On July 1st, 1916, one of the most ambitious and far-reaching pieces of provincial legislation came into effect.
The manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol became illegal. Bolstered by massive voter support in a plebiscite on the issue, The Alberta Government attempted to change generations of social behaviour.
One of the first noticeable consequences of Prohibition was an enormous drop in crime.
In 1917, Red Deer’s Chief of Police was able to report that only two people had been held in the City cells in the entire year. Most police activity dealt with by-law infractions, health code violations and traffic offences.
However, as time went on, breaches of the liquor laws became a growing problem.
‘Moonshine’ stills sprang up all over the district. In 1922, 21 illegal stills were seized in the first five months of the year. Many other people were charged with illegal possession and consumption of alcohol.
One of the local magistrates who struggled with the wave of alcohol infractions was Magistrate Henry Frank Lawrence. A native of England, he had first come out to Alberta in the early 1880s to work on ranches in the foothills of southwestern Alberta.
After his marriage to Ellen Isabella Chapman of England in June 1893, he started his own ranch east of Red Deer in 1895. The first site he chose was near the Red Deer River. However, he soon moved farther south to Pine Lake where the ranching opportunities were much better.
H.F. Lawrence was well educated. He was active in many community activities and politics. In December 1920, he was appointed a magistrate for Red Deer.
Magistrate Lawrence was a man of strong and often unconventional opinions. He was often inclined to impose sentences which he considered to be right and just, but with a rather flexible interpretation of law and jurisprudence.
For example, he directly witnessed an incident of a man whipping a horse.
He saw no problem in hearing a subsequent charge of cruelty to animals and levied a stiff fine. As to be expected, a successful appeal against his judgment was made on the grounds that he had an obvious bias in the case.
In another case involving an illegal still, Lawrence told the accused that since magistrates were paid with a portion of the fines levied, “I now consider it my duty to disclose to you that unless I find you guilty of the offense, this trial brings me neither fee nor reward. No further comment is necessary.”
The defendant quickly caught on to what was being said, pled guilty and paid a modest fine.
In a more famous case in May 1922, Magistrate Lawrence pronounced that while it was common practice to levy the fine on the amount of alcohol involved, he was, “Inclined to make the punishment rest upon the quality of the liquor seized.” He later explained to a furious Attorney General John Brownlee that while some moonshine might be of good quality, a lot was sheer rotgut and a danger to public health. Hence, he felt his critics had taken his comments out of context.
Eventually, the Provincial Government began to bend to the growing backlash against Prohibition.
One of the first relaxations of the law involved allowing the Great War Veterans Association to sell low alcohol beer in their clubrooms, so long as the general public was not allowed in as customers.
Finally, in November 1923, another province-wide plebiscite was held.
Total Prohibition was brought to an end. Low alcohol beer could be sold to the public in hotel barrooms. Beer, wine and liquor were sold in government liquor outlets, albeit with strict restrictions.
Magistrate Lawrence continued to make controversial decisions.
When a hotelkeeper in Red Deer was found guilty of selling beer over the legal strength, Lawrence ordered that the three barrels of strong beer be confiscated and given to the Red Deer Hospital, instead of being destroyed.
Finally, Alberta Attorney General John Brownlee removed Magistrate Lawrence from the bench.