Stephen F. Austin State University



By Judith Linsley

In 1920, Americans ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of "intoxicating liquors" in the United States and its territories. Victorious reformers believed that outlawing alcohol consumption would eliminate numerous social problems.

Hopes were high for Prohibition's success, but opposition, both organized and individual, began immediately. Prohibition actually seemed to inspire people to drink.

The face of Prohibition enforcement in Beaumont was 24-year-old Bee Cowan, a Federal agent with military and police experience described by a Beaumont Enterprise reporter as "a ferret, a seer, a fellow who can work for 18 hours at a clip and follow the trail by his nose." He was assisted by Artie Pollock, chief deputy for Jefferson County.

Cowan and Pollock had their work cut out for them. Bootleggers could smuggle liquor into Beaumont by boat, train, and even automobile, water being the most common route. Vessels from foreign ports, especially Mexico, the West Indies, and Canada, brought alcohol from countries where distilling liquor was legal, selling it for big profits in the U.S. One ship from Canada, captured in March 1924, carried a cargo of mostly Canadian Club whiskey estimated at $50,000.

Moonshining was even more prevalent around Beaumont than bootlegging. Stills were hidden in the thick woods of the river bottoms but even stashed around town. They ranged from simple structures to elaborately constructed distillation systems.

The shocking reality about moonshine was that it could hurt or even kill the drinker. It was often poorly distilled and rarely became "good stuff." Good stuff went through three filterings to filter out not only impurities, but deadly poisonous wood alcohol. And Federal officials actually added wood alcohol to legally-purchasable medicinal alcohol to keep it from being turned into liquor or beer.

Beaumont's city chemist, Dr. L.O. Bernhagen, announced that "practically every bottle" of a batch of confiscated moonshine contained wood alcohol and that it was "dangerous to drink any of it."

Even without wood alcohol, moonshine could be contaminated with general filth and debris, bugs, and even snakes. Yet people continued to purchase and drink it, and many died, or, if they survived, were often left with the "jakeleg," a semi-paralytic condition.

Bee Cowan believed that, in time, Prohibition violations would dwindle. Instead, alcohol consumption continued to increase; in Beaumont, drunkenness replaced vagrancy as the most frequent arrest charge. In the summer of 1925, the U.S. Marshall for Beaumont believed that 90 percent of local families made home brew.

By the late 1920s, national Prohibition was unenforceable and had created an economic base for organized crime. In 1933 the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth. Prohibition would be remembered as the "noble experiment" that failed. It would also define the decade known as the "Roaring Twenties," and give it many of its terms and icons: bootleg booze, moonshiners, speakeasies, Al Capone, Elliott Ness and his Untouchables. Dean Tevis, "Officers Put Moonshiners in the Southeast Texas on the Run," Beaumont Enterprise, April 27, 1924. Beaumont Enterprise, September 14, 1924. Beaumont Journal, June 1, 1922, March 22, 1924, November 18, 1925, November 5, 1927.

Beaumont Police Chief Carl Kennedy displays a still captured in a raid during Prohibition.