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Great Stories of the Great Plains: Alcoholic enforces prohibition laws in 1898 Jamestown

The state of North Dakota got serious about enforcing prohibition laws in 1898. North Dakota has always been a bit of an oddity when it came to prohibition. It is the only state to have a clause in its constitution prohibiting the manufacture and...

The state of North Dakota got serious about enforcing prohibition laws in 1898.

North Dakota has always been a bit of an oddity when it came to prohibition. It is the only state to have a clause in its constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol. This went into effect in 1889 and national prohibition didn’t become the law of the land until 1920.

Local law enforcement officials had always tried to enforce the prohibition laws with varying levels of enthusiasm and efficiency. With the formation of the State Enforcement League the government of North Dakota through its weight into the efforts to keep the state’s residents dry.

The State Enforcement League faced a few problems. The head of its Grand Forks office admitted to accepting bribes from speakeasies and blind pigs to look the other way.

If you are wondering, both speakeasies and blind pigs were establishments that illegally sold alcohol although a speakeasy probably did it with a little more class.

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In December of 1898 the operations of the State Enforcement League came to Jamestown. You can about imagine the results.

In a Dec. 15, 1898 issue of The Jamestown Alert the paper listed five people arrested for illegally selling alcohol in Jamestown. Most of the cases were charged in U.S. District Court with selling alcohol without a license rather than the lesser charge of violating prohibition in North Dakota.

The Jamestown enforcement efforts also drew some criticism from the courts.

Arrests in Jamestown were made after an undercover officer had purchased alcohol from the alleged bootleggers. Judge Roderick Rose had a problem with the character of this undercover officer. The story about the court proceedings indicated the informant admitted to drinking to access and the habitual use of alcohol.

"The judge stated in his argument in the Bowman case that such a renegade of God’s creation was not a proper representation of prohibition or any other good cause," wrote The Jamestown Alert.

Evidently the judge thought prohibition laws should only be enforced by teetotalers.

Our five bootleggers arrested in December of 1898 never went to trial. Newspaper articles in the spring of 1899 indicated the defendants had not been able to post bond, They spent the winter in jail and then were released the next spring when their trials were postponed indefinitely.

Articles indicate that the alleged bootleggers had spent about 150 days in jail before they were released. This is actually pretty close to the six-month sentence many bootleggers received in later cases so they actually did receive a comparable punishment to others accused of similar crimes.

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Author Keith Norman can be reached at Keith@KeithNormanBooks.com

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