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Authors: Eric Burns

1920 (10 page)

BOOK: 1920
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“speakeasy” is not certain. It may be, as Mencken believed, that it derives from an old Irish word that means “speak softly shop.” Speak softly, that is, so that if a few unbribed policemen happened to be passing by outside, they would not hear raucous patrons inside and be tempted to enter and make arrests. “Hush!” whispered the landlady at Rolliver's Inn in Thomas Hardy's
Tess of the d'Urbervilles
. “Don't 'ee sing so loud, my good man, in case any member of the Gover'ment should be passing and take away my licends.”

It is said that in Manhattan,
The New Yorker
magazine's noted humorist “Robert Benchley once walked the north and south lengths of Fifty-Second Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues counting speakeasies. He put the total at thirty-eight.” In fact, “[f]ederal officials believed it to be the wettest block in America, populated by so many clandestine watering holes that a woman who lived in one of the block's few private residences had to put a sign on her door, pleading with people not to ring the bell.”

Radio gossip and journalist Walter Winchell once appeared in a newsreel to claim that there were 1,600 speakeasies in a fourteen-block area of Manhattan, a figure impossible to believe, even delivered in Winchell's stentorian tones.

F. Scott Fitzgerald did not have so many choices. But he did not need them. He probably started his long, painful decline into alcoholism and eventual ruin in college, at Princeton, but was able to continue it in grand
style in 1920, far from New York. Now selling his short stories to the
Saturday Evening Post
for $400 apiece, he could afford the best speakeasies that his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, had to offer. When he settled in the New York suburb of Westport, Connecticut later that year, and in Manhattan shortly afterward, his fee now up to $500 per tale and his first novel having been published, he could order whiskey delivered directly from the speak to his house or hotel suite.

It wasn't necessary to earn as much money as Fitzgerald to drink well during Prohibition, but it helped. “People made jokes about taking out a loan to take on a load,” it was observed. “In some speaks, on some nights, a cocktail went for twice what it used to; on other occasions the mark-up could be a factor of ten—it depended on how much beverage was available at a given time and how difficult it was to procure.” And how difficult it was to procure depended on the whims of law enforcement and the efficacy of criminal enterprise at any given time.

A speakeasy's profits, then, could be high. But so were its expenses. As has been calculated by the editors of
books, “it took money to make money—one New York proprietor put the cost at $1,370 a month. Of this, $400 was graft to federal Prohibition agents, the police department, and the district attorneys. The cop on the beat got another $40 to turn his back whenever beer was delivered.” And if there was more than just one cop, and the police department often increased the number for no other reason than to spread the wealth among as many of their troops as possible, the speakeasy's costs went up even more. In fact, swears Sean Dennis Cashman, a historian of Prohibition, “New York speakeasy owners now paid more than $50 million every year from 1920 in graft to policemen and prohibition agents.”

Most of the profits created by illegal alcohol went to organized crime, which filled the void previously occupied by legitimate businessmen, brewers, vintners, and distillers. And the federal government, which used to collect $500 million a year in taxes from alcoholic beverages, fully a tenth of the national revenue, suddenly found its various budgets harder to balance than they used to be.

But this is not to say that Prohibition created organized crime, as some people seem to believe. Stephen Fox corrects the misperception in
and Power
, his history of illegal activity in America in the twentieth century.

[O]rganized crime afflicted American life before the 1920s, but in small ways. Groups of crooks with entrepreneurial visions paid off the right cops and politicians, and in return controlled a neighborhood, or a section of a city, or at most an entire metropolis. But the enterprises under “protection”—mainly street crime, burglaries, prostitution, and gambling—were essentially restricted to certain places and people. Most good citizens could go their own way without being affected. A clear line divided the underworld from the upperworld. The gangs, confined by geography and relatively modest ambitions, did not operate on national or even regional scales. During occasional spasms of reform the cops and politicians, bribed or not, could still at their whim subdue the gangs for a while.

Once the Eighteenth Amendment took effect, however, everything changed. Prohibition turned organized crime into a growth industry; it was the greatest boon ever to the business of wrongdoing, the profits often utilized as seed capital, not only for other offenses of the time, but for future malfeasances, making certain that what had begun long ago, early in the nineteenth century, continued to prosper as a national franchise well into the future. Without the national ban on booze, organized crime would have remained organized, but would have been much less criminal, which is to say much less widespread, in its effects on society.

Historian Mike Dash provides a sweet summary of the effect of Prohibition on criminal enterprise. “Nothing like it had ever happened before,” he writes. “An entire American industry—one of the most important in the country—had been gifted by the government to gangsters.”

high-class speaks, who could afford only the kinds of joints that reeked of saloons, the men and women of the lower classes, down on their luck, some of them so far down that they weren't even able to make their own hooch—for these men and women
the Eighteenth Amendment would soon result in a far greater problem than price and availability. It would become, in effect, a means of legally sanctioned chemical warfare against the poor. Sometimes even the rich.

