Speakeasies, moonshine and gangsters
Customers at Sloppy Joe's bar in Chicago at the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. (American Stock Archive/Getty Images/Life.com)
If you happened to be travelling through Oklahoma on the Fourth of July this week, you probably noticed that you couldn’t buy any liquor for your Independence Day celebration.
America’s history of limiting alcohol sales and consumption is a long one – which, in 1919, led to an entire 13-year period during which alcohol was banned. Prohibition brought with it the Roaring Twenties, a time when underground parties and bootlegging gangsters ruled. This era left behind plenty of colourful history for travellers to explore today.
A pint of history
It was called “the Noble Experiment” but in many ways, the Prohibition movement was anything but noble. America’s Temperance Movement was fuelled in large part by anti-immigrant sentiment, explained author Daniel Okrent, who appears in the forthcoming Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition. Particularly in the religious southern region of the US known as the Bible Belt, people believed that banning alcohol would keep out Irish and Italian immigrants, who were stereotyped as drunkards, and German immigrants, who made up the bulk of brewery owners. The racist Ku Klux Klan organization was a major supporter of the anti-alcohol movement, Okrent writes in his book Last Call.
Klan members found unlikely bedfellows with socialists and unionists who, under the organized banner of the Industrial Workers of the World, supported the Temperance Movement because of the belief that alcohol was a capitalist tool used to keep the working man down, said Okrent.
At the core of the movement to ban alcohol though, was the Protestant Church. The Anti-Saloon League, the main pro-Prohibition lobby, garnered most of its support from Protestant ministers. And this loose coalition of temperance advocates gained the momentum it needed to ban alcohol nationwide for 13 years.
A shot more of history
Banning alcohol did barely anything to curb drinking in America. In fact, the parts of society that kept the party going did so in an even bigger and more boisterous way. There were far more illegal speakeasies during Prohibition (Manhattan alone had 5,000) than there had been legal saloons previously. “The parties were bigger, the pace was faster…the morals looser,” wrote Jazz age novelist F Scott Fitzgerald. According to Okrent, this new market helped nationalize organized crime, and crime lords from different cities congregated in New Jersey to “divide up” the country at the Atlantic City Conference.
Despite the Christian Temperance Movement, the South was not immune to the illicit alcohol market either. The rural and mountainous Appalachia region was rife with hidden pockets producing “moonshine”, illegal liquor made at night “by the light of the moon” to avoid authorities.
The Roaring Twenties left behind a tantalising trail for travellers today. Landmarks of the excess, revelry and lawlessness that resulted from Prohibition make for exciting trips throughout the United States.
A tipple of travel
For a Prohibition tour of America, start in swinging New Orleans. Whet your palate at the Museum of the American Cocktail, whose exhibits take you through America’s intoxicating past, showcasing vintage cocktail shakers, “medicinal” booze and portable stills (which, according to New Orleans in the Twenties, could be bought for $6 at any hardware store during Prohibition). While in the city, take the Scandalous Cocktail Hour Tour to such historic drinking sites as the Jean Lafitte Blacksmith Shop and Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar, and learn about the brothels of Storyville and the crime families that ran the city.
Next, head northeast to Ellijay, Georgia. There, perched on the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest is Hillcrest Orchards, which is comprised of an apple orchard, farm market and Moonshine Museum. The museum displays working copper and groundhog stills and offers an education into 1900s moonshining techniques.
In Atlantic City, you can take the Roaring Twenties trolley tour to learn about the city’s past of debauchery and crime, and the law enforcement agents who fought it. Pick-up points include the Tropicana Casino, Wyndham Skyline Towers, the Flagship Main Entrance and Gardener’s Basin.
In New York City, a former speakeasy crawl could start at the 21 Club. During Prohibition the owners (and cousins) Jack Kreindler and Charlie Berns had an impressively complex system to thwart the authorities. When bribed local police would alert the bar about a raid, the bartender would warn customers and press a button to make the bar and liquor shelves flip upside down, dropping all bottles down into the sewer system. The crafty cousins, who were never caught, even had a secret passageway to a room with canned goods and smoked hams that covered up a secret entrance to a wine cellar.
The most notorious Prohibition-era crime boss was Al Capone, the Chicago gangster who got his start in New York and made most of his money smuggling and bootlegging alcohol. For more insight into Capone’s crime reign, head to the Museum of the American Gangster, built in a former speakeasy in New York’s East Village. Artefacts range from Tommy guns and crime family portraits to bootleggers’ beer lockers.
New speakeasy-style bars in New York City pay homage to the 1920s. In Chinatown, Apotheke is a dimly lit, elegantly furnished lounge hidden behind an anonymous storefront. In the East Village, Please Don’t Tell has become a tourist attraction for its entrance through a phone booth located in a hot dog shop.
Conclude your American Prohibition tour in Chicago. Take the Untouchable Tour of former shootout sites, brothels and gambling houses, led by costumed guides who’ll immerse you in the city’s not-too-distant history. Learn about gangsters John Dillinger and Bugs Moran – and about Al Capone’s transformation from a Robin Hood figure with movie star status to a syphilis-plagued prisoner who went crazy before dying in incarceration.
Next, head uptown to the Green Mill jazz club, formerly a speakeasy run by Capone, and still a fantastic place to catch a jazz show. Regular performers include the Willie Pickens Quintet and the Sabertooth Organ Quartet. Like the Green Mill, the Green Door Tavern, another former speakeasy in the River North area, has kept much of its olde timey charm. The tavern hosts comedy events put on by the Speakeasy Improv Players.
Finally, if you find yourself in any major American city on 5 December, we highly recommend seeking out a Repeal Day party celebrating the day on which Prohibition was repealed in 1933. In America’s capital city of Washington, for instance, the DC Craft Bartenders Guild hosts an annual Repeal Day Ball.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.