Knock three times and say “pickles” in a hushed tone. You are in the back of a barbershop at the strange door in the women’s restroom waiting to gain access to the hottest speakeasy in New Orleans. It’s the year 1925 and Prohibition has been in effect in Louisiana for five years at this point. The business of speakeasies boomed in the 1920s when Prohibition came into effect. New Orleans was seen as the wettest city in the United States after the 18th Amendment was made official.
How did the implementation of Prohibition and the raids in New Orleans affect the general public and the business of speakeasies? Well the answer is complicated; Prohibition truly affected most Americans, however those in New Orleans were hardly keen to the thought of no longer consuming alcohol. This lead to pop-up breweries, world-class speakeasies, crimes, and eventually a raid of 200 law enforcement officers from across the country busting into the city.
On January 16th, 1920, Prohibition was put into effect after a one-year delay from the ratification in Congress.
The term Prohibition is most commonly used to refer to the era when the manufacturing, the sale, and the transportation of liquor was made illegal by the 18th Amendment to the United States constitution. However, many states and individual counties had banned the manufacturing and sale of liquor before the 18th Amendment was ratified. The National Prohibition of Alcohol was implemented in the hopes to reduce the rising crime rates in America, which the government believed would lower the amount of taxes being paid in the country that were being used to support the amount of people in prison and government-run homes where those who were homeless or extremely poor lived and were supported completely by tax dollars.
The illegalization of alcohol was also meant to boost the country’s overall health. Several groups of people in the United States supported Prohibition for various other reasons. The Women Suffrage reformers supported the ratification of the amendment as they saw that alcohol consumption was a leading cause for a man to commit domestic violence on his wife and children. The group of reformers linked alcohol consumption to men squandering their families’ money as well, leaving their family without food or other necessities for survival for a certain period of time.
Business leaders believed Prohibition would lead to the workforce to be more controlled in the work environment and would increase morale and motivation of workers to perform at the most efficient levels. Most of those who supported the ratification of the 18th Amendment believed that the removal of alcohol would better the country. However, these efforts were not completely for the better. The amendment opened the door to “organized” crime such as the powerful enterprise of bootlegging alcohol. The New Yorker magazine released an article written firsthand in 1926 by a bootlegger and he details how he came into the business. After a few years of Prohibition being in effect, many supporters were afraid of the movement failing and Prohibition being repealed so they began reaching out to esteemed people in society to gain their support in keeping Prohibition in effect. Arthur Toombes, the Washington State Superintendent, sent a letter to George Cotterhill to ask for his assistance. Toombes utilized this letter to gather information to support the Prohibition League’s fight to keep Prohibition in place as the different states were beginning to lose interest in Prohibition still being in effect. Signs of the failure of Prohibition started arising all over the country and became apparent in New Orleans.
New Orleans was the epitome of why the Prohibition was doomed to fail. Louisiana, especially in New Orleans, was not too quick to enforce the 18th Amendment. When asked by the mayor of Atlanta what his administration was doing to enforce prohibition, Louisiana governor Huey P. Long famously responded “not a damn thing.” Scores of Louisiana residents, whether they consumed alcohol or not, simply resented the intrusion of government into what they perceived as private affairs. Thus, they refused to support enforcement of the law. New Orleans was considered the wettest city in the United States. Being a port-city with a reputation of having a good time, New Orleans did just that, partied. Smuggling of domestic and international liquors was common and drew a large crowd looking for an adventurous way to put food on the table. Another common way to drink was one of many accord today, home breweries. As many today see it as a hobby, during the 1920s it was a jailable offense, one that didn’t stop most living in New Orleans.
The roaring twenties, however, is driven by the thought of speakeasies, bars often concealed in common businesses, where with a password, one could come to drink. Many speakeasies were found in the French Quarter and there was as many as three to a single block. Some speakeasies were high-class while others were rough and dirty. The Old Press Club was an example of one of the nicer venues. One speakeasy was raided in 1931 by “dry agents” and it was disguised as a “grocery and poolroom at Burgundy and Conti streets, reported the Picayune, that had “a tank concealed in an outhouse 150 feet from the grocery” containing “five compartments each filled with a different sort of liquor.” Other speakeasies raided, mentioned in the article, were found at 917 Poydras in the upstairs of the building, 1111 South Rampart, 443 Saratoga Street. “Once ordinary citizens, many found themselves involved in breaking an unpopular law.” Prohibition opening up these new back room bars, left place for the previous bars to close. It is said that a large number of bars or saloons closed in the prohibition era of New Orleans, a number only matched by that of the illegal enterprises that would ensue.
