A Guide to the Records of the Virginia Prohibition Commission, 1916-1934 Prohibition Commission, Virginia, Records of the Accession 42740

A Guide to the Records of the Virginia Prohibition Commission, 1916-1934

A Collection in
the Library of Virginia
Accession Number 42740


Library of Virginia

The Library of Virginia
800 East Broad Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219-8000
Phone: (804) 692-3888 (Archives Reference)
Fax: (804) 692-3556 (Archives Reference)
Email: archdesk@lva.virginia.gov(Archives)
URL: http://www.lva.virginia.gov/

© 2010 By The Library of Virginia. All Rights Reserved.

Processed by: Laura Drake Davis

The Library of Virginia
Accession Number
Records of the Virginia Prohibition Commission, 1916-1934
Physical Characteristics
179.93 cu. ft. (203 boxes, 2 volumes)

Administrative Information

Access Restrictions

Collection is open to research.

Use Restrictions

Materials in the Applications and Personnel File series are restricted until 31 March 2009 due to the presence of privacy-protected materials.

Preferred Citation

Virginia Prohibition Commission. Records, 1916-1934. Accession 42740. State Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia. Richmond, Va.

Acquisition Information

Transferred 1938.

Biographical Information

The Virginia Prohibition Commission was established by Act of Assembly on 10 March 1916 as "an exercise of the police power of the State for the protection of the State, for the protection of the public health, peace and morals, and the prevention of the sale and use of ardent spirits". This act, also known as the "Mapp Act", made it "unlawful to manufacture, transport, sell, keep or store for sale, offer, advertise, or expose for sale, give away, or dispense, or solicit in any way, or receive orders for or aid in procuring ardent spirits" with some exceptions. Ardent spirits were defined as alcohol, brandy, whiskey, rum, gin, wine, porter, ale, beer, all malt liquors, all fruits preserved in ardent spirits, all liquids, mixtures or preparations which will produce intoxication, all beverages containing more than 1/2 of 1 percent of alcohol by volume. The legislation also regulated pharmacists and how prescriptions were dispensed, as well as the use of alcohol by hotels, restaurants, hospitals, and "social places." Personal use was also allowed, with limits of either one quart of distilled liquor, three gallons of beer, or one gallon of wine per 30-day period. Items for personal use were shipped by common carrier, with a label clearly identifying the contents of the package including quantity and type of alcohol contained.

The Prohibition Commission was charged with enforcing this law, with the Commissioner, deputies and inspectors having powers of sheriffs of the Commonwealth. These same personnel were also authorized to administer oaths, take affidavits, examine records and enter buildings with a warrant. The Commission was to make reports to the judges of the circuit, corporate and hustings courts where such violations occurred. Due to a lack of funding, the Commission relied heavily on volunteer inspectors and informants. In the first report of the Prohibition Commission, J. Sidney Peters lists the inspectors as the following: 4 paid inspectors, 516 unpaid correspondents, and an unknown number of volunteers and informants.

In 1918, the revised Prohibition law was passed on 19 March. The revision expanded the definition of ardent spirits to include absinth, all malt beverages, alcoholic bitters, and all compounds and mixtures containing any of the ardent spirits listed in the act. Also, the new act required the issuance of transportation permits for ardent spirits. Permits were issued to qualified applicants for one of four purposes: mechanical, medicinal, sacramental and scientific. The 1918 act also specifically mentions stills and that it was "unlawful for any person except duly licensed druggists, hospitals and laboratories, in this State to own or have in his possession any still, still cap, worm, tub, fermenter or any of them or any other appliances connected with a still and used, or mash or other substances, capable of being used in the manufacture of ardent spirits." An exception to this was those people who were authorized by and registered with the Prohibition Commission, and who prominently displayed their permit to operate the still. The authority of the inspectors was also expanded to include the authority to "enter freight yards, passenger depots, baggage and storage rooms of any common carrier and may enter any train, baggage express, Pullman, or freight car and any boat, automobile, or other conveyance, whether of like kind or not, where there is reason to believe that the law relating to ardent spirits is being violated."

