John Barleycorn Must Die: Today in History, Mock Funerals Took Place Across America as Prohibition Began in Earnest

jb tombstone loc.jpg

Image Source: Library of Congress


On January 17th, 1920, hundreds of fake funerals were held in churches and bars across the country for a man that didn’t exist. John Barleycorn, the anthropomorphic personification of beer and whiskey, was symbolically laid to rest amid cheers and tears at 12:01 AM, January 16th, 1920. These mock funerals saw the actual burial of a bottle effigy, complete with pomp and circumstance. The tone of the ceremony varied widely, however, depending on who was conducting the funeral rites.

For religious Drys, it was a joyous, momentous occasion—both a summation of their political endeavors and a victory over Satan himself. “Good-bye John,” said Billy Sunday, the famous baseball-player-turned-Evangelical-preacher, to a crowd of 10,000 at a mock funeral in Norfolk, Virginia. “You were God’s worst enemy; you were Hell’s best friend.”1 Then he led the “corpse” and a group of twenty pallbearers to the church tabernacle, with “Satan” trailing behind them.2 “Satan”—a fellow “wearing a mask”—then sat with mourners “in a state of deep dejection” as the funeral services went on.3


An announcement for a mock Barleycorn funeral in Boston. Photo Source: Boston Globe

Virginia wasn’t the only place to see Barleycorn laid to rest by triumphant Drys, however. Chicago’s churches sent him off in style a day later on January 18th, sending out “black bordered invitations” to invite folks to hear Capt. Frank B. Ebbert, chief counsel for the Anti-Saloon League, “conduct the funeral service” at the Second United Presbyterian Church. Considered the “most elaborate and impressive” event of its kind in the city, the funeral featured “a large imitation bottle, six feet high…[that] stood on its head in a coffin” which was then “embalmed, cremated, and buried amid…applause” and cheers from the “dry-eyed” crowd.4 “He was buried upside down,” Ebbert added, “so that if he ever wriggles [away] he will wriggle in the right direction.5  

On July 1st, 1919, a similar act took place in Chicago, in recognition of the Wartime Prohibition act, a precursor to the wider Volstead Act. St. David’s Roman Catholic Church at 32nd Street and Union held a mock funeral for Barleycorn that was just as joyous as the later one. “Our women are going to act as pallbearers,” explained Father Joseph McNamee, church pastor. “They are not going to wear black, because it is too happy an event, but they will dress in white. No flowers are going to be put on the coffin, for John doesn’t deserve any, but the flowers are going to be worn in the hair of the women…we propose to march in procession all around the church…then we will bury John Barleycorn.”6 He wanted to wait a few days on the funeral rites, he said, so he could “invite some of the saloon keepers to be present.”7


The Drey prelude to the funerals, presumably… 😉                            Source: Father Penn and John Barleycorn (1920) at HathiTrust Digital


The Wets, of course, took a very different tone with their “funerals.” For them, things veered from raucous, drunken wakes to sullen tears—often right up until the bitter end. While some “funerals” had an air of fun, more often than not the sadness was palpable. In New York, drunken mourners got to their feet and, “as though animated by the same impulse,” formed “mock funeral corteges and marched in and out among the bottle strewn tables, while the orchestras fiddled desperately at funeral tunes set to jazz time.”8 

The mood wasn’t too different from the beginning of the Wartime Prohibition Act, either. During Chicago at that time, “a vast gloom made itself felt” everywhere.9 “Strong men wept as they ordered,” said the Tribune, often while calling up their wives to discuss “the expediency of remaining in the office” instead of coming home.10 Then they’d order another round and gather together to sing The Alcoholic Blues:


When midnight rolled around, some didn’t want the party to end. In New York, when told to dispose of their drinks after midnight by pouring them onto the floor or leaving them, revelers simply drank them on the spot and stumbled away.11 In Chicago during the Wartime Act, people tried to take their booze with them—or pour one for the road: “At midnight lights were switched on and off to announce the hour and customers were told to leave. Some who were drinking from glasses carried them away. Others who had bottles in their hands about to pour drinks carried them off.”12 Apparently, no one stopped them. Some folks even got a bit violent during the Wartime Act. In Chicago, a taxi driver and an insurance salesman came to blows over a 25 cent fare, and a riot started when detectives tried to arrest some men who kicked in the door to the Fountain Inn after midnight.13

But no matter how either side reacted, with the dawn of January 17th, 1920, it was clear that Prohibition had started for good.



