by Allen J. Singer
© Allen J. Singer 2005
Germans were among the first immigrants in the United States, and many found their way into Cincinnati in the early 1800s, settling in the area known locally as Over-the-Rhine. The German community held firm to their traditions of language and culture, especially their passion for beer. Beer was major part of their way of life and heritage: while at work, at leisure, parties, family meals, and nearly any occasion. By mid-century Cincinnati was becoming a renowned German beer town.
In 1880, there were 1,837 drinking establishments in Cincinnati serving the population of 225,000. Vine Street alone contained 113 saloons by the end of the decade. Locals called the area surrounding Fifth and Vine “Nasty Corner” due to its abundance of taverns. Authorities pointed out increases in crime rates and dereliction in the areas in which saloons were located.
Saloons were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Women were not welcome. Working-class men socialized at these establishments, not just in a place to drink, but to find employment, to read newspapers, to use stationery and pencils, play cards, shoot pool, and even go bowling. The issue was that too many patrons spent their entire paychecks in saloons, leaving nothing for their families. The growing problem of alcoholism was a major, national concern by the end of the 19th century.
Abused and neglected by their husbands, wives often turned to the bottle themselves or joined groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in the effort to alert the public to the problems of the bottle. This was the Temperance Movement, spanning from around 1840 to 1918, which blamed joblessness and domestic violence on alcoholism. The WCTU and ASL wanted to make the country a better place. They organized massive legislative campaigns for “blue laws,” successfully closing saloons on Sundays starting in the 1880s. As awareness grew, many counties and states went completely dry, but too many saloons stayed open in the dry states while the law looked the other way. By 1908, 85 percent of Ohio was dry but Cincinnati stayed aggressively wet.
Many members of the WCTU and ASL had actually never stepped inside a saloon, and were incorrectly reporting conditions far worse than they actually were through their nationally-distributed temperance literature. Regardless of their accuracy, the movement gained strong numbers. In 1913, 5,000 Prohibition advocates marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and presented Congress with a petition calling for a Constitutional amendment prohibiting alcohol. There was widespread interest in the subject, and through the next three years, nineteen states banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol.
When America entered World War I, popular opinion regarding the German-American population turned ugly. Now Prohibition seemed patriotic since so many breweries were owned by German-Americans. Prohibition proponents argued that grain was needed for bread to feed the soldiers in Europe, not for beer production. President Wilson instituted a partial Prohibition in January 1918 to conserve grain for the war effort. In September he issued a total ban on the wartime production of beer.
In Cincinnati, Mayor Galvin predicted financial ruin for local business from the strict new rules governing beer production and the proposed national Prohibition. In 1918, he estimated a $570,000 loss in city revenue, a $60 million loss in annual business, a $1.25 million loss in property rental, and a $15 million loss in property investment.
While the war raged on in Europe, the 18th Amendment was passed by Congress December 18, 1917, and was ratified January 16, 1919. It went into effect exactly one year later, banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors, but not the possession or consumption. Congress passed the Volstead Act on October 28, 1919, which further defined the law as any beverage with greater than .5% alcohol by volume, and to “regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes, and to insure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research . . . .” On January 16, 1920, the Volstead Act became law with the 18th Amendment. The Temperance Movement ended and America went dry.
Hundreds of businesses closed that day. Saloonkeepers at first did not know what they were going to do. Some took a vacation, many retired, and others just focused on their gardens. The enterprising ones started new businesses and discovered better success. Former saloonkeeper Edward Schubert opened a new bakery employing 17 people and had plans for a second store. Gus Kummer, whose tavern was at Fifteenth and Elm, found employment as a floorwalker in a department store. Former bartender Frank Caldera, who served drinks to baseball players and their fans, was going to sell flowers in the new flower shop in what was previously the Ansonia Hotel bar.
Lounges and restaurants in downtown hotels developed innovative new drinks as liquor substitutes in early 1920. The Hotel Sinton bar developed a “champagne-like grape juice” in a corked bottle. The amber-colored drink cost $2 a bottle and bubbled while poured into a glass. Despite its price both male and female customers enjoyed the new drink. Hotel Manager John Horgan predicted that with this kind of drink, “the problem of Prohibition almost is solved. Folks gather around the soda fountain and drink fruit juices with the same spirit of fellowship that once pervaded the café.”
