Turn Up the Jazz: Murder and Mayhem in Prohibition New York City

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It was July 1929, and ex-convict Simon Walker walked into a speakeasy. He came with friends William “Red” Cassidy and Peter Cassidy, a couple of guys known as waterfront street fighters, and the bar was the Hotsy-Totsy Club at Broadway and Fifty-fourth Street. The speakeasy was owned by the gangster, Jack “Legs” Diamond, and his partner, Charles Entratta. Alcohol mixed with high tensions resulted in an argument between the Cassidy boys and Legs. Guns were drawn and shooting commenced. The orchestra played on, covering up the sounds of gunfire as Simon Walker was killed.

The murder of Simon Walker in the Hotsy-Totsy Club in 1929 was a common occurrence in the Prohibition days of New York City. Bootlegged liquor, speakeasies, and gangsters ruled the city, and the changing ideas of sexuality, class structure, and views on drinking turned the city upside down.

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Jack “Legs” Diamond

The Volstead Act went into effect January 1920, outlawing alcohol. It was the first time the government had attempted to control a moral principle in the citizens of the nation with the passage of law. Deemed the “noble experiment,” Prohibition sought to improve the lives of the poor by removing the vice of drinking. The noble experiment would be a colossal failure, and in no place would it be more spectacular than New York City.

Before Prohibition, saloons were the heartbeat of neighborhoods. Saloon owners were the first to raise money for patrons when an emergency happened or give loans until a patron could get back on his feet. Saloons were meeting places for unions and neighborhood groups. During the day when men were at work, mothers and their children would come to the saloons or children alone would be sent to pick up growlers for dinner, as the beer was safer than water to drink. The saloon was the first place an immigrant would learn how to manage the new world from those who had come before. Prohibition would end the idea of the saloon as a cultural center when drinking alcohol earned the glitter of being outlawed.

With the loosening of ideals around sexuality and drinking, speakeasies, cabarets and nightclubs flourished in a city that might not have even known of the Volstead Act if one just looked at the actions of its citizens. So enamored were the citizens of New York with this new, loose lifestyle, drinking became a sort of sport. While before Prohibition, it would damage one’s reputation to be arrested, being arrested for the violation of the Volstead Act became the cat’s pajamas. Members of high society would flaunt the fact that they had gone to jail for consuming alcohol, so neat was it to be caught drinking.

The nightclub evolved from the saloon as a way for establishments to slip under the radar of Prohibition agents. Such establishments would promote dancing as its main entertainment and not alcohol, just like cabarets. Using walnut or mahogany screens to shield windows, hidden doors inside other establishments, and even going so far as to move frequently, nightclubs and cabarets could offer the much sought-after alcohol while avoiding the scrutiny of the Prohibition Bureau. Even when speakeasies were padlocked for selling alcohol, the business would keep operating out of a back door, leaving the padlock in place as if the owners were abiding by the law.

Speakeasies became the place to see and be seen. They were often outrageously decorated with rich woods, glittering brass rails, and dazzling lights. The Aquarium even housed a giant fish tank. The Country Club had a mini golf course. The 21 Club became the exclusive haunt of midtown. Drinking was no longer a moral taboo. It was the center of nightlife in New York. People who had never drunk before were suddenly taking up the drink because it was the thing to do.

But this glamorous, carefree life came at a price. As liquor was outlawed, it was illegal to manufacture it, sell it, and consume it. Alcohol used in manufacturing was even poisoned to deter people from consuming it. They did anyway to dire consequences. But the speakeasies, cabarets and nightclubs had to find some way of getting alcohol for their patrons. This led to the extraordinary rise in organized crime in the 1920s. Bootleggers constructed elaborate rings to bring liquor into the city. The importers would hide their bootlegging businesses behind legitimate businesses like olive oil importing. The Menorah Wine Company even attempted to import over $100,000 in liquor on forged permits from the Prohibition Bureau under the guise of sacramental wine importation.

