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