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Sinners and Saints - Part 03

Vice and Reform in Kansas

Prohibition campaign ribbon.

Agitate, Educate, Organize!

Women were not given the right to vote in statewide elections in Kansas until 1912. Therefore, women realized they would have to persuade men to support controls on alcohol.

Following the lead of easterners, Kansans formed temperance societies as early as the 1850s. These included the Kansas State Temperance Society and the Independent Order of Good Templars, among others. Branches of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) applied their motto "Agitate, Educate, Organize" to seek support. They saw prayer and persuasion as the proper means to prohibition.

With help from women, the national Prohibition Party was formed in 1876. Kansas Governor John P. St. John ran for President of the United States on this party's ticket in 1884; his campaign ribbon is pictured at top, right. He believed the Republican Party did not take a strong enough stand on the alcohol issue. Although St. John did not win, he garnered enough votes to swing the election in favor of the Democratic ticket.

A Constitutional Amendment

As governor, John P. St. John mobilized supporters in the late 1870s to convince the Kansas legislature to let the people decide about prohibition. Finally, legislators placed on the ballot a constitutional amendment.

The ballot passed in 1880, 39 years before national prohibition. The Kansas amendment made illegal the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors. Kansas became the second state, after Maine, to enact laws prohibiting alcohol.


Officials with confiscated bootlegging materials on the steps of the Greenwood County Courthouse, 1923.

Operating Outside the Law

"The physicians help the droughty ones to get around the prohibitionary law by prescribing liquor for all the ills that flesh is heir to. For a boil on the arm, one patient was ordered to take, in eleven days, ten pints of 'spiritus fermenti' and thirty bottles of beer. . . . [B]oils are very fashionable in Kansas."
--Boston Transcript, 1882

Despite the amendment's passage, though, alcohol continued to be available in Kansas. Many saloons and breweries operated illegally. A major loophole in the law allowed druggists and physicians to dispense alcohol for medicinal purposes (the word "medicinal" was interpreted very loosely). Lastly, Kansans continued to make, sell, and consume alcohol in their homes.

Brew kettle from a still,  confiscated by authorities.

Some Kansas brewers fought prohibition by taking their cases to court. John Walruff of Lawrence argued he should be compensated for lost income if forced to close, claiming he had invested $50,000 in his brewing business. Walruff's case went to the Supreme Court but the Kansas law was upheld. Despite financial losses in Kansas, Walruff opened a brewery in Missouri.

Some saloons were forced underground. Fritz Durein, owner of the Hall of Fame Saloon in Topeka, was known to hide his wares under a walkway during prohibition.

Home brewing and distilling thrived under Kansas prohibition. The mining regions of southeast Kansas became famous for the liquor they sent to other parts of the country. During the Great Depression (1929-1939), bootlegging supported some hungry families.

Law enforcement officials could not catch all the bootleggers. Others simply chose to look the other way or accepted bribes. The brew kettle pictured at left was confiscated from a location in southeastern Kansas.


Prohibition activist Carry Nation.

Reformers who had worked so hard to achieve prohibition were outraged that saloons or "joints" continued to operate openly. Carry Nation (bottom, left) burst onto the Kansas temperance scene in 1899. Once w1idowed by a man who drank himself to death, Nation was passionate about the cause. Over the next several years, her supporters (called Home Defenders), smashed saloons operating illegally in Kansas. Nation's methods put her at odds with more restrained temperance groups yet she became the symbol for prohibition in Kansas.

Reformers celebrated a major victory when national prohibition took effect in 1920, but prohibition proved difficult to enforce. National prohibition was repealed in 1933, but not in Kansas. Dry forces remained strong, although Kansas was criticized for its prohibition amendment which many saw as a failure.

View a timeline of alcohol reform.


Sinners & Saints is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History.

  1. A Moral and Pure Society - Creating better communities was the goal.
  2. Alcohol - The politics behind alcohol reform.
  3. Agitate, Educate, Organize! - Women's role in prohibition laws.
  4. Gambling - Betting men took money away from their families.
  5. Gambling Timeline - Kansas issues.
  6. Prostitution - Seen as threatening the moral fabric of society.
  7. Prostitution Timeline - Kansas issues.
  8. Smoking - Cigarettes were believed to corrupt youth.
  9. Smoking Timeline - Kansas & U.S. issues.
  10. Vice in the 20th and 21st Centuries - They're still vices, but now the issue is health.
  11. Kansas Reformed? - The definition of "vice" has shifted over time.