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Dry—or Wet?

In the end, Edmondson pierced the weak point of the Drys’ armor—the hypocrisy that many of them practiced. For if biblical/moral arguments against the evils of drinking were their uniform motivation in opposing the distribution of liquor, they would not have been moved by the afore-mentioned financial justifications for rolling back Prohibition. Nor should the arrest of lawbreakers have shaken them. In fact, the revenues generated by the latter would have helped offset the continued loss of the former.

Indeed, were Oklahoma truly a “dry” state, Edmondson’s ruthless campaign should have been a win-win for Prohibition. It would have decimated the illegal liquor industry at every stage of its cycle, while generating its own, perhaps millions of dollars’ worth, of precious revenues for state coffers.

Instead, Edmondson flushed out the large pretend faction among the Drys. His shrewd campaign to make enforcement laws stick turned many Oklahoma voters away from the complacency of their Dry voting and Wet practice, and into ardent Prohibition opponents. These included hotel, restaurant, and club imbibers, conventioneers, and even bootleggers who had previously thrived with the lack of legal competition for their product.

All of this stoked the already significant opposition to Prohibition in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. Those urban centers traditionally vote with somewhat less allegiance to conservative social mores such as alcohol abstinence than their rural neighbors. Moreover, in a reversal of the statehood-era Prohibition contests of a half-century before, the Drys now faced an uphill fundraising battle against the Wets.

On April 7, 1959, Oklahoma voters overthrew both state Prohibition and Will Rogers’ famed comment that Oklahomans would vote “dry as long as they could stagger to the polls.”

So, how might the epitaphs of Prohibition and alcoholic consumption read for Oklahoma? The long-labored-for junking of Prohibition ended much private hypocrisy and public corruption, and gave to Oklahomans a freedom of action supported by federal law, after 1933. It also channeled oceans of revenue from sales taxes to the state from an array of events accompanied by liquor sales, including conventions, entertainment events, and other commercial enterprises.

Didn’t it? Perhaps. Oklahoma pioneer and dean of state historians Edward Everett Dale (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 10), though, wrote, more than a decade after the landmark vote, in his own history of the state, that “Revenue from this source, however, has been disappointingly small.”

Excesses in the enduring social practice of alcohol consumption, meanwhile, already cost Oklahoma more than $3 billion dollars per year back in 2010, according to researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That averaged out to $821 stolen annually from the pocket of every man, woman, child, and baby in the state, more than $3,000 for a family of four.

According to the CDC, “The cost of this dangerous behavior impacts many aspects of the drinker’s life and the lives of those around them.” Losses in workplace productivity and its myriad of ripple effects constituted the lion’s share of the costs, but health care expenses for treating problems caused by excessive drinking, law enforcement and other criminal justice expenses, and losses from motor vehicle crashes related to excessive alcohol use each cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

CDC researchers reported that “the study still underestimates the cost of excessive drinking because information on alcohol is often underreported or unavailable, and the study did not include other costs, such as pain and suffering due to alcohol-related injuries and diseases,” including broken marriages and other destroyed relationships, careers, and bankruptcies.

As We Teach Our Children Not to be Hypocrites…

Oklahoma journalist Martin Hauan’s experience with 1950s governors Johnston Murray and Raymond Gary reveals the Janus-faced nature of the state’s Drys, those citizens in favor of prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages. Hauan served as press secretary for both Murray and Gary. “Gary meant it when he said he was a dry,” Hauan recalled. “I’m certain Raymond Gary has never in his life knowingly let liquor touch his lips.”

Meanwhile, “Murray was a political Dry who got his big campaign support from prohibitionists, and occasional cocktail hour solace from bourbon and coke (Coca Cola).” Murray became a national hero to prohibitionists in the early 1950s after Hauan ghostwrote a heart wrenching but admittedly hypocritical article for him. It concerned the ravages of liquor on a once-promising young man, and it appeared in the Drys’ widely-distributed magazine.

In his book He Buys Organs for Churches, Pianos for Bawdy Houses, Hauan recalled the subsequent scene when the Washington, D.C.-based American Temperance Society realized that Murray was in town on political business:

“We want a public meeting with Gov. Murray and a press conference later,” an eager voice told me (over the phone). “It’s vital to Gov. Murray’s future…With our help, he’s going to become a national leader.”

Who am I to stand in the way of somebody becoming president? I caved in and invited the man to bring his friends and magazines to our hotel suite.

Within minutes the Willard Hotel was full of prohibitionists with healthy, shining faces and armloads of magazines, clamoring for Gov. Murray. I got the message quick and high-tailed it in search of my governor. I had reason for worry.

When I found Gov. Murray, he was putting the finishing touches to one of those typically long Washington luncheons, raising a final jolly toast to everyone’s good health.

“Take a deep breath and get ready, Governor,” I told him. “You got friends outside. The United Drys have descended upon us.”

Murray did a double-take. As I explained the situation, I could see the happy martini glow start draining from his cheeks.

I handed him some mints he chewed about five minutes…Never have I heard a finer anti-liquor speech than Johnston Murray delivered that day to a cheering group of his devoted United Dry followers. Of course we both felt like hypocrites afterward, and I guess we were. But what would you do?

Gov. Murray had no choice but to smile and accept with grace the title of “America’s greatest whiskey fighter” which they bestowed upon him that day, along with a suitcase full of temperance magazines I had to lug back to Oklahoma.

Our temperance meeting broke up just at the Washington cocktail hour. Murray and I walked away together.

“How about a drink, Governor?” I asked.

Murray busted out laughing. “You’re on!” he said.

We had doubles.


The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book

Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Statehood - 2020s

which can be purchased HERE.

View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.

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