One of the most well-known results of Prohibition was the speakeasy. In total rebellion against the laws meant to curb crime and drinking, speakeasies popped up almost everywhere from 1920 to 1933. According to one article I researched while writing my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, for every legal saloon operating prior to Prohibition, at least six speakeasies opened after Prohibition. With all that temptation, it was understandable that John and his two best friends, Sam and Claude, would end up in one of the illegal establishments pushing the boundaries of youthful adventure. Here’s what I discovered while creating The Apple Crate, a speakeasy located below a grocery store owned by a gangster of my inventing, Leo Jenkins.
Like legal establishments and today’s clubs, some speakeasies offered entertainment in the form of singing or jazz bands. Entry into the club required knowledge of a password letting the doorman, often the owner or manager of the club, know that you weren’t law enforcement and to keep the government from finding the location. A personal introduction or presenting of a card may also have been required to ensure security against raids.
The term speakeasy came from a bartending term. To speak easy meant to act casually so as not to draw attention to oneself with quick, nervous behavior when purchasing illegal alcohol. Terms used to conceal the identity of bootleg liquor included coffin varnish, monkey rum, white mule, horse liniment, panther sweat, tarantula juice, and rot gut. Not very appealing names for the barely drinkable booze served, but it didn’t keep people from seeking out alcohol every chance they had.
Speakeasies were also known as a blind pig or blind tiger, but these terms were reserved for lower class establishments. There is debatable history surrounding these names. One story claims that entertainment involving pigs resulted in the first name. People supposedly paid to see the pig and a drink was thrown in for free. Blind tiger was purportedly the name used when the identity of the seller was concealed.
While gaining access to a speakeasy required connections, locating one probably wasn’t as difficult. They were everywhere in America and Canada, usually set up in stores and businesses, operating right next to or within legal establishments. Speakeasies were most common in New York where the famed 21 club had the extra security measure of safety switches meant to short circuit and deny access to all the of the doors that contained alcohol.
Because respectable women weren’t welcome in a public bar prior to Prohibition, many started flocking to speakeasies after the Eighteenth Amendment took effect. These women, easily recognized as flappers, would dance the night away to music performed by jazz bands.
Gangsters were often associated with speakeasies, the most famous being Al Capone, but luckily John and his friends didn’t encounter any during their night out. Hustling illegal liquor was an extremely profitable venture for gangsters, and many became quite wealthy at it. Unfortunately, many regular people also became rich by supplying the demands of thirsty Americans.
Some of the crazier methods of transport included hip flasks, hot water bottles, false books, garden hoses, carriages with babies placed on top, carpenter’s aprons, coconut shells, and in one interesting case, eggs. Supposedly, a creative soul emptied the eggs of their true contents and refilled them with liquor.
The interior of a speakeasy could range from the extremely elegant to an unsophisticated hole-in-the-wall. Depending on the success of a particular speakeasy, drinks might be served in appropriate barware or from chipped mugs. In either case, people ranging from the famous, wealthy, and artistic to the downtrodden streamed to speakeasies during Prohibition. The only thing that went away with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was the crime involved with selling alcohol. Well, most of it anyways. (See: By the Light of the Silvery Moon)