Prohibition Destroys Dartmouth

Dartmouth's eleventh President, Ernest Martin Hopkins.

Dartmouth’s eleventh President, Ernest Martin Hopkins.

On move-in day earlier this term, a Safety and Security officer casually remarked to a student that this was the first day of prohibition, or at least hard liquor prohibition, at Dartmouth. His comment was both funny and disheartening, but it was not true: 2015 is not the first year that hard alcohol has been banned from campus.

In 1919, the United States Congress and thirty-six states ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, effectively prohibiting alcohol. Dartmouth’s isolation spared it from the ravages of the American War of Independence, making it the only institution of higher education in the fledgling states to continue classes throughout the conflict, yet not even the wilds of New Hampshire could spare the College from Prohibition.

Student rumors abound as to what exactly took place at the College between 1920 and 1933, the years in which the government enforced Prohibition. Current students and alumni may have heard of a young Theodore Geisel’s encounter with the administration over alcohol or of a student’s murder over the same. While these two incidents have a kernel of truth to them, affairs of a greater import took place on this campus in those fourteen years.

Throughout Prohibition, the nation looked at Dartmouth as representative of the effectiveness of temperance in the New England colleges, if not in all of higher education. President Ernest Martin Hopkins, Dartmouth’s Eleventh President, became the archetypal neutral, rational, and moral public figure in the debate over the Eighteenth Amendment. Hopkins grew up working in granite mines, and graduated from Dartmouth in 1901. His administration spanned the two World Wars, and is remembered for its emphasis on liberal arts and academic freedom, as well as its bias against Jews. In spite of the latter fact, Hopkins served the nation in high administrative positions on two occasions.

An early advocate of temperance, Hopkins seems to have initially supported the Eighteenth Amendment out of a Christian belief in temperance and overly-optimistic mindset. In a 1930 letter to the National Temperance Council, he reflected on this commitment to temperance and his initial support, “I feel so strongly in regard to the desirability of temperance in the use of alcoholic liquors, as in all other things, that despite my objections to the whole theory of the Eighteenth Amendment, I would support it if I either had seen or was seeing at the present day any evidence to justify a belief that legislation enacted under the amendment had worked or that it could be made to work.”

In spite of a 1923 vote by the faculty to expel any student caught drinking, Dartmouth soon became a hub for bootleggers. Many students travelled by train to Montreal to drink, while students and entrepreneurs alike worked to smuggle spirits from Canada to Vermont and then onto campus by automobile and train. Contemporary reports say that while most of the liquor in Hanover was watered down and of poor quality, finer stuff was available. One witness even claimed that fine wine was available at College functions. Townspeople operated stills, and some sold whiskey, purportedly at $11 a quart, or around $150 today.

When the liquor smuggling began to surface at Dartmouth, it appears that these doubts began to grow in Hopkins’s mind. In a 1920 letter to Hopkins, alumnus Thomas Groves wrote, “It seems to me that there is at least twice as much drinking at present among the undergraduates as at any time in the last six years. Perhaps it is more boistrous [sic] and only sounds as though it were so widespread.” He lamented that, “Among men from other colleges I have heard Dartmouth referred to as ‘the Cuba of the north,’ and I have heard several preparatory school boys gloat over the news that liquor is plentiful in Hanover.” He pushed Hopkins to act, arguing, “a Dartmouth man I think I can distinguish between exuberance and drunkenness, and it is against what appears to me to be a considerably unnecessary amount of the latter that I wish to register me humble ‘kick.’” Hopkins replied, “In general, I feel that the minimum of interference with undergraduate life that can be got along with, makes for the self-reliance and independence for which the undergraduate body at Dartmouth is somewhat conspicuous. My convictions, however, do not run to the extent of willingly tolerating the conditions longer as they have been developing.”

A number of events and trends thrust Dartmouth into the national spotlight, and formulated the perception that it was “an oasis in a dry land.” In 1921, Hopkins sent a letter to alumnus Matt Jones enumerating the problems as the college, “I know beyond the peradventure of a doubt that the jitneys are bringing in liquor by the gallon from Rutland, Vermont, that it is being secured to some extent in White River Junction, while just now I have received information that believe to be authentic that a system of rum-running from New York is being put into operation with New England college towns as specific destinations.” He asked Jones for help, writing, “I would like some real he-man [sic] with automatic revolvers and backbone who would hold up some of the suspicious automobiles that are floating around here and would put a sufficient crimp in the idea that Hanover is easy picking.”

In addition to this general trend, a 1920 student murder over a bottle of alcohol caught the nation’s attention. Robert Meads shot fellow student Henry Maroney in his room at ΤDΧ. After the incident, ΤDΧ became known as “The Boom-Boom Lodge.” A subsequent investigation revealed that the two had been quarrelling over whiskey, as well as a cache of whiskey in Meads’ rooms. The court sentenced Meads to hard labor, though he was later institutionalized. While liquor was no doubt the immediate cause of the shooting, it turns out that Meads had shot another student the year before—he was not charged because the victim, in his last breath, asked the authorities to spare Meads, saying it was nothing more than a quarrel between brothers.