This organized crime had a little help from the inside. Prohibition agents were often unqualified for the job. Many were men returning from World War I and in need of a job. They would go into the bureau and start on the take from a gangster, earning more than they could ever dream. In return, the agent would tip off their gangster employer by calling from the bureau office the night of a raid. It got so bad the bureau turned off the phones in the office on raid nights. Agents would confiscate liquor from other bootleggers only to sell it to their gangster employers. A Prohibition agent was a great thing to be in the 1920s if you knew how to play your cards.

But it wasn’t just the gangsters of New York that were cashing in on this illegal trade. Ethnic groups, minorities, and new immigrants also found bootlegging as a way of just paying the bills and staying a breath above the poverty line. They would sell a shot of liquor out of a hip flask on the street, stand as guards in front of speakeasies to warn of raids, and set up shop as a “cordial,” where it was known liquor would be sold. In Harlem where unscrupulous landlords gouged rent prices, tenants staged rent parties near the end of the month, dishing out shots of liquor for high prices. They would collect enough to then pay the rent the next day.

But although the liquor was flowing and the jazz was roaring, the noble experiment caused a higher crime rate than ever before seen in New York City. Reputable businesses like the famed Delmonico’s were forced to close, and honest saloonkeepers forced out of business. It was with a reluctant heart that Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the wet movement in order to secure the democratic nomination in 1932. A dry from the beginning, FDR had no interest in repealing the Volstead Act, but popular consensus was against him. The noble experiment had failed. People were being killed for shots of liquor. Honest bartenders had been forced to carry out their trade in secret. Jobs were scarce, and the Great Depression loomed over it all. So when he took office in 1933, FDR stayed true to party platform and put into motion the steps that would end Prohibition. The roaring ‘20s were no more, and the sound of jazz faded into the night.

Sources:

Lerner, Michael A., Dry Manhattan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Jessie Clever

jessieclever_tobeaspy_800pxIn the second grade, Jessie began a story about a duck and a lost ring. Two harrowing pages of wide ruled notebook paper later, the ring was found. And Jessie has been writing ever since.

Taking her history degree dangerously, Jessie tells the stories of courageous heroines, the men who dared to love them, and the world that tried to defeat them.

Jessie makes her home in the great state of New Hampshire where she lives with her husband and two very opinionated Basset Hounds.

Don’t miss To Be a Spy: A Spy Series Christmas Short Story. Find out more at jessieclever.com

Perfect Love and Sacred Sin: Sex and Rasputin

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Being a fan of both history and music, I’ve often wondered about the hypothesis presented by the great scholar, Boney M: Was Rasputin (Jan 21st 1869 – Dec. 30th, 1916) really Russia’s greatest love machine?

I’ve wondered about this for years. Over time, Rasputin’s life has become more legend than fact thanks to a campaign of propaganda so scathing that most people today have not only heard of him, but associate him with evil. Even now, his life is usually viewed through the lens of our own morality.

Rasputin’s views, like the man himself, are rather more complicated that you might expect, and cannot be reduced to simply good or evil. He was a monk with deeply held religious beliefs that developed out of Orthodox tradition as well as his experience with the Khlyst sect, a group that believed that true joy could only be achieved through forgiveness, and therefore the surest way to God is to sin for the purpose of being forgiven, usually through ritual orgies.

This is not a biography. Rasputin’s life and death are well-documented and will be revisited on this site in the future. Today, with the 100th anniversary of his assassination barely a month away, I am looking at Rasputin’s views on love and sex in order to see if Boney M was right.

The part about him being a love machine, that is. Not the part where he’s also “the lover of the Russian queen.”

That is a post for another day, I’m afraid.

rasputin_listovkaThe Man

During his lifetime, Rasputin was hated, feared, and revered in equal measure. In the last days of Imperial Russia, he was seen to have too much influence over the royal family and the government. He was a peasant with the ear of the Tsar; an untrustworthy figure at best, and at worst, a convenient scapegoat for the political unrest that plagued the empire. Because he was seen as undesirable or even dangerous, a campaign of misinformation and unflattering political cartoons was launched against him, the effects of which are still felt today.

