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

drag_ball_in_webster_hall-1920s

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.

jackdiamond

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

Advertisements

A Party Worth Emigrating For? Gilded Age Excess and The Bradley-Martin Ball

1024px-bmballharpers

The Bradley-Martin Ball.

“The power of wealth with its refinement and vulgarity was everywhere. It gleamed from countless jewels, and it was proclaimed by the thousands of orchids and roses, whose fragrance that night was like incense burnt on the altar of the Golden Calf.” –Frederick Martin Townsend, Things I Remember (1913)

Bradley and Cornelia Martin, self-styled the “Bradley-Martins,” occupy a special place in the history of Gilded Age New York. Having inherited a massive fortune of about six million dollars (roughly equivalent to $162 million in today’s money), they bought their way into high society. They threw a series of balls and dinners throughout the 1890s, married their daughter to the Earl of Craven, and hosted a ball so lavish their taxes were doubled and they fled the country.

The Bradley-Martin Ball would go down in history as one of the most expensive parties ever recorded. For a party lasting about five hours, the Bradley-Martins spent an incredible $400,000, which would be about $9 million in today’s money, or $11,000 per each of the 800 guests.

waldorfhotel1890s

The old Waldorf, 1890s

The ball was held on February 10th, 1897 at the newly completed Waldorf-Astoria on Fifth Avenue (now the site of the Empire State Building). Money being no object, the Bradley-Martins instructed the hotel staff to do whatever they had to do to make the hotel look like Versailles during the reign of Louis XV.

Thousands of flowers were brought in from hot houses as far away as South Carolina and Alabama. Countless roses were thrown against the walls and allowed to rest where they fell to be crushed underfoot. Flowers covered the tables and the walls, and even managed to obscure the orchestra who played Chopin, Mozart, and Hungarian Court music throughout the night.

The party started at 11:00pm and one hundred waiters served dinner at 1:00am. The twenty-eight dishes on offer included such party classics as caviar-stuffed oysters, canvasback duck, turtle, plovers eggs, foie gras, and suckling pig. 4,000 bottles of Moet & Chandon, or five bottles per guest, were consumed in just five hours.

The idea was almost altruistic. The country was two decades deep into a recession that saw much of the country unemployed or underpaid. In hopes of stimulating the local economy, Mrs. Bradley-Martin insisted on using local vendors for everything, so the money wouldn’t just go to “foreigners”. The eight hundred guests were invited on short notice and given a challenge: they must come dressed as famous people from the 16th-18th centuries. There would be no time to get their costumes from Paris, so the wealthiest people in the United States would be forced to get everything in New York.

As much as the Bradley-Martins spent on the ball, their guests doubled it with what they wore. Most chose to dress as royalty, naturally. As The New York Times reported:

mrs-fh-benedict-as-louis-xv-marquise

Mrs. F.H. Benedict as “A Louis XV Marquise”

“There is no estimating the value of the rare old jewels to be worn at the Bradley Martin ball. All the jewelers who deal in antiques say they have been cleaned out of all they had on hand, and people still keep calling for old buckles, snuff boxes, lorgnettes, diamond or pearl studded girdles, rings, and, in fact, every conceivable decoration in gems.

“All this, of course, is outside of the costly jewels held as heirlooms by the old families of New York. These have been taken from safety vaults and furbished up for the occasion in such quantities that the spectator will be puzzled to know where they all came from.” (The New York Times, February 9th, 1897)

There was no shortage of jewels among New York City’s elite in 1897. Many of the jewels worn at the ball had previously belonged to French nobility. The 1887 auction of the French crown jewels had been all but cleaned out by America’s elite (click here to see what we’re talking about.), and they were excited to show them off. Tiffany’s verified their quality—there would be no paste present at the Waldorf!

All in all, there were fifty Marie Antoinettes, ten Madame Pompadours, eight Madame Maintenons, and three Catherine the Greats. Mrs. Bradley-Martin came as Mary, Queen of Scots, but actually wore a necklace made from jewels that had once belonged to the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Because that’s not creepy.

