Welcome to part IV of Hysterical History, where we take a deep-dive into the shenanigans of Prohibition. Part I focused on how Carries changed the US. Part II discussed the law and the loopholes. Part III talked about enforcement issues. And it just continues to get more ridiculous: We really aren’t living in the first Clown World.
Before 1920 organized crime didn’t exist as we know it today. It was mostly relegated to big cities, where a larger population could seek out the services offered at illegal gambling joints and knocking shops.
We’re trying to preserve our PG-13 rating, so you might have to use your imagination during some of this. We think you’ll get the gist; if you don’t you can ask the internet for help. Clear your browser history afterwords.
Giacomo “Big Jim” Colosimo (they didn’t consider you a proper gangster until the Gangster Union gave you a cool nickname) had immigrated from southern Italy to Chicago in 1895. He was 17. He worked odd jobs once popular in America, which included shining shoes, selling newspapers, pickpocketing, writing extortion letters, and shaking down local businesses. Colosimo was popular, had a side-hustle as a street sweeper, worked his way up to foreman, and organized a social club where his fellow immigrants and hoods could “hang out” and “talk about crime.” He even opened a pool hall. Big Jim was a likeable fellow, and all-around good guy. He had a Charisma stat of 18; it would have been 20+ but nature held him back.
His life changed forever when he started pimping and organizing, err, seamstresses. It came to him naturally. He met former demi-monde and madam Victoria Moresco. If you find a woman who will run a Disorganized Hotel on your behalf, marry her. But not Victoria Moresco, who married Giacomo Colosimo in 1902. She’s off the market. And also dead.
The New Brighton Nanny House was very successful. Victoria Moresco excelled at her trade. Colosimo opened a second establishment across the street and called it “The Victoria,” in her honor. Naming a second House of the Red Door after your wife is a commitment that proves you are dizzy with a dame. It gets more marriage points than naming a racehorse, dog, or boat after her. It gets many more marriage points than giving her the nickname ‘Gams’. I’ll quantify that in the comments since I’ll be using it all day after this post goes live. Don’t tell Codex, ‘k?
Opening Cat Houses and naming them after our wives might be the key to saving marriage in our own Clown World. In fact, it probably is. Honk, honk.
Colosimo soon caught the attention of two key Chicago Aldermen, who happened to control Chicago’s Houses of Negotiable Morals. Politicians with gangstery side-hustles didn’t like competition in those days, and John “Bathhouse” Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna were no exception. However, Big Jim nailed a 20 on his Charisma roll. That’s a critical success for those of you who missed the magic of D&D. Instead of fitting him with a Chicago Overcoat, they convinced the Gangsters Union to call him “Big Jim”, made Big Jim a Democratic Party captain, then used him as a bagman: Someone expendable to collect bribes.
When they make me a gangster I’ll be known as Quizzer the “Shock-Face” Spork.
Big Jim eventually took over the Bawdy House network of the Windy City, and was running 200 of them. He ran a few illicit gambling locales on the side; off-book of course. The Gangster Union upgraded his nickname to Giacomo “Diamond” Colosimo. Massive success in the gangster business brings out jealous rivals, and Colosimo started getting threats.
He needed help, and his wife was connected. He hired his wife’s nephew from New York City, Giovanni “Pappa Johnny” Torrio, who came with some muscle of his own: A young Alphonse Capone. The Gangster Union would award Alphonse the moniker of “Scarface” in years to come.
In January of 1920, Torrio immediately saw the possibilities of making and serving illicit coffin varnish. Instead of 10,000 potential customers in the Gambling and Covent Garden Nun trade, he saw 1,000,000 thirsty customers with opportunities available in Everytown, USA.
Big Jim “Diamond” didn’t agree. He was stuck in the world of 1900, didn’t want to risk federal attention, and simply wasn’t driven to excel the way young, upcoming gangsters usually are. He knew the ins-and-outs of his business, and didn’t want to learn new tricks. Torrio, another Made in America Italian import, earned himself a promotion in the most nuovo Americano way possible: He arranged for the murder of his boss.
Torrio and Capone formed “The Outfit”, took over Torrios’ empire, cut deals with the other Chicago gangsters to maintain the peace, and started making money barrel over …bigger barrel. The truce held until the Beer Wars of 1922-1926. After a near-miss Torrio retired, and handed sole control of the phenomenally wealthy crime syndicate to Al Capone in 1925. The war ended in 1926, when mobsters killed 315 would-be crime bosses and the police helped by offing 160 more. Scarface had earned his infamy.