Fruit juices, though, were not the all-encompassing solution. Certain proactive individuals set out to ensure that alcohol would be available to a desperate public following 1920. Chicago lawyer and ex-pharmacist George Remus saw a golden opportunity in the years before Prohibition went into law. He moved to Cincinnati in 1919, and using his $100,000 life savings he purchased all available “whiskey certificates,” which allowed the bearer to sell alcohol to drug companies. He soon began purchasing entire distilleries, and quickly became the largest distillery owner in the United States.
Remus removed the whiskey from the distilleries and set up drug companies and stores restructured as wholesale distributors of medicinal whiskey. He sold his leftover liquor to his stores, and then sold it back to himself and others through a nationwide network of bogus companies. All liquor he sold was genuine and untainted—he took pride in the fact that his alcohol never poisoned anyone. He started pulling in multi-millions and moved into a mansion in Price Hill where he threw memorable extravagant parties while seeking to become a respected member of Cincinnati society.
Remus kept over 3,000 employees on his payroll, and his methods of avoiding jail included bribing policemen, detectives, politicians and even Prohibition agents who were warned by their superiors to look another way. In October 1921 Federal Prohibition agents raided his operations and distribution center, “Death Valley Farm,” resulting in his arrest and two-year imprisonment at an Atlanta penitentiary in 1924. While he sat behind bars his wife Imogene began an affair with an agent from the Justice Department and, with his help, she siphoned off every bit of her husband’s fortune.
After Remus was released from prison in 1926, he and Imogene filed for divorce. On the day of their hearing, October 6, 1927, he followed her to Eden Park and shot her to death outside her car. He turned himself in, and following a sensational trial he was found guilty for first degree murder and found insane. He was sent to the Lima State Hospital for three months and was released after doctors declared him sane. He then moved to Florida for a while, and spent the last few years of his life in a small house in Covington, Kentucky, where he died in 1952.
Women won the right to vote the same year that alcohol became illegal, and long-standing social barriers began to crumble. Women now drank alongside the men, and “flappers” entered the social scene. They cut their long hair into “bob cuts” like their favorite movie stars, smoked cigarettes in public, rolled down their hose, and wore galoshes which “flapped” as they strode defiantly down Vine Street. Flappers hung out in nightclubs and speakeasies and drank cocktails and danced the Charleston. These were things that just a few years before they would never had considered doing.
Flappers and people of all ages and income levels shared a similar goal: to get their hands on good prohibited liquor and not get arrested. When the saloon trade met its end in 1920, speakeasies appeared almost immediately all over the Queen City in greater numbers than the saloons. Arrests for drunkenness and other alcohol-related offenses actually increased in some parts of town. But thanks to a lot of healthy discretion and the fact that most folks did not wish to stop drinking alcohol, over 3,000 speakeasies flourished in Cincinnati until Prohibition’s repeal.
Speakeasies were everywhere but hidden from public view: remote cottages, disguised stores, riverboats, and even secret rooms behind moving wall-panels in the basements of homes and downtown buildings. Locating speakeasies was done by word of mouth. When the patrons arrived, they had to whisper a password through a closed door to be let inside, hence the term, speak easy. Operators of speakeasies in other big cities outfitted their illegal drinking establishments like the famous barrooms of olden days, with mahogany bars, shiny brass rails, and expensive paintings. But in Cincinnati, it was reported that the typical speakeasies were hidden in old buildings downtown or apartment buildings in the suburbs. They were mainly just places to get a drink, and any atmosphere came from the visitors’ imaginations. Often there was a bell installed that would signal unwanted visitors, and even if the bell were mistakenly rung, the patrons would scramble for the exits.
Customers paid hefty prices for their drinks and had no guarantee they were receiving quality alcohol. A demonstration was once made to see if bootleg whiskey would eat through varnish. Sure enough the whiskey easily dissolved the varnish, making spectators wondering if it would also “eat through the coal bin and crawl to freedom.” Speakeasies allowed old societal norms to get stripped away, and alcohol abuse skyrocketed. Prior to 1920, most folks enjoyed drinking in moderation but Prohibition drove them to drink highly alcoholic, possibly dangerous untaxed and unregulated liquor to unrestrained excess.
It was ironic that the booze Remus provided for his hundreds of thousands of customers did less damage to them than the alcohol produced by his competitors: illicit distilleries and homebrews. Quality control and unregulated production methods were not issues for those who made their own liquor. Many stills used lead coils or lead soldering which poisoned the resulting drink. A common ingredient to homemade liquor was denatured industrial alcohol, manufactured to be undrinkable. It included such poisonous additives as iodine, sulfuric acid, and wood alcohol. Bootleggers might have included creosote, and embalming fluid. If consumed in large amounts or not sufficiently diluted, the results would be fatal.