Keep in mind that sources from this period are maddeningly unreliable: due in no small part to political upheaval and the subsequent revolution, records are full of omissions, contradictory accounts, and outright lies. This, coupled with the rumors widely circulated about Rasputin, makes it difficult to get a read on him. He was rumored to be an insatiable lecher, a filthy peasant who was at once so dumb he was barely coherent but at the same time, intelligent and calculating enough to single-handedly overthrow Russia. He’s said to have been hideous, stinking, and with food perpetually stuck in his beard, but women loved him. Because he hypnotized them, probably.

It’s a lot to live up to. It’s difficult to imagine someone being both a genius and complete idiot, repellent and irresistible. This view of him begins to unravel with the account of Filippov. Desperate to understand how he was so attractive to women, he checked him out in the public baths:

“His body was exceptionally firm, not flabby, and ruddy and well-proportioned, without the paunch and flaccid muscles usual at that age…and without the darkening of the pigment of the sexual organs, which at a certain age have a dark or brown hue.”

Filippov reports finding nothing unusual about Rasputin’s physical appearance, and further describes him as an exceptionally clean man who bathed and changed his clothes frequently, and ‘never smelled bad.’

For a man in his late thirties/early forties, Rasputin was in good shape. He was clean, “exceptionally firm,” and he had abs! It’s also worth noting he was 6’4” and had eyes so hypnotic they were described as “phosphorescent,” beautiful, and maniacal.

We begin to understand what Filippov missed: Rasputin was pretty hot.

Okay, I can hear you laughing from here, but bear with me: great body, ridiculous beard, eyes that are both crazy and beautiful, and the supernatural ability to drop panties at fifty paces?

Come on, he’s totally the Tom Hardy of Imperial Russia.

Theory and Practice

Rasputin himself was not as indiscriminately lustful as he was made out to be. His voracious sexual appetite plagued him, and he made it his mission not only to conquer it, but to use his experience to help others to do the same.

Many women acquainted with him reported that in spite of frequent advances, he did not seem to be overly interested in physical relations. During this same time, however, he was very fond of prostitutes, but his behavior with them is not what the tabloids would have led us to believe. According to ‘Peach,’ an ex-prostitute who in the 1970s still referred to him as Grishka, he was a little odd:

“He took her to the same cheap hotel where they all took her and ordered her to undress. He sat down across from her. And sat and watched in silence. His face suddenly turned very, very pale, as if all the blood had left it. She even got scared. Then he gave her the money and left. On his way out he said, “Your kidneys are bad.” He took her to the same hotel another time. And even lay down with her but did not touch her.”

Rasputin was right; years later, Peach had to have a kidney removed.

Why didn’t he touch her? It was an exercise in restraint. Rasputin believed the way to refine his nerves was by mastering his flesh, and so he would put himself in situations of great temptation and actively improve his spirit by resisting. In his words, as recounted by Filippov:

“(It) is something womenfolk do not understand…The saints would undress harlots, and look at them, and become more refined in their feelings, but would not allow any intimacy.”

The idea was that if one could refine their nerves and reach the highest Platonic states, they could literally float and even walk on water through the heightened ability of their soul.

That is not to say he was celibate.

To understand Rasputin’s view of sex, there are two key things you have to understand:

1. God is Love
2. Love > Marriage

Many of Rasputin’s devotees were married women, but he never slept with them if they were in love with their husbands. Love is sacred, while marriage is a social construct. If one had a loveless marriage, it would not be a sin to find love outside of it: rather, the sin would be to remain faithful within it and to never experience real love (God). None of his devotees who we’re reasonably certain did sleep with him ever admitted adultery. He advised them not to not only for his own protection, but because he did not believe it was adultery to have sex outside of a loveless marriage.

As Edvard Radzinsky explains: “Love was the chief thing for him. Love everywhere overflowing. The pagan Love of nature, of trees, grass, and rivers. Only Love was holy. And therefore if a married woman loved her husband, she was for Rasputin untouchable. But whatever was not love was a lie. (…) If a woman did not love her husband and remained in the marriage, she was sinful. Rasputin was against love’s being subordinated to the laws of marriage. It was for him something terrible that came from the official church. Everything that was not true love was to him criminal and subject to change.”

