If you have seen the initials "J.E.B." marked on a curb in the historic downtown, then you have seen the work of James E. Brunton. He was a contractor for the city in the early 1900s as the Huntington Beach Township grew, gradually adding sidewalks and paving streets. Brunton's name shows up regularly on the board of trustees minutes (the early city council) for approval of payment for his work. He also worked as a private contractor on major projects, such as the construction of the Holly Sugar Company factory.
ABOVE: Not much of the original sidewalk and curbing is left in the original Huntington Beach Township area. The initials J.E.B. mark the work of James E. Brunton, who was a longtime resident, local contractor, and civic leader. He served on the election board determining whether or not a bond issue to rebuild the pier would go on the ballot in 1912. (Photograph, M. Urashima, 2014) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Brunton is a figure in a rumor published 92 years ago on this date by the Santa Ana Register, during the thick of the Prohibition years in the United States. The Eighteenth Amendment mandating national Prohibition law began on January 16, 1920. The myth of the whiskey-under-the-cornerstone grew legs on January 8, 1925.
ABOVE: Orange County Sheriffs dumping illegal booze in Santa Ana in 1932, with supervision from some determined looking ladies. (Photograph, Courtesy of Orange County Archives, March 31, 1932)
The Huntington Beach board of trustees (city council) did not enact Ordinance #223 enforcing Prohibition until August, 1921, over a year and a half after the national law went into effect. The discovery of oil in 1920 may have slowed down the local enforcement, but by 1921---with hundreds of oil workers descending on the town---things were getting a bit rowdy. By late 1921, Huntington Beach was technically dry (doctors could still prescribe whiskey for "medicinal purposes").
To put it mildly, banning anything has never been too popular in Huntington Beach, from fireworks to plastic bags. Although the city has a history of imposing restrictions on alcohol--with the first ordinance regarding "public drunkedness" enacted in 1911 (#72), and many more in the years that followed--there doesn't appear to have been a fondness for Prohibition.
Private alcohol stockpiling was rampant prior to Prohibition taking effect in January 1920. So was bootlegging alcohol or moonshine after the law was enacted. By 1925 and five years in, the American public, journalists, and humorists, were fairly certain Prohibition was not working. People found creative ways around the law and alcohol was still available, leading humorist Will Rogers to remark, "Prohibition is better than no liquor at all."
LEFT: The birth of a myth. The Santa Ana Register published an unverified "story" that cement contractor James E. Brunton "put a full bottle of whisky under the cornerstone of the First Baptist church of this city" when it was constructed in 1913. (Santa Ana Register, January 8, 1925)
The myth circulated by the Santa Ana Register in 1925 was that Brunton had placed a full bottle of whiskey under the cornerstone of the First Baptist Church when he laid the foundation in 1913, seven years before Prohibition. With tongue-firmly-in-cheek, the Santa Ana Register upped their game by adding that there also was a petition asking "that the Pacific ocean be dried up". It was the "wets" versus the "drys".
There is a more serious back story to the Santa Ana Register poking fun with their whiskey-under-the-cornerstone story.
The Santa Ana Register was hinting at a heated public feud between the pastor of the First Baptist Church, Rev. Luther A. Arthur, and the Huntington Beach Lions Club of which he had been a member. Rev. Arthur publicly stated he had found empty bottles of "Jamaica Ginger...smelling strongly of booze in vacant lots all over the town" and that he had also found a bottle in the back room of his church.
RIGHT: Jamaica Ginger, a remedy for stomach ailments and cramps, had an alcohol content as high as 90 percent (Source: "Alcohol as Medicine and Poison", The Mob Museum, themobmuseum.org)
"When I found a bottle in the back room of this church, you bet I got hot," the Santa Ana Register reported the pastor's remarks on January 5, 1925. Prior to this, Rev. Arthur had spoken to the Lions Club and, as he put it, had worked "against two of its members politically, because I believe them to be mixed up with booze."