When a Cleveland, Ohio, businessman named Wilson B. Hickox was visiting New York and decided to have a nightcap before bedtime and his next day's sightseeing, he drank a beverage, source unknown, the volume of which had been increased by mixing it with strychnine. After less than a few minutes, Hickox began to feel “a tightening of the throat and chest, a kind of bitter pain spreading through his body. We may reasonably imagine the glass slipping from his hand and Hickox rising with difficulty and stumbling toward the door to summon help as his symptoms swiftly worsened. One by one his body systems were collapsing into paralysis as the toxic effects of strychnine swept through him. Mr. Hickox never made it to the door, but died slowly and wretchedly on the floor of his room, bewildered, frightened, and unable to move a muscle.”

Before Prohibition ended, it would cost thousands of people their health and untold numbers their lives.

To Wayne Wheeler, however, the horrible turn that dry America was about to take was simply the will of God. He could see no reason to sympathize with those who defied it, regardless of their outcomes.

Resolutions and Sentiments

being defied, another addition to the Constitution was getting closer to passage, gaining support more rapidly than even its most optimistic advocates could have hoped. And in this case, unlike Prohibition, what the momentum represented

Between January 6 and January 27, 1920, five states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, bringing the number in favor to twenty-seven. Only nine more of America's states had to formalize their approval, and the three-quarter mark would be reached: American women would at long last be able to join men in the voting booth. In his healthier days, President Woodrow Wilson had made it known that he thought they belonged there, although he disappointed suffragists by not making his support more vocal.

Most members of Congress agreed with Wilson. A. Mitchell Palmer was another backer of the female cause, at least in part because he thought that women, by their very nature, would tend to vote more conservatively
than men and help to safeguard the nation from anarchists and Bolsheviks and the continuing danger they posed. The Wall Street explosion was still a few months away, but Palmer and the BOI were as vigilant as they could be, still investigating previous acts of violence and taking into custody the occasional innocent with an Italian surname.

Palmer was especially encouraged by Carrie Chapman Catt, not only the sole woman in her graduating class at Iowa State University but the valedictorian. A member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which seemed to Palmer further evidence of her conservative nature, she went on to succeed the better-known Susan B. Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. When that organization breathed its last in 1920, Catt founded the League of Women Voters to take its place, and that group has endured ever since, one of the most powerful nonpartisan political voices in the country for decades. A woman of many talents, Catt also edited the
National Suffrage Bulletin
, which later changed its name to
. Further, she managed two statewide campaigns in favor of the Nineteenth Amendment, winning them both. In Idaho, the vote was 122,126 in favor of suffrage, a mere 5,844 against.

But what particularly attracted Palmer to Catt was comments like this: “There is but one way to avert the danger,” she declared, the danger being that more and more foreigners would take up residence in the United States, foreigners who might not have the best interests of the country at heart, and that is to “cut off the vote of the slums and give to woman … the power of protecting herself … the ballot.”

A number of factors, both past and present, led to the Nineteenth Amendment's rapid approach. Even the Great War had a little to do with it. But very little. In his grand opus
The American Century
, the eminent historian Norman F. Cantor states that the Amendment was “a reward for what women had done during the war in ammunition factories and hospitals and on farms.” It was true, but barely. A great deal of work had to be done before the fighting began to allow females into the polling place in 1920. But little known though it is, the majority of American women were already voting, at least part-time, before the Constitution was expanded for them.

The Nineteenth Amendment would make suffrage “universal,” as both friends and foes alike agreed. But prior to the war it was already universal in almost every state west of the Mississippi River, Texas being the largest exception. Six other states, all in the vicinity of the Canadian border, allowed women to vote for president only. Even Texas allowed the female ballot in presidential primaries, but not in general elections. In fact, a mere nine states denied women the vote in all instances, and seven of those, to their inexplicable shame, were among the original thirteen colonies—which is to say, those soon-to-be states that were responsible for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the first place.

Bias against giving women an electoral voice, however, existed even before the nation's founding, long before. Miriam Gurko tells us that, as far back as 1638, Margaret Brent, “a large property owner and woman of many business affairs, demanded a vote in the [Virginia] House of Burgesses. It was denied, but not without a lively argument. This was probably the first demand for woman suffrage in America.” Historian George Brown Tindall makes a further case for Brent, pointing out that even though she was so competent at her tasks that two of her brothers turned over the management of their acreages when they were away from home, no matter. “The governor, in response, acknowledged her gifts, but denied her request. When she became perhaps the first American suffragette, she had overstepped the bounds of acceptance.”

In her study of the long, frustrating battle to grant women entrance to polling places,
The Ladies of Seneca Falls
, Gurko continues:

In some colonies women did have the right to vote, since this was generally based not on sex but on ownership of property. Ironically, it was the arrival of independence and the spread of democracy that removed this right. As states adopted their constitutions or revised their laws under the new political conditions, voting qualifications were more clearly defined, usually spelling out the voter as a free, white, male citizen, in addition to whatever property or tax requirement there might be. Thus New York took the vote away from women in 1777,
Massachusetts in 1780, New Hampshire in 1784, and New Jersey, the last to do so, in 1807.

Gurko does not make clear the connection between independence for the country and the exclusion of women from voting booths; there seems no causal relationship. But she does point out that females, many times widows, continued to own property in what was now the United States, and that they were taxed on that property. Thus, after men had fought and won their battles against “taxation without representation,” women were forced to fight their own battles—and against the very men who had been victorious against the British. They did so, however, with much less success.

BOOK: 1920
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