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Captain Hobson - The Father of American Prohibition

by Bob Ramsey <> November, 1995

The first time I ran across the name of Richmond Hobson, I was reading a book about the founding of the Drug Enforcement Agency. That book's author had just read a Defense Department study indicating that facts do not support the conventional belief that heroin causes crime. That made him wonder -- where DID our current thinking about drugs and crime come from? His research took him to the Drug Abuse Council, a private think tank in Washington, D.C. A sociologist there told him about Richmond Pearson Hobson, and suggested that one could trace "any and all" present associations about drug abuse back to Hobson. I quickly dismissed the author's notion that any one person could create ALL public opinion about ANYTHING, and continued to read his very entertaining book about government hijinks in the Nixon Administration. But I remembered the name.

Much later, I was studying how alcohol came to be prohibited in the 1920's, and I saw his name again. Captain Richmond Hobson was a Naval hero in the Spanish-American War of 1898, who almost blocked a Cuban harbor by scuttling an old ship near its main channel. The Navy put a Captain's four gold stripes on his uniform and sent him on a nationwide promotional tour. Crowds swarmed to see the dashing 28-year-old who blocked the entire Spanish Armada, and listened eagerly as he warned of our need to build the world's largest Navy. When public interest in war heroes had passed, the Navy assigned him to fairly routine duties and he resigned in 1903 to enter politics. He found the public had a more enduring fear of alcohol than the growing Japanese Navy, and capitalized on his fame by travelling around lecturing about the evils of Demon Rum. He represented Alabama in congress from 1907-1915, and proposed more than 20 constitutional amendments to ban alcohol. In the years leading up to the 18th amendment, he toured the nation as the keynote speaker at meetings of the Anti-Saloon League. He became their highest paid speaker, and his hour-long presentation was titled "The Great Destroyer". At one time Congress authorized the printing of 50 Million copies for distribution to every household in America.

It is difficult to imagine that America's attitude toward heroin and other opiates was ever different from what we know today: the hardest drug, impossible for any human to resist. Yet in 1914, ALCOHOL was blamed for everything we now blame on other drugs. You probably CAN understand that in order for alcohol to be "completely and forever banned, wherever Old Glory flies above the United States and all her possessions, including the Philippines, Cuba, and Guam", people must have considered it a pretty serious threat. The 1914 Congressional record states -- Liquor traffic is "responsible for 25% of the poverty, 37% of the pauperism, 45.8% of child misery, 25% of insanity, 19.5% of divorces, and 50% of the crime. These are grave charges, and their truth has not been denied."

Opium was considered a vice, but not feared. The closest anyone would come to defending narcotics was to say that they were not particularly harmful compared to alcohol. A doctor at the Public Health Service said "Whiskey maddens man, while opium soothes him. There is more violence in a gallon of alcohol than in a ton of opium." A very telling picture of attitudes comes from 1918, when heroin was still legal, though controlled by daily prescription. A newspaper article expressed sympathy for habitués, as addicts were called back then, who had to walk through the same neighborhood each day to the Doctor's office. It was getting so that little children would point at them and snicker, subjecting the unfortunates to "unnecessary embarrassment".

In those days Hobson crusaded against alcohol, which was considered the greatest threat in human history. He proclaimed the "scientific fact" that Mankind's higher nature was located at the top of the brain, in tissues that were very tender because they were only recently evolved, and the base instincts were solidly established at the base of the brain. As near as anyone can determine, the "science" involved was Oratorical Science. Here is a sample of his reasoning:

"Alcohol is a protoplasmic poison, the loathsome excretion of living organisms, the ferment of germs, belonging to the family of toxins. It is an insidious, habit-forming drug. Alcohol tears down the top part of the brain, so that every time a man drinks, will power declines. In destroying the seat of the will power, alcohol destroys the seat of the moral senses, and of the spiritual nature, the recognition of right and wrong, the consciousness of God and of duty and of brotherly love and of self-sacrifice. It is this same lowering of the average citizen's character in the past that entailed the overthrow of the liberties of Greece and Rome and other Republics. It is the greatest question in the life history of the human species, actually determining more than all other questions combined -- the perpetuity of any civilization."

Those were the days of the anti-Trust movement, and the liquor industry was characterized as the "Great Liquor Trust" that absorbed two-thirds of the money in circulation. Alcohol addicts were the 5 million shackled slaves of the Great Liquor Trust who were forced to steal to support their habit, whose children died young, and whose own life expectancy was cut by 30 years. Surely individual rights must take a back seat in a struggle so all-important. Hobson said:

"Do not talk about prohibition invading the rights of individuals--liquor blights the rights of our citizens before they are born; it throws the boys out into the streets and into the mines and factories. It tramples upon the rights of communities, the rights of counties and States. All this for what purpose? So that this monster can continue to fatten upon the weaknesses and woes of humanity."

Now any politician has his detractors, and there were some "pawns of the Great Liquor Trust" who took exception to Captain Hobson's views. One Congressman described him as "the distinguished gentleman from Alabama, whose eloquent tongue and ready pen, always forceful and entertaining, no doubt contributed materially to the large (though unsuccessful) vote cast for prohibition (in my district)." Another was less kind: "He preaches a doctrine of moral coercion in the home and advocates the construction of a thousand battleships against a host of enemies who are the figment of his own brilliant imagination. The mythical Don Quixote has a fitting successor in the present hero of the prohibitionists."