Today, most people recognize his name thanks to this famous Traffic song from 1970, John Barleycorn Must Die:

That song, however—and the figure it mentions—is much older than the 1970s. Though the first known printed version of this traditional British folksong occurred in 1568, its likely that the song is much older, especially since Barleycorn’s connection to mythic grain figures is both deeply pagan and Christian, thanks to the themes of death and resurrection.

According to Graeme Thomson, author of I Shot A Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure, As Related in Popular Song (The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 2008), this song is “one of the most enduring of all British folksongs,” largely thanks to offering “a multi-tiered explanation of the sheer stubborn necessity of death.”14 While “ostensibly the song is about the production of cereal crop,” says Thomson, it is also “a metaphor for the Christian notion of intense suffering leading to a death made as a sacrifice for the benefit of others, but it also encompasses an essentially pagan viewpoint—the vital cycle of the changing seasons; there can be no bountiful spring without the barren winter.”15

There are many versions of the song since the 1970s, but one of the most popular versions was by the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns (you can read it here or here). Interestingly, while researching this post I happened upon a ridiculously awful Temperance response to Burn’s poem. You can read it in all its hideous glory here at HathiTrust Digital.


  1. “THOUSANDS HEAR SUNDAY IN BOOZE FUNERAL SERMON.”  Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Jan 17, 1920.
  2. “BILLY SUNDAY SPEEDS BARLEYCORN TO GRAVE; Preaches at Mock Obsequies, with Devil as Mourner, in Norfolk Tabernacle.” New York Times, Jan 16, 1920.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “CHURCHES HOLD J. B.’S FUNERAL; CREMATE EFFIGY.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Jan 19, 1920.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “ST. DAVID’S CHURCH PREPARES TO BURY JOHN BARLEYCORN.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Apr 05, 1919.
  7. “CHICAGO GULPS ITS FINAL CUPS AMID A BEDLAM.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Jul 01, 1919.
  8. “NEW YORK CAFES BOTTLE-STREWN AT THE WINDUP.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Jan 17, 1920.
  10. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Thomson, Graeme. 2008. I shot a man in Reno: a history of death by murder, suicide, fire, flood, drugs, disease, and general misadventure, as related in popular song. New York: Continuum. p 9.
  15. Ibid, p 9-10.

About lupachi1927

My name's Megan, and I'm a writer with an interest in history. While I might not be a real historian, I'm a very thorough researcher. This blog is my place to post about all the interesting historical tidbits I find that can't use in the novel I'm working on, which takes place in Chicago in 1927. If you're looking for research help, writing feedback, or just want to say hi, feel free to drop me a line! :)
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7 Responses to John Barleycorn Must Die: Today in History, Mock Funerals Took Place Across America as Prohibition Began in Earnest

  1. OMG. Graeme’s book has the longest title I’ve ever seen. And jealous that you have access to all those wonderful references. Not being in academia makes original sources difficult to come by.


    • lupachi1927 says:

      Lol! Yeah it does! I’m not sure why his publishers thought that was a good idea. Aw well I only work for a public library. I bet your local library has access to all sorts of databases. That’s where I get most of my newspaper articles, between them and Chicago Public Library. Local historical societies are also great places. Are you having research problems? I might be able to help if you want/need it. Just drop me a line! 🙂


      • I do have research woes, as evidenced by the predominance of square brackets in my manuscript. So far, though, I’ve just forged forward. At some point, though… I will keep your very kind offer in mind. Thank you!


      • lupachi1927 says:

        Ah yes, square brackets! Best of luck with your current draft, and just let me know if you need/want any research help :).


  2. jazzfeathers says:

    Great articles. I heard of the mock funerals, of course, but never read it in such details.
    I find it quite funny, though. Do you think these people really thought that alcohol was gone forever, or that they actually thought the law was a mock too?


    • lupachi1927 says:

      I think the hardcore drys really thought it was gone…and even the less hardcore ones wanted it to be. Though I didn’t use them, I found a lot of editorial pieces saying how happy the writer was regarding the “death” of alcohol and hoping it would stay buried forever. The wets, though, seemed more mocking…probably because they knew that for most it would never truly die 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Goodbye John Barleycorn – Prohibition 100

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