0918prohibition mosaic


By Howard T. Brody

In a new Smithsonian Channel special, “Drinks, Crime and Prohibition,” the intoxicating era of Prohibition is examined. The documentary reveals two of the more interesting facts about the 13 year-ban of alcohol during the 1920s: Organized crime would never have been able to grow beyond what it was without it, and much of Prohibition was actually an anti-immigration effort.

Prohibition in America was an odd time of profound contradictions. Not only was it a period of unprecedented government intervention into the lives of citizens, but it was also a time of exuberance, decadence and the casting off of restraints.

The national ban on liquor was fully enacted in 1920 and shortly after that triggered

the rise of the urban speakeasy— the illegal bars where Americans of different genders, classes, races and sexualities felt free to meet and mingle— but social mixing was a decidedly unintended consequence. As curators from Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History attest, the rhetoric of Prohibition’s formative years was as fanatically anti-immigrant and racist as it was anti-alcohol.

“Alcohol is not the central story of Prohibition,” says Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History curator Jon Grinspan in the program. “Organizing around alcohol is in some ways a politically correct way to go after immigrants.”

While cocktails were invented in the late 1800s, they really took off once Prohibition began, usually as a way to mask the foul taste of bathtub gin. Cocktail historian Derek Brown provides color commentary and perspective for some of the era’s most popular beverages – including the Three Mile Limit, the Scofflaw and the Southside Fizz – and explains how their continued popularity continues to shape the culture of hospitality today.

While Prohibition’s advocates at the time believed that eliminating alcohol would improve America’s moral character, it instead drove the laws of supply and demand underground and empowered the rise of organized crime.

Angered by governmental intrusion into their private lives, many Americans began looking up to gangsters like Al Capone as anti-heroes, with their bold defiance of the law being more revered than reviled.

But the deadly St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, in which seven members and associates of Chicago’s North Side Gang were gunned down in a Lincoln Park garage, proved to be a turning point in public opinion. Newly elected President Herbert Hoover delivered a fiery inaugural address promising that a new age of law and order would be instituted and Congress quickly enacted legislation that contained harsh new penalties for Prohibition crimes.

Even as the stock market crashed and the Great Depression took hold, Hoover seemed more preoccupied with taking down Capone than with managing the economy.

While Prohibition ended almost 100 years ago, its effects still linger — organized crime, greatly expanded federal law enforcement powers, prison overcrowding and even the War on Drugs all have their roots in Prohibition.

Produced and directed by Alex Jouve, with William Morgan and Jason Williams serving as executive producers for JWM Productions and with Tim Evans and David Royle serving as executive producers for Smithsonian Channel, “Drinks, Crime and Prohibition” tells the story of an era in which fun-loving flappers and well-crafted cocktails seemed to make the Twenties roar, even as the far-reaching tendrils of violence and corruption fueled them.

Despite the presence of some cheesy reenactments, “Drinks, Crime and Prohibition” takes an in-depth look into the underbelly of this era, which was characterized as much by jazz music, illegal booze and female liberation as it was by gangsters and brutality.

Historians, weapons experts, museum curators and even mixologists weigh in on “the failed experiment” and the compelling drama it unleashed, with all its unlikely alliances, corruption and machinations of organized crime.

Presented in two parts – “Gangsters and G-Men” and “Flappers and Bootleggers” – the special premiered on Smithsonian Channel in June and can be seen periodically on the network in reruns or through one of its various on-demand services. “Drinks, Crime and Prohibition” is also available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Fandango Now, iTunes and Vudu Movies & TV.

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