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November 7: Bootlegging Law and Referendum

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North Dakota enacted prohibition within its borders upon entering as a state in 1889. Of course, many continued to illegally sell and transport liquor. In March 1915, the North Dakota legislature approved House Bill 114, which defined the crime of bootlegging and clarified the punishment for violations.

This repealed and replaced an earlier law from 1913 that established bootlegging as a crime. The 1915 change essentially made convictions easier and gave judges more discretion in sentencing.

Soon after, referendum petitions began to circulate that sought to stop the law, by putting it to a vote of the people. Prohibition forces claimed many of the signatures were forged. A column in multiple papers from the North Dakota Enforcement League opined, “the promoters of the referendum can scarcely expect the people of North Dakota to endorse bootlegging. The bootlegger is the least loved, and branded as the most thoroughly disreputable and despised of all law-breakers.”

Despite several hiccups, the signature gathering succeeded. In the fall of 1915 an attorney even defended a bootlegger by stating there was no bootlegging law in North Dakota because the old law had been repealed, with the new law delayed until the referendum vote. William Langer, then State’s Attorney of Morton County, did not agree.

And in April of 1916, Attorney General H. J. Linde told the Secretary of State that the petitions proposing the referendum were not legal, and the Secretary of State initially declared that the issue would not be on the ballot, but in the end, on this date, the referendum was indeed voted upon. A “yes” vote endorsed the new bootlegging law, with a “no” vote representing a veto of law. As reported in the papers, it was the “first chance in 27 years to vote on the prohibition measure.” Because it was on a separate ballot, the Fargo Forum cautioned their readers not to overlook it. The Williston Graphic noted, “The liquor forces are quietly but actively working against the bootlegger law all over this state and there will undoubtedly be a heavy vote against it, but all that is necessary to approve this law by a large majority is for the friends of temperance to vote on it.”

The “Yes” votes won, meaning the new law held. Prohibition would remain part of North Dakota’s culture for many years.

Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker


  • Laws of North Dakota, 1913
  • Laws of North Dakota, 1915
  • Grand Forks Daily Herald, January 22, 1915, p7
  • Jamestown Weekly Alert, April 29, 1915, p8
  • The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, April 27, 1915, p4
  • The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, March 15, 1916, p2
  • The Weekly Times-Record, September 16, 1915, p11
  • Jamestown Weekly Alert, April 27, 1916, p2
  • The Fargo Forum and daily Republican, April 19, 1916, p1
  • The Bottineau Courant, October 26, 1916, p1
  • The Fargo Forum and Daily Repulican, November 1, 1916, p12
  • Williston Graphic, November 2, 1916, p10
  • Jamestown Weekly Alert, November 9, 1916, p3
  • https://ballotpedia.org/North_Dakota_Bootlegging_Definition_Referendum_(1916)

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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