Ask McGehee: I enjoyed the recent article about prohibition in Mobile. Wasn’t a civic club raided for serving alcohol at a meeting?

Assembly Room at the Cawthon Hotel in Mobile, AL.

An image of the Assembly Room at the Cawthon Hotel, formerly on the southwest corner of Conception and St. Francis streets. The 1915 raid prank at the hotel made headlines. Courtesy Tom McGehee

On July 1, 1915, statewide prohibition went into effect here in Alabama…again. A similar law had been enacted in 1907 but had been repealed in 1911.

By 1915, the state’s most ardent prohibitionists led by members of the Anti-Saloon League and their sister organization, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, had convinced members of the state legislature to try again. A bill reinstating prohibition was placed on outgoing Governor Emmet O’Neal’s desk. He ignored it.

Newly-elected Governor Charles Henderson did not ignore it. He vetoed it. The legislature overrode his veto and the state went dry on July 1, 1915.

Down in Mobile, the vast majority of citizens had no use for the new law while a few prohibitionists cheered its passing. And so it was that on August 19, 1915, one of the biggest practical jokes made national news.

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Hellions vs Prohibitionists

The Rotary Club of Mobile had been founded a year earlier by men with names like Armbrecht, Bellingrath, Hartwell, Luce and Van Antwerp. As a member would later recall “the club had a fair share of sincere prohibitionists, though the bulk of the club members were ordinary hellions.”

At the time, the club was meeting in the Cawthon Hotel, whose manager, Charlie Hervey, was a Rotarian and, apparently, a hellion. He and club president Harry T. Inge planned a little joke.

When the members walked into their meeting they discovered that a cocktail glass was at each place-setting containing an olive and what appeared to be a dry martini. And to the right of the plates stood a wine glass.

A loud argument among the officers took place and Dr. Inge held his ground, explaining that since there was nothing in the club by-laws prohibiting a drink with lunch, they should proceed. Meanwhile, the prohibitionists glared at the “martini” in front of them while the hellions downed the drink and realized the joke.

As the meal arrived, waiters appeared with wine bottles swathed in white linen napkins and began pouring what seemed to be sparkling wine. This got the prohibitionist crowd even more worked up while the hellions downed their glasses of what was – in reality – ginger ale and asked for more.

The “Raid”

Suddenly, police Chief Frank Crenshaw burst into the room accompanied by two uniformed policemen. Surveying the scene, the chief loudly declared that mass drinking in a public place could not be ignored. Furthermore, he said that he was shocked that a club of such high standing would lend itself to a violation of the law.

The club president loudly told the Chief that this was a private meeting and that he should leave. The hellions were trying to control their laughter while the prohibitionists were in a state of shock.

The Chief refused to leave and said that since it was not practical to arrest the entire club, he would select a sampling of Rotarians who would appear in court the next morning to face charges. He picked up a membership list from the president and loudly read off the names of the most well-known prohibitionists and told them he would see them all in the morning or they would be jailed.

By the end of the day, the vast majority of Rotarians were in on the joke, although one of the prohibitionists sent word to the police chief that he had urgent business out of town and was not seen for days.

News of a “raid” of Mobile’s Rotary Club was picked up by the wire services and headlines in newspapers around the country screamed, “ROTARY CLUB RAIDED, VIOLATION DRY LAW CHARGED.” No one had told the reporters it was all a joke and suddenly, everyone thought it was a real raid, much to the consternation of Rotary headquarters in Chicago.

The truth finally came out and to date, the Rotary Club of Mobile, which still has its fair share of hellions, has not attempted another stunt of that magnitude.

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