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Life for a pint

The end of the progressive era in USA was marked by a prohibition on

alcoholic beverages. It was a constitutional ban on manufacture and sale of alcohol
which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Anyone who was caught manufacturing or selling
alcohol were given harsh punishment. Some of the people included Etta Mae Miller
and Fred Palm. Life for a pint law was used against Mrs. Mae miller to give her life
imprisonment. She was the first women in history to be given life imprisonment.
During the Drug war, similar tactics were used. In Michigan, there was a law called
drug lifer, according to which a person in possession with drugs could be
sentenced for life imprisonment. Many historians and law makers believed that Life
for a pint and Drug Lifer laws were very similar. To understand the story of
people like Mae Miller and many other people who were given similar punishment
during the prohibition era, it is necessary to understand the reason why prohibition
was implemented and what kind of effect it had on the lives of people living in those

The idea of prohibition was implanted on the people of United States as early
as 1800s. Various churches encouraged its people to practice abstinence against
dinking liquor. Many societies had been formed to discourage the use of alcohol. By
1833, there were more than 6000 local groups established for the sole purpose of
discouraging the practice of drinking alcohol. Even during the colonial period (may,
1657), Massachusetts made the sale of liquor illegal. On December 18, 1917,
Senate purposed the eighteen amendment to The Constitution. It was approved on
January 16, 1919 by 36 states. According to this amendment the sale and
consumption of alcohol was made illegal. As a result, from January 17, 1920, the
sale of alcohol was completely stopped and the country went dry. Even before the
ratification of the eighteenth amendment, U.S. Congress passed the temporary
Wartime Prohibition act. This act banned the sale of any beverages containing more
than 2.75% alcohol. This act was implement to save grain so that the grain could be
used as supplies to soldiers fighting in World War I. The Wartime Prohibition Act was
signed on June 30, 1919. July 1, 1919 is famously termed as the Thirsty First.

Prohibition was somewhat successful in decreasing the consumption of

alcohol but it encouraged illegal activities like bootlegging. Smugglers started
bringing in foreign alcohol. Smuggling and bootlegging also lead to the
establishment of organized crime. Organized gangs controlled most of the
bootlegging operations. They claimed territories where they could run their
monopoly. These gave rise to the American Mafia crime syndicate which was formed
by Italian bootleggers and New York Gangsters in the late 1920s. After the repeal of
bootlegging these crime syndicates started involving in drug trafficking, gambling
rackets and prostitution. Prohibition became an important issue in the elections of
1928 and 1933. On December 5, 1933 the Twenty first amendment was signed
which repealed the prohibition but it allowed prohibition to be implemented on local
and state levels.

Mae Miller was a resident of Lansing, Michigan. She was the mother of 10
children and her husband was already in prison for alcohol possession. She had
been convicted for selling alcohol four times. If any crime is committed more than
three times, a person is subjected to the habitual criminal charge, under which the
person can be granted life imprisonment. Mae Miller, convicted four times for
bootlegging, was given life imprisonment under the habitual criminal charge by a
jury composed of eight men and four women. The decision was taken in just 13
minutes. Her sentence was to start immediately in the Detroit house of corrections.
This was the first time a woman had been given life imprisonment for anything less
than a major crime.

On February 1, 1928, The Michigan Supreme court decided to review Mae

Millers case. There was a petition signed by the public of Lansing, Michigan which
had reached the office of D. Wood, commissioner of pardons and paroles. After a
detailed investigation, it was discovered that state witnesses, John Haynes and
Emmett Clark had bought alcohol from a person near Mrs. Millers home but they
were too drunk to identify the person who sold the liquor. Two policemen who were
some distance away from the site of sale were the ones who identified the seller as
Mae Miller.

The most shocking fact came from an interview with Frank Eastman, who was
the former member of the Lansing city liquor squad. In his interview he claimed that
the liquor used in the conviction of Mae miller and another person named Fred Palm,
who was serving life imprisonment for the same crime, was planted by him and his
partner William Knapp. Eastman and Knapp were the officers that caught both Mae
Miller and Fred Palm. Eastman declared that on Knapps order some alcohol was
planted in the cupboard of Millers home. This alcohol was used for her third
conviction. He also claimed that her fourth conviction didnt come from selling
alcohol but from the small quantity of liquor obtained from bottles of rubbing
alcohol thrown from an automobile in which Mrs. Miller was with another man. He
also admitted that he himself had planted bottles of gin in Palms boot. He said So
Palm went up for life on that charge we had trumped up on him. We had no right to
enter or search his house and we could never have proved the gin was his.

This era of history was also the time when churches were spreading the news
about perfectionism and morality. Various church related authorities had their own
opinion about this event. Dr. Clarence True Wilson, executive secretary of the board
of temperance, prohibition and public morals of the Methodist Episcopal Church said
that he was in approval of the life sentence for Mae Miller. He also said Our only
regret is that the woman was not sentenced before her 10 children were born. He
further added When one has violated the constitution four times, he or she is

proved to be a habitual criminal and should be separated from society to prevent

the production of subnormal offspring. He claimed Prohibition is here to stay until
the sun grows cold. Dr. Clarence also announced that only the Church Successor
of the Apostles of Old, had the courage and leadership to bring moral reform in the
After hearing all sides of the story, Mae Miller was freed of all charges on April
19. Firstly her punishment was reduced to seven years and later Judge Charles
Collingwood freed her of all charges claiming that the state had no case against her.

Prohibition, which lasted for nearly 13 years, brought mixed response from
different parts of the society. It was a constant battle between those who enforced
prohibition and those who defied it. Many people like Fred Palm were framed by
authorities. There were many others who sold alcohol illegally in large scale but
avoided prosecution because of influence and wealth. Currently Life for a Pint law
is considered too harsh. But still many other laws are based on it. One of them is the
Drug lifer which guarantees life sentence to those who possess more than 650
grams of cocaine. This law has been a measure artillery against the drug war. But
just like the Life for a Pint law, Drug Lifer has successfully brought in mixed
response. Now it is us who should decide whether these laws help to solve societys
problems or not.

Hrishabh Khakurel

1. "Prohibition". Encyclopdia Britannica. Encyclopdia Britannica Online.
Encyclopdia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2016