By Tommy Zimmer
But don’t worry, you can still drink!
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, Chicago, Illinois was a hotbed for organized crime (Mafia) activity. The Volstead Act, also known as the National Prohibition Act or Prohibition, became law October 28, 1919 (despite the objections of President Woodrow Wilson) and became effective on January 16, 1920.
The Volstead Act banned the production, sale, and consumption of liquor in all forms. Should you be caught, U.S. authorities detained and punished you. The Volstead Act has often been cited as one of the biggest legislative mistakes of the 20th century because many people drank alcohol before that and the legislation did not exactly stop many people from continuing their consumption of it.
During Prohibition, there were no legally established places to sell liquor, so underground speakeasies and the Mafia thrived. Mobsters such as Johnny Torrio and Al Capone came from New York to Chicago to helm the Chicago Outfit. They were not the only ones attracted to this new age Chicago was experiencing. Prohibition was not the only thing going on at the time. The 1920s experienced an economic boom that lasted until 1929 and the Great Depression. The economic prosperity of the 1920s and the later economic desperation of the 1930s are two components of Chicago’s dynamic ever-changing landscape.
Because of the economic changes, other criminals emerged. Criminals such as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson hit the scene in Chicago. Both Dillinger and Nelson were noted as some of the most notorious bank robbers of the early twentieth century.
While some have called Nelson a psychopath, Dillinger also led a difficult life. He faced difficulties with his father and he spent much of his 20s stuck behind bars. “I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here,” he remarked. The 2009 film Public Enemies, which chronicles Dillinger’s criminal life and his cat and mouse game with FBI agent Melvin Purvis, postulates that Dillinger became an outlaw because of his upbringing.
Those are all facts that are to be debated over and over again. However, there are so many sites to see in the Windy City because of its storied history. With much of Chicago’s Prohibition-era history filled with lots of rich characters and stories, it makes for the ultimate trip through history to see how an influential time period affected the city that sits on Lake Michigan. Here are some sites that can take you back:
1.) Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. Now known for poetry and jazz music, the bar was at one time something else entirely. After it opened in the early 1900s, many actors from the nearby Essanay Studios frequented it.
Jack McGurn, who was part of Al Capone’s operation in the Chicago Outfit, became part owner of the Green Mill. While Capone used the underground tunnels of the bar to move and transport liquor, McGurn left an impact himself with comedian and singer Joe E. Lewis, who took his act to a rival nightclub despite McGurn’s threats. McGurn’s men brutally attacked Lewis in 1927, but the comedian survived.
2.) Exchequer Restaurant & Pub. Once known as the 226 Club, Capone spent lots of time at this location. At that time, the site was home to a speakeasy in the back of the building and a restaurant in the front. (Common during Prohibition, speakeasies are places that sell liquor illegally.) Later, the place was known as Wonder Bar and then Browns before becoming the Exchequer.
3.) Butch McGuire’s. Located on Division Street, this place became a popular hangout for many gangsters throughout the Prohibition period. Previously, it was called Kelly’s Pleasure Palace and Bobby Farrell’s Sho Lounge and it was notably one of the first speakeasies to serve Guinness and Harp on tap. Visiting this establishment allows you take a step back and be an Irish American in Prohibition-era Chicago.
4.) Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. This site is right on Clark Street and across the street from the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. At one point or another, it may have been a lookout for Capone and his men.
5.) Fox’s Restaurant and Pub. Have you ever been curious about the deli Al Capone ‘s sister owned in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago? Well, now it’s a pub, but all of the history is still there.
6.) Green Door Tavern. This relic of Chicago has been around since the 1870s when the original building itself was constructed. It was a product of the time after the Great Chicago Fire. Green doors signified speakeasies throughout Prohibition. The venue still retains its green doors and is affiliated with another establishment, The Drifter.
7.) Klas. Originally opening its doors in the 1920s, this Czech restaurant can be found in the southern suburb of Cicero. Through the years, its food and ambiance has brought many guests to its doors, including one Alphonse Capone.
