If Speakeasies Could Speak

By Luke Wilusz

In 1919, the United States went dry. For more than a decade, it was in direct violation of the federal law to throw back a drink after a hard day of work or have a few rounds at a party. Not that it stopped people from having a good time, of course. It was the era of bootleggers, speakeasies and the rise of the American gangster. The Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., is hosting a monthlong series of events to celebrate the ways it changed our culture and our city.

The first of these events, New Beer’s Eve, will take place on April 6 at Sheffield’s Bar & Grill, 3258 N. Sheffield Ave., to commemorate the day that Prohibition was repealed—at least partially.

“New Beer’s Eve basically took place on April 7, 1933, at 12:01 a.m., and it was the date that beer or near beer was once again legal,” said Liz Garibay, public programs manager for the museum. “Liquor was still not, but beer was.”

The New Beer’s Eve celebration will feature plenty of beer, along with educational presentations courtesy of the museum, explaining what effect Prohibition had on the liquor industry and how its aftermath impacts local taverns to this day. Other events include lectures by experts on Prohibition-era history, historic pub crawls of old speakeasies, a bus tour of notable historic sites around the city and a whiskey tasting.

Long before the federal government could consider outlawing alcohol, the first inklings of the prohibition movement got their start with the temperance movement, said senior curator John Russick, who will give a lecture on the transition from temperance to prohibition at the Chicago History Museum on April 13. His lecture will also feature an assortment of items from the museum’s collection demonstrating how people drank and hid their illegal drinking during Prohibition, including hip flasks and flasks concealed within walking sticks.

The temperance movement started in the early 19th century as an attempt by religious and reform-minded organizations to save the United States from the “immorality” of excessive drinking. Over the years, temperance gained approval among people who supported other moral reform movements, including campaigns to abolish slavery and secure voting rights for women.

“As the decades proceeded and the lines got more and more firmly drawn, that separated what became known as the wets from the dries,” Russick said. “You have an increasing movement from an effort to encourage temperance, which is just to manage the alcohol and to limit the alcohol, to a prohibition movement, which is to outlaw alcohol and mandate sobriety.”

This mandated sobriety didn’t sit well with many Americans, Russick said, and the problems caused by so many people willing to disobey it were centered primarily in big cities across the United States.

“That is at least one part of the history that plays out here in Chicago,” Russick said. “We have a population … willing to say, ‘Well, I’m not going to follow this particular law, and I disagree with it, so I’m willing to break this law.’ Of course, once you have a large population like that, that is willing to challenge the legality of an amendment to the Constitution, you suddenly open the doors for people to profit from that willingness to defy the law.”

The people profiting were infamous bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone and Bugs Moran. Of course, organized crime existed in the United States before prohibition, but it dealt mainly in gambling and prostitution, Russick said. Prohibition gave these gangsters the means by which to become very wealthy, because while only small portions of the population were interested in prostitution and gambling, the majority of U.S. citizens thought it was reasonable to have a drink now and then, even if they had supported temperance.

“What happened in the ’20s was we provided the criminal element—that had already become versed and skilled in either bribing public officials or hiding their illegal activities—we provided them with a whole new commodity in which to trade,” Russick said. “They expanded their empire because not only did they have a new product, but it was a very popular one as well.” Because liquor was such a hot commodity, these criminal organizations grew wealthier and more powerful than before. According to retired Cook County Investigator and organized crime expert John J. Flood, this increase in criminal power began to corrupt other aspects of society, particularly government and political leadership.

“Organized crime could not exist without the politicians looking the other way, and then it starts to corrupt the whole system,” Flood said. Flood also noted that Prohibition and organized crime have influenced major legitimate industries, such as the trucking business, in ways people don’t often realize.

“At the time of Prohibition, the only people that needed trucks in the United States—because everything moved by train—were the fellas who were moving the illegitimate alcohol of the United States,” Flood said. “So they had trucks. Once the policies were removed under Roosevelt … they moved those trucks into the legitimate trucking industry of the United States, and literally they’re the foundation of the trucking industry.”

Jonathan Eig, whose book “Get Capone!” will be released at his April 27 lecture at the Chicago History Museum, said he thinks Al Capone is a Chicago icon people don’t

fully understand.

“I think people still identify this town with Al Capone,” Eig said. “Maybe more than anyone else … Capone, for almost a century now, has really helped set this city’s image, for better or for worse, and I think it’s important that we have a complete understanding of him.”

Eig researched the book extensively through interviews with Capone family members, previously unreleased IRS records, and documents obtained from Capone’s criminal prosecutor. He said he wanted people to understand who Capone really was, as opposed to the violent, psychopathic caricature often depicted in movies.

“He was a family man, he was a business man, he was a killer and a brutal criminal, but he was all of those things,” Eig said. “I think to understand him, you have to understand the times in which he grew up. You have to understand the pressures of Prohibition and the opportunities that Prohibition presented guys like Capone. I think when you do that, when you look at the whole picture, he becomes a much more interesting character.”

Eig says he looks forward to Prohibition Month and that he is hoping to get tickets to some of the events before they sold out. He praised the fact that the museum was trying to educate people about the city’s history in an interesting and engaging way.

“I think [Prohibition] is an important part of our history, and it’s also a lot of fun,” he said. “It was a wild era, and we need to remind people that history isn’t always dry and dull. It was vibrant and thrilling and dangerous, and the more we can evoke that, the more we can get people interested in it.”

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