St. Louis in the Twenties

I was looking into the history of St. Louis in the Twenties, planning to set part of my fourth book in that city. I intend to send Jessie there to look into a murder. In the course of my research, I came across these 2 pictures of St. Louis I thought I’d share. Sure wish I could put pictures in my books! What a hoot that would be!

01.16.13 Prohib officers drain mash at Franklin ave dist MHS CCSearch___SourceThis one shows police smashing holes in the walls to drain massive tanks of whiskey that they’ve discovered inside. 

And look closely in the background of this one from 1919, you’ll see a sign that warns people about the approach of Prohibition so they’ll stock up on liquor while they still can. “Buy now for the rest of your life!” 

two men june 1919 sign behind___Source

St. Louis suffered terribly during Prohibition when most of its breweries went out of business. The largest, Anheuser Busch, managed to hang on by selling near beer and home brewery staples. 

Published in: on October 27, 2013 at 3:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lydia Pinkham’s Cures All

Long before Prohibition, women feeling unwell had sought relief in Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a patent medicine. Made of 21% alcohol, it certainly provided a big swig of relief! There weren’t many vegetables in Ms. Pinkham’s miracle compound, but each bottle had the equivalent of almost 8 ounces of 80-proof whiskey, enough to make a patient feel high or even drunk. The odd thing is, Ms. Pinkham was a temperance devotee, but maybe making money trumped personal preferences.

I’ve been interested in these patent medicines because one of my characters is a bootlegger and in the third book of the series, he runs a scam at a drug store that involves medicinal alcohol. His scheme is to capitalize on the ability of doctors, dentists, and even vets, to write prescriptions for liquor if it was intended for medicinal use. I did not make this up! I didn’t need to–people in the Roaring Twenties came up with hundreds of ways to work the system and get legal prescriptions for alcohol. 

The Best Place to Be During Prohibition if You Wanted to Drink Was . . .

                                                   NEW YORK

New York was the wettest city during the dry era. Historians figured that there were 32,000 places within the city to buy an illegal drink. It was the hardest place to police. In fact, the police gave up. Fiorella La Guardia once estimated that it would require 250,000 men to police the city, plus another 250,000 to police the police. New York had 200 for the whole state.

Why was New York the wettest city? Because it had the most immigrants–Polish, Russian, Jews, Irish, Italians, and so forth, all of whom came from cultures that incorporated drinking to some extent. Chicago was a close second, with its huge immigrant population. One estimate said that 60% of Chicago’s police were in the bootlegging business themselves.

New York refused to pay for enforcement–they said it was the federal government’s job, thank you very much. The feds had only 1,500 men in the Treasury Department to police the whole country, so you can see that was never going to work. (By the way, New York wasn’t the only state to refuse to vote funds to enforce prohibition laws.)

Even with such cursory enforcement, almost half of any court’s time was spent on liquor cases. It was quicker to pay the fine and get out, so that’s what people did. New Yorkers drank more, not less, during the Prohibition years.

Published in: on May 12, 2012 at 7:38 am  Comments (1)  
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Income Tax Time

It’s income tax preparation time of year, when all thoughts turn to Prohibition. Huh?  

We have Prohibition to thank for the existence of income taxes. Sounds ridiculous, right? It isn’t. Prohibition could not have happened without the creation of the income tax in 1913. The passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913 gave the government a source of revenue it didn’t have before, revenue that could take the place of the tax monies raised from the sale of alcohol. Before 1913, Congress couldn’t afford to prohibit liquor because liquor was a main source of revenue. That’s why T-totalers, religious people, and others were willing (and eager) to support the creation of a new income tax–because they knew national prohibition of alcohol was not going to happen otherwise. 

Of course, when Prohibition proved a failure and was abandoned, no one in Congress proposed doing away with the income tax and returning to the days when alcohol taxes supported government functions. No, as always, the money was too alluring to give up. 

Published in: on April 14, 2012 at 7:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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What Was America’s Fifth Largest Industry in the Twenties?

I don’t know what the fifth largest industry in the U.S. is today, but in 1920, at the start of Prohibition, it was alcohol. When you tallied up all the breweries, distilleries, and wineries in the United States, and all the support industries like barrel makers and glass bottle manufacturers, and threw in all the bars, saloons, private clubs, and caterers who served the stuff, you come up with the fifth largest industry in the country. Think of the jobs lost when Prohibition went into effect! Think of the family businesses destroyed . . . like this one:

Christian-Moerlein, one of the countries largest breweries until Prohibition (Cincinnati)

Of course, not all liquor, beer, and wine producers went out of business. Some wineries made grape juice and Communion wine, the only wine still allowed for religious reasons.  (The demand for Communion wine skyrocketed, but an even better way to get it legally was with a prescription for medical reasons, which also skyrocketed.) Some saloons turned into restaurants; others became speakeasies and sold alcohol illegally. Some breweries produced malt extract, a legal product that could be used in the home to make beer; others hung on by selling nonalcoholic beverages. But thousands and thousands of jobs and businesses disappeared. Sure, some started up again after this stupid law was repealed, but it was too late for most. 

Published in: on February 11, 2012 at 4:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Rum Wars

Well, it was pretty obvious what would happen. Could anyone have been surprised? An hour or two after Prohibition laws went into effect, people started trying to get around them. And they were very successful.

One of the best ways was to have booze delivered by water. In those days,the law established a 3-mile off-shore boundar, so if a boat full of liquor from Cuba or Canada or any of the Caribbean islands waited three miles off shore to sell its liquor, they were not breaking any laws. Dozens of little boats would come out to meet it, buy booze, and take it home. They were breaking laws, but the risk was pretty small. In effect, the off-shore boats were a floating wholesale liquor store. Some called it “Rum Row.” The Coast Guard was supposed to prevent this exchange, and this was called the Rum Wars.   

