Red, White and Booze: A history of Alcohol and the Law in the United States

Alcohol is soaked into the history of the United States of America – even before the first European explorers and settlers brought over beer, wine and spirits, Native Americans in the Southwest used fermented cactus and corn in ceremonial beverages. It’s hard to argue that Americans don’t love their alcohol. Yet over the course of American history, the federal government – along with state governments – has repeatedly made efforts to curb alcoholism, drunk driving and other negative consequences of alcohol consumption through legislative action. This book examines which (if any) of these actions were effective and illuminates the strange love-hate relationship Americans have with their booze.

This episode will appear in Chapter 7 of the book, a chapter which will also contain an explanation of the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a larger discussion of the decision to raise the drinking age to 21 across the U.S. The chapter proceeding this section will have painted a picture of a society becoming more comfortable with casual drinking, including after-work cocktails at home or at a bar, during the 1950s through the 1970s, culminating in the rise of Happy Hour culture.

Happy Hour – the designated window during which bars and restaurants sell alcoholic beverages at a discounted price or give them away for free – is now arguably a staple of American working culture. Walk down almost any busy metropolitan street in America between the hours of 5. and 7 p.m., and chances are you’ll hear the rumble of young, and perhaps not-so-young, professionals crowded inside bars or spilling out onto patios, conversing and commiserating over cheap spirits, beer or wine about their days.

As a concept, Happy Hour has existed since at least 1913, when sailors aboard the U.S.S. Arkansas used the term to describe social hours – some of which featured booze – on the ship’s deck. Through the decades, however, Happy Hour has soared to new heights, barely bruised by anti-alcohol measures and organizations like Prohibition and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. But in the early 1980s, several states across the country began to rethink the prudence of selling massive, virtually unchecked amounts of alcohol to patrons within a narrow time frame. This episode explores how Massachusetts became the first state to officially ban Happy Hour, and why residents, lawmakers and bar-owners alike still defend the ban.

Chapter Seven: Massachusetts’ Happy Hour Ban: Puritanical, or Practical?

In the early hours of September 9, 1983, the temperature at Boston’s Logan Airport hovered around 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Though the summer heat had yet to wane, fall was creeping around the corner. Filene’s, a department store, was running advertisements for satin jackets emblazoned with the Boston Celtic’s logo and “fully lined 100% wool separates,” but the breeze was light, and a waxing moon hung in the New England midnight sky.

It was the wee hours of a Friday morning, and in about 13 hours, people across the state people would make the commute from their cubicles and office chairs to barstools and booths. College students would mosey off campus and into local watering holes. Road workers and construction crews would trade in their tools for ice cold beers. The week would be over – and the clock would strike Happy Hour.

But in the very first minutes of the day – just a little after midnight – Officer Robert Moschella of the Braintree Police Department arrived at King’s Plaza shopping center, located just about 25 minutes south of Boston in a suburban town called Braintree. On the parking lot pavement, huddled together and crying, sat three women in their early twenties. A short way away, a 1975 brown Chevrolet Monte Carlo was parked in the middle of the lot, its rear axle propped up unsettlingly by what Moschella and his colleague, an Officer Butler, quickly realized was the unmoving body of a fourth young woman.

“Is she all right?” screamed one of the women. “Why isn’t anyone helping her?”

A few hours earlier, at around 9:15 p.m., Sheila McManus – a 20-year-old petite blonde from the neighboring town of Weymouth, Massachusetts – arrived at the Ground Round, a bar and restaurant known for its Happy Hour drink specials, DJs and games. As a Thursday night Happy Hour special, the bar had hired a DJ to conduct trivia contests and hand out free beers to patrons with the right answers. McManus joined her friends at a table near the DJ booth, including McManus’ childhood friend, Kathleen “Kathy” Barry, also 20 years old. The two girls participated in a game of guessing the name of songs in return for mugs of beer.

Through the evening, McManus drank seven mugs of beer.  Three of those mugs were allegedly given to her gratis. After her first correct answer, the DJ handed her a mug, and someone in the crowd shouted for her to chugalug it, as was customary. But the DJ thought she was pretty, so he let her off that time 3 On her second win, the crowd cheered as she successfully chugalugged her second free mug. As reward, McManus was handed a third free beer. All the while, Barry and the rest of McManus’s crew played the game and drank discounted beverages.

The two Weymouth North High School alums left the bar together — along with two other friends — and wandered into the parking lot. At some point, Barry and another young woman climbed onto the hood of McManus’s 1975 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, hoping to go for a joyride. What happened in that shopping center parking lot over the next hour and half would send Massachusetts’ politics, police, business owners and residents into a frenzy.  

