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Speakeasies

Woodrow Wilson

Speakeasies: Woodrow Wilson was the 28th American President who served in office from March 4, 1913 to March 4, 1921. One of the important events during his presidency was the emergence of the illegal drinking clubs called Speakeasies during the Prohibition era.

Definition and Summary of the Speakeasies
Summary and definition:
Speakeasies were illegal drinking dens, saloons or nightclubs that sold illicit alcoholic beverages during the Prohibition Era (1920 - 1933). During the Prohibition it was illegal to sell, manufacture or transport alcoholic beverages (bootlegging) throughout the United States of America, although it was not against the law drink alcohol.

Speakeasies (speak-easies) was a nickname for these bars because patrons had to whisper code words to enter the establishments. Speakeasies claimed to sell soft drinks, but served liquor behind the scenes. 'Bootlegging' became widespread as Prohibition gangsters took control of the distribution of alcohol and the 'Speakeasies' of the Roaring Twenties which ultimately led to the rise of organized crime in America.

Speakeasies Facts for kids: Fast Fact Sheet
Fast, fun facts and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's) about the Speakeasies.

What were the Speakeasies of the 1920's? The Speakeasies of the 1920's were bars and nightclubs that sold illegal (bootleg) liquor supplied by the Prohibition gangsters

Why were they called Speakeasies? They were called Speakeasies (speak-easies) as secret codes where spoken to gain access to a drinking joint and patrons were told to 'speak easy' about the bars in public.

Where were Speakeasies located? The Speakeasies were located in major northern cities, such as Chicago and New York. Cellars were often converted into speakeasies.

When did Speakeasies start? The Speakeasies started when the 18th amendment on Prohibition was passed and was enacted by the Volstead Act on January 29, 1920.

Facts about Speakeasies
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Speakeasies.

Prohibition and the Volstead Act opened the nation to unintended consequences such as bootlegging, speakeasies, gangsters and the rise of organized crime.

Speakeasy clubs claimed to sell soft drinks and coffee, but served alcohol behind the scenes - some famously served in coffee cups.

There were different types of speakeasies in most major cities that varied in quality, size, and the types of people
that visited them. The speakeasy created an environment where gangsters, the wealthy, and the lower classes could all drink and socialize together. There were speakeasy clubs located in attics, basements, office buildings, rooming houses and private homes.

Many speakeasies issued Membership cards. Complete strangers were admitted only if they knew the owner, knew the password, could produce the card of a trusted reference

New York City had nearly 100,000 speakeasy clubs in the 1920's - the names of most famous speakeasies in New York, such as The Stork Club, The Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn are detailed below.

Chicago had more than 7,000 speakeasies and drinking parlors in the Roaring Twenties - the names of most famous speakeasies in Chicago, such as the Green Mill and Butch McGuire’s are detailed below. By 1926, there were an estimated 17,000 speakeasies in Detroit.

Many movie stars and Famous Flappers of the Prohibition era, such as Barbara Stanwyke, Gilda Gray and Josephine Baker started their careers singing and dancing in the high quality speakeasies of the 1920's.

Important Government officials and wealthy celebrities frequented the clubs and politicians like Jimmy Walker, the mayor of New York City throughout most of Prohibition, was well known for attending different high quality speakeasies. Whilst he was in office Jimmy Walker actively discouraged the police from enforcing Prohibition law .

The terms "blind pig" and "blind tiger" were used to describe low class establishments. The poorest quality speakeasies were given the nickname “clip joints” and were notorious for their violence and other crimes.

The cabaret form of entertainment began in New York City in the high quality speakeasies of the Prohibition era and provided many jazz musicians with new venues.

Cocktails were a huge fad in 1920s and served in the upper class 'speakeasy' during the Prohibition Era. The names of some of these famous cocktails included Gin Rickeys, Stinger, Manhattan, Rattlesnake,  Manhattan, The Martini Sidecar, Southside, the Mary Pickford and the Dubonnet Cocktail.

The lower classes, who could not afford quality liquor, were sometimes sold poisoned alcohol or “cut” liquors in the speakeasies. The most common poisoned alcohol was Jamaica Gin, more commonly known as “jake”

Jazz music developed in the speakeasy cellars of the cities of New York and Chicago.

Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong he met other jazz musicians such as Hoagy Carmichael, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Bix Beiderbecke in the Chicago speakeasies where he accompanied blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.

Al "Scarface" Capone and his Chicago Mafia were pulling in approximately $60 million per year in 1927 and controlled the sale of liquor to over 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago and other cities.

Government Agents from the Bureau of Prohibition, notably Eliot Ness and "The Untouchables", attacked Al Capone's illegal liquor empire by raiding speakeasies, stills and breweries for alcohol. The G-Men located the speakeasies by tailing the trucks that collected empty beer barrels from speakeasies and returned them to Al Capone’s breweries.

Massive profits were made via the 'speakeasies' which led to bitter rivalry between gangsters who attempted to take over 'territories'. The hostility between crime bosses Al "Scarface" Capone and George “Bugs” Moran led to the infamous 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

One of the most common forms of preventing Prohibition agents and police from discovering the illegal alcohol was the secret compartments within the speakeasy. The “21” Club in New York City had better hidden compartments than most other clubs. Their secret compartment was the size of a small warehouse and was located in the basement of the “21” Club and had a hidden locking system. The two ton door to the secret 'warehouse' was designed to look like the surrounding brick wall.

More and more speakeasy clubs were established with every year that passed during Prohibition. As fast as the police closed down one venue, another would spring up in its place. It is estimated that for every bar that closed during Prohibition, 6 new speakeasies opened in its place.

The high quality Nepenthe Club in New York, owned by Jim Brinckner, sold alcohol, food and entertainment and had enough tables for 80 people.

The Green Mill Jazz Club on Broadway in Uptown, Chicago was one of Al Capone’s favorite hangouts. Singer Joe E. Lewis had his throat slashed by Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn for leaving the Green Mill to sing at a rival speakeasy.

Kelly’s Pleasure Palace operated as a speakeasy and run by a Chicago mobster. It had tunnels that run under the building and street.

The Stork Club, on East 53rd Street in New York, was a high quality speakeasy owned and operated by John Sherman Billingsley.  The Stork Club was always a celebrity hot spot and Billingsley  courted his wealthy clientele with gifts such as free champagne, neckties for the men and gold compacts for the women.

The famous Harlem Cotton Club, on Lenox Avenue in New York City, was  home to the greatest African American entertainers of the Prohibition era, including Lena Horne, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. It was owned by the bootlegging gangster Owney Madden and attracted famous movie stars and celebrities of the period who wanted to enjoy the best jazz performances in New York.

The Casa Blanca on 33 West 56th Street in New York City, was owned by gangster and bootlegger Larry Fay. Larry Fay threatened his staff with a wage cut and was shot dead by his doorman in 1932.

The Twin Anchors speakeasy in Sedgwick Street, Chicago operated from the back exit of the building while the front windows were boarded up.

The No Name speakeasy in Chicago was originally a grocery store until it opened a speakeasy in the basement, with access via the alleyway entrance.

Marge’s Still was a speakeasy located in N Sedgwick Street in Chicago that served gin made in the second floor bathtub!

The John Barleycorn located on W Belden Avenue in Chicago was in the back room that was disguised as a Chinese laundry.

The Hideout speakeasy in W. Wabansia Avenue in Chicago  was run by bootleggers, gin runners, and gangsters who used the club as a base for gambling and running numbers.

US American History
1913-1928: WW1 & Prohibition

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