In 1927, almost 12,000 deaths nationwide were attributed to alcohol poisonings; locally many were the urban poor who could not afford Remus-quality liquor. The first death by wood-alcohol poisoning was reported on January 20, 1920. Clifford O’Neal died from drinking wood alcohol believing it to be medicinal whiskey. This was the first of thousands of deaths from alcohol poisoning through the Roaring Twenties.
Recognizing that there would be a need for raw materials for homebrews, breweries and other local companies produced and sold malt syrups, sugar, hops, bottles, and caps. Instructions were available at the Public Library. This practice was a safer alternative to the bootleggers’ mystery booze, although house explosions in quiet neighborhoods were not uncommon events. Home-brewing brought the whole family together; each member had his own job in the production. Families also made wine by growing their own grapes in their backyards. Suburbanites knew all about the illegal neighborhood activities; as long as everyone kept their mouths shut, they could keep drinking.
Permits allowed doctors to prescribe medicinal alcohol. Since whiskey was considered a nerve tonic and general cure-all, scores of prescriptions for medicinal whiskey at a limit of 12 pints a month were filled by obliging pharmacists. To help supply the speakeasies and private customers, clandestine breweries and distilleries set up shop around town, and pharmacists supplied the necessary yeast, juniper oil, fusel oil, iodine, and caramel. A common device used in a makeshift distillery was the “ager.” This contraption consisted of an electric motor that kept rocking a keg of whiskey. An electric needle was inserted into the keg, and the heat and constant agitation caused the liquor to age rapidly.
Prohibition enforcement agents generally left big-time bootleggers like George Remus alone and tended to concentrate on the easy targets. When alerted to illegal activity taking place at a small scale operation, the agents would arrive with their warrants and confiscate the equipment and destroy the product whether it was at a factory or just someone’s home. One witness to a bust recalls that the police carried barrels of homemade beer out of someone’s house onto the back porch and smashed them open with an axe. The beer frothed out and flowed down the porch and two flights of steps, foaming “like a bubble bath.”
Most home-brewing operations ignored by the law were tiny and discreet, never doing too much to attract attention. Others were larger in scope, such as homes reported in Walnut Hills with private clubs in basements or on the top floors. Walls were heavily insulated to deaden the incriminating noise of music and dancing. Some parts of town had locally infamous reputations, such as “Bathtub Gin Row” on Collins Avenue near Mount Lookout. Folks in this area and others were known to make gin or bourbon in their bathtubs and inviting their friends to party and drink at 50 cents a shot. One location in Bond Hill featured a “full-blown still and sales outlet” underneath the back yard of the house equipped with water, electricity, and sewers all tapped off nearby public utilities. This room was accessible through a false wall disguised by shelving in the basement. A decorative outdoor fireplace in the center of the backyard provided venting for this clandestine distillery.
One downtown speakeasy operated as a family business at a pool hall and bar at the corner of Thirteenth and Clay Streets in Over the Rhine. A hidden tube that led to a bedroom on the third floor was installed behind the bar. A set number of knocks signaled the type of liquor to be poured down the tube. The family’s ten-year old son decoded the knocks and dispensed the requested liquor when familiar customers were in the bar. A different series of knocks signified the presence of a stranger or agent. The booze and tube were then concealed with a throw rug, and schoolbooks were spread on the floor to feign homework. The bar was raided several times in spite of the precautions, and the liquor confiscated. Bribes ensured the return of the liquor, usually stored at a collection site in Milford.
The Heritage Restaurant, known as “Kelly’s Roadhouse” during the 1920s and 1930s operated as a speakeasy, and the bullet slugs in the walls are reminders of a violent past. Mecklenburg Gardens in Clifton sold both food and liquor. There were two spigots on the bar: if the spigot was turned one way, it dispensed near-beer, if it were turned the other way, it dispensed real beer. Their ruse was discovered and the owner arrested in a raid March 29, 1933, almost a week before real beer became legal. Arnold’s Bar downtown hosted private parties on its third floor. Sliding panels hid the liquor bottles, and buzzers installed throughout the restaurant alerted waiters of agents. A famous bathtub on the second floor was used to make bathtub gin; its drain was put to quick use in case of a raid. The Cotton Club in the Sterling Hotel on Mound Street served alcohol in tinted soft drink glasses to its patrons after 2:30 a.m. Castle Farm on Summit Road in Reading was raided twice in four years for serving alcohol.
