A prescription for medicinal liquor

Prescription for medicinal liquorGoogle “Prohibition,” “medicinal” and “California” today and you’ll get information about California efforts to legalize medicinal marijuana. But in 1928, when this prescription was filled, prohibition meant alcohol, and its “medicinal uses” were widely interpreted.

The National Prohibition Act (the 18th amendment to the Constitution, or Volstead Act) banning the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors, had taken effect in January 1920. Two years before, San Jose politicians shut down the city’s 78 saloons. Excluded from the law was “medicinal alcohol,” dispensed by specially-licensed physicians using forms like this one, regulated by the US Treasury Department’s prohibition commissioner.

We have no idea why the bearer of this certificate, Father Joseph R. Crowley, pastor of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in San Jose, went to a San Francisco doctor for this remedy in November 1928. Lest we make assumptions about his character, whisky and brandy had been widely used by doctors for centuries as a tonic and stimulant to digestion for patients of all ages. It was used to treat everything from anemia, high blood pressure, and heart disease, to typhoid, pneumonia and tuberculosis. This ancient therapy was increasingly called into question during the 1920s by medical research, but doctors also bridled at government interference with their professional judgments regarding treatment. Nevertheless, the consumption of “medicinal alcohol” jumped dramatically during Prohibition, and many doctors and drug stores doled out the medication without asking many questions.

Had Father Crowley been merely thirsty, alcohol was readily available in San Jose in 1928 (though not quite as “wide open” a city as San Francisco). The pages of the San Jose Mercury that year provide plenty of evidence of the consumption of alcohol, usually in stories about the careless who became noticeably drunk in public or who were involved in shoot-outs between bootleggers (or spouses) along Monterey Road. Close by St. Joseph’s was Joe Locutos Place on San Carlos, or Henry’s on North First Street. At 65 Post Street, former saloon-keeper Billy Finley (William Fenerin) thinly camouflaged his notorious speakeasy behind a three seat barbershop in the front of his building while supplying the thirsty citizens in the back. In 1929, Northern California’s Prohibition Administrator E. R. Bohm allegedly complained that there were more stills in operation in Santa Clara County than in any other county in the state.

If Father Crowley had needed sacramental wine for St. Joseph’s, this too was excluded from the Prohibition list and was available at government warehouses (the nearest was in San Francisco.) Or he could visit to the Jesuits at the Novitiate of the Sacred Heart above Los Gatos, who had been making sweet sacramental wine from their vines since 1888. Many commercial Santa Clara Valley wineries survived Prohibition by producing communion wine, while local breweries, like Fredericksburg along the Alameda produced “malt extract syrup,” for home baking and “beverage” purposes. (For more on prohibition in Santa Clara Valley, see Traci Hukill’s “California Drinkin’ : An Account of Santa Clara Valley’s Slow Waltz with John Barleycorn,” Metroactive Features, at http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/06.12.97/cover/calcohol-9724.html)

Always ahead on such things, Californians voted 3 to 1 to repeal the ban on alcohol in 1932, a year before the Volstead Act was repealed. This left the federal government to enforce prohibition without state help. The 18th amendment was repealed in 1933.

by Roxanne Nilan

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