Posts Tagged ‘Prohibition’


Photograph of interior of McSorley’s Old Ale House taken by Kerry Bridget Heimer, 2012.

McSorley’s Old Ale House, established in 1854 by Irish immigrant John McSorley in the East Village of Manhattan, has been open and thriving now for over 158 years.  Throughout the course of its long and colorful history, McSorley’s has been home to camaraderie and controversy, a meeting place for the workingmen of New York, and a shameless force of opposition against the 13-year period of Prohibition in the United States.  Though alcohol consumption itself was never explicitly outlawed, the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in January of 1919 prohibited the “…manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States…”

Prohibition faced strong opposition nationwide, particularly in major cities such as New York, and even more so upon the advent of the Great Depression.  Bootleggers and speakeasies became commonplace, and there was simply not enough federal staff to adequately enforce the law.  Many private bars continued operating with great discretion out of fear of facing raids; peephole doors were installed, protections were paid to local law enforcement and officials, and business continued for many in a stealthy manor.

Bill McSorley the son of John McSorley and then owner of their family pub following John’s death in 1910, however, paid no mind to Prohibition.  Being that many Tammany politicians and police officials were among the regular crowd of patrons at McSorley’s, immunity from raids did not need to be bought.  An inconvenience was all it was to Bill McSorley, as Fidelio Brewery located on First Avenue, the place from which McSorley’s Ale came since its opening day in 1854, was forced to close.

In the interest of staying open, and without a brewery to procure their ale from, “McSorley’s ale was produced mysteriously in rows of barrels and washtubs in the cellar by a retired brewer named Barney Kelley.”  (Mitchell, pg. 10)  It is said that Kelley’s ale was particularly strong leading Bill to take it upon himself to weaken the brew creating what he referred to as “near beer.”  Somehow Bill’s generally surly attitude and shameless weakening of the ale at a time of increased prices (the rate for ale at McSorley’s during Prohibition was fifteen cents, or two mugs for a quarter, while over a decade later in 1941 it was sold for a dime a mug) still managed to amuse and draw the customers.

McSorley’s blatant disregard for Prohibition even became the subject of major works of art.  John Sloan, a member of the Ash Can School of art, a group who utilized their art as a means to depict the reality of their time, took inspiration from his visits to McSorley’s and created a series of five works illustrating the environment of the saloon.  Two of these works specifically portrayed McSorley’s Old Ale House during the prohibition period, “McSorley’s Cats” painted in 1928 and “McSorley’s Saturday Night” painted in 1930.  Each of these paintings speaks volumes of the continued patronage of McSorley’s as well as its “business as usual” mentality against the force of Prohibition.


McSorley’s Saturday Night painted by John Sloan, 1930.

Works Cited:

Mitchell, Joseph. McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. Pantheon Books, Random House, Inc., New York 1943.

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–One of the exhibits created by students in the Creating Digital History course.–

Prohibition in the Village

by Catriona Schlosser

Prohibition only lasted for thirteen years, but it changed America forever. Not only did it have a major impact on U.S. politics, legislation and law enforcement, but it also influenced literature, culture, art and even our everyday lexicon. When the Dictionary of American Slang was released in 1960, there were more colloquial synonyms for drunk than any other word. Most of these originated during the 1920s, the dry decade.

Members of the temperance movement may have convinced Congress to outlaw alcohol, but they had a difficult time persuading the public that a liquor free life was the best type of life. In a large and diverse city like New York, it became even more difficult to enforce the moral absolute that drinking was wrong. In Greenwich Village, the land of eccentrics, rebels and progressives, the task of controlling these residents drinking habits became difficult. Villagers fought prohibition through speakeasies, bootleggers and general apathy towards liquor enforcement. This fight created new pop culture icons in Greenwich Village and it also had a great influence on the artists and writers who lived in the area.

To see this exhibit, go to http://aphdigital.org/GVH/exhibits/show/prohibitionandgreenwichvillage

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The Chumleys

While researching various speakeasies throughout Greenwich Village I realized that many of the owners were very colorful characters. One of the most interesting speakeasy owners is Leland Stanford Chumley. Leland, or “Lee,” as people called him was a man of many trades. The New York Times stated that he was a “Laborer, stage-coach driver, artist, waiter, newspaper cartoonist and editorial writer.” Lee was also an active member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). One of his pamphlets written for the IWW,  titled “Hotel, restaurant and domestic workers,” can be found in Tamiment Library.

It is believed that Lee purchased property on 86 Bedford St, once a blacksmith shop, in 1926 to use it as a place for IWW meetings. Eventually though, Lee used this property to open up a speakeasy known as Chumley’s. In order to subvert the authorities, Chumley’s was equipped with hidden passages, multiple exits and a door disguised as a bookcase.

Chumley’s is perhaps most famous for its clientele though. This speakeasy became a literary hot spot. E. E Cummings, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill and F. Scott Fitzgerald to name a few, used to frequent the place . The dust jackets from their books hang on the wall. Chumley’s is even considered a literary landmark.

One of the more scandalous aspects of Lee’s life concerns his wife, Henrietta. Apparently, nobody knew that Lee was married, nor did she know that he owned Chumley’s until 1935 when he passed away from a heart attack. Lee was known as a swinging bachelor, so people were shocked to find out that Henrietta existed. Even more shocking was Henrietta’s inheritance of the bar. Following his death she owned the bar and ran it from 1935, until her death in 1960. People claim that Henrietta used to sit at a table drinking Manhattan’s all night until she passed out. Apparently one night people found her dead in her chair. It is rumored that her ghost haunts Chumley’s and because of this it is considered one of the most haunted places in New York City.

Chumleys is undergoing renovation at the moment, but should reopen in 2011. .

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