Speak Easy, and Carry Some Hard Liq!
October 5, 2016 § Leave a comment
For most of us, speakeasies were a hallmark of the Jazz Age, which flowered with the 18th Amendment and Prohibition, and died with the 21st Amendment in 1933.
In the process of researching Austin in the Jazz Age, I was impressed by the amount of booze University of Texas eds and coeds guzzled, but disappointed in the paucity of information on speakeasies. With the new searchable Austin American-Statesman historical database, I’ve been able to ferret out what little I hadn’t previously found.
Austin had its share of speakeasies, but they were a far cry from the luxurious, decadent clubs in Chicago, New York City, and Hollywood movies: The “21” Club, and El Fey, where Waco’s “Texas” Guinan greeted customers with “Hey Suckers.” Her two biggest competitors were Helen Morgan and Belle Livingston.
But speakeasies were nothing new. Jazz Age speakeasies operated without a license because what they sold was illegal.
Earlier speakeasies were simply unlicensed saloons and were “so called because of the practice of speaking quietly about such a place in public, or when inside it, so as not to alert the police or neighbors” says the Online Etymology Dictionary. Saloon owner Kate Hester, who ran an unlicensed bar in the 1880s in a Pittsburgh area town, is credited for the term.
The word, “speak-easy,” first showed up in print a September 1895 Statesman article about bribery, corruption and blackmail in Pittsburg, Pa. Madames of the night paid protection money to police inspectors, who in turn, allowed the houses to run. The inspectors also hit on “speak-easy” proprietors for protection; they evidently sold a great deal of liquor.
For owners who didn’t pay their vigorish, the results could be fatal In May 1904, Statesman readers read an article about a raid on an Allegheny Wharf “speak-easy,” again in Pittsburg, Young Leroy Carver died from a police gunshot wound while trying to escape.
Prohibition had existed locally in Texas long before imposition of the Volstead Act. But most all of the supposedly dry towns had surreptitious “wet” venues often called “Blind Pigs” and “Blind Tigers,” indistinguishable from the speakeasies to come. Many of them were arranged in such a way that a man had to pass through three doors before he was inside the main entrance. He also had to pass two men, who determined whether or not he was a good one. Once inside, you could get practically anything you wanted. A fellow would walk in and asked for an “I Know.” And of course, the bartender would know.
In Georgetown it was sold by the bale at a certain unnamed business house. A farmers would drive up and ask for a bale of hay. What size bale do you want?” the proprietor asked, “A quart or a gallon.” “A gallon” was the reply, and the farmer left with his hay, no doubt the most expensive bale on the market.
Austin, especially the University of Texas, had been awash in illegal liquor, mostly bad, since prohibition came to town in January 1918. Cedar choppers operated dozens of stills in the impenetrable hills west of town. The better stuff came from New Braunfels. UT frat and club dances were legendary sinkholes.
The term speakeasy, in reference to Austin goings-on, did not appear in the Statesman until the late 1920s.
And most of the establishments reported on were house-based, walk-up or drive-by operations, and they dealt in beer. If any of them had a name, it was never mentioned.
The September 12, 1932 edition of the Statesman carried news of a successful raid on a “Curb Service Speakeasy.”
CURB SERVICE at an alleged speakeasy in the 900·block of West Milton street, paved the way Sunday night for what sheriff’s officers claimed was the largest beer seizure ever made here and resulted in the arrest of a 50-year-old man.
Sixteen hundred and eight pints of beer were confiscated in the Sunday night raid which was a short distance from a house where sheriff’s officers seized a few days ago 1356 bottles of beer, Deputy Sheriff Paul Blair said.
Blair said he and Sheriff Coley White and Deputy Sheriff Jack Newman drove up near the purported beer bungalow Sunday night and waited in the darkness.
”Soon a car came up, the horn honked and a man came out of the house,” Blair related. “We could hear the man in the car talking to the other man. Finally, when the car occupants had identified themselves, they were served in the car.
”We then drove on up and went in the house.” Blair said the place was equipped to brew 110 gallons of beer at a time. The officers, besides the 1356 bottles, found two 55-gallon barrels, which they claim were used for brewing the beer.
The man arrested at the house was placed in the Travis County jail.
But some of the houses were sit-down affairs.
Texas Ranger Capt. Frank Hamer (who later gained fame for hunting down Bonnie and Clyde) and other state rangers raided a residence selling alleged beer within the shadow of the state capitol on the evening of August 28, 1928.
While the raid was in progress the telephone rang. Hamer answered it. A man wanted to come over and bring a lady friend. Hamer told him to come on. After the couple was seated at the table, the rangers came in to “take the order.” The situation was reported to be extremely embarrassing to the escort. The rangers had their laugh and let the couple go.
But the rangers said that charges would be filed in federal court (now O. Henry Hall on West 6th Street) against the house’s residents.
Rangers said the place had been very well patronized, being only a few steps through the summer afternoon heat from the capitol.
Sheriff’s officers arrested two black men in a raid on an establishment in a downtown office building on the evening of Saturday, January 10, 1929. After arresting the pair, one of the officers said he waited in the place and took several telephone orders for liquor from offices in the building.
Two speakeasies, one in Austin and another in Giddings, were padlocked in August 1932. The Austin house was on South First Street. Restraining orders were issued to Jasper and Melissa Billings, and Ed and Bessie Plumley: no manufacturing, selling, bartering, keeping, or storing intoxicating liquor for one year.
