219 – You’re in the Liquor Business?

We think of Prohibition beginning in 1919 (18th Amendment ratified) or 1920 (Enforcement began), but it began years earlier.

Carrie Nation Dry Parade – Sedalia – c. 1910

What did the Rileys think? What were they going to do? How about the Pensa brothers in St. Louis?


Anti-Saloon and temperance movements had been going on for decades. Some states and other countries had already passed prohibition.

In 1881 Kansas became the first state to outlaw alcoholic beverages in its Constitution.

Prohibition in the United States – Wikipedia

Our Riley and Pensa families had operated in the saloon, beer, and liquor business for many years with the backdrop of temperance movements. But by 1916, with World War I looming and “drys” in Congress, national Prohibition looked imminent.

It’s in these years from 1916 to 1920 that our grandparents had to decide what they were going to do.


Recent scholarship shows that immigration was a contributing factor in the march towards Prohibition.

The enemy is not just alcohol, but European immigrants, the documentary argues. Between 1892 and 1920 almost 12 million immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island.

“Organizing around alcohol is in some ways a politically correct way to go after other immigrants,” Grinspan says in the documentary. “It’s not entirely polite to say, ‘I want to get all of the Catholics out of America.’ But it’s very polite to say, ‘Alcohol is ruining society.’”

The Bitter Aftertaste of Prohibition in American History – Smithsonian Magazine

In 1910, German-speaking immigrants were 10% of the U.S. population. By 1917, it became anti-American to support Germany and Germans. This caused a big backlash against German beer brewers. After all, most of the big beer brewers were German – Anheuser, Busch, Lemp, Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller. There were 200,000 saloons across America, and most of them advertised and served German-brewed beer.

And many of those saloons were associated with other immigrants, particularly Irish, Italian, and Eastern Europeans.

This postcard shows an anti-temperance voter stomping on an American flag while casting his ballot. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union used this slogan to rally supporters. During wartime, patriotism was at an all-time high, which made rhetoric like this even more effective.

By connecting alcohol production (and consumption) with German, Irish, Catholic and Jewish Americans, temperance was framed as an “us vs. them” problem.

World War I Played a Key Role In Passage of Prohibition – The Mob Museum


In June 1916, Will Riley received an award for 30 years service as agent for Lemp Brewing. Will had bought out Ed Cassidy almost ten years earlier, and the beer and liquor distributorship business had prospered. His years of service had paid off, and his family was well off.

But now, in 1916, the headwinds of Prohibition were looming. What were Will and Josie thinking about their future?


Things started happening fast in 1917. Here are the significant legislative dates on the road to nationwide Prohibition in the United States.

In March 1917, the 65th Congress convened, in which the dries outnumbered the wets by 140 to 64 in the Democratic Party and 138 to 62 among Republicans.

Prohibition in the United States – Wikipedia
St. Louis Post-Dispatch – May 14, 1917

In May, at the annual meeting of Missouri Retail Liquor Dealers Association, John Pensa was re-elected President. He had served in that position for almost two decades, and his leadership was going to be needed in the coming years.

In August, the Senate passed a resolution for a constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale or consumption of alcohol.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – October 1, 1917

In the fall of 1917, the federal tax on liquor was raised 50%, from $2.10 to $3.20 per gallon. John Pensa, speaking for the Missouri Retail Liquor Dealers, stated that the price of a drink of whisky would rise from 15¢ to 25¢, and a glass of beer from 5¢ to 10¢.

In December 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation forbidding brewers from brewing beverages with more than 2.75 percent alcohol by volume.

World War I Played a Key Role In Passage of Prohibition – The Mob Museum

On December 18, the House voted for a resolution for an amendment to ban alcohol.


By 1918, the die was cast. It was going to happen.

In January 1918, the House and Senate passed a resolution calling for a Constitutional Amendment. But that would require ratification by the states, and could take years. Maybe no reason for immediate panic.

But it was wartime. Rationing was becoming common. Grain supplies to breweries had been cut by 33%.

In July 1918, Wilson cut brewers’ coal supply in half, and then in early September, Wilson dropped an even bigger bomb.

By executive order, no new grain could be malted for brewing purposes after October 1. Brewers could continue to operate using any remaining malt supply, but only until December 1. After that, it would be illegal to brew beer altogether “until further orders.”

Pandemic, Interrupted — A Besieged Beer Scene in 1918 Milwaukee
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch – September 7, 1918

Saloon keepers and retailers reacted in rage and disbelief. Brew no beer? That would shut down breweries, most of which were in St. Louis and Milwaukee. St. Louis had eighteen breweries, including Anheuser and Falstaff Lemp.