When Barry climbed on to the hood of her friend’s sedan, the drinking age in Massachusetts was 20 years old, and a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.10 constituted drunkenness. A BAC of 0.10 typically causes a person to be visibly intoxicated, with slurred speech and reduced reaction times. A person’s ability to think clearly and reason is also impaired, as is their ability to coordinate their arms and legs.

McManus, the driver, stood at just about 5 feet two inches tall and weighed 118 pounds. With that frame, it could take less than three standard-sized 12 ounce bottles of beer to reach a BAC of 0.10. She’d had seven. She started up the car, creeping forward slowly. Stirred on by her friends laughter, she picked up speed.  

A shopper leaving the Purity Supreme supermarket across the parking lot saw McManus’s Monte Carlo whizz past, the two girls clinging to the hood and laughing. Behind the wheel, McManus could barely see where she was going, with her friends’ bodies blocking most of her view.

Suddenly, there was a loud crash. McManus had hit a parked car, sending Barry and the other woman flying off the hood. The other woman – whose identity is protected by police records – landed in front of McManus’s car, next to the parked vehicle they’d collided with. When she looked up from the pavement, she didn’t see Barry on the ground beside her.

Realizing her friends had fallen from the hood, McManus slammed her foot down, aiming for the brake. But she hit the gas pedal, lurching the vehicle forward and narrowly missing her friend on the pavement. Her friends and other witnesses screamed for her to stop – Barry was trapped under the car.

Police Lieutenant John Wright arrived at King’s Plaza to find the Bay State ambulance and Fire Department already on the scene. McManus’ Monte Carlo was stationary in the middle of the parking lot, surrounded by a small crowd of emergency responders. Officer Butler, one of the first officers to arrive at the scene, had already tried crawling beneath the car to reach Barry, but it was impossible – someone had tried raising the car with a bumper jack, but it wouldn’t lift high enough for Butler to fit underneath. It took a while for the Fire Department to successfully raise the vehicle enough for Butler and several EMTs to reach Barry, who hadn’t moved or spoken since the emergency responders had arrived. Butler and the EMTs determined that she had no pulse, and she wasn’t breathing. It was time to call a medical examiner.

When the police herded Barry’s three friends to the police cruiser, McManus was appeared to be in a state of shock, and an officer had to help her get into the backseat. Lieutenant Wright approached the cruiser and asked the three women who had been driving the Monte Carlo. Shelia McManus identified herself as the driver, and asked if her friend was alive.

In his written report that evening, Wright stated that he could smell alcohol on her breath and that her eyes were glassy. In that moment, he informed her that she was under arrest for operating under the influence of alcohol and operating to endanger. Officer Leo Coppens and Moschella then drove the three women to the police station.

Kathleen Barry was pronounced dead by the medical examiner. Her neck, arms and legs had been broken when she was dragged between 35 and 50 feet under her friend’s Monte Carlo. Braintree Police enlisted a newspaper photographer named Robert Stella to take forensic photographs of Barry and the crime scene, but after a few minutes, Stella became sick to his stomach and handed his camera over to Officer Butler and Lieutenant Wright to finish the job.

At the station, McManus was formally booked for homicide by motor vehicle by operating under the influence of alcohol and operating to endanger. Someone administered a breathalyzer test — she blew a 0.13.

Barry’s death – and the hours leading up to it – sparked public outcry. The Ground Round stopped offering discounted drinks during Happy Hour, instead offering customers free hor d’eouvres. The following April, Braintree’s board of selectmen voted 4 to 1 not to pursue any disciplinary measures against Ground Round, based on testimony from the bar’s waitresses who insisted that McManus had not displayed any outward signs of intoxication. This infuriated Braintree residents, who then petitioned the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) to suspend the Ground Round’s liquor license and pressured the board of selectmen to enact a formal ban on Happy Hours within the town’s borders. Many business owners and law enforcement officials were ecstatic about the ban. For restaurant or bar owners, banning Happy Hour meant businesses wouldn’t have to compete for customers by lowering prices.

“From a business standpoint, as long as everyone’s on the same footing, I don’t think anyone will complain,” Keith Toothaker, a district manager of the Mexican restaurant chain El Torito, told the Boston Globe.  Andrew Klein, the chief probation officer at the Quincy District Court, was even more emphatic about the need to ban Happy Hours, calling establishments that offered such discounts “killer bars” and applauding the town’s decision to ban the practice altogether. “It’s like malaria,” he told the Globe. “You can attack it mosquito by mosquito, or you can dry up the swamp.”

There is some significant research to suggest that local and state governments needed to take steps to curb drunk driving accidents. A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 62 percent of all Massachusetts’s fatal traffic accidents in 1982 were alcohol-related, meaning that the driver or another victim had a blood alcohol level (BAC) greater than 0.01. Of the 659 fatal car accidents in Massachusetts that year, 369 involved a person with a BAC greater than 0.08.