When Prohibition was enacted in 1920, the bottom dropped out of the market for anti-liquor crusaders. As he turned 50 Hobson found himself unemployed and in search of a new "greatest evil". Heroin was the obvious choice.

Used by less than 1% of the population, it was a mysterious concoction of the recent German enemy, and was derived from an Asian import. It was easy to believe heroin was more than just concentrated opium. Since crime was increasing rapidly as alcohol prohibition intensified, the vast network of prohibition advocates was eager to prosecute a new culprit. Hobson organized the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Kiwanis, Moose, and Knights of Columbus around his new crusade. By 1927, he claimed to have recruited 21,000 major clubs and organizations into his "narcotic education programs", and made effective use of the newly developed radio networks to spread his frightening message.

He copied much of his rhetoric verbatim from his liquor speeches. But since, unlike alcohol, most people had never seen heroin, he was less constrained by reality. He added a powerful new twist to his "upper brain - lower brain" model of behavior:

"The upper cerebral regions, containing... all those attributes... which raise [man] above the beast, are at first tremendously stimulated and then--quite soon--destroyed... At the same time the tissues of the lower brain, where reside all the selfish instincts,receive the same powerful stimulation. With the restraining forces...gone, The addict feels no compunction in committing any act..."

With all morality thus irrevocably destroyed, the addict always became a beast, with an insane desire to infect others like a medieval vampire. Hobson is credited with first using the phrase "living dead" in reference to addicts, and with the arithmetic that every addict will infect seven others. In the late 20's he placed the number of addicts at four million and stressed that the "army of addicts" would contaminate all Americans in a few short years:

"Most of the daylight robberies, daring holdups, cruel murders, and similar crimes of violence are now known to be committed chiefly by drug addicts... Drug addiction is more communicable and less curable than leprosy... The whole human race, though largely ignorant on this subject, is now in the midst of a life and death struggle with the deadliest foe that has ever menaced its future. Upon the issue hangs the perpetuation of civilization, the destiny of the world and the future of the human race."

At the time there were few, if any, actual studies of drug addiction, and Hobson's message was the only one heard. He raised more money in 1920's dollars than any modern day televangelist and distributed literally tens of millions of pages of educational materials through the nationwide network he had developed as his life's work. His published works include: Alcohol and the Human Race (1919); Narcotic Peril (1925); Modern Pirates--Exterminate Them (1927); and Drug Addiction, a Malignant Racial Cancer (1933). During his lifetime he helped put approximately 30,000 Americans in prison for drug crimes, and the numbers have been growing ever since.

In 1933, as Congress repealed alcohol prohibition, they voted to give him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism in Cuba 35 years earlier, and promoted him to Rear Admiral.

I know this may sound fantastic. How could one man have accomplished all these things and nobody today remembers who he was? Perhaps the tens of millions of pages of educational materials bore not his name but that of his International Narcotic Education Association. And who remembers who wrote their textbooks anyway? As those pages found their way into schools, churches, and homes, their message was internalized as truth with no author but fact. His phrases such as "living dead" and assertions that addicts commit crimes with dollar value several times that of all reported crime, have been quoted as fact by judges and politicians including presidents for decades. I myself don't feel comfortable challenging these beliefs I grew up with. In less than ten years from 1920, Hobson transformed the narcotic addict from being pitied and mocked, to being feared and jailed. Narcotics are so universally feared that laws prohibiting a myriad of other substances are justified solely because "they lead to harder drugs". End of discussion. Hobson is truly the Father of American Prohibition.

Early in his career, Hobson had to make a conscious choice between truth and fame. He railed against the Japanese Naval threat, but nobody cared. So he moved on to moral issues that people would pay to listen to. I am reminded of General Billy Mitchell, who shouted about our lack of air power until he was court-martialed and demoted. Mitchell was forgotten in his lifetime, and a hero after history proved him right. Hobson chose the path of wealth and fame, and lived a life of adulation, only to be forgotten afterward. Who is to say which is the better path?

As I reflect on the content of his message, I come back to his very simple premise: that place inside of us where good resides is very delicate and weak -- the place of evil is strong. Any outside influence that may affect both, be it alcohol or heroin or airplane glue or 1000 other things, will quickly overpower good and leave evil to run amok.

If you ask people "do you believe that good is stronger than evil?" most will assert their belief that good is stronger. Yet drug prohibition is based on the fear that human goodness is fragile and must be protected. Even if you can mentally accept the possibility that not all recreational substances are a threat to civilization, the gut-level fear persists. It's kind of like those commercials for the Glad-Lock bags with the green stripe: Would you let your children be closed up in that phone booth with YOUR bag full of junkies, or would you rather put those junkies in OUR bag with the green stripe? I'll take the green stripe every time!

If we can't keep drugs out of prisons, how are we going to keep them off the streets? How many soldiers are we willing to expend in South America keeping 70 million people away from easy money on a billion and a half acres of land? 2,000 Colombian police have been killed trying to enforce these laws, and they're getting tired of it.

It has taken 80 years, but these days the futility of prohibition and the social damage it inflicts have become so obvious people are willing to talk about alternatives. But change is always frightening, more so here than on any other issue, and people don't know where to begin. The first step to understanding -- is to find out how we got to where we are now. It is very important to learn about Captain Hobson.