The relationship between sex and love was a little more complicated. Sex was still a sin, but the best way to be cleansed of it was to have it and thus be freed of the impulse.

Until it struck again, in which case he was only too happy to take that sin upon himself. For the spiritual well-being of the women, of course. At one point, he advised his coterie to visit him daily to be purged of any sinful impulses that might arise.

This practice is part of why people of a more traditionally religious persuasion dismiss him as “evil”: his understanding of the nature of God and the purpose of love and sex was different from that of mainstream Christianity. That is not to say he exploited it for his own purposes; he genuinely believed that his was the surest path to God. Like the Khlysty, he believed that true joy was obtained through forgiveness, so communion with God could be found on the other side of sin.

It’s worth noting that if we disassociate sex with sin in this case, it becomes something altogether more benign. If sex is not inherently sinful and is practiced as an expression of love, the only thing you can reasonably object to in this instance is the women’s marital status.

So was Rasputin really Russia’s greatest love machine? If we look at the love aspect outside of the euphemism here, maybe he was. After all, love was central to his spiritual mission and understanding of God. From what remains of his personal life, remembered conversations, and the evident swarms of female devotees, we can draw our own conclusions. It’s safe to say he was not as promiscuous as he was made out to be, and sex for him and with him was more than an expulsion of sinful impulse: it was a spiritual experience.

Jessica Cale

See also:
Radzinsky, Edvard. The Rasputin File. Anchor Books, 2000. New York.
Boney M: “Rasputin.” Nightflight to Venus (1978).

Flirtation, Victorian Style: The Secret Language of Fans

A reclining lady with a fan

A reclining lady with a fan. Eleuterio Pagliano, 1876.

Before the Victorian era, fans were prohibitively expensive and were most commonly used in the royal courts of Denmark and France. English women wanting them in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were obliged to buy them imported. Fortunately for the thriftier ladies of fashion, the mass production of the Industrial Revolution soon made them available to the wider public.

The popularity of fans during the Victorian period was due in no small part to French fan-maker, Duvelleroy. When his first London shop opened on Regent Street in 1860, sales were propelled by the shop’s proprietor, Duvelleroy’s son, Jules, who encouraged the development of the language of fans through guides he published in leaflets. Some of these signals had been used before, but many of them he invented.

The “language” was a set of signals ladies could give with the fans to communicate with their suitors without speaking to them. While it is true that certain signals had been in use in the royal courts of Europe before Jules Duvelleroy captured the imagination of his shoppers, the much expanded set of signals he fostered started out as little more than a clever marketing gimmick. It was romantic, flirtatious, and ladies loved it.

The next time you’re at a ball and you would like to alert your chaperone that you need to use the facilities without accidentally becoming engaged, here’s a helpful guide to some of the most common fan signals:

Yes:    Touch your right cheek with your fan and leave it there.
No:    Touch your left cheek with your fan and leave it there.
I’m married:    Fan yourself slowly.
I’m engaged:    Fan yourself quickly.
I desire to be acquainted with you:    Place the fan in your left hand in front of your face.
Follow me:    Place the fan in your right hand in front of your face.
Wait for me:    Open your fan wide.
You have won my affection:    Place the fan over your heart.
Do you love me?:    Present the fan closed to them.
I love you:    Draw the fan across your cheek.
Kiss me:    Press a half-open fan to your lips.
I love someone else:    Twirl the fan in your right hand.
We are being watched:    Twirl the fan in your left hand.
You are cruel:    Open and close the fan several times.
I hate you:    Draw the fan through your hand.
Forgive me:    Hold the fan open in both hands.
I am sorry:    Draw the fan across your eyes.
Go away:    Hold the fan over your left ear.
Do not be so imprudent:    Make “threatening movements” with closed fan.
Do not betray our secret:    Cover left ear with fan.
We will be friends:    Drop the fan.

