On the Eve of Prohibition in Boston: January 1920

“Let’s have something.”  Jake turns back from the bar, and pulls a quart of whisky from his pocket.

“$10 . . .” he sighs.  “A full Hamilton, this one cost me.”

You examine the label in the dim light.  It’s not even one of the better brands.  The bartender glances at the bottle of whisky, smiles, and places three tumblers, each filled with ice, on the mahogany of the bar.  Jake takes the hint, pours three glasses, and you toast to the memory of John Barleycorn, who, to those opposed to Prohibition, has come to personify intoxicating liquors and all the revelry associated with them.

You smell the whisky as it swirls in the tumbler and take in the press and din of the crowd beyond the bar.  Hundreds of John Barleycorn’s mourners crowd the dance hall of the American House Rathskeller.

A 1918 Boston City Directory Ad for the American House

Recreating the image of a wake to the letter, all are dressed in elaborate mourning garb.  Through the press of the bodies, you catch glimpses of a black coffin set atop a table near the hall’s entrance.  Candles have been placed in bottles at each end.  On the wall behind the coffin, a banner with a skull and crossbones has been placed.  As you sip your whisky, you read its words:

“In memory of John Barleycorn.  Not dead – only a trance.  Born BC?, Dead 1920?”

You gently push through the crowd and, in a moment or so, notice that the body of John Barleycorn is actually a collection of empty bottles.  As you examine them, a woman approaches and adds her own to the pile.

1920 Fashion - Boston Globe, 1/16/1920, Pg. 7

“What’s yours?  She asks, slightly slurring her words, while she eyes your tumbler.  “Whisky.”  You hold it up, realizing it’s now half-empty.  She chitters before her friend pulls her back into an animated conversation a few feet away.  You press back to the bar, where Jake is still talking to the bartender.

“I’ll lose my job tomorrow.”  he tells Jake.  You learn his name is Joe.  You watch Joe’s eyes instinctively fall to your tumbler.  His is still, or more likely, once again full.  “We’ve been holding on since the ‘Thirsty-First’ of June.”  He continues, takes a gulp, with sad eyes.  “The Volstead Act is going to put me out of work.  Tomorrow is the last nail in the coffin.”  You try not to look at the coffin behind you.  It’d just be too sappy.

He’s talking about the National Prohibition Act, of course, which takes effect at midnight on January 17, 1920, tomorrow night.  The “drys”, temperance workers, have finally succeeded in the prohibition of the manufacture, transportation, or sale of any beverage containing alcohol.  On the “Thirsty-First of June”, i.e., July 1, 1919, about six-and-a-half months ago, over President Wilson’s veto, the Wartime Prohibition Act took effect, which banned the sale of intoxicating liquors.  So convinced were liquor dealers that the prohibition was temporary that they, in most cases, closed shop temporarily until the surely forthcoming reversing order would again enable the sale of alcohol.  It didn’t come, and in fact, only got worse when the Volstead Act came along, which established a legal definition for “intoxicating” liquors, provided stiff penalties for prohibition violations, and took effect at midnight on January 17, 1920.

Advice on the New Laws - Boston Globe, 1/17/20, Pg. 1

“See that man over there?” Joe asks, over the rim of his tumbler.  “He’s a field agent for the Internal Revenue Department.”  We look in the general direction of the coffin, at a man standing alone, stiffly excluded from the surrounding conversations.  You notice a notepad and pencil clutched tightly in his right hand, where others are holding drinks and bottles.  His cheeks are still red from the frigid cold outside.  We nod back to Joe.  “He’s here to take notice of my stocks,” he continues, indicating his many bottles behind the bar, “he’ll be back tomorrow night to make sure these are gone.”  As we watch him, his eyes meet yours and narrow.  He turns and walks toward the entrance, his notepad clutched to his chest.  Several revelers turn to look at him as he abruptly jostles past them.

1920 Fashion - Boston Globe, 1/16/1920, Pg. 7

“I’ll need to hide these or pour them into the gutter before midnight tomorrow.”  Joe says, mostly to himself.  Frank offers to buy a bottle.  “Are you kidding?”  Joe responds.  “By next week, these’ll be scarcer than a penny in your change for the Elevated.”  He’s referring to Boston’s subway system, which is contemplating a fare increase that would bring the cost of a trip to an even dime.  “You’d do best to home-brew your own wine.”  Joe continues.  “That’ll still be legal, as long as you don’t sell or move it. . . .”  he reflects.  “But that won’t.”  He indicates the quart bottle of whiskey that Jake empties into our three tumblers.  Joe adds another cube of ice to each.

You catch yourself looking for the man with the notepad.  He’s gone.  “Have you seen the Copley Square tonight?”  Jake changes the subject, referring to the hotel in Boston’s Back Bay section, across town.  Joe shakes his head, “Been here all night,”  he says.  “I passed the drys on the way over – the National Christian Endeavor Society. . . .”  he reflects for a moment over his whisky.  “They were putting a sign over in Central Square in Cambridge – ‘A Saloonless Nation in 1920’.  It said.”

“They’re getting ready for tomorrow night.”  Jake offers.

“Yeah,” you all say, almost in unison.

“Happy New Year.”  Joe says.

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