Authors: Eric Burns
In truth, Wheeler was a kind of robber baron himself. But he did not hoard money. What he hoarded was votes.
WITH PROHIBITION OFFICIALLY BEGINNING AT
on January 16, 1920, it is probably fair to say that attempts to avoid it began around 12:02. Since the ingredients to make ersatz kinds of beverage were still available on various black markets that had sprung up almost simultaneously with Prohibition's enactment, and available as well under drugstore counters manned by friendly pharmacists, many Americans had readied themselves in advance. They had purchased equipment as well as ingredients; they
were able to start making their own alcoholic concoctions as soon as the need came upon them.
Most commonly, they brewed their own beer. It was far from being the real thing, but if a person had a good memory of the way beer tasted yesterday, he could get by with home brew today, could drink his way through the long, black night of the spirits now under way, recalling on his reminiscences as well as his taste buds. And if he had enough perseverance, enough zest for experimentation, he could keep making his product better, closer and closer to the beverage he had once known. For some who achieved proximity, brewing became a business, and they sold their surplus to friends, sometimes even to strangers who had not acquired the knack of manufacturing beer at home themselves. For others, beer production turned into a hobby, all-consuming and much more rewarding than collecting stamps or building those little ships inside tiny bottles. For most, though, home brew was just a means of slaking thirst, not quite satisfactory but better than the punchless alternatives.
So Americans had at it. They began malting, mashing, boiling, hopping, fermenting, siphoning, and settling. It was a complicated process, but few of the newly thirst-obsessed would be dissuaded. They took all the steps that a professional brewer would have taken, but did so amateurishly. A little less water, a little more malt. How to add the hops, what to do with the yeast? Or should it be
malt? It was constant trial and error. Before long, some people noticed,
[t]he air became thick with new kinds of industrial fumes; it was on some occasions possible for a person to walk an entire town or city block, if not more, without ever losing the scent of brew from the residences he passed. And after a man of unknown identity had paddled a canoe the entire length of the Mississippi River, he told the friends who greeted him in New Orleans that the telltale odors of home brew had been with him since Minnesota.
Actually, Prohibition would eventually be flouted to such an extent that a congressman from New York City named Fiorello La Guardia made a public exhibition of his disregard. One day he invited friends, fellow legislators,
casual passersby, and reporters and newsreel cameramen into the lobby of that bastion of national lawmaking, the Office Building of the House of Representatives. He even invited the Capitol Hill constabulary, whose attendance was, to say the least, awkward. La Guardia wanted it to be. They stood in the back of the crowd, barely able to see. He asked them to step forward, wanted them to have a better view. They silently declined, fingering the handcuffs looped to their belts.
La Guardia went quickly to work, concocting his beverage by a simpler method than the one previously described, resulting in an inferior taste. But he wanted to keep the demonstration brief. “He blended two parts malt tonic, âheretofore of interest only to anemics and easy to obtain at almost any drugstore,' to one part ânear beer [a brew with minimal alcoholic content, and legal under Prohibition].' He stirred the ingredients and allowed a few seconds to pass to heighten the suspense. Then he drank up and licked his lips. The cameras zoomed in. âA brewmaster was standing by to sample the mixture,' historian Geoffrey Perrett records. âHe pronounced it delicious.'”
In all likelihood, he was exaggerating. But no matterâtaste was not the point here: defiance was. The onlookers applauded lustily. All except the police, of course. La Guardia raised his glass in their direction, toasting their presence. Should they arrest him? they asked themselves. Each man looked to the next for guidance, but one blank face merely encountered another.
When no one formed his features into decisiveness, much less said anything, the cops concluded that taking a congressman into custody for violating an edict already held in such contempt by so many would not be wise, especially when he was surrounded by a mob of his supporters, a mob that might decide to show its support for La Guardia by menacing those in uniform.
After a few seconds, the cops dispersed, slowly walking away from the exhibition in the House lobby. The applause for the congressman still rippled as the gendarmes disappeared down the Capitol steps. As they did, the crowd closed in on La Guardia, hoping for a few pointers or, if they were lucky, a sip or two of his beverage.
