The Secret Appeal of the Speakeasy: Then and Now - Secrecy Week

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS BTR Editorial

Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith were federal officers famous during Prohibition for busting speakeasies as well as setting records for arrests and convictions. The photo above shows the pair enjoying a drink in a speakeasy after the repeal of Prohibition. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. Carousel photo is a screen shot of the film, Speak Easily (1932), featuring Buster Keaton and exists in the public domain.

Written by: Jen Smith

While modern day speakeasies crop up all over New York City, one building at 80 St. Mark’s Place casts the rebellious spirit of the Roaring Twenties within a context of booze, crime, and intrigue.

The former Prohibition-era speakeasy, now the Museum of the American Gangster, houses an array of artifacts from its days as a hotbed for gangs and jazz, painting a picture of the times while also exploring the building’s own storied past, which involves millions of dollars and a mysterious disappearance.

“We’ve been existing in the remains of a speakeasy for generations, and I’ve never seen as much interest as now,” says curator, Lorcan Otway, whose father bought the building from the club owner, Walter Scheib, in 1964. “I think it’s possibly even a subconscious awareness of how like those times these times are … the sense that were living under that kind of tight control. There’s an embracing of times where there’s cultural expressions of America’s interest in nonconforming.”

Back then, Otway says, the train dropped speakeasy patrons off at an elevated train station in the middle of First Avenue, where they then had to find a butcher shop nestled under the shadow of the overhead railway. At the counter, a member of the Scheib family would size them up and upon hearing an utterance of “I’m looking for Mr. Scheib,” point them to a backdoor that led out into the alley. A nondescript door would open into the speakeasy upon knocking, where politicians, street gangs, and jazz players drank in the night, dancing on top of a basement stacked with dynamite.

“It was the kind of club you might see in The Thin Man films,” Otway continues. “The kind of place you couldn’t imagine hiding.”

“Scheib’s place,” as the old cabbies used to call it, was indeed hidden in plain sight and became a hub of organized crime as the two most powerful criminal groups in the city merged — the Lower East Side Jewish community and the southern Italian community. At the club’s mahogany bar, part of which is still intact, the city councilmen rubbed elbows with the street gangs keeping them in power and sometimes, according to Otway, Al Capone would come in for drinks after dining at “Lanza’s” nearby.

The bar’s smuggled booze would come from a fridge in the basement, which was cooled by illegally tapping the city’s water main. The basement also included a bunker for Frank Hoffman, a Bavarian bootlegger who ran the entire operation. Hoffman outfitted his speakeasy with a bomb, which in the event of police raid, he would arm after tearing up the floor and throwing canvas bags stuffed with millions of dollars in cash into the speakeasy’s smuggling tunnels, Otway says.

In 1965, Otway’s father found two locked safes in this same basement and called Walter Scheib for permission to satisfy his curiosity. Though one safe was empty, the other contained $2 million of gold certificates, which Scheib took and successfully laundered, according to Otway. The safe also contained a picture of a mysterious woman, whom Otway says left the club with Frank Hoffman and a third man on November 7th, 1945 while taking cash from the safes. Otway believes Hoffman was in the process of emptying the safes before the rest of his gang got wise, and on that night in 1945, they walked through the crowded jazz club with pockets full of money unnoticed, though for some unknown reason, Hoffman never returned for the rest. Otway suspects Hoffman and the woman were killed by the third man, and this unsolved mystery adds an extra air of intrigue to the museum.

The museum’s collection includes odds and ends like whiskey bottles, sheet music, and newspaper clippings left behind from the speakeasy’s heyday, but also features treasures from mob history such as bullets from the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre.

Otway draws many parallels between the items in the collection and what he describes as America’s two definitive concepts: moral certainty and liberty, between which society hangs in the balance. According to Otway, a swing too far towards moral certainty breeds totalitarianism, and he references the federal government’s mandate of poisonous additives in medical-use alcohol to deter drinking during Prohibition as an example. Of course, on the opposite extreme lies anarchy, and the collection’s Manville machine gun serves as a symbol for a nation out of control, when gangsters ran the streets because the local police were corrupt and the feds overstretched.

Though the streets outside the clubs became increasingly violent, the speakeasies themselves were a haven for the counterculture including people with leftist views and those of alternative sexual orientations. Jazz tunes such as “Let’s Misbehave” became the sound of rebellion, and the speakeasy network, despite being run for profit by gangs, gave rise to the social change of the coming civil rights movement.

“The women’s movement leapt forward in the speakeasies because they’re now rubbing elbows with the ‘old boy’ network and their political, their cultural, and their sexual aspirations change because, for the first time, they’re one of the guys,” Otway says.

Meanwhile, the number of young people drinking skyrocketed as they all flocked to speakeasies to participate in something Otway calls “outraged liberty,” a concept he sees glimmerings of within the modern day interest in speakeasies and the Occupy movement.

“The minority that committed the violent, dangerous crimes were just that,” Otway says in reference to gang culture during Prohibition. “The massive reaction of outraged liberty is what made change.”

At a Glance: NYC Speakeasy Scene

There were once 36,000 speakeasies in New York City, ranging from mom-and-pop joints to high-end lounges. Check out these modern day speakeasies for an old-fashioned toast of the town.


PDT

113 St. Marks Pl., New York, NY 10009

Not far from the Museum of the American Gangster, PDT (Please Don’t Tell) captures the spirit of the speakeasy with its cleverly hidden bar inside Crif Dogs. Call for reservations and then dial one inside the old-timey phone booth to be let in.

The Raines Law Room

48 W 17th St., New York, NY 10011

At the Raines Law Room, you can request your waiter with a buzzer like this one. Photo by Patrick Stahl.

Knock on the door to gain entry. The kitchen-table feel of the bar definitely harkens back to the speakeasy days as does the dim lighting, cozy booths, and antique décor.

Death & Co.

433 East 6th St., New York, NY 10009

Knock on the door. Once someone lets you inside, settle in for cocktails that put a creative spin on the traditional recipes.

Milk & Honey

134 Eldridge Street, New York, NY 10002

Photo by star5112.

As the sister speakeasy to one of the best bars in London, reservations are a must for this swanky joint.

Apotheke

9 Doyers St # 1, New York, NY 10013

Photo by istolethetv.

Though Apotheke doesn’t bother with a specific door protocol, this hideaway bar mimics the feel of a speakeasy while incorporating a modern day chemistry vibe, where bartenders in lab coats craft artisan cocktails.

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