On 16 January 1920, the 18th amendment of the United States Constitution became effective, and the focus of the efforts of the Virginia Prohibition Commission shifted from the importation of ardent spirits from nearby localities to the illegal production of ardent spirits - specifically corn whiskey, commonly known as moonshine. The Commission was able to increase the number of salaried and commissioned inspectors, who often worked with federal authorities to seek out and destroy these operations, and prosecute the operators of these illegal stills. This was in addition to the other enforcement tasks of the Commission - the issuance of transportation permits, licensing of pharmacists and others utilizing alcohol in their profession, and the monitoring of the stock of ardent spirits in pharmacies.

In 1920, the Virginia General Assembly further revised the Virginia Prohibition law with the most sweeping changes being to the office of the Prohibition Commissioner. The General Assembly was given power to elect a Commissioner of Prohibition, who was given a two-year term. This change to the office of the Prohibition Commissioner was partly due to the public outcry regarding the leadership of J. Sidney Peters, the first Prohibition Commissioner. A member of the clergy and an avid supporter of the temperance and prohibition movements, Peters' approach to the investigation and enforcement of the Prohibition laws was met with intense criticism. In 1920, Harry B. Smith was named the second Commissioner of Prohibition by the General Assembly, and Smith sought to repair the image of the Commission. The office of the Commissioner of Prohibition was abolished effective 30 August 1922, and responsibilities for the Commission fell to the Department of Prohibition within the Office of the Attorney General. The Attorney General, John R. Saunders, further sought to improve the image and morale of the Department and ensure fair, honest and respectable means to enforce the prohibition laws

On 5 December 1933, the repeal of the 18th amendment was completed with the ratification of the 21st amendment to the United States Constitution. This presented a number of challenges for the Department of Prohibition, as there was no other organization within state government to regulate the transportation, production and sale of alcohol. The Department continued to issue transportation permits and seek out illegal stills until the establishment of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in 1934. The Office of the Dept. of Prohibition was abolished on 22 March 1934.

Scope and Content

The records of the Virginia Prohibition Commission are housed in 203 boxes totaling 179.93 cu. ft and 2 volumes. The records are divided into seven (7) series. I. Applications and Personnel Files, 1916-1934; II. Correspondence, 1916-1934; III. Financial and Administrative Records, 1916-1934 [bulk 1926-1934]; IV. Inspectors' Reports, 1918-1934; V. Permits, 1918-1934; VI. Licenses and Bonds, 1918-1934 [bulk 1926-1934]; and VII. Index Card Files, undated. These records document the enforcement of state and federal prohibition laws and include annual reports, bonds, checkbooks, correspondence, insurance policies, inventories, journals, ledgers, memos, payroll records, permits, receipts, reports and vouchers.

Following is a brief overview and some highlights of the collection. A more in-depth description of the collection can be found in the Series and Sub-series level description. It is recommended that the researcher read the Series level descriptions thoroughly before accessing the collection.

The Inspectors' Reports (Series IV) provide varying levels of detail regarding the activities of this position. The more detailed reports include details regarding the investigation, property seizures including valuations, and daily expenses. These reports coupled with correspondence from citizens in various localities give an excellent picture of the investigation process from the initial "tip" from concerned citizens to the arrest of parties involved.

The Application and Personnel Files (Series I) are restricted through 31 March 2009 due to the presence of privacy-protected information. While the Application and Personnel files were maintained separately, there is a great deal of overlap between the two sets of files, which led to the restriction on both series. Of interest in these files is correspondence related to complaints against the inspectors, the appointment process for inspectors, and details regarding incidents involving inspectors - sometimes involving injury or death.