In July of 1984, incentivized by Braintree resident’s petition, the ABCC held a three-hour long hearing to determine whether the Ground Round should lose its liquor license. Ultimately, it suspended the bar’s license for 15 days. For Barry’s family, the ABCC’s decision brought a small sense of justice and righted the wrong that had been done by the town’s selectmen a few months earlier. “My husband and I went to the Braintree hearing and came away thoroughly disgusted,” Grace Barry, Kathleen’s mother, told reporters. “Justice has been done in a small way. It can’t bring Kathy back, but it’ll make people more aware and maybe someone else’s life will be saved.”

McManus pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol and vehicular homicide. She served a prison sentence of one month. But the aftermath of the accident had only just begun.

George McCarthy was 55 years old in the fall of 1983 and was in his first year as chairman of the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. He was appointed by Governor Dukakis. “I loved McCarthy,” the former governor would later chuckle. “McCarthy was an interesting guy. Tough, from a working-class community. Straight as an arrow. If you’re going to have an ABCC chairman, you want that chairman to have integrity that’s tough as nails.”

McCarthy had previously served six terms as mayor of Everett, a small city just north of Boston. He was also the proud owner and operator of the Home Appliance Service for over 45 years. He was gregarious, funny, and determined. His reign as ABCC chairman was a sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, John Larkin, a soft spoken, judicial former FBI agent known for his gentle and dignified demeanor. Larkin was a serious, by-the-book kind of guy who’d received commendations from J. Edgar Hoover himself. In contrast, McCarthy was boisterous, prone to yelling at lawyers during ABCC hearings and not afraid to tell them “you’re full of crap.” His distrust of lawyers ran so deep, he often remarked that the court should swear lawyers in the same way they swear in witnesses.

Despite his colorful antics in hearings, McCarthy was a logical choice for ABCC chairman. A family history of drinking problems led him to eschew alcohol altogether, yet he didn’t preach prohibition or teetotalism. Instead, he just wanted to see bars, restaurants and patrons behave responsibly. .

When McCarthy heard about Kathleen Barry’s death, he sprang into action. “It hit him in all the wrong places,” said Lou Cassis, an ABCC commissioner who worked alongside McCarthy. “The case facts were pretty horrific.”

“George was a hard-charging guy,” said Dan Matthews, who joined the ABCC as co-commissioner in 1984, when McCarthy was working all out to get Happy Hour banned. “He was really a people person. And he saw something that he thought should be done and he went to work on it.” Under McCarthy’s leadership, the ABCC was cracking down on liquor licenses across the state. Matthews remembered that there were just 12 investigators on staff during McCarthy’s reign, and that those 12 people were responsible for probing into every bar mentioned in court by individuals charged with drunk driving. According to Matthews, McCarthy’s investigators would even do stings to curb underage drinking.  

“We’d send an underage person into a nightclub – with an undercover police officer – to see if they could get served. If the bartender asked for verification, [the underage person] would leave.” The stings were quite effective, Matthews said, recalling one instance where a bartender carded the underage person, who responded by ordering a nonalcoholic soda. A few minutes later, the bartender came back and handed him a beer. “Sorry,” the bartender said. “I thought you were an undercover cop.” Of course, the bar was busted.

McCarthy’s commission held a series of public hearings, offering Massachusetts residents and business owners the opportunity to argue for or against the ban. “Over the last several months, we’ve heard a lot of horror stories about drunken driving,” he said at the time. “A lot of them related to Happy Hours.” He was also quoted at the time as believing that a ban on Happy Hour certainly wouldn’t have any negative consequences: “My opinion is that it’s like chicken soup: it can’t hurt.”

With McCarthy enthusiastically taking charge, the Happy Hour regulation was passed in Massachusetts a little over a year after Barry’s accident, and signed by Dukakis in December of 1984. The regulation itself never uses the term “Happy Hour” but does list off “Certain practices prohibited” as follows:

(1) No licensee or employee or agent of a licensee shall:

(a) offer or deliver any free drinks to any person or group of persons;

(b) deliver more than two drinks to one person at one time;

(c) sell, offer to sell or deliver to any person or group of persons any drinks at a price less than the price regularly charged for such drinks during the same calendar week, except at private functions not open to the public;

(d) sell, offer to sell or deliver to any person an unlimited number of drinks during any set period of time for a fixed price, except at private functions not open to the public;

(e) sell, offer to sell or deliver drinks to any person or group of persons on any one day at prices less than those charged the general public on that day, except at private functions not open to the public;

(f) sell, offer to sell or deliver malt beverages or mixed drinks by the pitcher except to two or more persons at any one time;

(g) increase the volume of alcoholic beverages contained in a drink without increasing proportionately the price regularly charged for such drink during the same calendar week;

(h) encourage or permit, on the licensed premises, any game or contest which involves drinking or the awarding of drinks as prizes.

