Is Anyone Surprised Milwaukee Rebelled During Prohibition?

A city famous for drinking never really gave up the sauce. It just endured low-quality hooch and had to get creative in its getting. 

It was an unpretentious memorial, with a simple casket laid upon a small table lit with whiskey bottle lamps. The interred had as many friends in Milwaukee as anyone who’d ever called the place home, but the handful of sobbing mourners who gathered that afternoon in June 1919 nonetheless believed him to have been murdered. He was found dead, wrote the Milwaukee Sentinel, “in the back yard of legislation.” 

The rites were for Mr. John Barleycorn, the symbolic embodiment of the American right to drink. In a week, a temporary prohibition against the sale and production of alcohol meant to help the war effort (World War I had been over for six months, but that hardly seemed to matter) would take effect and carry through until January 1920, when the Volstead Act would officially implement the liquor-banning 18th Amendment. The “death” was mere metaphor, but the services that day represented a true sorrow in the community. Hosted at the Weis Brothers liquor dealership on Water Street, the assembled laid Mr. Barleycorn to rest in the Milwaukee River, tossing in the casket with fond words and tears along with the Weis Brothers’ cash register. As the men retired back to Weis’ barroom to help finish up the company’s stock of booze, they sang a mournful tune. So long highball, so long gin / Oh, tell me when you comin’ back again / Blues, I’ve got the blues / Since they amputated my booze.

The last rites of John Barleycorn in the shadow of Prohibition, Downtown Milwaukee, June 1919; Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historic Society

Milwaukee’s many barrooms, beer gardens, saloons and social clubs kept flowing until the stroke of midnight on June 30, 1919, when the temporary ban took effect. City officials were somewhat apprehensive about what might happen when the dry era officially began, but there was little reported trouble beyond the warbling, off-key renditions of mournful tunes like “How Dry Am I?” A stag party at the Downtown Elks Club spilled out into street when midnight came, eventually growing into a funeral march nearly two blocks in length. The local reaction might have been different had anyone actually expected to stop drinking. 

Milwaukee’s home bars were as well stocked as ever (there had been a run on booze in the days before the ban), and shuttered saloons were born again as “soft drink parlors” that either continued to sell liquor or sold virgin cocktails that could be stiffened from customers’ hip flasks. Milwaukee was far from dry, but there were noticeable changes in how the city conducted itself after hours. Police found themselves with a lighter evening workload, and hotel proprietors reported that guests made their way to their rooms for the evening much earlier than before. The Milwaukee Sentinel blithely noted that Downtown candy shops noticed a change, selling fewer boxes of chocolates to red-nosed men who had stopped off for a few too many after work and wanted something to take home to a presumably angry wife.

 

 



Milwaukee’s plucky mood of 1919 was dimmed by the onset of permanent Prohibition in 1920. A field office of the federal Bureau of Prohibition was established. Milwaukee’s famed breweries officially went dark, laying off thousands of workers. And, just one day after the Volstead Act officially took effect, the Prohibition era’s first alcohol poisoning victim showed up in an area hospital, suffering from the effects of ingestion of wood alcohol – commonly known now as methanol. He would not be the last.

With pre-Prohibition liquor supplies mostly exhausted and federal agents beginning to conduct raids on illegal saloons, Milwaukee went from a city of booze drinkers to a city of booze makers. The sale of raisins, apricots and sugar – all ingredients for homemade liquor – spiked, and the public library soon found that all of the wine-making books in its holdings were checked out or stolen. Shops selling malt and hops could not keep up with demand, and the previously little-regarded ingredient of juniper extract (a must for tolerable bathtub gin) was suddenly in high demand. As were those recently laid-off brewery workers, who found a new career as homebrewing “consultants.”  

Meanwhile, Milwaukee was experiencing an, ahem, outbreak of contagious illness that would make the spread of COVID-19 look downright glacial by comparison. In mid-January 1920, the number of cases of influenza in the city went from 39 to over 1,000 – an alarming trend indeed, considering that the global influenza pandemic that had started in 1918 and would kill tens of millions had yet to be fully contained. But local health officials took solace in the fact that this spike just happened to coincide with the arrival of “medicinal whiskey” in Milwaukee. With a prescription, one could get legal and legit booze from nearly 1,000 local druggists.

PROHIBITION-ERA SLANG

How to Talk the Talk in Dry Milwaukee

Mop-ups: Federal agents tasked with destroying illegal booze seized during raids. This was often not a term of endearment. During a 1927 raid on Downtown’s Oneida Bridge Restaurant, mop-ups were booed and jeered by a crowd of several hundred as they dumped illicit beer into the Milwaukee River.  

