attending the 1924 Democratic National Convention, acting Mayor Bertha Landes fired Police Chief William B. Severyns, assumed control of the Police Department, and began closing speakeasies and lotteries to combat what she saw as unchecked lawless activity. Mayor Brown immediately reinstated Chief Severyns when he returned. Later that year, the Mayor sent a letter to City Council requesting a redraft of the City's intoxicating liquor ordinance to better comply with state prohibition laws, citing the incompatibility as the reason for the police department's struggle to convict offenders. He explained that the old ordinance under which the city was operating allowed a person to have two quarts of whiskey and 12 quarts of beer, an exception that was not allowed under the state law. "This makes it impossible to convict many who are arrested in Police Court" wrote the Mayor. Ordinance 49263 was passed in July 1925, repealing and replacing previous intoxicating liquor ordinances and eliminating the exception.

Repeal

Public support for prohibition waned as liquor-related crime continued to increase and enforcement efforts continued to strain staff and budgets. On November 8, 1932, voters across Washington voted to repeal prohibition in Washington state. Anticipating changes to Seattle's liquor laws, applications for licenses to sell beer, wine, and liquor began arriving at Seattle City Hall a few days later.

Seattle City Council passed Ordinance 63192 on November 29, 1932, which repealed the existing prohibition Ordinance 49263. Additional ordinances outlining regulations for the legal traffic, sale, and consumption of intoxicating beverages were passed in the months following.

Federal prohibition ended on December 5, 1933.

Documents

Pre-Prohibition Seattle

  • Ordinance 1 For the prevention of drunkenness, indecent or disorderly conduct in the City of Seattle (December 22, 1869)
  • Ordinance 10 Relating to closing saloons on Sundays (January 22, 1870)
  • Ordinance 637, first city ordinance to govern the traffic of intoxicating liquor in Seattle (January 17, 1885)
  • Petition for temporary city-wide prohibition after Great Fire, June 15, 1889 (General File 991538)
  • Petition from the Women's Christian Temperance Union asking the City to enforce laws against underage drinking and smoking, October 25, 1889 (General File 993405)
  • Application for a retail liquor license, December 21, 1893 (General File 990949)
  • Petition submitted by a building owner to protest the renewal of a liquor license for her tenant, July 29, 1891 (General File 991244)

Washington State Prohibition in Seattle

  • Ordinance 35503 to prohibit the sale, manufacture, keeping, and disposition of liquor, in accordance with state law (December 1, 1915)
  • Resolution from Seattle's Ministers' Federation in favor of Mayor Gill's "Strong Arm Policy" to curb illegal liquor, May 15, 1916 (Clerk File 64200)
  • Ordinance 36145 authorizing emergency funds for police to seize/destroy liquor (June 29, 1916)
  • Legal notices from the Oregon-Washington Railroad Co. holding the City of Seattle responsible for any charges incurred due to confiscation of liquor shipments, July 31, 1916. (CF 65070)
  • Ordinance 36242, repealing and replacing Ordinance 35503 (August 8, 1916)
  • Report from Mayor in regard to enforcing liquor laws, November 20, 1916 (Clerk File 66162)
  • Ordinance 36788 (December 5, 1916) and 36941 (January 9, 1917) to release funds for Mayor's "secret service work" to enforce laws related to intoxicating liquor
  • Request from Mayor for additional money for use by Dry Squad, January 2, 1917 (Clerk File 66597)
  • Request to City Council from Mayor Gill for the City to pay a damage suit judgement fine on behalf of a Dry Squad officer, March 24, 1917. (Clerk File 67308)
  • Resolution 5562 requesting information about private money received and used by the Dry Squad (April 16, 1917)
  • Letter to City Council from Sgt. Putnam, Head of the Dry Squad, explaining why private money was accepted for City police work, April 23, 1917 (Clerk File 67636)
  • Ordinance 37916 outlining penalities for people who frequented places that kept illegal liquor (November 14, 1917)

National Prohibition in Seattle

Repeal

  • Application from J.E. Rhodes to sell liquor in Seattle (November 12, 1932, CF 137584)
  • Letter from Corporate Counsel advising City Council on how statewide repeal affects City liquor ordinances, November 23, 1932 (Clerk File 137694)
  • Ordinance 63192, repealing Ordinance 49263 (November 29, 1932)

Bibliography

Sources for further research at the Seattle Municipal Archives:

General Files (Record Series 1802-04)

Files contain a wide range of early City documents from 1874 to 1905, including applications for liquor licenses and letters from City residents in support or against them.

Mayor's Messages (Record Series 1802-C2)

The annual messages list accomplishments for specific years and identify key issues for the mayor in the coming year. Vetoes make up the bulk of the messages and illustrate signficant issues dividing the mayor and city council. Liquor licenses were a frequent subject of vetoes through 1913.

Police Court Docket Record of Liquor Cases (Record Series 5602-01)

Police Court dockets summarizing cases related to illegal possession of alcohol prosecuted under municipal and state prohibition laws.

Seattle Police Department Annual Reports (Record Series 1802-H8)

Reports during prohibition include activities of the Dry Squad and other department efforts to curb illegal liquor.

Civil Service Commission Appeals (Record Series 6010-10)

Includes investigations into suspensions and dismissals of policemen and other City employees accused of violating liquor laws.

Other Resources

Clark, Norman H. The Dry Years: Prohibition and Social Change in Washington. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

The Rainy City on the "Wet Coast": The Failure of Prohibition in Seattle (From the Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights Projects at the University of Washington)

Prohibition in Washington State (HistoryLink article)