A persistent legend in this period concerns Theodor Seuss Geisel, who went on to become a famous writer under the pen name “Dr. Seuss.” While much of the legend is apocryphal, some of it holds true. Geisel, the son of brewers from Springfield, Massachusetts, graduated Dartmouth in 1925 and was a brother at Sig Ep. He wrote for the Jack-O-Lantern, eventually becoming the editor-in-chief. While legend holds that he was suspended for consuming gin under Prohibition, Dartmouth College records show that Dean Craven Laycock cited him for an unspecified offense forcing him to resign from all extracurricular activities. Geisel therefore turned to pen names, including L. Pasteur, L. Burbank, D. G. Rossetti, T. Seuss, Seuss, and Dr. Theophrastus Seuss, finally settling on Dr. Seuss.

While Hopkins worked hard to reduce drinking at the College, he was critical of those who accused Dartmouth of being exceptionally prone to alcohol consumption, “Among the exceptions there will always be men potentially dangerous to the welfare and reputation of the group as a whole, however carefully the selective processes of the College are operated or however insistently the moral code is imposed.”
This brought much attention to some of Hopkins’ offhand comments that were not so much critical, but skeptical, of the Eighteenth Amendment. A 1932 article in the Boston Post spoke of “the stand taken by President Ernest M. Hopkins on the subject of prohibition,” and claimed, “The head of the college has attacked prohibition policies.” In reality, as Hopkins himself put it in a 1931 memorandum to the Treasurer of the College, “There is an assumption in some minds that because of my statement that I do not like the Eighteenth Amendment therefore I am in sympathy with an increased amount of drunkenness.”

He immediately became the subject of countless requests for comment, though he refused to go public with his views out of principle: he held Dartmouth’s future more dear than public opinion, and he genuinely cared about his students. Some of his opinions still leaked out. In a letter to the National Temperance Council latter published in the New York Times, he wrote that he could not understand why, “individuals or organizations whose solicitude is for building up a spirit of temperance can continue either to believe in or to support the theory or the practice of the Eighteenth Amendment….” His opposition continued along the line that he, “felt very strongly that [the Eighteenth Amendment] gave too much justification to building up great new powers of the Federal government,” and that he did, “not believe that it is a proper function of the constitution of a great Federal Government like the United States to devise sumptuary provisions for personal conduct.”

Major anti-Prohibition organizations and politicians courted him and wrote to encourage him to express his opinion publicly. While he initially refused to even suggest his position, only stating that he was interested in hearing more and commending them for their work, he later expressed sympathy with them in private correspondence. In 1930, he wrote to renowned New Jersey Senator, former ambassador, and businessman Dwight W. Morrow to express his support for Morrow’s moderate stance against the Eighteenth Amendment.

When the situation at Dartmouth failed to improve, he finally agreed to come out in favor of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment, but was nonetheless reluctant to make any public statement that was “not absolutely necessary.” In his letter to the National Temperance Council, he wrote about his despair at the current situation, “Areas which used to be wholly dry are not saturated, not only with liquors, but with a spirit of complete abandon in regard to the control or use of these. Likewise, the original attitude of resentment against the use of law for the support of this amendment has given place to a complete indifference to the requirements of the law, which to me is a more dangerous situation.” In response, pro-Eighteenth Amendment groups made a desperate appeal to Hopkins for his assistance. The commander-in-chief of the Salvation Army personally wrote him in 1932, which demonstrates the weight that Hopkins’ endorsement carried nationally.

He continued to be an active part of the debate over the Eighteenth Amendment until its repeal. Congress even sent him an advanced copy of proposed legislation designed to cope with the imminent demise of the Eighteenth Amendment. The cover of this hand-bound tome contained the simple claim that, “The evil is not in the bottle but in the individual.”

As our College enters a new period of quasi-prohibition, it is surprising that such sensational events as those that transpired between 1920 and 1933 have gone unmentioned. Shortly before the end of Prohibition in 1933, Hopkins alluded to making beer more available so as to root out hard liquor, “There would seem a definite tendency for beer to replace hard liquor in undergraduate consumption and availability of beer in Hanover has seemingly quite definitely decreased the disposition of undergraduates to seek out liquor.”

At stake today is more than drinking and harmful behaviors. At the core of the debate over the hard alcohol ban is personal responsibility and the degree to which morality should be legislated. President Ernest Martin Hopkins had this to say in his letter to the National Temperance Association, “Personally, I believe that whether from the social, the educational or the religious point of view, the greatest weakness in American society at the present day is the disposition of individuals to avoid responsibility and to delegate this to outside agencies, and particularly to the national government.”

The Review thanks Rauner Library for the use of their assistance in locating records..