Blind tiger/blind pig: Coded lingo for an illegal bar. Both terms far predate the Prohibition era and their origins are unclear. One theory gives a circus-type framing to the terms, in which people would pay someone “in the know” a small amount to ostensibly be shown a rare sightless animal.

Send-off party: For homebrewers who rented, moving posed a serious problem, as many homebrew operations or basement stills were too large to discreetly transport. Some tried to swap homes (and set-ups) with another booze-maker, but more often the move resulted in a riotous send-off party, during which everything a maker could make was drunk and the setup was broken down for scrap. 

Needling: Near beer, what would be considered non-alcoholic beer today, was still legal during Prohibition. “Needled beer” was made by injecting homemade liquor through the bottle’s cork in order to give it a kick.

Trying it on the dog: To avoid poisoning from bad batches of bootleg liquor, crafty drinkers would make friends with their neighborhood bartenders and ask that they only be served from a bottle that had been “tried on the dog” – that is, bottles that were already half-empty or more, a sure indicator that it was unlikely to be toxic. 

Beer flat: As Milwaukee’s speakeasies fell victim to the real estate market in the late 1920s, beer flats became the preferred venues for a night out. Essentially living room or basement bars, they mostly served beer brewed in-house. Raids against such places were usually futile as Milwaukee juries were very reluctant to convict.

In November 1921, a federal dictate legalized medicinal beer, prompting the big Milwaukee breweries to spring back into the beer-making business. A Milwaukee man named Jack Scheiderer was the first in the nation to fill a ’script for suds, purchasing a case of Schlitz at a Burleigh Street pharmacy for $5.25 (a staggering $77 in 2021 money). The Milwaukee Sentinel ran a photo of Scheiderer holding his beer with a knowing grin. The report noted druggists were selling out the contents of brewery delivery trucks before they could even be unloaded. No one mentioned, or seemed to even be curious about, the ailment he had to which 24 bottles of Schlitz was the cure. Two weeks later, the feds reversed course on medicinal beer.

With actual beer outlawed, many brewers began making products that could be fermented at home; Photo courtesy of Milwaukee county Historic Society

For those without doctor’s orders or an inclination toward homebrewing, there were thousands of illegal bars all across Milwaukee. For the most part, these were pre-ban saloons that simply never really went out of business. As late as 1922, there were still over 1,000 saloons listed in the city directory, establishments that didn’t bother with the pretense of lying about their intentions. When the saloon column was banned by order of the Bureau of Prohibition, Milwaukee’s “soft drink parlor” population boomed, with as many as 3,000 of them suspected by Prohibition agents of selling liquor. 

If you were lucky and had the cash, you might have been able to score some genuine bonded liquor, smuggled into the city from Canada by truck or boat.

But any given speakeasy was more often than not serving a variety of homemade booze. Local whiskey rings grew into massive operations putting out thousands of gallons a week. 

Even if the booze still flowed during Prohibition, it had upset that most Milwaukee concept of the corner tavern as a gathering place for people of all walks. The nickel glass of beer and free lunch spreads, once a staple of the laboring man’s working day, were gone. In the early 1920s, a glass of raisin wine or a shot of suspect whiskey cost between 30 and 75 cents ($5-$12 in today’s dollars) and a quart of booze could run as high as the modern equivalent of $300.  

But there was one part of Milwaukee where, per the Milwaukee Journal, “hobo and millionaire” alike could share a bar. Prior to Prohibition, the Third Ward was considered by many a land lost to the law. Its reputation – first as a rowdy Irish enclave, and then as the Italian district where murders nearly always went unsolved – made it a neighborhood far more gossiped about by Milwaukeeans than visited. There was a note of truth behind these impressions and, when Prohibition came, there was little effort among Ward barkeepers to adhere to the new law. 

With home wine-making skills brought to Milwaukee from the old country, Third Ward neighborhood bars had a steady stream of quality dime-a-glass vino that ensured the working man could enjoy a night out without going broke. Meanwhile, the bosses of the neighborhood – most of whom were among the city’s earliest organized crime kingpins – held their sway with cash that flowed in from lavish affairs at glamorous nightclubs hidden inside outwardly decrepit buildings. And with the law having long given up on any serious enforcement in the area (Third Ward Italians were notorious for both refusing to speak with police and taking matters of justice into their own hands), the dancing and jazz bands that nearly every other joint in town had given up to avoid drawing too much attention became a trademark for the area.