8.) The Blackstone hotel. You can see the ultimate confrontation between U.S. Treasury agent Eliot Ness and Al Capone at this location featured in the film The Untouchables. The film chronicles the efforts of Ness and his group of “untouchable” government agents to bring down Capone on tax evasion charges, which they succeeded in doing. Not only did Capone spend time in prison, but Lucky Luciano and other mobsters did too.
9.) Halligan Bar. Gangster Bugs Moran used to run the Lincoln Park area of Chicago, and he frequented the Halligan during his tenure there.
10.) John Barleycorn. Also known as John Barleycorn Memorial Pub and Barleycorn’s, this bar closed its Lincoln Park location in 2014. Prior to that, the bar was successful for several decades and served as one of the Windy City’s most popular speakeasies. In order to avoid trouble with law enforcement agencies, the front of the establishment was a Chinese laundry. Once Prohibition ended, the bar not only continued but added two more locations.
11.) Cork and Kerry. Located within Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, the Cork and Kerry was another locale where liquor has flowed constantly. While there is no longer the threat of law enforcement seeking to take down the speakeasy’s operations, the pub still flourishes. Beverly is a historically Irish neighborhood and Cork and Kerry is quite a festive Irish pub during Saint Patrick’s Day and various other events.
12.) Schaller’s Pump. This venue was a bar on Halsted Street from the 1880s until it closed in 2017. During Prohibition, the neighborhood’s Ambrosia Brewery allegedly pumped beer straight from the brewery into the locale, which gave the tavern its name.
The bar was located in the Bridgeport neighborhood, the home of five Chicago mayors, most notably Richard J. Daley and his son, Richard M. Daley. In other links to politics, the bar was located near the offices of the Democratic Party of Illinois’s 11th Congressional District. Fans of the Chicago White Sox also frequented the bar.
13.) The Hangge-Uppe. Local rumors state that a woman was killed in the basement of this bar during Prohibition. Her ghost reportedly still haunts the place to this day.
The Hangge-Uppe has gone through different names and themes through the years. Many people in the Division and Rush vicinity of Chicago still party, drink, and dance at this bar, with DJs pumping music throughout the night.
14.) Via Veneto. Before the bar took its current name, this bar was known as Room 21 and it was Capone’s largest speakeasy in all of Chicago. This was the site of one of Eliot Ness’s biggest busts of a Capone liquor operation. Ness and his agents used a ten-ton truck and allegedly seized about 200,000 gallons of alcohol. The former owner eventually discovered one of Capone’s tunnels underneath the site. At the end of it was the number 21.
While Prohibition led to a decline in alcohol consumption initially, things quickly changed and alcohol consumption went through the roof. Also known as blind pigs, speakeasies often had blank fronts and patrons could often enter them through a side door with a peephole. Chicago contained many of these types of operations because of the Chicago Outfit and Mafia presence in the city
There were several incidents that led to the end of Prohibition. The ultimate death of the law, beyond the fact that nobody could consume liquor, came because of the enforcement of Prohibition. For example, a deputy sheriff searching for alcohol killed a woman and injured her husband in Aurora, Illinois in 1929. The twenty-first amendment to the U.S. constitution repealed the Volstead Act and brought Prohibition to an end in 1933.
Despite this, visitors can still glimpse the Prohibition era all throughout Chicago. Al Capone’s face is still on all sorts of tourist merchandise available at different stores and is featured on web sites that discuss the city and its history.
Many parts of the city are proud of their connections to the Prohibition era. When people think of Prohibition, many think of Al Capone and Chicago. It’s where many stories can be found and tours to these destinations can be taken. If you spend any time in the Windy City, you need to check out such sites. They can teach you about the city and the people who lived there.
Image credit: Wikipedia, Pixabay
About the author: Tommy Zimmer is a writer whose work has appeared online and in print. His work covers a variety of topics, including politics, economics, health and wellness, addiction and recovery and the entertainment industry.
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