Georgetown enjoys its seat as “swift Potomac’s lovely daughter,” but during Prohibition, the Potomac swiftly brought something else: illegal hooch. The Potomac River was a key accessory to Washington’s defiance of the national law of temperance. It was the highway for sin and liquor. Although Washington, D.C. was lauded by legislators to be a model dry city, D.C.’s underbelly teemed with booze, bootleggers and speakeasies.
In historian Garrett Peck’s book “Prohibition in D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t,” he estimates that every week bootleggers transported 22,000 gallons of liquor to supply the city’s 3,000 speakeasies, saloons and social clubs. The illegal activity would spill over on to the streets of the capitol, where car chases between authorities and criminals, shootouts with the police on the 14th Street Bridge, Navy nurses bringing rum up from Cuba to the Navy Yard, and even a speakeasy on a boat defined the D.C. social scene.
This duplicitous activity infected the city’s lawmakers. A key informant on this double standard was George Cassiday, a bootlegger who was caught and forced to give up names, commonly known as “the man in the green hat.” He served as Congress’ chief source of information on illegal alcohol consumption. Simply put, even though men voted dry they acted wet. Cassiday stated that of the upstanding members of Congress, four out of five drank. In fact, one customer allegedly stashed his alcohol on top of a bookshelf next to the Congressional Record and often told Cassiday the he could use “some new reading matter.”
This raunchy period in D.C.’s history closed once Prohibition ended in 1933, but any tourist can still find traces of this illicit past. Most of the notable locations of this tumultuous age were destroyed. Many speakeasies were renovated or torn down, but a few key sites survive.
One of the sites that did not make it is the Historic Gaslight Building, located at 1020 16th St., now an office building. In the past, however, it was a social organization known as the Gaslight Club. The speakeasy was hidden on the third floor. Its ingenious secret location was found out on March 4, 1925 when federal agents raided the club. The secret entrance was located in the men’s room and could only be entered when the patron turned a faucet handle, which opened a hidden door.
However, some historical sites did make it through. The Woodrow Wilson House focuses on the legal aspects of the Prohibition. Surprisingly, the house contains one of the few Prohibition-era wine cellars left in existence. President Wilson was, of course, the president when the nation passed the 18th Amendment, which enacted the Prohibition. However, he willfully skirted the law he himself helped to pass. When President Wilson left office in 1921 and took up residence in this house, Congress passed a law that allowed him to transport his wine to his new home. This wine cellar can be viewed, and many of the original bottles are still present.
Though many of the historical Prohibition sites may be lost, a variety of attractions inspired by the era have sprung up in modern D.C. Today, Beuchert Saloon on 623 Pennsylvania Ave. SE has been converted into a modern speakeasy and is meticulously based on historical fact. The saloon that Beuchert Saloon is based on was fronted by a sewing machine shop. The seedy history of the place was not discovered until the renovators uncovered a hidden sliding door and a cache of 100-year-old liquor bottles. Visitors today can eat in the restaurant that still pays tribute to its boozy past.
Sites like the Tune Inn, located on 331 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, were in the shadow of the Capitol Dome. During Prohibition, Tune Inn appeared to the unaware and unsuspecting to be a simple candy shop. However, if the patrons knew the right word, they would have been allowed to descend to the basement where alcohol could be purchased. These days, Tune Inn has turned itself around. It claims that it obtained the second legal liquor license given out by the city and now function as a beloved watering hole for congressmen and women.
Although the wet history of D.C. has dried up, there is still a lot left over to soak up and enjoy.
Blair Kennedy is a rising junior in the College. D.C. Uncovered appears every other Monday.
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