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Ken Burns' 'Prohibition' Recalls A Law So Strict It Was (Tee)totally Doomed

Agents pour out alcohol into the gutter during a raid. Ken Burns' <em>Prohibition</em> airs beginning Sunday night on PBS.
New York Daily News
Agents pour out alcohol into the gutter during a raid. Ken Burns' Prohibition airs beginning Sunday night on PBS.

"We were awash in alcohol in the 19th century," says documentarian Ken Burns in a discussion with Audie Cornish on Weekend Edition Sunday. Burns' Prohibition, beginning Sunday night on PBS, serves as the follow-up to his past series on topics as diverse as the Civil War, Jazz, the National Park system, and baseball.

The early installments of Prohibition paint the America that got itself into Prohibition as a nation that indeed had a massive drinking habit — several times as much alcohol as we consume now. That habit, Burns says, led to a temperance movement initially intended to encourage people to drink less, not nothing. But its goals gradually became more and more extreme until the law that ultimately passed to enforce Prohibition was far stricter than many had intended — so strict that it could not stand.

At the same time, the history of Prohibition is a history of exceptions and the observation of a law in the breach. Religious congregations that were permitted to serve sacramental alcohol saw their numbers swell; physicians prescribed booze for medicinal purposes.

Perhaps most notably, Burns says the fallout from a law doomed to be ignored included the birth of modern organized crime. There was so much money to be made from the inevitability of illegal drinking that it attracted far more sophisticated criminal enterprises than were created — or really needed — before. Organized crime was, he says, "the great unintended consequence."

Anyone who doubts the openness with which Prohibition was defied by the population meant to be ruled by it need only consider what is clearly Burns' favorite piece of trivia from the time: At one point, what was supposed to be a dry nation had become the number one importer of cocktail shakers.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.