John Pensa, speaking for the Retail Liquor Association, claimed that St. Louis’ 1800 saloons would go out of business. John Pensa himself had a saloon and an interest in another, as did his brother Steve.


On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was certified, having been ratified by 46 states.

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

18th Amendment – Section 1

Ten days earlier, John Pensa sold his saloon and got out of the business that he had been in for 35 years.

St. Louis Globe-Democrat – January 7, 1919

The Sedalia Democrat Newspaper has no archives for these years, but I’ll bet there was a similar article about Will Riley and others in the Sedalia saloon trade.

But Will Riley had a bigger problem. He was also the owner of a beer and liquor distribution company. Now he could not sell or transport his stock in trade.

In October 1919, the House and Senate passed the Volstead Act over a presidential veto.

No-alcohol beer

Both Falstaff (Cerva) and Budweiser (Bevo) made a non-alcoholic beer. Neither was a big success.

Later in Prohibition, both companies brewed their beer normally and then removed the alcohol by high temperature at the end of the process. It was a much better-tasting product, but still had less than 0.5% alcohol.

Both companies survived Prohibition. Only a handful of breweries survived, mostly the big players.


In January 1920, legal enforcement of the 18th Amendment began.

The Pensa brothers had quit the saloon business. Will Riley was out of the saloon business. Riley had a worthless beer and liquor distribution company. They were all in their late 50s, not a great time to start a new career.

In fact, this event began a decline in the welfare and fortunes of the Riley and Pensa families.

Will and Josie Riley family – 1920 U.S. Census

How shocking to see William J. Riley’s occupation listed as “none” in January 1920 when the census was taken. He had worked at one job since 1881, a span of 39 years. Now his job was “none.”

A drug store

In September 1920, Will Riley bought a drug store. He and businessman friend W.D. O’Bryan bought Scotten Drug Co. from W.E. Bard for $30,000. They operated as Sedalia Drug Company. In 1923, Riley bought O’Bryan out.

Bard Drug Store – Sedalia – c 1920

Why a drug store?

It wasn’t illegal to drink liquors, just to manufacture, sell, or transport them. There were also exceptions. Wine for religious ceremonies was OK. Homemade wine was OK. And medicinal alcohol was OK.

Physicians wrote an estimated 11 million prescriptions a year throughout the 1920s, and Prohibition Commissioner John F. Kramer even cited one doctor who wrote 475 prescriptions for whiskey in one day.

Historians speculate that Charles R. Walgreen, of Walgreen’s fame, expanded from 20 stores to a staggering 525 during the 1920s thanks to medicinal alcohol sales.”

The Lucrative Business of Prescribing Booze During Prohibition – Paula Mejia – Gastro Obscura – 2017

Doctors and pharmacies earned tens of millions of dollars through the sale of medicinal alcohol.

With this prescription, the doctor has prescribed “spiritus frumenti” for Bertha Conrad of Sedalia. She’s to take a “half ounce as needed” for what ails her.

A candy store

By 1921, John Pensa had opened an ice cream and candy store in downtown St. Louis. Can you imagine?

This news article laments the loss of some favorite saloons. Lippe’s is now a restaurant. The Sarazan has become a restaurant. The Hotel Jefferson Bar is an eating place. Pensa’s Mikado is no more. “There is nothing left but the memories.”

The St. Louis Star and Times – July 31, 1921

A new chapter

Prohibition changed the fortunes and lifestyles of the Pensas and Rileys. For them, the roar of the Roaring Twenties was not quite so loud.

The younger Riley children also came of age in the Twenties. Look again at the 1920 Census.

Irene had married Tom Hurley and wasn’t living at home. Joe had married Emeline Staats.

These Riley children at home were:

  • Catherine 19
  • William 21
  • John 18
  • Mary Agnes 15

Also living with the Rileys was Margaret Hart, Will’s cousin. Margaret was the daughter of Mary Hart, John Riley’s sister, who had been killed by a train in 1890.

Let’s follow Will and Josie Riley as they begin a new chapter in their lives. We’ll also look at the lives of Catherine Rose and Mary Agnes in the 20s.

And we’ll meet Tom Gallagher.


2 thoughts on “219 – You’re in the Liquor Business?

    • Mark Jarvis May 4, 2022 / 11:30 am

      Thanks Deb. Agreed. I was surprised about a lot of the prohibition stuff, as you know always happens when you go down the genealogy rabbit hole.


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