It was perhaps the most outrageously contemptuous public display of lawbreaking ever committed by an American congressman. It didn't seem
to affect his legacy. Two decades later, after five terms in the House of Representatives and notable service as the mayor of the country's largest city, the New York Municipal Airport was named LaGuardia Airport, and so it remains today.
Henry Louis Mencken, the most fascinatingly readable journalist ever to opine in the United States, was dismayed to report that he did not have as much luck as La Guardia. “Last Sunday,” he related, “I manufactured five gallons of Methodistbrau, but I bottled it too soon, and the result has been a series of fearful explosions. Last night I had three quart bottles in my side yard, cooling in a bucket. Two went off at once, bringing my neighbor out of his house with yells. He thought the Soviets had seized the town.”
By 1920, breaking the Prohibition law was such a common activity that entire families engaged in it, perhaps bringing themselves closer together as they might have done in an earlier generation by having Bible discussions, or perhaps playing a card game by candlelight after dinner. The historian John Kobler tells a commonly recited verse of the time:
Mother's in the kitchen
Washing out the jugs;
Sister's in the pantry
Bottling the suds;
Father's in the cellar
Mixing up the hops;
Johnny's on the front porch
Watching for the cops
IT WASN'T JUST BEER, THOUGH,
that Americans turned into a do-it-yourself industry. The pastime also extended to liquor, and the most commonly reproduced variety was bathtub gin, so called because of the container in which it was sometimes stored, the quantities it could hold for mass consumption. The recipe was simpler than that for beer, although, depending on the amount a person wanted to produce, more time-consuming and physically demanding.
In a kettle, one heated corn sugar mash, a product used almost solely to make alcoholic beverages, yet, because of a loophole in the Volstead Act,
still on the market. When the mash reached a temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit, the newly bred distiller slipped on a pair of gloves, trapped the steam with a cloth, and wrung the cloth into a bowl. He wrung as hard as he could, to get as much liquid as he could into the container. Then he kept trapping, kept wringing, trapping, wringing. The yield was pure alcohol, minuscule amounts of it with each wring, but too deadly to drink at that strength. It was, however, in sufficient quantity, an ideal base to create facsimiles of almost every kind of whiskey known to preâEighteenth Amendment man. For instance, something like gin could be concocted by adding the right amounts of water, glycerine, and juniper oil. The palate knew in an instant that it wasn't the real thing, of course, but these were extraordinary times, and one took what one could get. Bathtubs filled up and were just as quickly emptied. Glycerine and juniper oil could be purchased without difficulty or great expense.
Other liquors were created by adding different ingredients to the pure alcohol in the bathtub, ingredients as diverse as apples, oats, bananas, pumpkins, and parsnips. “In southern Florida,” writes Perrett, “all that anyone had to do was take a coconut, bore a hole into it, leave the milk inside, add a tablespoon of brown sugar, and seal. Three weeks later they had a pungent, potent, treacly concoction called cocowhiskey.”
As far as wine was concerned, it, too, had its substandard Prohibition versions, one of which went by the name of Bacchus Bricks, after their size and shape. First available to the public in 1920, they were usually sold in department stores and always by women of substantial physical gifts and smiles that reached back to their molars. Their sales pitches, coyly delivered, and almost always to a large crowd of shoppers, would go something like this:
“To get started, ladies and gentlemen, just dissolve one of our Bacchus Bricks into a bowl of water and
, you have before you a sweet, tasty grape beverage.
“But,” the woman would caution, holding up a large glass container, “after the brick is completely dissolved, you must be certain not to pour the beverage into this jug. And then you must be just as certain not to put the jug into a corner of the cupboard, away from the light, for twenty-one days. Because if you
store the beverage in a large glass jar for
âthat's twenty-one daysâ
you won't have sweet-tasting, harmless grape juice anymore. What will happen is that the juice will ferment and turn into wine, into sherry or port or burgundy, depending on which of our Bacchus Bricks you buyâand then you would be breaking the law.”