In the Correspondence series (Series II), items of interest include correspondence with the attorney general including the text of opinions, and correspondence with the governor including correspondence regarding pardons for prohibition offenses. Also, in the correspondence and administrative files are details regarding the daily operation of the office of the Prohibition Commission.

Transportation Permits (Series V) were issued following the passage of the 1918 Prohibition Act, which regulated the transport of alcohol within the boundaries of the Commonwealth. Following the repeal of the 18th Amendment of the United States Constitution and the end of the national prohibition on alcohol, the Prohibition Commission continued to issue transportation permits (citing "medicinal" as the default purpose of use) until the establishment of the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Board in 1934. Of particular interest in the permit series is correspondence regarding the 1918 influenza epidemic with requests for permits for medicinal alcohol. The permit series also yields information regarding the status of women in business and medicine, as well as the establishment of chains of drug stores.

The original organization of the collection was maintained as best as possible. However, a tremendous amount of material was misfiled, some of which was discovered at the conclusion of processing, which accounts for the boxes which contain the letter 'A' in the box number. Please note, for example, that correspondence related to the federal legislation legalizing beer of no more than 3.2% alcohol is a separate subseries from the general correspondence. This is the result of attempting to maintain the physical separation of this correspondence as maintained in the office of the Prohibition Commission. Another example is that of box 6A, Applications. These records were located following the conclusion of processing, and were placed here rather than interfiling. This arrangement reflects the original order of the collection and is an indication of the original arrangement of these records.

There are a great number of misspellings by the office staff - particularly in the permit series. While an attempt has been made to correct the spelling errors, not all of the errors were confirmed. Therefore some known errors were maintained as they appear in the original document.

Please note that the collection is not complete. Groups of absent records include: In Series IV. Inspectors' Reports: A - O, April - September 1931; In Series V, Permits: A - U, May 1923 - April 1924, Q-V January - June 1929, the majority of W, January - June 1929, and X-Z, January - June 1929. The financial series is comprised mainly of records from 1926 to 1934, with some earlier records being present as well.


This collection is arranged into the following series: Series I. Applications and Personnel Files, 1916-1934; Series I.A. Applications Series I.B. Personnel Files; Series II. Correspondence, 1916-1934; Series II.A. General Correspondence; Series II.B. Correspondence re: Beer; Series III. Financial and Administrative Records, 1916-1934 [bulk 1926-1934]; Series III.A. Financial Records; Series III.B. Administrative Records; Series IV. Inspectors' Reports, 1918-1934; Series V. Permits, 1918-1934; Series VI. Licenses and Bonds, 1918-1934 [bulk 1926-1934]; Series VII. Index Card Files, undated.

Contents List

Series I: Applications and Personnel Files, 1916-1934. Boxes 1-14

Arranged into two (2) subseries: Applications; and Personnel Files. Arranged alphabetically by last name of individual within the series.

Contains correspondence, letters of applications, references. This series is not complete. Please note: the content of the two (2) subseries overlap. Distinction between Applications series and the Personnel Files series is the presence or mention of then-current employment with the Prohibition Commission, a commission stating an individual is an inspector acting on behalf of the Prohibition Commission or other indication of then-current employment. There are files of previous and future employees/volunteers with the Commission who are represented in the Applications series.

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Series II: Correspondence, 1916-1934. Boxes 15-38

Contains correspondence, memoranda, and other materials related to the daily operations of the Prohibition Commission.

Arranged into two (2) subseries: General Correspondence and Subject Files, 1916-1934; and Correspondence re: Beer, 1932-1934. Arranged alphabetically by topic or last name of correspondent.

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Series III: Financial and Administrative Records, 1916-1934. Boxes: 39-51

Contains administrative and financial records related to the daily operations of the Virginia Prohibition Commission.

Arranged into two subseries: Financial Records, 1919-1934 [bulk 1927-1934]; and Administrative Records, 1923-1934 [bulk 1926-1934].