Bootleg

Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition

by Karen Blumenthal

Square Fish

BOOTLEG (Chapter 1)The Little Sheppard

LOOKING BACK on the childhood of Morris Sheppard, you can see glimmers of a budding statesman, the kind of earnest political leader who would want to make a big difference in the world.

Born in 1875, little Morris learned poetry and literary passages before he was old enough to recognize his ABCs. As a toddler, he would stand on the counter of a local store in rural East Texas and recite verses for a stick of candy, continuing until his pockets couldn't hold another piece.

Attending schools in small Texas towns like Daingerfield, Black Jack, and Pittsburg, he studied Greek, Latin, history, and English and developed persuasive skills and an apparent flair for leadership. At 13, he shared with some other boys the story of William Tell, the legendary marksman who shot an apple off his son's head with a bow and arrow. Admiring Tell's skill and bravery, but lacking the arrows, Morris and his friends decided to reenact the deed--with a gun.

"We are told," reported the Pittsburg Press in 1888, "that several boys stood with apples on their heads and Morris with a target rifle shot them off--that is to say, the apples, fortunately not their heads."

The boys' parents were horrified when they heard about the game and put a quick end to it. Morris escaped a whipping but got a stern lecture from his father, a local judge.

When Morris finished his regular schooling at 16, he moved on to the University of Texas in Austin. Jumping into student life at the young and still-small school, he joined a fraternity, led a literary society, played the cornet and piano, and sang in the glee club. Always fond of a good joke, he got a kick out of entering the dining hall by walking on his hands. But he was best known for his preacherlike speaking skills and was selected to compete in contests and serve as a graduation speaker.

From there he went to law school, spending two years in Austin and a third at Yale University in Connecticut. Once again, he attracted attention as a star orator, winning a debating prize and speaking at the graduation ceremonies.

Somewhere between his general-store recitations and his law degree, young Morris came to a heartfelt belief: He despised liquor and the saloons that sold it. He sometimes said his feelings grew out of his grammar school science classes, where he saw vivid drawings of a drunkard's stomach and read about how alcohol destroyed the human body.

He may have been influenced by the anti-liquor stance of the Methodist church, which he joined as a college student. His time at Yale also may have hardened his stance. He arrived there in debt and driven to succeed. So, he said, "I cut out every item of expense that was possible and quit every practice which might be injurious"--including tobacco, coffee, and tea. The result, he said, was "so satisfactory" that those items "remained on the contraband list ever since."

After Yale, young Morris began practicing law in East Texas, but in 1902, his career took an unexpected turn. His father, John, who had been elected to a second term in the U.S. House of Representatives, fell ill and then passed away. Friends immediately urged Morris to run for his father's seat.

By the mid-1920s, when he posed with two youngsters in front of the Capitol, Sheppard was a senior statesman in Congress.

Jumping in just ten days before the primary election, Morris stumped the district, delivering an average of seven speeches a day. When his opponents made fun of his youth, he replied that it was something he "was overcoming day by day."

To nearly everyone's surprise, he won the seat. At the age of twenty-seven, he headed to Washington.

Small in stature at 5 feet, 7 inches, slight at 135 pounds, and youthful looking, Sheppard hardly looked like a Congressman. "It will take the older members some time to get to know Mr. Sheppard, so that they will not try to send him on errands," the Washington Post noted.

While most known for his glittery speeches, Sheppard (center, seated) also chaired a U.S. House Public Buildings and Grounds Committee in 1912.

Nicknamed the "boy orator of Texas," Sheppard was originally known more for his speaking skills than for any special legislation. As the "boy" matured into a confident congressman, the world outside of Washington was changing. Debates that had simmered for years over whether alcohol was dangerous and should be legally banned were beginning to roll to a boil. Originally, the arguments took place community by community and county by county. But as the number of towns outlawing liquor sales and saloons multiplied, the organizers raised the ante, taking aim at entire states. To support their efforts, Sheppard introduced legislation to keep liquor from moving from wet areas--where liquor was legal--into dry ones, where liquor was outlawed.

In 1911, he actively campaigned to prohibit the sale of alcohol throughout Texas, openly supporting prohibition for the first time. Despite his efforts, the prohibition proposal fell a few thousand votes short in the hotly contested election.

In 1913, one of Texas's U.S. senators resigned. Sheppard outmaneuvered a more popular candidate, and the Texas legislature selected him to fill the powerful job as senator. In a colorful speech to the state legislature, he accepted his new job, calling for limits on working hours, clearer and simpler laws, and, with fiery eloquence, an end to liquor sales.

"The liquor traffic is a peril to society," he said. "I shall oppose this scourge from hell until my arm can strike no longer and my tongue can speak no more.

"I shall oppose it because I hear the cries of children who are hungering for bread. I shall oppose it because I see a mother's wasted face, her pale lips pleading with the besotted figure at her side.

"I shall oppose it because I see the staggering forms of men whose trembling hands hold but the ashes of their strength and pride.

He concluded, "I shall oppose it because its abolition will mean a new stability for the Republic, a new radiance for the flag."

Just months later, toward the end of 1913, the two biggest anti-liquor groups in the nation decided the time was right for an even more dramatic move. To end the scourge of alcohol now and for future generations, they proposed a national solution--not just a law, but an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would forever ban the sale of liquor throughout the country. To champion their cause in the U.S. Senate, they turned to Morris Sheppard.

On a chilly winter day in December 1913, some 4,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to take crucial steps toward changing America's drinking habits once and for all. Leading the march were children.

Sheppard was elected to the Senate in 1913.

At the very front, a young boy carried an American flag. Just behind him, dozens of girls in white dresses carried banners calling for a national prohibition on alcohol. Following them were Woman's Christian Temperance Union members from every state, many wearing the white ribbons that symbolized prohibition. Some sang their anthem, "A Saloonless Nation by 1920."

Woman's Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League members march toward the Capitol in 1913 to present a proposed prohibition amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Joining from another direction were the men of the Anti-Saloon League. Together, they marched to the Capitol. Waiting on the steps to receive a proposed constitutional amendment were Senator Sheppard and Representative Richmond Pearson Hobson of Alabama.

Later that day, Sheppard introduced this constitutional amendment in Congress for the first time, saying, "The fact that alcohol undermines the brain and paralyzes the will of man, planting in him and his posterity the seeds of physical and moral degeneracy, the seeds of disease, the seeds of poverty, the seeds of crime, makes it a peril to the very existence of free government. Let the people of this Nation insert in the National Constitution, the source of the Nation's life, a clause prohibiting an evil that will prove to be the source of the nation's death."

Results might take years. But with patience and determination, Sheppard and his supporters could--and would--change the culture, the behavior, and the course of America.

For his role, Morris Sheppard would be known as the Father of National Prohibition. It would turn out to be a most dubious distinction.

A playbill highlights the sobering message of Ten Nights in a Bar Room, a popular, long-running temperance play.

BOOTLEG Text copyright © 2011 by Karen Blumenthal