Back in the Day: Whiskey bent and North Charlotte bound

Some things never change. This neighborhood has always been a Charlotte drinking destination, although back in the day, tourists didn’t always arrive on the Funny Bus.

May 26, 1908 was a dark (but dry) day in North Carolina history. Voters approved a prohibition on the sale of alcoholic beverages statewide. The only place one could buy whiskey in Charlotte was at drug stores, and then only on prescription. Things got worse. An even newer law went into effect on July 1, 1908 that further prohibited such sales, and drug stores inside city limits were no longer allowed to sell whiskey even on prescription.

There was nothing in the ordinance preventing doctors from writing a prescription for whiskey. The problem was there was no place for anyone to fill the prescription.

Well, there was no place in Charlotte other than North Charlotte.

A July 7, 1908 article in the Charlotte Observer noted the only drug store in the area allowed to sell whiskey on prescription was the North Charlotte Drug Store. It was able to skirt the law because it stood three feet outside city limits, which were roughly where the Highland Park Mill #3 stands today.

As the Observer recounted, uptown pharmacies had to tell dejected patrons the only place to fill their whiskey prescriptions was the North Charlotte Drug Store, and “the inevitable result has been a rush for this oasis.” In fact, the rush was so bad that a patron was overheard saying he had to wait a full 40 minutes just to be waited on at the pharmacy.

Rumors started to spread that some uptown pharmacies would soon open branches in North Charlotte to take advantage of the loophole. Something had to be done.

The City Fathers (equivalent to today’s City Council) jumped into the fray. The Observer reported in an article that same day that H.C. Severs complained the law was “working a hardship on local druggists by refusing them the same privilege” as the North Charlotte Drug Store. He made a motion that the ordinance be reconsidered but was turned down by then Mayor Thomas S. Franklin.

Col. W. C. Maxwell then chimed in: “Some of the members of this board voted on this question before not knowing the facts in the case.” Apparently, they forgot about North Charlotte. Maxwell pointed out that the law unfairly allowed the North Charlotte store to continue selling whiskey on prescription, which was not in the spirit (author’s pun intended) of the law.

Others disagreed with Maxwell’s argument. Aldermen Bunn and Davis declared the law was working as they intended and they had represented voter sentiment. The issue was argued back and forth but never resolved.

Tempers flared into mid-September 1908. A September 15 article in the Observer detailed lengthy discussions among city aldermen on the matter, but a vote to repeal the law failed due to a split decision. One side backed the city druggists who were financially hurt from the ordinance, while the other side felt they represented the citizenry’s intent and noted that court records showed a decrease of drunks by 50 percent. But yet another loophole would soon be uncovered to completely change the story.

Attorney T.L Kirkpatrick found an old 1905 state law that actually forbade any sale of whiskey outside of incorporated towns (like Charlotte), which pretty much meant you couldn’t get your hands on a bottle of whiskey in Mecklenburg County unless you received it for free. North Charlotte Drug Store was therefore noncompliant, so owner Jasper Hand was charged with one count of violating this law and another count of selling over 50 gallons of liquor and running a monopoly of the business.

Hand accepted the charges and handily paid $200 for each count. But the debate continued. The whiskey by prescription issue was eventually resolved when North Carolina finally prohibited its sale statewide except for limited circumstances. Numerous other states devised their own laws until the infamous Prohibition Act of 1919 made the entire country dry.

You may be wondering what happened to Jasper Hand. His first drugstore was one of the earliest retail businesses in the neighborhood. Housed at first in a wooden structure near Highland Mill, it would soon move just a couple of blocks up the street. Today’s Cabo Fish Taco is the former Hand’s Pharmacy building, which was erected in 1912 and was the first brick commercial building in the neighborhood. In essence, it started the business district that we know today and tourists still wait 40 minutes to get inside.

Maybe prescription whiskey wasn’t such a bad idea given the lengths people from that time went to for a drink. An Observer headline from July 25, 1909 reads: “It was Acid, Not Whiskey: Will Cash’s Fatal Mistake.” Cash was a weaver at Highland Park Mill #3. He stumbled home one night, collapsed on his bed and died within five minutes.

Before passing, Cash said a man “…gave me carbolic acid for whiskey and I drank it. I am going to die.”

No word at this time if he still haunts the neighborhood, but that’s a story for another day.