In January 1920, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution became law, prohibiting the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol.
Of course, Prohibition didn’t actually stop Americans from drinking.
Curious City has gotten a lot of questions about where people in Chicago would go for those drinks. Besides the famous speakeasies, there were also neighborhood spots where you could get a homemade beer or exclusive members-only clubs where the rich and famous could drink illegal spirits in the comfort of private rooms. Some of the suppliers might have been our own grandparents and great-grandparents because all kinds of people were involved in the sale and smuggling of alcohol.
Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he legalized low-alcohol beer and wine before the 18th Amendment was repealed entirely the following year.
But a lot of these Prohibition locales in Chicago are still around today — although not all of them are open for a drink. In this week’s podcast episode, historian Paul Durica, the director of exhibitions at the Newberry Library, digs into the archives and tells us about three of these more unlikely drinking spots and the people who ran them.
The Beer Flat
A beer flat was simply someone’s house, apartment or office where illegal beer or spirits were sold, often produced right on site.
Chicagoans of all backgrounds drank at beer flats and sometimes social norms were broken. For example, it was common for men and women to drink together. In fact, women often ran these drinking locales, like Fannie Latkin. Latkin was a grandmother of five who ran a beer flat out of her apartment, which sat above a small grocery store in the building pictured above in the North Lawndale neighborhood.
According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, Latkin was arrested in 1929 “on evidence that she had sold a pint of alcohol to two Negro prohibition agents sent to her home to make a ‘buy.‘”
At her arraignment, she stated she had recently undergone a series of operations that left her in poor health and deep in debt. Since she was the sole support for her grandchildren, making intoxicating spirits was something she could do to sustain herself and her family.
According to the Tribune, agents found “fourteen gallons of moonshine and seventy bottles of homemade beer,” when they raided her home.
And Latkin wasn’t the only grandmother running a beer flat. The Tribune reported that when Latkin was arrested, she was the “second grandmother to be held for bootlegging within the last two weeks.”
The Private Club
Though less accessible than beer flats, there were a number of exclusive private clubs where Chicagoans found a way to drink even though alcohol was illegal. Clubs like the Chicago Athletic Association (which is now a hotel) catered to Chicago’s rich and famous — its members included the president of the Art Institute, a retail mogul and a future mayor.
In between socializing and dealmaking, members could run, swim and shoot — then retire to a private room to rest and perhaps enjoy a drink.
The Chicago Athletic Association began stockpiling alcohol leading up to Prohibition — it was technically legal to drink what had been hoarded before January 1920. But the club soon ran out of its stash and turned to Mr. and Mrs. James W. Walsh, who ran what the Tribune dubbed the “de luxe liquor ring” because of their wealthy clientele.
The couple’s whisky smuggling operation ran out of a house in Hyde Park and distributed to private clubs like the Chicago Athletic Association, where law enforcement busted a “private saloon” in Room 1201.
Numerous members of the Chicago Athletic Association were caught up in the raid, including well known journalist and author George Ade, who wrote The Old-Time Saloon: Not Wet, Not Dry, Just History.
“If you want a taste of that Prohibition experience [at Chicago Athletic Association], don’t go to Room 1201 — you’ll probably just encounter a confused hotel guest,” said Paul Durica, the director of exhibitions at the Newberry Library.
Instead, Durica recommends you get a drink at the Milk Room, a Prohibition-era locale which still serves up cocktails, rare whiskies and other spirits today.
In the late 1920s, a proprietor by the name of Barney Kessel owned a small restaurant in the Maxwell Street area on Chicago’s near west side. On October 31, 1928 three armed men entered Kessel’s restaurant with the intention of robbing the place.
But unbeknownst to the robbers, police Lieutenant John M. Kelley (a friend of Kessel’s) was seated in the backroom enjoying his lunch and a drink. Hearing the commotion up front, Lt. Kelley put down his drink and went to investigate. According to the Tribune, Kelley gunned down one of the robbers while the other two escaped empty-handed.
Kelly received an award from the Chicago Daily Tribune for his work on the “war on crime.” What no reporter ever seemed to ask is why Lt. Kelley was eating his lunch in the backroom rather than in the dining room and, more importantly, why this small restaurant targeted by the robbers? As it turns out, Barney Kessel was serving more than steaks..
And Kessel’s sideline in bootlegging brought in just enough extra income to make his restaurant an appealing target for the robbers. Within two weeks of the attempted robbery Kessel would find himself at the Ogle County Jail, about 100 miles west of Chicago, serving a 60-day sentence for violating Prohibition laws.
His story could have ended there except that he managed to charm his jailor, Ogle County Sheriff Sam Good, who, despite his name, seems to have been rather bad at his job.
Not only did he release Kessel a day earlier than the sentence called for, the sheriff let him out of jail some 40 times over the course of the 59 days. According to news reports, Kessel got his hair cut, went shopping and even spent part of the time chauffeuring around the Sheriff’s daughter, who also happened to be an Ogle County deputy.
Years later, Kessel would move his restaurant — Barney’s Market Club — to the corner of Halsted and Randolph in Chicago’s West Loop.
Today, that same building is home to the Haymarket Pub and Brewery, a fine place to get a legal, locally made beer.
This story was inspired by a question from a Curious City listener.
Sophia Lo is Curious City’s multimedia intern. Follow her on Twitter @sophiamaylo.
Paul Durica is the director of exhibitions at the Newberry Library.