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A Prohibition Loophole

Harry Wheeler

Harry Wheeler

Arizona became a dry state on January 1, 1915, five years before Prohibition became part of the U.S. Constitution. Arizona’s law was put on the ballot by a voter initiative that said in part that spirituous liquors could not be “received, possessed, sold or in any manner used either in the original package or otherwise in violation of any law of the [the] state.”

For one year the law was strictly enforced and possession of any form of alcohol made the bearer subject to arrest. But within a year, opponents of Prohibition began to argue the concept of personal use – that it was legal to possess and consume alcohol, but not to sell or buy it. The issue was taken all the way to the state Supreme Court and on February 13, 1916, a headline in the Bisbee Daily Review announced: “Supreme Court Decides Liquor Can Be Introduced For Personal Use.”

The decision threw law enforcement, the courts, bootleggers and prohibitionists into confusion. Cochise County Sheriff Harry Wheeler told the press: “I feel that the decision of the Supreme Court in legalizing … personal use has swept away from me every vestige of power which I had for suppressing bootlegging. I am discouraged.”

The state began losing bootlegging cases, and by August had lost every bootlegging case brought to court.

The question for law enforcement and for courts was what constituted personal use? Sheriff Wheeler unilaterally decided that personal use meant “a single shipment must not exceed one case of whiskey, a case of beer or a gallon of wine.”

Prohibitionists and bootleggers took opposite, but not always predictable, sides on the issue. At least one prominent dry leader came out for personal use.

A.B. Buckman, secretary of the Cochise County Dry Federation, an organization instrumental in enacting the Prohibition law, believed in personal rights and personal use and stated: “I consider the decision a victory for the cause of temperance … it vindicated our leader and I think its effect will be to forever ban the saloon from the state of Arizona.”

Bootleggers on the other hand saw their legal business dwindle, and blamed it on the Supreme Court. A “prominent” local bootlegger, incensed over the decision, stated: “The people of the great state of Arizona voted at the last election that it should be illegal to bring whiskey into the state, and I think it is an outrage when three men on the supreme bench can override the will of the people.”

The court ordered transportation companies to deliver alcoholic beverages to Arizona for personal use only. No saloons or retail stores could buy it. People simply wrote out an order, sent their money by mail and the alcohol was shipped directly to them.

Newspaper advertisements appeared in the Bisbee Review for personal-use beer and whiskey – mainly from Kansas City, Missouri. Thirty-five thousand letters flowed into the Bisbee post office offering all forms of mail order booze.

The postmaster stated: “If this run of personal use advertising keeps up we will be forced to engage a new clerk to handle the added mail.”

The first batch of mail-order liquor arrived on June 19, 1916. One can only speculate on the crowds of thirsty drinkers lining up at the Wells Fargo Express office that day to pick up their shipments. The next month the El Paso and Southwest Railroad brought in a boxcar full of intoxicating spirits.

An editorial by the Bisbee Review denounced the Supreme Court decision and noted that Cochise County residents spent $75,000 more than either Phoenix or Tucson on alcohol, and sales came from “all quarters … patronage has been general.”

In November, the state Legislature turned the personal-use wine to vinegar by adding an amendment to close the personal-use loophole.

Bisbee and Arizona were once again dry, and the sheriff and the bootleggers returned to their accustomed work.

This Times Past article was first published on November 30, 2001.

Photo courtesy International Film Service, National Archives Collection; research by Tom Vaughan. ©Arizona Capitol Times.

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