An anti-Prohibition protest; Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historic Society


Mayor Daniel Hoan declared in 1916, as the temperance movement was nearing success in its effort to ban alcohol, “the U.S. Army couldn’t dry up Milwaukee.” He may or may not have been right, but the forces that the Bureau of Prohibition sent to do the job certainly were not up to the task. Early enforcement was so scattershot that for a time in 1921, there was just one federal agent assigned to the entire eastern district of Wisconsin. That force eventually grew to a more robust squad of seven, but dry forces in the area would remain out-manned and out-financed. 

Working mostly on tips – sometimes from rival saloonkeepers or bootleggers – agents targeted both speakeasies and stills. A typical routine at an illegal saloon was to raid the place and then lean on the patrons to turn over on the operator. Raids on suspected production sites usually involved a team of men with axes, smashing first to find the hidden room where the still was kept, then again to disable the still and empty any jugs of liquor or beer on the premises. Dramatic as these events might have been, they did little more than remove a drop from a very full bucket. Overall enforcement was such an abject failure that the Milwaukee chapter of the Ku Klux Klan offered to help “mop up the liquor” and chase out the “lewd characters” that they claimed were infesting the city. The authorities politely declined the offer. 

Federal dry forces also often found themselves at odds with local officials, many of whom were apathetic or outright hostile to their mission. District Attorney Winfred Zabel refused to prosecute liquor law cases, and the Milwaukee Police Department withdrew from all federal Prohibition enforcement efforts in 1926.  Claims by federal agents that local authorities were either working with or taking money from bootleggers and rum-runners were common and most likely at least partially accurate. But the feds themselves were not above suspicion either, with major corruption cases against current or former federal agents uncovered in 1921, 1926 and 1929. Nor did it help that well-dressed con men posing as enforcement agents made a small industry out of taking bribes from duped saloonkeepers.

A group of Milwaukee Sentinel reporters take a beer break at their in-house speakeasy; Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historic Society

To the typical Milwaukee drinker, there was far more danger in their drink than there was in getting caught with it. As early as 1921, the Sentinel editorialized that the only impact Prohibition seemed to be having was in the putrid quality of the liquor that was available. Most of it was mostly locally made and, with an estimated 50,000 Milwaukeeans involved on some level with bootlegging, it was far from an exact science. Oil of wintergreen was a common ingredient in bootlegged beer, but too much would cause stomach distress or death. “Rub-down tonic” was often distilled to remove the deadly formaldehyde, then mixed with corn mash to produce something akin to whiskey, but it usually retained some toxic qualities. 

In June 1923 alone, 13 deaths in Milwaukee County were attributed to poisoned booze. And a year later the Sentinel estimated that 90% of the bootlegged liquor in the city contained at least some poison. 

A home in Cudahy was leveled when an illegal still exploded; Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historic Society


By the time the national movement for repeal of the 18th Amendment appeared to have true momentum, Milwaukee’s speakeasy era was already nearing its end. The Third Ward’s reign as the capital of local nightlife was brought down in the late 1920s when the feds, eager to make an example of the neighborhood, targeted a series of raids on the Ward’s most popular spots. Agents wielded newly-granted “padlock powers,” literally locking the doors of any building in which a violation of the Volstead Act was found to have occurred for up to 18 months. And so what could not have been done by the U.S. Army was being done by local landlords, who were no longer willing to risk renting space to speakeasy operators. “The speakeasy business is shot,” one real estate man told the Journal near the end. “Rent is too low to begin with, and a padlock is too costly to be bothered with.” 

But the end was near anyway. On Dec. 5, 1933, the day the repeal of the 18th Amendment was made official, Milwaukee crooked its elbows and lifted a glass in celebration. While the habit was one that had never really gone away, the drink in hand was certainly better than what many had tasted in years. 

The repeal of the 18th Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933, was cause for celebration in Milwaukee; Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historic Society

The dreary charade of temperance continued until the very end, with federal agents raiding a West Allis factory building and making one of the largest whiskey busts in state history just hours before the repeal took effect. The feds made their show, a handful of cases went on the docket, and Milwaukee hardly even noticed.

The day of repeal, R. V. Werner and a handful of friends gathered Downtown at the break of dawn alongside the Milwaukee River. He took out a now-legal bottle of rye, tied it to the end of a fishing line and tangled his pole over the water. Werner had been the officiant at John Barleycorn’s 1919 funeral and was now hoping to lure him up from his watery grave. The stunt, captured by a Sentinel photographer, brought smiles to the faces of those gathered, but failed to coax old John from the channel. It was as though he had never really departed to begin with.  


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s June issue.

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