by Pam Tice, member of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group
January 17, 2020 was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Prohibition era. I’d planned to write a blog post about that era in our neighborhood, especially since we were the site of the Lion Brewery on Columbus Avenue at 107th Street. The 2020 Pandemic intervened and I diverted to the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Now I’m returning to Prohibition in Bloomingdale.
Since so much about this time involved illegal activity, it took more digging than usual to find places in our neighborhood where the 1920s era played out. What I found may be merely the tip of an iceberg, revealing only those places that were reported in the newspapers because they were caught breaking the law. If you are reading this and know of a speakeasy operating in our neighborhood in the 1920s, please do let us know! My sources, listed below, include books by historians who have looked at this era, particularly in Manhattan; the newspapers reporting day-to-day enforcement and political activity, and online resources covering Prohibition.
Introduction: Prohibition Dates and Laws
On January 17, 1920, the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquor within, into, and from the United States and its territories were prohibited by the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Volstead Act that implemented it. The ban was in effect until December 1933, when the 21st Amendment was ratified, making the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act null and void.
As Michael A. Lerner states in the introduction to his book Dry Manhattan,
Prohibition fostered new forms of urban culture, redefined leisure and amusement in the city, and promoted corruption and crime. It changed the relationship between the middle class and reform, and challenged traditional gender roles that assumed women were the moral guardians of society. Eventually… the rebellion against Prohibition in New York reshaped politics.
Prohibition came into effect gradually. Before the 18th Amendment, a “wartime prohibition” law passed as a temporary measure in September 1919 that barred the manufacture of beer and wine in the United States after May 1919. It also prohibited the sale of beverages containing more than 2.75 percent alcohol anywhere in the nation after July 1, 1919. There were numerous arguments against this measure since the war had ended. Some said it was passed just to appease the Anti-Saloon League, which had grown into a formidable political force.
New York City’s reaction to the wartime prohibition was a preview of its years-long reaction to the 18th Amendment. Illegal activity began to happen all over town. Prohibition came to be seen as a game; hotel bars quietly just kept serving liquor to long-time patrons. Tourists were amazed at how easy it was to get a drink in New York City. Agents of the U.S. Justice Department, the agency responsible for enforcement under Wartime Prohibition, began to roundup violators. Two of the earliest mentions of activity in our neighborhood were the arrests of Nicholas Rama of the Lion Café at 110th and Broadway, and of a couple operating a saloon on Amsterdam Avenue.
Many people expected beer and light wines to be exempt from the restrictions of the 18th Amendment. They were not. However, individuals with stores of liquor purchased before Prohibition were allowed to continue to enjoy their investment at home, although many transferred their cache to a flask and showed up at a hotel bar, paying for ginger ale, ice and glasses set up. Physicians were allowed to prescribe whiskey for various ailments as was common at that time. The 1918 flu was still circulating, and there was concern about getting prescribed whiskey for those patients. Churches and synagogues were allowed to purchase sacramental wines.
Soon, even the legal uses of liquor were corrupted. Ministers and rabbis, or those posing, as such, were caught making illicit purchases. Drugstore pharmacists were caught writing hundreds of whiskey prescriptions on stolen or acquired pads, some sold to them by doctors looking to make a profit. I did not find any arrests for these crimes in Bloomingdale, but the practice was widespread.
Another solution for many was to make their “hooch” at home in a still. Recipes were readily available, with even the New York Public Library formally stating it would not restrict any book containing the needed information. When the stills grew in size and sometimes exploded, or the manufactured product proved to be poisonous, there were other rounds of investigations and arrests. Again, no story of such activity emerged in Bloomingdale, although many areas had cases of wood-alcohol poisoning, including twelve who died one day in Red Hook, and, in another case, six “bad rum deaths” on West 64th Street.
For a few months, Prohibition raids and arrests were slow to start up as many awaited the Supreme Court’s decision regarding challenges to the Volstead Act. Bloomingdale’s brewery, the Lion, made one of the challenges in federal court in 1920 “states’ rights” argument that lost. There were also legal challenges to the definition of “intoxicating,” although eventually it was defined as one-half of one percent. Even the weak “war beer” was now illegal.
Then there was New York City’s less-than-enthusiastic efforts at enforcing the law through its Police Department. Many in the city thought that the 150 federal agents appointed to serve in the city should handle it. Finally, the “dry forces” in the New York State Legislature enacted the Mullan-Gage Law in 1921 that mirrored the federal law, and the NYPD had to cooperate. However, with a tepid response, the state law was ended in 1923.
The Lion Brewery
While the Lion shifted to wartime beer in 1919, the company also took other measures to keep its operation going. The newspapers reported that it would convert part of its complex to store furs and, in a later announcement, planned that the brewery would make ice. In early 1919, the brewery assured its customers that it had one of the largest storage cellars in the city and that it would have plenty of beer up to July 1, when the wartime prohibition went into effect. The Brewery management also sent a strong warning to its saloons not to mix the “near beer” with its lager, in a move to preserve the reputation of its product.
But for all their legal and political moves, the German brewers of New York City were prevented from fighting too hard because of the anti-German feelings running high in the City as World War I progressed.
