Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Drinking during Prohibition

According to my mother, now long deceased, one of her relatives who was on her deathbed during Prohibition, had a last request. She wanted a "glass of beer," so the storyteller went down the street and got one for her. Too bad I don't remember which ancestress that was, or which city she was in. But the glass of beer no doubt came from a speakeasy or blind pig, one of the many establishments that sold liquor during the 1920s. Most of these buildings looked like something other than what they were: a laundry, a lawyer's office, an ice cream parlor, or a shoe store.

One of my favorite pieces of research for The Bootlegger's Nephew was discovering the plethora of words for booze or being drunk. “Ossified,” “spifflicated”, “half-seas over,” “giggle-water,” “panther piss,” and “coffin varnish” are just a few. It was also illuminating to learn that a) an ordinary person could buy a baby still at the local pharmacy, b) many families made their own liquor at home ("bathtub gin"), and c) that the law said you couldn't buy or transport booze, but it was okay to consume it. As many folks agreed, this was a stupid law, and it didn't work well because most people ignored it and police, mayors, ministers, and heads of families openly circumvented it.

My other discovery was that truth is stranger than fiction--really. An online chapter by Allen J. Singer about Cincinnati speakeasies and drinking habits told the true story of a speakeasy in a private home where the bar is in a downstairs room, and the ten-year-old son of the owners dispenses liquor down a tube from upstairs. When an alarm tells him agents are on their way to inspect, he whisks a rug over the booze tube and artfully strews his homework around to hide the evidence.

This story was too good to ignore, so I stole it and moved the speakeasy to Big Grove, Illinois.