It is unclear how many ladies actually used fan signals to successfully communicate with their suitors. Even in this short list, there is ample opportunity for misunderstanding, and one can only guess how the gentlemen were expected to respond without holding fans of their own. We can only hope those not blessed with an expressive gaze were able to communicate by blinking in code or perhaps with rapid eyebrows movements! It’s easy to imagine a young suitor, totally baffled by the curious fan movements of his beloved, misunderstanding or giving up completely. Heaven help the poor lady who drops the thing or itches her ear with it and ruins her chances with someone by accident.

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Art nouveau advertisement for Duvelleroy by Gendrot, 1905.

In spite of the potential for misunderstanding, the popularity of fans endured throughout the nineteenth century. Beautiful fans were status symbols and they were an essential accessory for stuffy halls and ballrooms. Duvelleroy enjoyed another surge in popularity when they later embraced art nouveau with new shapes and hand painted designs.

Duvelleroy is still open today, in fact, and you can read about their history and see some of their stunning fans from the last two hundred years here.

Jessica Cale

Sources

MacColl, Gail and McD. Wallace, Carol. To Marry an English Lord.
Paterson, Michael. Life in Victorian Britain.
Willett Cunnington, C. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.
Duvelleroy, History.

Taxation, Smuggling, and Sheep Dung: The Dirty History of Tea in Britain

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Still Life: Tea Set. Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1781-3.

Tea is thought to have been popularized in Britain by Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II. Although she adopted English fashion following her marriage to Charles II in 1662, she continued to favor the cuisine of her native Portugal. Tea was already popular in Portugal, Holland, and other parts of Europe through trade with the east, but it was still unusual in England in 1660 when Pepys recorded trying it for the first time on September 25th, 1660:

“To the office, where Sir W. Batten, Colonel Slingsby, and I sat awhile, and Sir R. Ford coming to us about some business, we talked together of the interest of this kingdom to have a peace with Spain and a war with France and Holland; where Sir R. Ford talked like a man of great reason and experience. And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us what he thought of it. At this time, tea was usually drunk without anything added to it. Milk was difficult to keep fresh and was mainly used for butter or cheese. It was brewed by pouring hot water into a pot, and slotted spoons were used to extract the leaves. As it gained popularity throughout the seventeenth century, there was some confusion as to how to make it. Sir Kinelm Digby advised that brewing should take “no longer than while you can say the Misere Psalm very leisurely.”

The first tea cups to arrive in Britain were mismatched, handle-less Chinese porcelain used primarily as ballast on the clipper ships. Matching sets were not purchased until the eighteenth century with the development of the British ceramic industry. Inviting people over for tea took off as a way for the hostess to show off both her purchasing power (tea and tea sets were prohibitively expensive) and manners (in knowing how to serve it).

Although tea was hugely popular in the eighteenth century, few could afford it. The East India Company held the monopoly on importing it, and on top of the already high prices, tea was taxed heavily. Tea was a luxury item everyone wanted, so to answer the demand for an affordable product, two things became commonplace: smuggling and adulteration.

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Smugglers. John Atkinson, 1808

Smuggling flourished. Much tea was smuggled in from continental Europe on small ships, but some was purchased from the East India Company’s own officers who would use the space allotted to them to undercut the company with some private trade of their own. Throughout the eighteenth century, smuggling grew in scale and became more organized, until an anonymous pamphlet in 1780 complained that so many men were employed as smugglers Britain’s agriculture was suffering as a result. Fortunately, tea smuggling stopped abruptly when William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act of 1784, reducing the tax on tea from an outrageous 119% to a more reasonable 12.5%.

‘British tea’ was a regional substitute for the genuine article that was produced briefly both as an addition to imported tea and as something to drink on its own. Made from the buds of elder, hawthorn, and ash trees, it was banned in 1777 out of concern over the destruction of the trees.

Even after the Commutation Act made tea more affordable, merchants added other substances to it to further reduce the price. Green tea was colored with highly toxic copper carbonate and lead chromate. Because of this, black tea became more popular, although adulterated back tea wasn’t much better. Often cut with sheep’s dung, floor sweepings, or black lead, if it wasn’t lethal, it would have tasted revolting. It was made palatable with the addition of milk, which wasn’t much better. By the time it became a common addition to tea in the nineteenth century, milk was often watered down and whitened with chalk dust.

