Prohibition Comes to Lexington


Serious agitation for prohibition began in Kentucky about 1890. By 1914, all but 14 counties had voted themselves dry. Locally, many Protestant churches and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) led the way, calling for prohibition in Fayette County and demanding strict enforcement in closing saloons on Sunday. In 1914, dry forces petitioned for a referendum, but the wets carried the county handily: 6,695 to 3,431. Thus Lexington became an oasis, a wide-open town during the 1910-19 decade. There were about 150 saloons in town in 1914. Government restrictions on the availability of grain during World War I and a local Army effort to close the saloons to "protect" soldiers training at Camp Stanley at the University of Kentucky brought the number down to 97 by 1919. About 70 were in the downtown area between Limestone and Broadway.

Federal Prohibition became effective at the stroke of midnight on January 17, 1920. On the previous day, the WCTU hosted an all-day victory celebration at Broadway Christian Church. That evening, Lexington residents downed their last legal drinks in the taprooms of the Phoenix, Lafayette and other city hotels.



The Blue Grass area was known for distilling fine bourbon throughout the 19th century. By 1915 about 70% of the nation’s whiskey was distilled in Kentucky. Lexington was home to three nationally known brands, all located on Manchester Street: James E. Pepper, Old Tarr, and Old Elk. There were several more prominent distilleries in the Frankfort and Lawrenceburg areas to the west. There were also several breweries in or near Lexington. The largest and best known of these was the Lexington Brewery Co. on East Main Street opposite DeWeese Street. It produced “Dixie” beer.

When Prohibition took effect, the Pepper warehouse held around 2,600 barrels of whiskey, with somewhat less was in the Old Tarr warehouse. Early on, burglars targeted both warehouses. In March 1920, masked bandits overpowered the two guards at Old Tarr and hauled away 96 cases. Around 1:30 a.m. on December 2, 1920, a dozen or so bandits climbed out of Town Branch Creek and attacked a federal agent and a guard at the Pepper warehouse. An exchange of gunfire followed, but two were no match against 12. The agent was killed and the guard fled. The gunfight scared the raiders off, with their empty truck and two touring cars roaring out of town on the Old Frankfort Pike. Neither they nor the Old Tarr robbers were ever caught. Rumors abounded that they had come from Northern Kentucky or even Chicago.


Many Lexingtonians enjoyed alcoholic drinks before Prohibition and, though they might reduce their consumption, they were not going to go completely dry. This gave rise to the bootleggers who would bring liquor, beer or, less often, wine to town. Early on, bootleggers would buy (or sometimes steal) liquor from persons who had stocked liquor prior to Prohibition. Some liquor was stolen from Blue Grass area distilleries that had been shut down, such as the James Pepper Distillery warehouse on Manchester Street (security improved after a couple of years). As these supplies ran low, more widespread and sophisticated bootlegging networks developed bringing in whiskey from Canada and rum from Cuba and the Bahamas.

The primary source of liquor in Lexington was moonshine. Much of it was distilled in the hollows of eastern Kentucky where illegal stills were a long-standing tradition. With Prohibition, moonshine production was ratcheted up tenfold. Stills also sprang up on farms or country homes in the Blue Grass, including several in rural Fayette County. Sometimes it was manufactured on a small scale in washtubs or bathtubs in city homes or businesses. Poorly made moonshine sometimes caused serious illness and even death.

In the early 1920s, Lexington’s major bootlegger was Isaac “Ike” Miller, owner of a stock farm on Versailles Road where the Cardinal Valley subdivision is today. The farm served as a distribution point where Miller sold whiskey to local suppliers and speakeasies. Rival bootleggers sprang up, most notably the Lawrence Piercy gang. On the night of June 28, 1921, a gun battle between Miller and an associate and four attackers, most likely from Piercy’s outfit, broke out on Jersey Street (just northwest of the University of Kentucky campus). Miller was wounded and hospitalized for several days. The newspapers dubbed this “the battle of Jersey Street” and Miller became something of a local folk hero. Dry agents raided his farm several times to confiscate liquor. Charges were sometimes dismissed for technical reasons such as a defective search warrant and hung juries sometimes refused to convict. Eventually, however, Miller was convicted for a third time and in 1924 began serving two years in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.

Piercy − known as “Patrolman Piercy” because he had served eight years with some distinction with the Lexington Police ­− didn’t buy his liquor. He acquired it though armed robbery. He robbed homes and raided nearby distilleries. He also hijacked cars and trucks carrying booze. Piercy was eventually convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to 15 years in the state prison.

As a railroad center, Lexington was also a transfer point for distribution of liquor to towns in central, eastern and southern Kentucky and moonshine from those areas to cities such as Cincinnati and Chicago. The great majority of liquor, however, went in and out of town by truck or automobile.


