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Bone Dry Law

The Germans were steadily being forced back towards their homeland, giving up much of the territory they had gained since 1914. As the Allies advanced, the communities they recaptured were impoverished, destroyed by the retreating forces. Although the seven major relief organizations in the United States, such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, had agreed to a united campaign scheduled to begin on November 11, it became apparent that thousands of Jewish people, especially those in Poland and Lithuania, were dying from starvation and in desperate need of help. President Woodrow Wilson declared that this date, October 23 was Jewish Relief Day, and Governor Lynn Frazier issued a Proclamation for North Dakota.

But just as disease and famine was the scourge of the war zone in Europe, the Spanish Flu had spread rapidly across North Dakota sparing few. The liberal use of alcohol was touted to help cure the dreaded disease, but it was not available in North Dakota. With Prohibition in North Dakota’s constitution, all but medicinal alcohol had been banned since statehood. And at the end of the 1917 Legislative Session, House Bill 39, termed the bone dry law, made importing alcohol illegal, making it unavailable even to pharmacies. But on this date in 1918, Supreme Court Justice James Robinson issued a letter stating that after a great deal of research, he believed House Bill 39 was a bogus statute. The Senate had initially amended the bill to allow each household to import four quarts of whiskey, five gallons of wine, or seventy-two quarts of beer for personal use, but in the House, that amendment was dropped and new restrictions, including the ban on importation, were added. Problem is, the revised bill never returned to the Senate for a vote, hence the decision by Judge Robinson. 

Although attorney general William Langer had made it his mission to eliminate all alcohol in the state, the flu crisis brought a change of heart. He had been one of the first in Bismarck to get the flu, and now his new bride was also taken ill. So, he quickly contacted the railroad and other delivery companies, announcing that prescription alcohol could be delivered after all.

While Judge Robinson’s decision was being hotly debated, alcohol began flowing into the pharmacies.  With House Bill 39 deemed ineffective, many a healthy North Dakotan soon discovered symptoms that required an immediate application of the newly available anti-flu medicine. 

Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis


The Bismarck Tribune, October 18, 1918

The Ward County Independent, October 31, 1918

Grand Forks Herald, October 23, 1918

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