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Chemical Lectures by Thomas Rowlandson. Caricature depicting Friedrich Accum. Accum was a chemist and his Treatise on Adulteration of Food (1820) denounced the common practice of cutting food and tea with additives.

The public was largely aware of these abuses, and it seems to have been generally accepted as a trade off for an affordable product. Parliament eventually brought in the Food and Drugs Act of 1860, but tea continued to be adulterated throughout the century.

Tea had become so cheap by the nineteenth century, that it was a dietary staple for those who could afford little else. It continued to be popular across class lines, and coffee and tea stalls popped up all over London until there were an estimated three hundred in 1840. Encouraged and sometimes sponsored by the Temperance movement, they remained open all day to offer an alternative to alcohol. Coffee and tea were sold in the streets with hard-boiled eggs, bacon, and bread, and many people purchased their meals from these street vendors. Made in cans over charcoal burners, coffee and tea were served in china. People would drink it quickly and return the cup to be (hopefully) washed and used by the next customer.

By 1901, the average person in Britain drank an estimated six pounds of tea per year. Tea had become so much a part of British life that the government took over tea importation during the First World War to ensure it continues to be affordable and readily available. Tea was acknowledged to boost morale, and was one of the products rationed during the Second World War.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Paterson, Michael. Life in Victorian Britain. Running Press, 2008.
Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home. Walker Publishing, 2011.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, entry for September 25th, 1660.
The UK Tea & Infusions Association. Catherine of Braganza and Tea Smuggling.

For more on smuggling, read Virginia Heath’s post How Smuggling Shaped the English Language.

Tawdry Tales of Chicago’s Burlesque

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Sally Rand

The first burlesque dancer in Chicago could arguably be considered to be Fareeda Mahzar, later known as “Little Egypt,” who danced at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and was acknowledged as “the first of the sensational girlie dancers.” Similarly, at the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, also held in Chicago, Sally Rand caused a stir with her ostrich feather fan dance and her infamous balloon bubble dance. She was arrested four times in a single day during the fair due to perceived indecent exposure.

American burlesque began as a form of variety show, melding together elements of Victorian burlesque, music hall and minstrel shows in which pretty women showed off their figures while singing and dancing, sometimes involving elaborate, revealing costumes. Exotic “cooch” dances, resembling belly dancing, were also brought in. Eventually, the ensemble ribald variety performances gave way to the striptease, which became the dominant feature of burlesque by the 1930’s, the period in which Henrietta from the novel, A Girl Like You, finds herself inadvertently employed at the fictitious Marlowe Theater.

Chicago_world's_fair,_a_century_of_progress,_expo_poster,_1933,_2Two of the more famous, actual Chicago Burlesque theaters, both located on State Street, however, were the Rialto Theatre and the Follies Burlesque, which was originally known as the London Dime Museum in 1890, and which featured a vaudeville house on the main floor and an “oddities” museum on the upper floor. In 1908 it was renamed the Gem Theater and began running burlesque shows as early as 1916. At the time, a Mrs. Guy Blanchard, the leader of the Political Equity League complained that the dancing girls at the Gem were “drug fiends” and claimed that there were small rooms under the stage where the girls would go to get high.

In response to this attack, one of the dancers actually published a letter in the Feb. 1, 1916 edition of the Chicago Tribune saying that the “girls who dance at the Gem theater work there and do the dances they do because by doing so they can make a living.” By the early ‘50s, the name of the theater was again changed to The Follies Theater, or the Follies Burlesque.

By the late ’30s, however, a social crackdown on burlesque shows across the country began their gradual downfall, putting most of them out of business by the ‘40s.

Book CoverMichelle Cox holds a B.A. in English literature from Mundelein College, Chicago, and is the author of the award-winning, A Girl Like You, the first in the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series. She is known for her wildly popular blog, “How to Get Your Book Published in 7,000 Easy Steps -A Practical Guide” as well as her charming “Novel Notes of Local Lore” – a blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. Ms. Cox lives with her husband and three children in the Chicago suburbs.

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