CPTV’s New Documentary, Prohibition: Connecticut Goes Dry, Chronicles the State’s Unique Role During America’s Greatest Social Experiment
Premieres Monday, November 12 at 9 p.m. on Connecticut Public Television
(CPTV); encore broadcasts on Tuesday, November 13 at 8 and 11 p.m. and
Sunday, November 18 at 10 p.m.
HARTFORD, Conn. (November 8, 2012) – In 1920, the 18th Amendment was enacted banning the sale of alcohol across the country. However, in our “land of steady habits,” alcohol consumption was a habit that proved hard to break.
In the new CPTV original documentary, Prohibition: Connecticut Goes Dry, filmmakers Jennifer Boyd and Sara Conner explore Connecticut’s unique role in the prohibition movement, from the early temperance advocates of Litchfield to the lawless rum runners of Long Island Sound. Premiering on Monday, November 12 at 9 p.m. on Connecticut Public Television
(CPTV), with encore broadcasts on Tuesday, November 13 at 8 and 11 p.m. and Sunday, November 18 at 10 p.m., the program explores the creation, rise and fall of prohibition in the state.
While the roots of the movement may have begun in Connecticut in 1789 when a group of Litchfield farmers banned the use of alcohol while farming, prohibition was never popular in the state. In fact, Connecticut and Rhode Island were the only two states who refused to ratify the 18th amendment. As author Dan Okrent explained, “What did Connecticut and Rhode Island have in common? Connecticut’s population in 1920 was 67% Catholic and it was a Protestant movement; it was an anti-Catholic movement.” Those areas of the state that supported the law enforced it;Those that didn’t let violations pass without incident.
The state’s working class population – many of whom were immigrants from Ireland and Germany where social drinking was held in high regard – frequented the saloons that lined the streets near factories. As the documentary explains, one block of Hartford, about one quarter square mile, was reported to have 83 saloons. The temperance journal Connecticut Home claimed
that there were more saloons in Connecticut than in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Florida combined.
While the working and upper classes both imbibed spirits with equal fervor, many individuals in the state began to see the practice as destructive to family life in the 19th century. Two primary players in the early prohibition movement were Lyman Beecher and P.T. Barnum. Presbyterian minister Beecher (father to author Harriet Beecher Stowe) began to deliver a series of sermons on the evils of drinking in 1813. The popularity of his sermons soon spread from his Litchfield church to throughout the state and the nation. P.T. Barnum, who created the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, decided to speak out for temperance when he realized that his drinking had made him more argumentative at home and in business. One evening he famously cut off the heads of sixty to seventy bottles of wine in his own cellar and dumped them on the ground in protest.
Using archival photographs and footage, the CPTV documentary also tells the story of Connecticut citizens who profited from smuggling and selling alcohol. Old Saybrook’s Campbell Strusholm set up his rum running business at what is known today as the Castle at Cornfield Point in Old Saybrook. He smuggled in liquor by sea from Canada to the Bahamas outrunning the
newly formed Coast Guard with his fast-moving fleet of boats. Nellie Green, who owned the Talmadge Hotel on the Branford/East Haven line, created a hugely popular speakeasy, but soon realized that serving as a “middleman” and storage facility for alcohol was where the real profits laid.
During the 14-year prohibition period from 1920 to 1933, Connecticut was quite simply the place to party. The state’s proximity to the water and the convenience of the Boston Post Road between New York City and Boston made the state a convenient bootlegging artery. There were more than enough well-to-do residents like author F. Scott Fitzgerald, New Yorker illustrator John Held Jr.and millionaire philanthropist Frederick Lewis, who had the resources to buy and store liquor for
lavish parties. And with only thirteen federal agents assigned to the state to enforce the law and local police turning a blind eye to violators, those who wanted a drink didn’t have much trouble finding one.
By the end of 1933, every state in the union had ratified the 21st Amendment to repeal prohibition and the anti-alcohol movement had been deemed a complete failure. Connecticut – what many considered the wettest state in the union – could once again drink its beverage of choice legally…free from the watchful eyes of temperance advocates and the law.