Jazz music defines the city of New Orleans and it got its roots at the same time of Prohibition. A jive music that lead to processional excellence and dancing throughout the city. It runs hand in hand with the 18th Amendment. While at speakeasies many would enjoy the soft rhythmic music being played and its popularity grew quickly throughout the city. Speakeasies became a place of community and cheers, one that was often times not seen in rural parts of America. The flux of people and increase in intake of illegal alcohol lead to a side of Prohibition many saw as the first reason it was started, crime.
Crime became evident in these towns, one that couldn’t be stopped, but could definitely be found. The quickest arrest ever recorded by an alcohol law enforcement officer after switching towns was recorded in the Big Easy. After only being in his cab for seventeen seconds, he asked the cabbie where to find a drink in the town, only to swiftly be offered one by the taxi driver himself, resulting in the quickest arrest of the period. Sometimes getting arrested was one of the best things that could happen to you, if not you could wind up dead. From buying from the wrong seller like happened in 1923 and cost 2,000 people their lives or shoot-outs over the goods, many lives were on the line each day of the bootleg running. This crime was combatted by the federal government in the form of federal agents. Agents that could search you or your property just at the claim of smelling alcohol in a nearby place. These searches often times called “raids” were something the city of New Orleans became a little too accustomed to in the decade of Prohibition.
This increase in crime lead many to take notice of the Coastal-Louisiana town and push for the presence of law enforcement immediately. The push for enforcement stemmed mostly from Southern Baptist parishes. This cultural divide was evident throughout the South, Bible-Belt America clashing with the Roaring 20’s for dominance and who calls the shots. With no help from the State lead legislative, judicial, or executive branches, the call to clean up New Orleans was pushed on a federal level in conjunction with several municipalities. This push was seen as a way to clean up a town that had disregard for the rule of law, and continued to drink, driving up crime and keeping the same old norm in the City.
On August 11, 1925 the “clean-up of New Orleans” took place. A well thought out plan of 200 out of town agents, would lead to one of the most influential raids in Prohibition. The officers found 10,000 cases of bootlegged liquor in a speakeasy, an amount most will never see in their lifetime. This was only a small dent in the cities supply as they heckled the arresting officer by telling him the economic value of that amount “wouldn’t even drive the price of liquor to go up much.” This raid was just one of many conducted throughout the city however, the bars were still thriving, waiting to be caught. Some police however took advantages of speakeasies, taking cuts off the top in chance of arrest, in the words of one New York bootlegger, previously mentioned, “That was all right, but when he started bringing all of his friends and going up to the cash register as if it was his place and taking out a ten or twenty-dollar bill whenever he felt like it, I got tired of it. I told him to cease doing that. And he said he would put me in jail if I resisted him.” This would only be combatted by a large plan to truly attack those breaking the law and on December 10, 1926. This day was one in which agents vowed to “close ‘em all up by New Year’s” and they did well, closing 86 establishments by 1927. The following year brought less speakeasies, but more changes. Saloons and speakeasies quickly were replaced with home drinking, New Orleans enjoyed being host to the most locked speakeasies in the country, and moonshine began being ran throughout town.
The 1920’s in New Orleans brought a new age to the now-known Gatsby Era of America. In an age where women were pushing for voting rights, executives pushing for more drive out of employees, wives pushing their husbands to be at home more, there was a drive of illegal alcohol being spread throughout the city. This drive brought many things, jazz music, speakeasies, raids, and illegal alcohol to a city that was bustling before. As much of America was affected by the passage of the 18th Amendment, New Orleans was a city of its own, never stopping the intake of spirits, no matter the circles they had to run to avoid being stopped. The charge of liquor always sent a thrill and fascination among all, until 1933 when the sale of alcohol was once again allowed in the “City that Never Stopped Drinking.”