Prohibition part 2: Beer, Cholera, and Public Health

Part 1: Did European Filthiness lead to Prohibition?

So why were the immigrants drinking so much?

Simply put, European cities prior to the installation of underground sewers and water purification plants were disgusting, filth-ridden cesspools where the average citizen stood an astronomical chance of being felled by fecal-born diseases. How the cities got to be so revolting is beyond me–it may just be a side effect of living in any kind of city before the invention of effective sewers. Nevertheless, European city dwellers drank their own feces until everyone started catching cholera. (Not to mention E. coli, smallpox, syphilis, typhus, tuberculosis, measles, dysentery, Bubonic Plague, gonorrhea, leprosy, malaria, etc.)

The average superstitious “primitive” knows that dead bodies contain mystical evil contamination properties, and that touching rotting carcasses can infect you with magical death particles that will then kill you (or if you are a witch, your intended victims,) but Europeans were too smart for such nonsense; Ignaz Semmelweis, the guy who insisted that doctors were killing mothers by infecting them with corpse particles by not washing their hands between autopsying dead bodies and delivering babies, was hauled off to an insane asylum and immediately stomped to death by the guards.

The women, of course, had figured out that some hospitals murdered their patients and some hospitals did not; the women begged not to be sent to the patient-murdering hospitals, but such opinions were, again, mere superstitions that the educated classes knew to ignore.

It is amazing what man finds himself suddenly unable to comprehend so long as his incomprehension is necessary for making money, whether it be the amount of food necessary to prevent a child from starving or that you should not wallow in feces.

Forgive me my vitriol, but there are few things I hate worse than disease, and those who willfully spread death and suffering should be dragged into the desert and shot.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

Anyway, back to our story. The much-beleagured “Dark Ages” of Medieval Europe was actually a time of relatively few diseases, just because the population was too low for much major disease transmission, but as the trade routes expanded and cities grew, epidemic after epidemic swept the continent. The Black Death came in 1346, carrying off 75 to 200 million people, or 30-60% of the population. According to the Wikipedia, “Before 1350, there were about 170,000 settlements in Germany, and this was reduced by nearly 40,000 by 1450.” The Black Plague would not disappear from Europe until the 1700s, though it returned again around 1900–infecting San Francisco at the same time–in the little known “Third Plague” outbreak that killed approximately 15 million people, (most of them in India and China,) and officially ended in 1959.

(BTW, rodents throughout much of the world, including America, still harbor plague-bearing fleas which do actually still give people the plague, so be cautious about contact with wild rodents or their carcases, and if you think you have been infected, get to a hospital immediately because modern medicine can generally cure it.)

Toward the end of the 1700s, smallpox killed about 400,000 Europeans per year, wiping out 20-60% of those it infected.

Cholera spreads via the contamination of drinking water with cholera-laden diarrhea. Prevention is simple: don’t shit in the drinking water. If you can’t convince people not to shit in the water supply, then boil, chlorinate, sterilize, filter, or do whatever it takes to get your water clean.

In 1832, Cholera struck the UK, killing 53,000 people; France lost 100,000. In 1854, epidemiologist John Snow risked his life to track the cholera outbreak in Soho, London. His work resulted in one of history’s most important maps:


Each black line represents a death from cholera.

The medical profession of Snow’s day believed that cholera was spread through bad air–miasmas–and that Snow was a madman for being anywhere near air breathed out by cholera sufferers. Snow’s map not only showed that the outbreak was concentrated around one water source, (the PUMP in the center of the map,) but also showed one building on Broad street that had been mysteriously spared the contagion, suffering zero deaths: the brewery.

The monks of the brewery did not drink unadulterated water from the pump; they were drinking beer, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Drinking nothing but beer might sound like a bad strategy, especially if you need to drive anywhere, but beer has a definite advantage over water: fermentation kills pathogens.

It wasn’t until 1866 that the establishment finally started admitting the unpleasant truth that people were catching cholera because they were drinking poop water, but since then, John Snow’s work has saved the lives of millions of people.

Good luck finding anyone who remembers Snow’s name today–much less Semmelweis’s–but virtually every school child in America knows about Amelia Earhart, a woman who’s claim to fame is that she failed to cross the Pacific Ocean in a plane. (Sorry, I was looking at children’s biographies today, and Amelia Earhart remains one of my pet peeves in the category of “Why would I try to inspire girls via failure?”)

But that is all beside the point, which is simply that Europeans who drank lots of beer lived, while Europeans who drank water died. This is the sort of thing that can exert a pretty strong selective pressure on people to drink lots of beer.

Meanwhile, Back in America…

While Americans were not immune to European diseases, lower population density made it harder for epidemics to spread. The same plague that killed 13 million people in China and India killed a mere couple hundred in San Francisco, and appears to have never killed significant numbers in other states.

Low population density meant, among other things, far less excrement in the water. American water was probably far less contaminated than European water, and so Americans had undergone much less selective pressure to drink nothing but beer.

Many American religious groups took a dim view of alcohol. The Puritans did not ban alcohol, but believed it should be drunk in moderation and looked down on drunkenness. The Methodists, another Protestant group that broke away from the Anglican Church in the late 1700s and spread swiftly in America, were against alcohol from their start. Methodist ministers were to drink chiefly water, and by the mid-1880s, they were using “unfermented wine” for their sacraments. The Presbyterians began spreading the anti-alcohol message during the Second Great Awakening, and by 1879, Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, claimed that in America, “almost every [Protestant] Christian minister has become an abstainer.” (source) Even today, many Southern Baptists, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists abstain entirely from alcohol, the Mormons apparently going so far as to use water instead of wine in their sacraments.

Temperance movements also existed in Europe and other European colonies, but never reached the same heights as they did in the US. Simply put, where the water was bad, poor people could not afford to drink non-fermented beverages. Where the water was pure, people could claim drinking it a necessary piece of salvation.

As American cities filled with poor, desperate foreigners fleeing the famine and filth of Europe, their penchant for violent outbursts following over-indulgence in alcohol was not lost on their new neighbors, and so Prohibition’s coalition began to form: women, who were most often on the receiving end of drunken violence; the Ku Klux Klan, which had it out for foreigners generally and Papists especially; and the Protestant ministers, who were opposed to both alcoholism and Papism.

The Germans were never considered as problematic as the Irish, being more likely to be employed and less likely to be engaged in drunken crime, but they held themselves apart from the rest of society, living in their own communities, joining German-specific social clubs, and still speaking German instead of English, which did not necessarily endear them to their neighbors.

Prohibition was opposed primarily by wealthy Germans, (especially the brewers among them;) Episcopalians, (who were afraid their sacramental wine would be banned;) and Catholics. The breweries also campaigned against Women’s Suffrage, on the grounds that pretty much all of the suffragettes were calling for Prohibition.

WWI broke the German community by making it suddenly a very bad idea to be publicly German, and people decided that using American grain to brew German beer instead of sending that grain to feed the fighting men on the front lines was very unpatriotic indeed. President Wilson championed the income tax, which allowed the Federal Government to run off something other than alcohol taxes, women received the right to vote, and Prohibition became the law of the land–at least until 1933, when everyone decided it just wasn’t working out so well.

But by that time, the drinking water problem had been mostly worked out, so people at least had a choice of beverages they could safely and legally imbibe.

Part 1 is here.