That same day, liquor complaints were filed against Raymond McCutcheon, Mrs. Viola Pool, and Maria Garza, alias Maria Perez.
McCutcheon was charged with possession of 26 pints of beer at 1007 Holly Street, Mrs. Pool for possessing 14 pints of beer and selling two pints of beer at 2101 Washington Avenue.
Garza/Perez was charged with possession at 2007 East 14th Street.
The “Lit Liza Jane” chapter in Austin in the Jazz Age deals with the often filthy nature of the bad liquor distilling process and the mortal dangers of drinking bootleg.
One of many drives against the East Austin bootleg industry was started In earnest on the morning of January 8, 1930, by Constable Arthur Woody after Judge Frank Tannehill rendered a verdict that Manual Reyana, about 50, died of “denatured alcohol or other poisoned liquors.”
While Woody said that looking for the bootlegger that sold the victim the poisoned rum as like looking for a needle in a haystack, he would nevertheless conduct several raids in the territory near where the man died.
An establishment suspected of being a Mexican speakeasy was raided but Woody said that all the liquor had been removed. He did predict that the sudden death of the man together with Judge Tannehill’s verdict would place a crimp on bootleg trade for several weeks.
The constable’s department raided places, but never found their needle in the haystack.
Austin had its share of “Walking Saloons.”
Liquor traffic was a ”straight from the-hip” process with Austin’s black bootleggers in the spring of 1929. And the quickest on the draw got his sale first.
Recent arrests of a number of “Walking Saloons” by police and Constable Arthur Woody and his deputies got them wondering just how extensively the hip pocket racket had become in Austin’s “darktown.”
The black “leggers” didn’t ply their trade in speakeasies, but filled their pockets with half pint bottles of corn whiskey of doubtful quality and “nigger gin,” and then went out for a stroll. They worked East Sixth street, Rosewood avenue, Chicon, Red River and Comal, then the thoroughfares of downtown life to Austin’s black community.
Police thought competition may have forced the ‘leggers out into the open. Some of them actively solicited business and they sold it to other blacks “whether they belong to the same lodge or not,” the Statesman joked.
The week before, police caught one with a half-pint of whiskey in each of six pockets of his coat, vests and pants and he had room for more. The officers had caught several “Walking Saloons” with more than a dozen bottles on their persons.
“So if the hip pocket ‘legger has enough pockets he can go out with a sufficient stock to do a good day’s business and carry on his social life at the same time,” the Statesman remarked.
Only one classic speakeasy raid is chronicled in the Statesman annals, which went down on the evening of March 4, 1929, and it too appeared to involve beer instead of the harder stuff.
Physical clashes between city officers and attendants in a downtown speakeasy and the speakeasy dog furnished “color” when the place was “shaken down” Monday night.
When the noise of the raid had died down, a man and two women were in the jail, a half pint of whiskey had been saved out of the struggle. Officers Klaus and Jack Newman had been dog-bitten, and the speakeasy locked up.
Described by police as a ‘fort’, the place had been watched for weeks by officers, but their frequent raids were futile because of the proprietor’s system. He always managed to pour the whisky out while they were getting through the two doors, and presenting the search warrant.
But his best laid plans went “agley” on this occasion and as a result he was hauled in on charges of violating the Dean law.
Klaus acted as the process server and let the smaller officers sneak under his arm. By that system they were able to enter quickly.
One of the women grabbed Klaus around the neck and gave the alarm. Four pitchers of amber fluid were quickly poured in the sink but the raiders salvaged some evidence.
During the preliminary skirmish a big white bulldog, which apparently was part of the proprietor’s fortification system, tried to take a sizeable mouthful of Newman’s leg.
After Newman had managed to shake him off he attacked Klaus and left the print of his teeth in his leg, Klaus finally shook off the woman and kicked the dog in the
Snout until he howled with pain.
Outside one of the women reared and pitched considerably and two officers were required to put her in the squad car and take her to jail. Rather reprehensive terms were used during the process, officers said.
Austin finally, almost got its first “Speakeasy” in 1947 when a building permit was taken out in August for construction of a building in Bradford’s Alley, between Congress Avenue and Colorado Street from Seventh to Eighth Street, behind the Motor Round Bowling Alley. This “Speakeasy” was going to be a charcoil broiled hamburger joint serving nothing but food, brainchild of E. M. Hudson, young refrigeration engineer who planned to have the cafe open by September 15.
He chose the name “Speakeasy” because of its exotic back alley location.
He got the idea for charcoal-broiled hamburgers while he was in York, Pa., at refrigeration school where he saw the ground beef broiled over charcoal tor the first time.
Returning to Austin, he decided to put the plan to work for downtown working people. He chose the Bradford’s Alley building site because of its central location.
But the place opened on November 10, at 714 Bradford’s Alley (behind the Capital National Bank building) as Harvey’s, managed by Elsie C. Milroy, former assistant manager at the University of Texas Cafeteria.
“Broilburgers” headed the menu, followed by home baked ham, “really Italian” spaghetti, and ham and eggs served in the skillet.
Well, that’s it for this installment from The Blunderbuss. For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of Austin in the Jazz Age.
Coda: I work to write clever headlines, but sometimes I fear that I am too clever by half. This tale’s title is a defliction of the west African proverb popularized by Teddy Roosevelt, “Talk Softly, and Carry a Big Stick.” But if you have never heard that proverb, you’d probably think I was being crazy, not witty. So how about, “Speak easy, but with some big schtick”? Any better?