Other known speakeasies included the Cosmopolitan Hall on Vine Street in Over the Rhine; Fuller’s Garden in Reading; the Cat ‘n’ Fiddle on Ninth Street downtown; the Golden Dragon and the Peacock Inn, both on Sixth Street; the Silver Slipper in the Garfield Hotel; the Pavilion in the Netherland Hilton; the Grand Danscant downtown; the basement in Shubert’s Theater; the Blind Lemon on Hatch Street; the Iron Horse Inn; “Mid-Maples,” the Thomas Fuller House in Amelia; inside Mitchell Memorial Forest in Cleves; and the Bromley Café in Covington.
By the late 1920s, it was clear that Prohibition was not working; drinking and crime actually increased over the 13 years. Liquor was still plentiful in the shadows of the city, and when folks didn’t buy liquor, they made it themselves. Prohibition activists had predicted alcohol-related deaths would be eliminated. The reverse of that argument was fulfilled, partially due to the liquor made from wood alcohol and other poisons by bootleggers and home-brewers. The Prohibition Bureau estimated that by 1927 Americans were making 700 million gallons of home-brew a year.
Despite the affluence of the Roaring ‘20s, the loss of tax revenue from beer and liquor was devastating to the country’s economy. The Stock Market crash in 1929 added fuel to the anti-Prohibition movement, which sought repeal of the 18th Amendment. By this point, Prohibition was no longer a hot issue and was seldom mentioned by politicians. The Depression stole focus away from Prohibition; the concern was more for the unemployed than for the evils of alcohol, and polls showed 78% favored repeal. As unemployment soared, Americans favored legalizing beer to help create new jobs. President Roosevelt made this his first priority after he took office. Immediately after his inauguration in March 1933 he urged Congress to modify the Volstead Act. On April 7, beer containing 3.2 percent alcohol by weight became legal for the first time in thirteen years.
Repeal ended the speakeasy business, but by March 1933 most had been closing anyway. The Federal Prohibition Department had cancelled raids on speakeasies. By this time, supply of bootleg alcohol had far exceeded demand, and too many people were unemployed and couldn’t afford high prices for a simple drink anymore. Downtown speakeasies began to cut their prices in half, from 50 cents a shot to 25 cents. Although there was a surge of customers willing to pay the new prices, the lack of advertising failed to bring in enough business to stay open. Most folks were accustomed to their home-brews, and thought the 25 cent whiskey tasted as terrible as the 50 cent variety.
On April 7 one local citizen proclaimed “Happy days are here again!” Legal beer had returned to the Queen City and Cincinnatians were elated. On that first day, downtown restaurants and hotels were the only places to drink beer. A thirsty patron remarked “There’s music in these bottles” as he joined the crowds in celebrating the return of Cincinnati’s favorite beverage. A pint bottle or half-liter cost 15 cents and a medium glass cost 10 cents. A small glass cost just a nickel. “This is like old times” is how another customer felt about the return of drinking-days. Women visiting the downtown tearooms that day enjoyed beer as much as their male counterparts. Many of these females had never tasted legal beer before and ordered it with their lunches instead of the usual soft drinks, toasting each other after getting served. Managers of the tearooms commented that the beer was bringing in the largest crowds in years.
It wasn’t long before the beer supplies ran low, and the few breweries that survived Prohibition had to immediately commence full-scale production. These included Bruckmann, Hudepohl, Foss-Schneider, Schaller Brothers, Wiedemann, and Bavarian. These breweries had been manufacturing root beer, soft drinks, denatured alcohol, and the very unpopular near-beer. Bruckmann was one the few that was producing near-beer and its equipment was well-maintained and ready to start making the real thing.
Over eight months later on Tuesday, December 5, 1933 at exactly 5:49 p.m. the 18th Amendment was repealed. After thirteen long years, hard alcohol was again legal to produce, sell, and transport. Although other cities held huge parties to celebrate, things were relatively quiet in the Queen City. For most, it was just another Tuesday evening in the nightclubs and few speakeasies still open. Other folks just sat at home and drank their cocktails or visited with their friends and sipped their bootleg whiskey. Some folks who were happy about repeal scurried from drugstore to drugstore to buy whiskey without prescriptions. The surprise came when the bill was rung up, and the customers discovered that the price for prescription whiskey had jumped from $1.85 a pint to $4 a pint for the legal brand.
Nevertheless, the Noble Experiment was over and folks who wanted to drink their favorite spirits could do so legally. And for many, this was the first time they had tasted legal hooch. But for everyone else, repeal was just business as usual.
Back to main page
Drop me a line.