(2) No licensee shall advertise or promote in any way, whether within or without the licensed premises, any of the practices prohibited under 204 CMR 4.03.

The ban fit nicely into Dukakis’ burgeoning war on drunk driving, which would also include harsher penalties for drunk drivers and more random roadblock checks. Dukakis also launched the Governor’s Alliance Against Drugs and Alcohol in 1984, which was comprised of lawmakers, educators, community coalitions, media and the police who banded together to improve awareness and education around the dangers of drugs and alcohol. While McCarthy was motivated to action by the Barry accident, Dukakis’ was haunted and frustrated by the sheer number of fatal drunk driving accidents occurring around the state, often taking the lives of the innocent.

“On Christmas Eve, just before I went back into the governor’s office in 1982, a family that lived in Hyde Park was visiting grandparents and exchanging gifts,” the former governor said somberly. “I think it was a couple and two kids. They were coming back [to Hyde Park] in their car, filled with Christmas gifts, and at some point, a drunk driver killed them all. Christmas Eve, for God’s sake, and a car full of Christmas presents.”

After the ban went into effect, the ABCC went to work on enforcement. Here and there, the agency would have to reprimand a bar for trying to serve discounted drinks, but most bars and restaurants appeared to not only accept the edict, but enthusiastically embrace it.

“Compliance was not an issue,” Matthews confirmed. “A lot of businesses felt relieved.”

In fact, business owners in Massachusetts have continued to laud the Happy Hour regulation in the 35 years since it went into effect. In 2012, the ABCC revisited the Happy Hour regulation – known formally as regulation 204 CMR 4.03 – in the wake of the Expanded Gaming Acts of 2011, which allowed casinos in the state to offer free alcoholic beverages to patrons in “the gaming area.” The theory was that repealing the Happy Hour regulation would potentially level the playing field for bars and restaurants hoping to compete with casinos. Anticipating a large turnout from bar owners eager to plead their case for the return of Happy Hour, the ABCC scheduled six hearings throughout the state between the months of May and September 2012. The commissioners purposely conducted the hearings “in locations within the regions that were easily accessible, provided parking, and could accommodate large groups of individuals.” To ensure that restaurant and bar owners could attend, the ABCC held all of the hearings on Tuesday mornings, which they deemed the most likely time of the week that bar staff would not be working.

In the end, just 28 people showed up to the Boston hearing. Sixteen attended the hearing in Northampton, 10 in Chelmsford, and seven in Worcester. Just six people trickled in to the Bridgewater hearing. Of these 57 total attendees, 22 identified themselves as being opposed to “any change in the Happy Hour regulation.” Seven were journalists there to report on the hearings themselves. Only two people described themselves as being “open” to the possibility of lifting the ban, while another person noted that he wanted to be sure that any change made to the law didn’t “promote binge drinking.” Unsurprisingly, many of the attendees who testified during the hearings owned bars or restaurants. A few of them had owned establishments since the pre-ban days and referred to that time period as a “race to the bottom” in which businesses had to constantly lower their prices in order to compete with whatever deal the place next door was offering. In its 2013 report handed to Governor Deval Patrick, the ABCC stated that several people compared running a bar in the 1970s and 1980s to “’a bloodbath.’ There was poor control and even no control over the amount of liquor served or consumed.”

“The closer we get to free, the worse it is,” Mark Beaton testified. At the time of the hearing, Beaton was working at a Kingston sports bar called the Charlie Horse. “One of the great places in this state that’s very safe and regulated is alcohol. So as a father, I’m not excited about seeing a return to Happy Hour.”

Steven Clark, Director of Government Affairs for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and representing the interests of 1,700 members, shared his memories of what pre-ban Happy Hour was like: “…when I was 20, back when the drinking age was a little less, back in ’78, I remember nights like Drink and Drown Night. That was a famous one that used to happen in a place over by the Channel. Quite a few fights in there.”

The ABCC report’s recommendation on repealing the Happy Hour regulation was clear: don’t do it.

Thirty-six years after Kathy’s death, the Barry family continued to grieve. Her parents, Grace and Jack, were still living in North Weymouth as of Spring 2019. For Grace Barry, the very mention of Kathy’s name was so upsetting that she couldn’t talk about her daughter. Jack noted that Kathy and her mother were “very close, they did so much together,” and perhaps that’s why Grace didn’t want to talk about anything related to her daughter’s accident. Jack also declined a full interview, but did offer a brief reflection on the legacy that his daughter’s death has had on public safety: “I think that the law had a great effect on reducing the deaths in Massachusetts,” he said. “There were so many people who would stop and have a couple [drinks] on their way home [from work]. I think the law probably saved a few lives.”

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