In November 1921, the neighborhood around the Lion Brewery was thoroughly frightened one evening when a large pipe connecting ammonia to the brewery’s refrigerating plant on the second floor exploded. Patrons at the Belvedere Restaurant at 954 Columbus Avenue, right across the street, frantically ran out as a large plank came crashing through the window. Hundreds of families were out on the street thinking a bomb had exploded. The windows were blown out in many nearby buildings. After all, just a year or so before, in September 1920, New Yorkers had been rattled by the Wall Street bombing when 38 people were killed and scores injured. Concerns were real about radical political agitation.
Another nearby brewery, Bernheim and Schwartz, former owners of the Lion, gave up their brewing in 1923 and sold their buildings at Amsterdam and 128th Street to a refrigeration company. As the sale took place, the 163 vats of pre-Prohibition beer, being held in the hope it would be legal again, were released through a main sewer drain and flowed into the Hudson River. The value of the beer at $400,000 had a bootleg valuation of more than $1 million.
The Lion Brewery stirred up the neighborhood again in 1927, on July 5, when a fire broke out and destroyed one of its buildings. The fire went to five alarms and created a remarkable smoke condition watched by many thousands from high points all around the city. Some thought a fire cracker tossed from the Ninth Avenue El was the cause, but Mr. Murray, the President of the Brewery Company thought it had started in the malt storage. Poor Mr. Murray: he and his wife and their chauffer were killed in a car accident in 1931. Nevertheless the Brewery went on, announcing new hiring in late 1932 as they prepared for the end of Prohibition later in 1933.
Speakeasies and Saloons
During the Prohibition era in New York City numerous sources noted that the city had twenty to thirty thousand places where liquor could be purchased. Many of the Prohibition raids carried out and reported in the newspapers focused on Midtown Manhattan and Greenwich Village. Here, famous nightclubs and speakeasies developed before and during Prohibition, giving New York City its glamorous image. The Central Park Casino where Mayor Walker and his mistress held court was another famous spot. The Upper West Side had Reisenweber’s, at 58th Street and Eighth Avenue, where 3,000 could gather in multiple buildings in its restaurants and nightclub. This West Side spot was closed in 1922 after a raid.
Before Prohibition, Bloomingdale’s predominantly residential area hosted many restaurants, both stand-alone and in the numerous apartment-hotels around the neighborhood. The area also had numerous saloons serving working class residents on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. The Anti-Saloon League focused its activity on saloons which were deemed the breeding ground of multiple social problems. Even the Progressives wanted to get rid of them, at a time when many social problems were being cleaned up. The Prohibition cause was helped by the World War’s anti-German feelings, coupled with anti-Irish and general anti-immigrant prejudice. African American community leaders thought that removing liquor helped their cause as well.
Later, sociologists would wax nostalgic about the saloon as a “poor man’s club” and the role it played for a newly-arrived immigrant. Saloons were also a gathering place political bosses used to spread messages or organize followers. Just as an historic note, the term “blind pig” was applied to lower-class establishments in the 19th century when the saloon keeper would bring in business by charging patrons to see an animal with unusual attributes, charge admission, and then provide liquor at no cost. For some, the blind pig was the officer on the beat who looked the other way.
The newspapers reported raids by the federal Prohibition Agents and sometimes officers of the NYPD, depending on the year and the political push at the city level. One report, referring to Bloomingdale as part of Harlem, noting raids at 354 West 103rd Street and 705, 930, and 984 Amsterdam Avenue. A raid report in 1922 mentioned 840 Amsterdam and another reported 974 Amsterdam where Thomas Fisher was the saloon keeper who had been arrested multiple times. That raid was performed by Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, two Prohibition enforcement agents who always seemed to have the press covering their work and clever disguises. They were dismissed in 1925 as their antics were deemed inappropriate for federal agents.
Finding speakeasies in Bloomingdale was more difficult. Fortunately, when perusing a collection of speakeasy “membership” cards at the Museum of the City of New York, one was found for a business at 241 West 103rd Street called “Bobbie and Jimmie Restaurant.” Landmark West notes that this address is at the end of a group of row houses on that street and still stands today. No report of a raid there was found. But this quotation from a 1929 New York Times article may better capture what was happening at 241 West 103rd: “The brownstone front, somewhat run down, often conceals an interior the passer-by would never suspect. There are handsomely appointed dining rooms, soft lights, well-trained waiters, a French menu, and the clink of ice in wine buckets.” The Times story was about the impossibility of eliminating the city’s speakeasies, estimated at 30,000, and making a point that many were quietly operated and had no “criminal element.” Given the vast numbers, no doubt Bloomingdale had many such spots. Further down the West Side, another speakeasy card was found for the Villa Mignon on West 78th Street.