Congress established the National Prohibition Bureau to enforce the 18th Amendment. Its headquarters for eastern Kentucky was in the Federal Courthouse, then at the northwest corner of East Main and Walnut (now North Martin Luther King Boulevard) streets. Early in 2910, the local bureau hired more than 60 agents, adding more as enforcement increased. Some agents were armed with Springfield rifles, .45 caliber automatic pistols, and Browning Automatic Rifles, which could fire over 600 rounds a minute. Acting on tips or undercover reports, agents conducted raids on “speakeasies,” “blind pigs,” moonshine stills, and bootleggers’ cars or trucks hauling liquor to or from town. Small-time violators such as barbers, gas station attendants, college students, and homeowners made up the majority of arrests. In any given month, there were 75 to 100 liquor-related cases on the District Court docket. The first violation of the Prohibition laws carried a light penalty, but the third violation was considered a felony with a penalty of one year in prison and a fine of $5,000 or more. Vehicles, homes, stores, warehouses, and other property used to violate the law were subject to forfeiture.

Kentucky voters added Prohibition to the state Constitution in the 1919 election, taking effect July 1, 1920. This empowered sheriffs and police officers to conduct raids. Lexington police, however, were not too enthusiastic about Prohibition (many officers were wet-leaning Catholics and Billy Klair, the city’s political boss, was a wet) and seldom led the way unless the activity was too notorious to ignore. But sometimes the force provided “back up” for federal raids or arrests of bootleggers in the city and enforced state prohibition directly when the department needed an excuse to arrest or harass criminals whose activities went beyond alcoholic beverages.


Citizens who wanted to have liquor at home or serve it at a party most often obtained it from a “retailer,” whose booze was furnished by a bootlegger. People bought whiskey in places such as soft drink stands, candy stores, barber shops, pool halls, gas stations, and other small businesses. Mary Todd Lincoln’s girlhood home on West Main Street fronted as a candy and soft drink store, but its main business was selling liquor out of the back rooms. Smaller quantities of liquor and particularly moonshine were also sold out of private residences, so-called “blind pigs.” The largest concentration was in an area locals called “The Jungle” ─ a mixed-race neighborhood on West Fifth Street where Smith and Jefferson streets cross. At times, Jungle residents openly solicited passers-by. In January 1927, an undercover police officer was fatally shot there while trying to arrest a seller.

Some saloons re-invented themselves as restaurants with a bar in the basement or a back room – the so-called “speakeasy.” Known customers or persons with the right password were admitted. In addition, people formed private clubs where membership or vouching for guests gained entry. Periodically, dry agents would get sufficient evidence for a warrant and raid such places. Usually, after a short hiatus, the club would re-open. Later in the Prohibition era, the agents would seize the property for forfeit upon conviction.

Medicinal whiskey was another source for consumption. This category consisted of alcohol manufactured before 1920 or thereafter made under federal license by otherwise closed distilleries. The Volstead Act allowed physicians to prescribe (on government forms) up to 100 pints every three months for certain illnesses, but no patient could get more than one pint in 10 days' time. Drug stores filled the prescriptions. Some doctors made money charging for prescriptions and others signed them for friends or patients who had no illness. Although pharmacists’ pints were audited by the Prohibition Bureau, some disappeared in one way or another without the requisite prescription.


As it became apparent that Prohibition was not working, agitation for its repeal mounted in the early 1930s. A national Association Against the Prohibition Amendment developed around 1930 and a Lexington chapter formed the following year. Members spoke to civic clubs and community groups and put pressure on candidates for office. The drys began counter-efforts and a local chapter of the Society for the Support of the 18th Amendment formed and held rallies in November 1931.

The 1932 Democratic Party platform called for outright repeal. With the election of Franklin Roosevelt as president and huge Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Congress passed a repeal amendment in February 1933, and sent it to the states for ratification. The 21st Amendment was ratified by three-fourths of the states on December 5, 1933. Kentucky was one of the states ratifying it, but Utah, ironically, was the last state. (Beer was sold in Lexington for 15 cents a bottle beginning April 7, 1933, however, after Congress redefined what constituted an intoxicating beverage.)

Kentucky’s statewide ban on alcoholic beverages remained in effect. In January 1934, the General Assembly proposed an amendment to the state constitution repealing state prohibition, but it would not be ratified by voters until November 1935. The legislature also repealed the state’s enforcement statutes for previously wet counties, so there was little enforcement in Lexington. Several hotel lounges, bars, and retail package stores were up and running by the summer of 1934.

The old time saloon, however, did not return.