In a small meeting, the Lions Club quietly removed him from their membership. Then, Rev. Arthur made it loud.
LEFT: Rev. Luther A. Arthur delivered a fiery sermon against alcohol and the local Lions Club on the evening of Sunday, January 4, 1925. Angered that he was booted out of the Lions Club, his sermon revealed that he had brought a leader of the Ku Klux Klan to Huntington Beach. While Rev. Arthur denied the Klan's involvement, it was well known that Rev. Myers was the Exalted Cyclops of the Anaheim klavern. Myers had embarked on a series of public meetings at which he made unsubstantiated accusations against various community leaders. Three years later in 1928, Huntington Beach mayor Samuel Bowen would run successfully for office on an anti-Klan slate. ("Sin is centered in booze, asserts Huntington Beach parson in Sunday sermon", Santa Ana Register, January 5, 1925)
In his January 4, 1925, sermon, Rev. Arthur asserted that Huntington Beach was the veritable capital of alcohol violations in Orange County. To support his fight against alcohol---prior to being booted out of the Lions Club---Rev. Arthur had brought to town the Reverend Leon Myers, pastor of the First Christian Church of Anaheim.
Myers had another role: he was the Exalted Cyclops of the Orange County klavern of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan had taken an active position supporting Prohibition and Myers had been enlisting pastors and bible clubs to spread their message.
RIGHT: The Santa Ana Register detailed the visit by Rev. Leon Myers, Exalted Cyclops of the Anaheim Ku Klux Klan and noted that ousted Huntington Beach newspaperman Frank Swann was departing to work for the San Jacinto Register, "owned by Chester M. Kline, state senator and prominent klansman." The Santa Ana Register pointedly ran this article next to a feature, "School work to get Lions Club help", touting the Lions work on the betterment of Huntington Beach elementary schools. ("Ousted Lions glad to get out of club", Santa Ana Register, January 2, 1925)
In November 1924, raids on suspected bootleggers had been organized by Dr. W.S. Montgomery with the California Anti-Saloon League and William Starbuck, a colleague of Rev. Myers. While not reported, it is inferred there may have been members of the Lions Club caught up in the raid and that Myers had instigated the raid. Hence, the action taken to remove Rev. Arthur from their membership.
The Lions Club--along with the Kiwanis, Rotary, Elks and the Anaheim Masonic Lodge--already had taken public positions against the Klan in 1924.
In a rather pointed editorial decision, the Santa Ana Register published the story on Rev. Arthur's sermon immediately adjacent to an article reporting "Prohibition made little headway in 1924 if arrests for drunkenness may be taken as an index". It appears both the Santa Ana Register and the community had enough of this Prohibition nonsense, temperance vigilantes, and, enough of the Klan. It was the beginning of a push against the Klan, which had taken root in Anaheim and was attempting to get a toehold in other cities.
LEFT: The Orange County Grand Jury found in January 1925 that the "charges hurled by Rev. Leon Myers and William Starbuck at various public mass meetings were thus discounted to the vanishing point...merely hearsay and without corroboration." Starbuck was a rancher from Fullerton and its first druggist. ("Charges by leaders of Klan found groundless", Santa Ana Register, January 14, 1925)
Less than a week after the Santa Ana Register ran its whiskey-under-the-cornerstone story, the Orange County Grand Jury published their findings that the charges made by Klan leaders at public meetings were groundless and had no merit. The Santa Ana Register published the Grand Jury report to clear the names of those maligned.
By February 1925, several Orange County newspapers refused to report on any Klan-related subjects, denying them coverage. Anaheim passed a series of laws to remove the Klan's influence and organizing ability, including prohibiting the distribution of handbills. But, it would take the rest of the 1920s and 1930s to effectively send the Klan back underground.
There is no whiskey under the cornerstone of the First Baptist Church building in Huntington Beach. No need to dig that up.
Editor's note: The 18th Amendment was repealed with the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933.
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