The Bacchus babe's listeners would elbow each other in the ribs and smile. A jolly old time, this Prohibition.
“And,” the woman would continue, holding up a cork, “if you
slip up and put the grape juice into one of our containers for twenty-one days of darkness, be sure you don't stop up the jug with one of these corks, because if you do, you'll only be helping the juice to ferment. Have you folks got that?”
“Okay,” the woman would conclude, “one more thing. The jugs and corks are for sale this week only when you buy three bricks for the price of two. Just don't use them for the wrong reason. May I take your orders?”
She was too busy filling out bills of sale and collecting money to indicate what the
reason might be.
OTHER PEOPLE, THOSE WHO COULD
afford to pay more for their beverages than they ever had before and did not care to turn alcohol consumption into a do-it-yourself project, often drank in places called speakeasies, much more elegant establishments than saloons. They were like the velvet-roped, bouncer-guarded, trendy-for-a-week clubs of the present, entrance granted only to the special many, so that the tables were always filled, the bar always engulfed with patrons, and a number of people, unable to find seats, made up a throng around the more comfortable drinkers. But they were only people of the very best sort, which is to say that they could spend on liquor what others spent on rent.
The crÃ¨me de la speakeasy customers sat in plush upholstered booths, on well-padded chairs, or on equally well-padded barstools. “Appointments varied, of course,” I wrote in
The Spirits of America
, “but might include a solid oak bar with brass fittings, thick carpets, gilt-edged mirrors, and overhead, tinkling chandeliers with frescoed ceilings. Fine paintings or quality reproductions might hang on the walls, and small
pieces of sculpture, perhaps busts of famous statesmen or warriors, men who would have had the fortitude to keep the Wayne Wheelers of the world from interfering with their pleasures, would be placed on marble pedestals in the corners, sometimes under specially installed spotlights that set them off dramatically.”
Larger spotlights beamed down on the stage, in front of the elegantly set dinner tables, where the silverware was actually silver, the glassware crystal, and the fabric upon which they had been placed fine linen. At the speakeasies of top rank, entertainment would feature the most famous show-business names of the day: Josephine Baker, Rudy Vallee, Al Jolson, Ruth Etting, and Helen Morgan, the last of whom got her start in speakeasies and is thought by many to be the original torch singer.
And the staff at high-end speakeasies was always at one's service. “The headwaiters knew their customers' predilection for stone crabs or duck a l'orange,” it has been reported, “and âthe doorman,' said
[magazine], âcan always get you two or even four on the aisle if you feel like going to the theatre.'”
So much for the inside.
Since “speaks” had once been saloons, some carpentry was often required on the outside. “Door fitters were in especial demand,” writes Henry Lee in a light-hearted volume on Prohibition, “for the high-minded new dÃ©cor insisted on the elimination of the swinging doors that had graced the old, open saloons. In addition to decorum, the proprietors felt, thick oak defenses would slow down any raiders while the evidence was being poured down the drain. Too, when the Feds hit on the nasty device of actually padlocking raided premises, a need developed for several doors. No sooner was one locked with all the majesty of federal law than a second door was opened practically alongside, and the clientele suffered no inconvenience.”
In addition to the extra doors, a speakeasy often donned a disguise, its owners hopeful that the cop on the beat would not recognize it for what it truly was. A sign might be placed in front that identified the establishment as a grocery, a tailor's shop, a barbershop, a bookstore, an art gallery, the International Hair Net Manufacturers' Association, or even a funeral parlor. The most memorable of the latter, a fake undertaking
establishment in Detroit, “never saw corpses but used its hearses to bring in liquor for the ostensible mourners.”
If a person was known at the speakeasy, he simply knocked at whichever door happened to be in service at the time and, after being sized up by an eye on the other side of the peephole just opened, was admitted. If he was a newcomer, though, he needed a password of sorts to prove he wasn't the law. “Joe sent me” is the stereotypical, cartoonish response for a prospective entrant; and if Joe was known to the former heavyweight boxer-cum-bouncer on the other side of the door, the man and his party were admitted. Otherwise, they were turned away, off to try Joe's name at some other establishment.