Vice in Bloomingdale
Twenty years before Prohibition, the city made efforts to clean up or at least tamp down areas where prostitution was evident. An earlier blog post described “Little Coney Island” up on West 110th Street (LINK) around the turn of the century. Here, saloons were taking advantage of the infamous Raines Law meant to eliminate Sunday drinking, and turning themselves into cheap hotels where drinks could be served on Sundays. Setting up a saloon as a cheap hotel with a few partitioned areas invited the prostitution that followed. The Committee of Fourteen was formed in 1905 as a citizens’ association dedicated to abolishing the Raines Law. They were successful. They continued their work, and by 1920 were overseeing undercover investigations of what they called “disorderly houses.” The Committee included at that time Reverend John P. Peters of St. Michael’s Church at Amsterdam Avenue and 99th Street.
In the Spring of 1920, the Reverend John Roach Stratton of the Calvary Baptist Church, a member of the Committee of Fourteen, preached in his Easter sermon about the “hive of vice” in New York. He named places the Committee’s undercover committee had surveilled. Drawing attention to such places was part of a campaign to have Police Inspector Dominick Henry of the NYPD removed from his position. Indeed, the Inspector was indicted later for neglect of duty as he ignored 160 disorderly houses in his district. At his trial, he was found to have a $50,000 brokerage account while receiving a salary of just $4,000.
Thanks to Michael Lerner’s book, listed below, there are details of the Committee’s Report about Peter’s Italian Table D’Hote Restaurant at 165 West 97th Street. After the Easter sermon, Peter’s was raided and Peter Gallotti, the owner, was charged and then convicted of serving liquor illegally, receiving a fine of $500 and 10 days in jail. (Later, this dining spot became Chateau Stanley, at 163 West 97th, and, much later, PS 163 which it is today.)
Here’s what the Committee of 14’s surveillance team found at Peter’s: “… twenty un-escorted women, smoking cigarettes, … some appeared to be under the influence of liquor. The investigator witnessed single women moving from table to table exchanging addresses and phone numbers with men.” However, when the investigator attempted to secure the services of a prostitute through the manager, he was unsuccessful. At another club, the Rendezvous on West 84th Street, there was an even more aggressive action by “hostesses” to ply a patron with drinks and take all of his money while he got drunk and is later dumped into a taxi.
Prohibition increased the number of places where women and men could meet, in an era where sexual openness became the norm. While some found this change in social customs reprehensible, others found that commercial prostitution actually diminished at this time.
Another common practice and one that surely happened in Bloomingdale was the “neighborhood cordial shop.” As time passed into the twenties, the bootlegging operations became very well organized, bringing liquor into the country through Canada, down the East Coast by ships that anchored off Nantucket and eastern Long Island (“Rum Row”) and then onshore by speedy motorboats ducking the U.S.Coast Guard. One of the bootleggers sales outlets was a neighborhood storefront with “importer” or “broker” on their door. Flyers would appear under the windshield of your car or under your door. The Museum of the City of New York has samples of these printed lists in their collection, the simplicity of purchasing the product seemingly innocent and harmless. You might even get an added prize, such as the Bakelite tumblers offered here.
Our Famous Prohibition Resident
Arnold Rothstein was a mob kingpin in New York City. Even before Prohibition he had a reputation as the fixer of the 1919 World Series. Prohibition produced plenty of mobsters, often associated with one ethnic group or another. But there was something special about Rothstein, as one writer described him, conceiving his operation like a successful corporation with good management and marketing. He made crime not just thuggish activity but big business. He expanded to loan sharking and narcotics, and even owned an insurance company.
One source gave this quotation from him:
“I will travel to London and Edinburgh and other major European cities and see the Scotch distillers. I’ll lay out hard cash and ask them to deliver their top-quality whiskey to us. We’ll have crews we can trust and ships to bring it across the Atlantic … I want to lay down an important principle … we must maintain a reputation for having only the very best whiskey.”
Arnold Rothstein was living with his parents Abraham and Esther on West 93rd Street in the 1900 federal census. In the 1910 census, after he married his wife Caroline at Saratoga in 1909, they were living on West 94th Street. Later, he moved to other West Side locations, and owned an apartment building on West 72nd. Rothstein was such an important figure in the crime world that he became a character in popular culture. Damon Runyon befriended him and created the “Nathan Detroit” character in Guys and Dolls. F. Scott Fitzgerald alludes to him in The Great Gatsby. He appears again in the HBO Series Boardwalk Empire.
In 1928, Rothstein was assassinated at a poker game in the Park Central Hotel. He is buried at a cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens.
The 1920s came to an end and soon the Depression became the predominant news and political story. Prohibition, a colossal failure, finally ended in December 1933. Both federal and state governments lost huge amounts of income, many jobs were lost, and there was a significant corrupting influence on law enforcement. New Yorkers celebrated the end of their Prohibition years with a Beer Parade. In Bloomingdale, the name lives on at a successful bar named “Prohibition” on Columbus Avenue, although closed now during our current pandemic.
Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007
Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010
Susi, Michael The Upper West Side Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2009
Museum of the City of New York, digital collections
The New York Times archive
Digital newspaper collections at www.genealogybank.com and www.newspapers.com
Digital newspaper collection at the Library of Congress
New website on 1920: https://www.ny1920.com
The blog at www.themobmuseum.org
Reisenweber’s at Columbus Circle: https://www.brighteningglance.org/reisenwebers-columbus-circle.html.