The Grisly Public Choice Behind the End of Prohibition
By David Henderson
Writing about Prohibition in his One Summer (about the United States in 1927), Bill Bryson tells a story about a tragic incident that may well have helped lead to the end of Prohibition. Earlier in the book, Bryson had told of how the single-minded Wayne Bidwell Wheeler, one of the chief people pushing for Prohibition, had taken down powerful politicians who opposed Prohibition. After that, people didn’t dare cross him.
Despite his manifestly unthreatening appearance, Wayne Bidwell Wheeler was for a time the most feared and powerful man in America, and–unless you believe that people should die in agony for having a drink–possibly the most misguidedly evil as well.
We later learn why Bryson makes this strong moral judgement. Wheeler “insisted that the government poison industrial alcohol.” Parenthetically, while many of my libertarian friends think that Calvin Coolidge was the best U.S. President of the 20th century, and I am inclined to agree with them, Coolidge’s letting this happen is a huge negative.
But August 13, 1927 did not turn out well for Mr. Wheeler. Bryson writes:
What is known is that while Mrs. Wheeler was preparing to cook dinner at the cottage that evening, her oil stove exploded as she lit it and she was drenched from head to toe in flaming oil. Mrs. Wheeler’s eighty-one-year old father rushed in from a neighboring room and suffered a fatal heart attack at the sight of his daughter in flames. Wayne Wheeler, who had been resting upstairs, arrived a moment later. He stifled the blaze with a blanket and summoned an ambulance, but his wife’s burns were too severe and she died that night in the hospital. The shock of the incident was more than Wheeler could bear. Three weeks later, he suffered a heart attack of his own and died.
With Wheeler dead, Prohibition lost its spirit and momentum, as well as its chief fund-raiser. Within three years, the Anti-Saloon League would be so hard up that it would have to cancel the newspaper subscription at its Washington office. Within six years, Prohibition was dead.