Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Thirteen "Dry" Years

Two of these are Sisters in Crime members, not notorious villains.
My Sisters in Crime chapter has a taste for adventure. Luckily for us, we’re based in Savannah, Georgia, a city bursting at the seams with adventure. We’ve toured the county jail, practiced our handgun proficiency, and tested our mystery-solving skills in a haunted escape room. This December, we explored one of Savannah’s newest attractions—the American Prohibition Museum.

Carrie Nation and her Infamous Hatchet
The time before and during Prohibition was a showplace for our nation’s contradictions. On one side, the Temperance movement united strange bedfellows—women’s right’s organizations, Protestant firebrands, and the KKK, which unfortunately found common ground with Prohibition’s peculiar strain of moral zealotry. Temperance’s most visible champion was the hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation (at right), who eventually took her show on the road vaudeville-style, destroying bars nightly for a paying audience.

The anti-Prohibition side was just as diverse. On the one hand were those wealthy manufacturers who stood to lose a powerful amount of money—familiar names like Busch, Pabst, and Yuengling. But the small brewers also suffered, especially the Scots-Irish immigrants who brought their whiskey-making skills to America only to find themselves bankrupt, their families suddenly destitute.

Moonshiner and Product
And thus began the second chapter of the story—the black market and all its associations. The Roaring Twenties ushered in the age of backyard stills and bathtub gin, glamorous speakeasys and shabby “blind pigs,” which were storefronts that pretended to feature some sideshow attraction (see the amazing blind pig!) but instead sold liquor by the drink. Crime became both sophisticated and organized, with quasi-celebrities like Al Capone trafficking in luxury and bloodshed and notoriety.

Savannah was at the heart of the illegal liquor trade. The city was filled with eager customers, and the marshland provided both remote locations for brewing and a convoluted system of waterways for transportation. Once the illicit cargo reached the land, young men in souped-up cars took up the supply chain, racing down twisty dirt roads with jars of moonshine crammed into every available square inch of trunk space. During their downtime, these racers tested their skills against each other for bragging rights. From these races came NASCAR, that quintessentially Southern cocktail of cockiness, rebellion, and potentially lethal speed.

I learned a great deal during my visit to the museum. Prohibition is a fascinating chapter in American history, especially for those of us interested in criminal undertakings. Its effects still ripple through our culture today. I don’t know about my fellow mystery writers, but I found a lot of writerly inspiration in this story of deluded do-gooders and crafty wrong-doers and the potent liquid that fired their equal if opposite obsessions.

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Tina Whittle writes the Tai Randolph mysteries for Poisoned Pen Press. The sixth book in this Atlanta-based series—Necessary Ends—is scheduled for an April release. Tina is a proud member of Sisters in Crime and serves as both a chapter officer and national board member. Visit her website to follow her on social media, sign up for her newsletter, or read additional scenes and short stories: www.tinawhittle.com.


  1. I’m also a charter, lifetime member of the Low Country SinC chapter, and we did have a good time!

    ~ Jim

  2. Very interesting post, Tina. That's the problem of prohibiting something. Regardless if the cause is a good one, the ripping effect is sometimes worse.

  3. How interesting, Tina. I've never been in Savannah, but I think it's a town I'd like to visit. My SinC chapter visited the morgue in Cleveland, and it was fascinating. We talked to a fingerprint special, visited the lab where they did autopsies, the coroner who talked to us and showed us around had just finished one shortly before and had cleaned it up. We visited where the bodies were kept, too, but some of us only stood at the doorway, and others didn't want to go anywhere near it. In another building on the top floor there were four separate divided scenes with a fake body and with things other than the body, we had to decide if it was a murder, an accident or a suicide. It was used for those in a Police Academy.

  4. History can inspire great fiction, but the fiction has to be believable. History does not.

  5. I'm sorry I missed this museum during our yearly soccer roadtrips from Atlanta to Savannah.

    My great-uncle lived on a "prune ranch" (he had plum orchards and also the dehydrator to turn them into prunes) in the Napa Valley. He used to tell stories about enjoying a glass of local wine with the neighbors during Prohibition. Grapes were still grown, harvested, and used in various grape juice products.

  6. That was a time when our country was very divided. Sounds a bit like today, when we have "odd bedfellows," diverse groups with little apparent in common except for one principle. I bet the museum is well worth a visit!

  7. It certainly is worth a couple of hours, even if you are well-versed in this particular part of history. I didn't know that many of the products we enjoy today were developed (like Margaret's uncle did) as the result of figuring out what to do with ingredients that used to make alcohol.

    And yes, it is an example of how one idea can unite diverse groups, who all have different motivations. And the unintended havoc they can wreak. We're still paying for these 13 years in many ways.

    Maybe we'll visit the morgue next, Gloria -- that's a great idea!