Icons / October 2016

The Bootleg Brethren: Prohibition's Heroes

How the lesser-known ne’er-do-wells of The Prohibition wove, with their antics, some of the richest folklore in American history.
People of New York are celebrating the end of the Prohibition with beer, 1933. Photograph courtesy of Getty.

It was meant to be a moral crusade that would cleanse depraved cities, bolster public health and promote temperance amongst the “wretched refuse” from distant lands. It would, proponents believed, overwhelm the whiff of Sour Mash with the musty smell of the Protestant priggery. Instead, it dragged America into a state of prolonged lawlessness: “There’d never been a more advantageous time to be a criminal in America than during the 13 years of Prohibition,” as author Bill Bryson once commented. “At a stroke, the American government closed down the fifth largest industry in the United States - alcohol production - and just handed it to criminals.”

The passing of the Volstead Act was a remarkable act of folly, undoubtedly: but it also turned out to be one of pop-cultural alchemy. Criminal entrepreneurialism makes for a cracking story, hence the escapades of big-name gangsters of the time - Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, as immortalised in Boardwalk Empire – being ingrained in American folklore almost a century after the incidents which made these men infamous took place.

Gangsters tend to hog the limelight - but what of the other system-flaunting rascals? Many others’ escapades during this freakish window of American history are equally deserving of a wry, retrospective giggle. Al Capone – who ran an illicit drinking hole out of the Biltmore Hotel while staying in the 13th-floor Everglades suite, as well as owning the Garden Club in Chicago - certainly doesn’t have a monopoly when it comes to rakish antics by speakeasy proprietors. Take Lee Chumley, for example - “a laborer, soldier of fortune, stage-coach driver, ‘wagon tramp’, artist, waiter, newspaper cartoonist and editorial writer”, according to his New York Times obituary.

"The American government closed down the fifth largest industry in the United States - alcohol production - and just handed it to criminals.”

Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck were among the literary giants who would sink illicit Gin Rickeys and Sidecars in Chumley’s Greenwich Village establishment, the walls of which were lined with framed dust jackets of their works, and whose owner – distinctive with his dapper floppy hat and necktie worn with an open shirt – was such a incandescent radical, he made his establishment HQ for the fiercely anarchist Industrial Workers of the World labour union.

If Chumley was one of the Prohibition’s more radical protagonists, its most cunning were surely cousins Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns - Austrian-Yiddish immigrants from New York’s Lower East Side who opened their first watering hole in 1922 in Greenwich Village to pay for night school. No one circumvented the Prohibition’s laws with as much guile as this pair: they changed their establishment’s name constantly to befuddle authorities; they installed a button that flicked the shelves over so that the liquor would all fall into a shaft at a second’s notice; they disguised a 4,000-pound door leading to a wine cellar as a brick wall. Kriendler and Berns were only arrested once, and in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pardoned Berns for his conviction. Make of that what you will.

One man who didn’t escape the wrath of the law was Tony Marino, owner of the speakeasy at 3804 Third Avenue at which he and four other miscreants hatched a plan in 1932: to insure the life of barfly Mike Malloy, a dipsomaniac from Donegal, then hike up his bar tab allowance, watch him slowly imbibe himself to death and share the pay-out. Malloy turned out to be made of sturdier stuff than the consortium had anticipated: Marino added wood alcohol, antifreeze, rat poison and turpentine and even pure poison to his drinks, and still the Irishman kept coming back for more.

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