In these last moments of 2010, when we raise a glass to the end of the year and the promise of the new one, let’s not forget to appreciate that our cocktails are legal and the alcohol in them is unlikely to kill us where we stand. It’s especially worth remembering as this year was, after all, the 90th anniversary of that great American experiment called Prohibition.
Prohibition – which made the manufacture, sale, transportation, import and export of alcoholic spirits illegal – began with final approval of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. But it only went into effect in 1920. Although not with the effect, the shining dawn of an alcohol-free nation, that its supporters had hoped to see. Legal drinking definitely disappeared. But scholars today still debate whether Prohibition – which lasted until the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933 – ever reduced consumption of alcohol in the United States.
It’s difficult to measure because so much drinking was done secretly, so many bottles acquired from under pharmacy counters, at roadside ice-cream stands, from grocers and cobblers, and from the countless speakeasies (for which this blog is named) that replaced the rowdy saloons and regulated bars of earlier times. As I discovered from researching The Poisoner’s Handbook my story of murder and forensic science in the 1920s, some 30,000 speakeasies were opened in New York City alone during the Prohibition era.
As soon as legal drinking ended, purveyors of illicit alcohol came forward with substitute beverages – moonshine liquor made from wood scraps and sawdust and oddments of plants. In one of my favorite cases, federal agents discovered that moonshiners in Tennessee were cooking a brew made from poison ivy. But there were worse mixtures.
In the first month of Prohibition, poison alcohol deaths rippled across the country: eight in New York City, four dead in a single day in Hartford, Connecticut, two in Toledo, seven in Washington D.C. Soon the police discovered that murderers had learned to take advantage. In a typical case, barely a month after Prohibition, two men were found dead in Newark, several hours after buying liquor at a Bowery joint. The victims were thought to be alcohol deaths until a standard chemical analysis of the bodies found they were loaded with potassium cyanide. And the killer, whoever he was, was long gone.
Within a year, the once openly rowdy saloons had given way to secretive speakeasies and to bootleggers who would sneak gin to one’s door at a delivery rate of $2 a bottle. By summer’s end, a bare half year into the new amendment, New York officials were already worrying about the direction of Prohibition enforcement. In August, a Brooklyn magistrate presided over the trial of a burglar who broke into a supposedly closed saloon and spent a night guzzling its gin supplies, vented his frustration: “Prohibition is a joke. It has deprived the poor workingman of his beer and it has flooded the country with rat poison.”
Police department chemists, analyzing the so-called gin in the Brooklyn bar and around the city, reported that much of it was industrial alcohol, re-distilled to try to remove the wood alcohol content. The re-distilling was not notably successful. The poisonous alcohol remained and there was more: the chemists had detected traces of kerosene and mercury, and disinfectants including Lysol and carbolic acid in the beverages. “Drinkers are taking long chances on their health,” warned the police commissioner, “if not their lives.”
But for the new speakeasy devotees, the risk was part of the fun. Sometimes it was all the fun. It was amusing, exotic, to spend time in the dim light and hot jazz of some hidden corner, to experiment with the strange liquids that appeared at the table. In his 1927 book, New York Nights, writer Stephen Graham described the mix of anticipation tinged with fear when the waiter “brought me some Benedictine and the bottle was right. But the liqueur was curious – transparent at the top of the glass, yellowish in the middle and brown at the base…Oh, what dreams seemed to result from drinking it… That is the bane of speakeasy life. You ring up your friend the next morning to find out whether he is still alive.”
At the underground clubs, bartenders enjoyed new respect but also were driven to a new burst of creativity, responding to the frequent need to disguise the taste of the day’s alcohol. From the speakeasies came a new generation of cocktails heavy on fruit juices and liqueurs to mix with the bathtub gin, the bright and spicy additions covering the raw sting of the spirits. There was the Bennett cocktail (gin, lime juice, bitters), the Bees Knees (gin, honey, lemon juice), the Gin Fizz (gin, lemon juice, sugar, seltzer water), the Southside (lemon juice, sugar syrup, mint leaves, gin, seltzer water).
At least those were the kind of drinks served at the city’s classier joints, say, Jack and Charlie’s 21 on 52nd Street. Or Belle Guinan’s El Fey Club on West 45th, where the hostess gleamed like a candelabra and the house band played “The Prisoner’s Song” when dry agents were spotted in the crowd. Down in the tattered neighborhood of the Bowery, as the police could tell you, the drink of choice was a cloudy cocktail called Smoke, made by mixing water and fuel alcohol. Smoke joints were tucked into the back of paint stores, drug stores, markets, tucked among the dry goods and the stacked cans. The drink was blessedly cheap – 15 cents a glass – and just about pure wood alcohol.
In a bad season, smoke deaths in the Bowery averaged one a day. And the deaths from poison alcohol rose in the mid-1920s thanks to a government notion that if the illegal alcohol was somehow more poisonous, it would scare people into obeying the law. By all accounts, that rather murderous government program – which involved adding toxic contaminants to the industrial alcohol being siphoned off by bootleggers - killed more than 10,000 people. I wrote about it in my book but also in a piece for Slate called The Chemists’ War, about the failed efforts to stop the poisoning of alcohol, about the then-City Medical Examiner of New York City, Charles Norris furiously challenging the government’s essay in extermination, especially he said, of people who could only afford to drink the dregs.
Because if you had enough money, you could buy your way into a less lethal cocktail, enjoy those jazz-flavored parties so symbolic today of the Prohibition era. Until he was busted by government agents, one of the most famous purveyors of good Prohibition era whiskey to the wealthy was a rum-runner named William McCoy. If you purchased your liquor from him it was guaranteed good, in fact, it was the real McCoy. Once the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, the government once again took over that job of inspecting (and taxing) potable spirits, of assuring consumers that their beer and wine and whiskey was regulated, inspected, legitimate.
We’ve settled back into our safer world of regulation. But we still carry our prohibition legacy with us – our wariness of moral crusades, our distrust of one group imposing its higher values on another. Lessons worth learning, actually. So as we close out this year, this 90th anniversary of a great mistake, let’s make a toast to our Prohibition past, let’s raise a cocktail glass to health and hopes and happiness and our complete confidence that we are about down and trust that the real McCoy.