Although Mrs. Bradley-Martin’s jewels just for that night were worth an estimated $2.7 million in today’s money, John Jacob Astor’s wife’s jewels were closer to $5 million.

bmb-indian

A guest in elaborate Native American costume. Cultural appropriation: go big or go home.

It wasn’t just the women going all out. Oliver Belmont showed up in a suit of armor so heavy he could barely move (it was the gold inlay that did it), and there were so many ornamental swords present the men were tripping over them in their effort not to wound anyone on the dance floor.

There was unprecedented media coverage leading up to the event. The New York Times published a list of the confirmed guests and the costumes they planned to wear.  While the public was interested and many showed up to watch the guests arrive at the Waldorf, most did not receive the event with the cap-doffing acceptance the Bradley-Martins must have envisioned. The family was creating work! Shouldn’t the poor be grateful?

To put things in perspective, there had been a twenty-year recession in the US starting about 1877, and by 1897, unemployment was high. The average yearly wage for an American worker was about $400, or not quite $8 a week. You could get a steak dinner for 85 cents if you were feeling fancy, but most wouldn’t be able to afford even that. $1.25 a day would feed, clothe, and house a family with five children. As grateful as many of them no doubt were for the work, seeing the city’s elite drop fortunes to outdo each other for a bit of a lark must have felt like a slap to the face. People were literally starving to death in the streets. How could anyone justify spending thousands on tutti-frutti?

As generous as they had hoped to be by stimulating local business, one can’t help but wonder if the money would have been better spent elsewhere. The estimated $400,000 spent on a five-hour party for people who had no trouble paying for their own caviar-stuffed oysters and Moet (only half a dozen present were not millionaires) could have paid the average wages for 249,600 people for a day, or supported 40 average families for fifteen years. It could have bought half a ton of coal each for 280,000 families.

But, you know. Foie gras is valid, too.

Miraculously, there were no riots. Two hundred policemen surrounded the building to protect the guests and the jewels they wore. The richest of the rich survived to party another day, but New York was not happy. They had been given a little work, but those employed in various positions to support the party (decorating, serving, etc) would have made perhaps a dollar a day at most.

Although most contemporary sources claim the vast majority of people were indifferent to the wasteful opulence of the ball, the criticism in the papers following the event was more than just a cry for publicity. The expense of the ball drew condemnation of ministers and the attention of the New York City tax authority, who doubled the taxes for the Bradley-Martins and increased them for many of their guests. The family effectively dodged this by selling their house and moving to England to live full-time. Bradley’s brother insists they would have done it anyway following the birth of their grandson:

“After the ball the authorities promptly raised my brother’s taxes quite out of proportion to those paid by any one else, and the matter was only settled after a very acrimonious dispute. Bradley and his wife resented intensely the annoyance to which they had been subjected, and they decided to sell their house in New York and buy a residence in London.

“Four years previously their only daughter, Cornelia, had married Lord Craven, and my brother felt that the family affections were now implanted in the Old World. His grandson, who was born in the year of the famous ball, was such a source of pride to us all that I believe the advent of the boy finally decided the Bradley Martins about leaving New York.”

Regardless, Mrs. Bradley-Martin got her wish. She did top the Vanderbilts by hosting the grandest ball the city had ever seen, and today the Bradley-Martin Ball is remembered as the last great ball of the Gilded Age.

Jessica Cale

Sources 

Frederick Martin Townsend, Things I Remember. London: E. Nash, 1913, pp. 238-243.
The New York Times: Echoes of the Big Ball (Feburary 11, 1897)
The New York Times: The Bradley Martin Fete (February 10, 1897)
Holland, Evangeline. The Bradley-Martin Ball (Edwardian Promenade).
Sidney, Deana. The Bradley Martin-Ball, Bling and Beef Jardiniere with Bearnaise Sauce (Lost Past Remembered).
Meet Myth America, Party Like It’s 1897.
Famous Diamonds, The French Crown Jewels: The Beginning to the End