Al Capone was rumored to have earned up to $100 million a year. That’s $1.3 billion in today’s dollars. He was an outlier, but organized crime exploded practically overnight. Mobsters hired lawyers, accountants, brew masters, boat captains, truckers, warehouse workers, and average, everyday thugs they called ‘torpedoes’. They bought politicians, police, and provinces (in Canada). They were the Pharmaceutical Industry of their era.
George Remus, a German import in 1885, got a degree in Pharmaceuticals, bought his uncle’s pharmacy at the age of 21, and a few years later bought a second. Not entirely happy with his career choice, he sold his soul and became a lawyer in 1904. He went on to be a prominent defense attorney, and starting in 1920 noticed the wealth of his gangster clientele. They settled their cases the old-fashioned way: pulling wads of cash from their boots and paying exorbitant
bribes fines. He was not happy with a meager $500,000-a-year ($6.5 million today) salary. Would you be? If you didn’t have a soul, I mean?
Remus studied the Volstead Act and latched on to the medical exemption. He bought 14 defunct distilleries in the Cincinnati area. In one quarter in 1921 he deposited the equivalent of $33 million in the bank. He controlled the sale of bootleg liquor in nine states, and had 3000 well-paid employees working three shifts a day. The Gangster Union called him “The King of the Bootleggers.” The law caught up with him late in 1921. He was eventually sentenced to 3 years in prison. They let him keep the profits. Honkity-honk honk.
Wealthy drinkers went to reputable speakeasies and paid handsomely for it. These establishments hired singers, dancers, comedians, and encouraged plenty of flappers to give their male guests all the attention money could buy. The alcohol served was generally reputable, generally safe, and generally of higher proof. Classy establishments hired taste-testers and if anyone keeled over, shook excessively, or had heart attacks they wouldn’t serve the hooch. Even if the label had been beautifully drawn, focus-tested, and well-marketed.
Those tasters weren’t paid in doughnuts, either, because people were smarter then and wouldn’t put unknown substances with unknown ingredients and unknown side-effects into their body just because some “doctor” or “pharmacist”
demanded asked them to.
Poor drinkers weren’t so lucky. Bootleggers weren’t known for quality control, and what you saved on drinks was more than made up for in hospital bills. Rotgut was known to cause severe stomach problems (hence the name), blindness, paralysis, death, and impotence. One particular drink called Ginger Jake caused an estimated 35,000 to 100,000 zozzlers to develop a partially-paralyzed leg they called “Jake Leg”. Jake Leg was so popular bands sang songs about it.
The creators, Harry Gross and Max Reisman, had added Lindol to their Jamaican ginger concoction to improve the taste. Lindol was a plasticizer used to make celluloid film and explosives. During their trial, they claimed the manufacturer had told them it was “completely safe”. They were sentenced to two whole years in prison. Reisman’s sentence was suspended. Honk-ity-honk honk, two honks.
Teetotalers, and the general public, had no sympathy whatsoever. You drank the devils brew? Don’t complain when the hellfire burns ya.
The ladies of the temperance movement may not have been able to burn down bars any longer, but they could get together and wish Death upon Drinkers. Flappers, in particular, were high-value targets. Via gin was best; it had an earning-your-just-rewards quality that’s very satisfying to the never-been-kissed crowd. Via prohi was acceptable; those speakeasy raids could get a little bludgeony. Chicago lightning wasn’t likely to hit them inside a club, because mobsters didn’t want to destroy the joint they were trying to take over. God works in mysterious ways, however, so you didn’t want to limit Him to the “more obvious” just consequences.
The wildly suggestive Charleston was a dance that screamed broken bone pileup. “We’re closed, please collect your chippy on the way out. Have a bottle on us and tell the hospital Santa got her.” Maybe it was the bending over. Maybe it was the skirt hiked above the knee. It could have been the wild-knocking of spindly sticks, the balance-destroying high heels, the balance-destroying arm flaps, or the balance-destroying bourbon. I’m not God and neither are you.
But the Mrs. Grundy’s were the henchmen of God’s tolerant intolerant army. They had an “in” with the Big Man that we mere mortals do not. They begged and cajoled and clucked for Him to act a little faster. God has a sense of humor and infinite patience, but even that finally reached it’s limits and he granted their fondest wish: He meted out death to the flappers in dribs and drabs over the next 80 years.
The Spork Speaks – tempestinateardrop.com – Part V (final) Coming Tuesday