The ocean is a big place and the Coast Guard had little luck. So the law was changed to twelve miles to make it harder for the boats to operate. It did make it harder. But it didn’t stop the trade. By the middle of the Roaring Twenties, there were hundreds of boats operating along Rum Row selling booze. There was no end to clever smuggling devices. 

Published in: on October 22, 2011 at 6:54 pm  Comments (5)  
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Ken Burns’ Prohibition Series

Wasn’t Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” series great? That man invented the historical documentary with the Brooklyn Bridge story in 1981 and has been going strong since. Nothing tops his Civil War series, in my opinion, but Prohibition was superb. I learned quite a bit that will be useful in my writing and confirmed that I hadn’t made any egregious errors in what I’ve already written.  

I learned the origins of a couple words: SCOFLAW. The dictionary says “contemptuous law violator” and dates the word to 1924, right in the middle of Prohibition. But the rest of the story is interesting: a publication offered a prize for the best word to describe those who flouted the laws, and this was the winner. And BOOTLEGGER? The dictionary gives several definitions for smuggling illegal liquor, but the story behind the word is that it dated from the 1850s in Maine, when men would hide bottles in their pants leg. Why Maine? It was one of the first, perhaps the first state to pass a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol in 1851. Because the state borders Canada, people who wanted liquor could walk across the national boundary to buy liquor and carry it back in their pants leg. 


“Boardwalk Empire” — When Does the Story Take Place?

Atlantic City in the 1920s

If you are interested in the Roaring Twenties, you’ll probably already know about the new HBO gangster series, “Boardwalk Empire,” that started four or five weeks ago. Just as “Mad Men” has labored mightily to get the details right for the early 1960s, “Boardwalk Empire” tries to be accurate about the 1920s. The sets seem a little phony to me (especially Atlantic City, which looks like a theater stage), but the costumes look pretty good and the language sounds on target, with the exception of the excessive use of foul language. That’s a common complaint I have with historical movies and television, because by all accounts, even trashy people back then didn’t talk trash the way many people do today.

What confuses me is the time period. When is this supposed to be taking place? I’ve always associated Prohibition with women’s suffrage, because both began in 1920. However, the series is set in a time when Prohibition is in effect but the women can’t vote.

Last week, several men made fun of the idea of women voting and the main female character, an Irish immigrant, defends the idea by saying the in her country, women can already vote.

Now, it’s true that women could vote in Ireland in 1918 (well, some women—those over 30 who owned land). But in America, the women’s suffrage amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920. So the series must take place before August of 1920. But national prohibition went into effect on January 16, 1920. So the only possible time frame is between January 16 and August 20, in 1920. And that doesn’t seem right, because the story gives you the sense that Prohibition has been in effect for some time—time enough for alternative suppliers of illegal liquor to get organized and running smoothly.

Anyway, it’s a good show, and I recommend it.

Gin Fizz: a Cocktail Fad

                                                          Although its origins can be traced back as early as the late 1890s, the gin fizz was one of the fad cocktails of the Roaring Twenties. There were, and still are, many variations, of course, but the standard recipe includes gin, lemon juice, sugar, and carbonated water. It is served in a highball glass (a straight sided tumbler) with ice.

        A number of bartending recipe books were published in the Roaring Twenties, but not in the United States where Prohibition precluded the production of books about consuming an illegal product. All the books I’ve seen from this decade were published abroad, usually in London or Paris (in English). Like the one above. No doubt some copies made their way to the States, but enterprising bartenders spread the latest recipes by word of mouth.  

Published in: on May 28, 2010 at 9:09 am  Comments (2)  
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The Jack Pickford Scandals #2

     In 1916, Mary Pickford’s little brother Jack married Olive Thomas, a beautiful Ziegfield girl who had transitioned successfully from stage to silent film. Here is Olive in her famous Vargas calendar pose.  And here’s how a contemporary described them: “Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway,” wrote Frances Marion, a prominent Hollywood scriptwriter who knew them well. “Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers.” Both were also alcoholics, cocaine addicts, promiscuous, and infected with syphilis.

     Though publicists sketched lives of blissful love and devotion, Olive and Jack had way too many issues for a successful marriage. In Paris in 1920 for what was billed as a second honeymoon, the couple stayed at the Ritz and frequented the popular nightspots. Back at the hotel after a wild night that was rumored to have included plenty of cocaine and alcohol (remember—no Prohibition in France), Olive drank a large amount of bichloride of mercury, something often prescribed for syphilis and meant to be applied topically. She died a gruesome death a couple days later in a French hospital.

     Contradicting stories abound. A police investigation and autopsy ruled the death accidental and Jack and the body were quickly shipped back to America. But some thought Olive had committed suicide, others thought Jack had poisoned her, still others believed she had intended to poison Jack but made a mistake.  

     Here’s the New York Times headlines from that day.


 Police Seek Evidence on Rumors of Drug and Champagne Orgies


Former American Officer, Sentenced for Selling Cocaine, One of Those Questioned


Police Have Not Yet Obtained His Story of How the Actress Drank Poison

     Read the whole article at

     Jack married two more times, each time to a pretty Ziegfield showgirl, and each time, the marriage ended in divorce or separation with rumors of infidelity, physical abuse, and substance abuse. Like Olive, Jack died young and in a hospital, a victim of his lifestyle and various addictions.