Hard drinking NY cops from the 20s and 30s
July 4, 2009 9:29 AM   Subscribe

Are there any accounts of cops in prohibition/depression era New York being drinkers? Would drink be widely available to the point where no one would think much of it, or would it be especially difficult for a public employee?
posted by Artw to Law & Government (12 answers total)
Best answer: I can't speak to New York, but I can tell you that in Prohibition-era Texas my great-grandpa bribed the local cops to ignore his winemaking hobby. Bribe of choice? Wine. So I don't think drink was very hard to come by for cops who were willing to be a little crooked.
posted by katemonster at 9:43 AM on July 4, 2009

I assure you, love of drink is not any more prevalent in Irish Catholics than it is in any other group. I hear that German Protestants have some kind of rule about beer making... But hey, it's OK to prejudge *some* groups...

Anyway, I wasn't there then. But every account I've ever seen of the time says that booze was plenty available. And I see no reason why police officers would be any more or less affected by the law then than now.

I would also expect that because prohibition was a federal law, the local law enforcement probably didn't care as much. Except until the driving of alcohol underground had unintended consequences and avoidance of the fed law started causing all sorts of local-style law breaking. Al Capone and his ilk.
posted by gjc at 9:56 AM on July 4, 2009

I assure you, love of drink is not any more prevalent in Irish Catholics than it is in any other group.

That's not exactly true--there is a high rate of heavy drinking and of alcoholism both in Ireland and among Irish-Americans (and I believe among Canadians of Irish descent too), whereas there are some other national/cultural/ethnic groups with much lower levels of both heavy drinking and of alcoholism, considered statistically. (I say this as an American of Irish, English, and Scottish ancestry, and with lots and lots of alcoholics in my family tree; my husband, on the other hand, an American of Eastern European Jewish ancestry, has exactly one suspected alcoholic in his family tree.)

That said, OH HA HA IRISH PEOPLE DRINK A LOT hasn't been funny since about 1876. (It had a brief reign, having displaced OH HA HA DUTCH PEOPLE DRINK A LOT in about 1820.) Let's give a shout-out to OH HA HA NATIVE AMERICAN INDIAN PEOPLE DRINK A LOT and OH HA HA JAPANESE PEOPLE DRINK A LOT, which never really caught on quite so much--hence "Dutch courage" and "paddy wagon."

On to your question: Yes, of course police officers drank during Prohibition. This is well-documented in contemporary memoirs, non-fiction works, and newspaper coverage.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:28 AM on July 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Also, The Spirits of America by Eric Burns has a lot of good stuff about Prohibition in it. I know that Mayor Walker of New York was an habitue of 21 in the days when it was a speakeasy, so presumably he set the tone for public employees in general.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:45 AM on July 4, 2009

A good thing to check out would be Dry Manhattan: prohibition in New York City. I haven't read it, but it's published by a reputable academic publisher, and the reviews seem to be good. I searched the google books version for the word "police", and one of the first entries was:
In station houses around the city, police kept caches of confiscated liquor seized in raids for their own consumption. Investigative reports filed with the Committee of Fourteen in the early years of Prohibition regularly described uniformed policemen and plainclothes detectives, both on and off duty, drinking in speakeasies, saloons, and waterfront bars, where they chatted with owners and bartenders, finished their paperwork, or mingled with longshoremen, laborers, prostitutes, and other customers.
In general, New York cops were drawn from communities that were strongly hostile to Prohibition, and I would imagine that they shared that hostility. It's not especially surprising that they would ignore a law that most working-class New Yorkers saw as being imposed on them by hostile outsiders.
posted by craichead at 11:11 AM on July 4, 2009

Best answer: My late stepfather's father was a rumrunner in upstate NY during this time. He was also chief of police. He wasn't afraid of law enforcement, but of organized crime.
posted by pentagoet at 11:13 AM on July 4, 2009

Urk, sorry. Meant to include a page number: that's from page 74 of Dry Manhattan.
posted by craichead at 11:16 AM on July 4, 2009

Best answer: From what I've read of alcohol prohibition, it had a very urban/rural divide as one of its main characteristics with the urban population being very "wet". So New York cops would've almost certainly been drinkers, and would've found a lot of local approval for being so. A historical-based fictional example is the Coen brothers film "Millers Crossing" which portrays cops (even the Chief) as being in the employ of bootleggers.
posted by telstar at 4:15 PM on July 4, 2009

There is a secret tunnel from the old police building headquarters on Lafayette between Broome and Grand, that goes into the basement of the "speakeasy" which operated on the corner of Grand and Centre St. It was famous because some mayor or police chief would make use of the tunnel to go drinking at his own private "club" back in the day. There is a restaurant where the speakeasy used to be, I bet you can go ask them about the history of their establishment.

Or, you know - googles.

(Also, I know the 21 Club was famous as a speakeasy for hosting the upper crust of NYC. But considering their problems with raids, not sure if the establishment welcomed notable members of local government and the police during Prohibition. )
posted by jbenben at 3:43 AM on July 5, 2009

Best answer: telstar: regarding the urban/rural divide:

"The second Ku Klux Klan was founded in Atlanta with a new anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic agenda."

"One historian contends that the KKK’s "support for Prohibition represented the single most important bond between Klansmen throughout the nation". Membership in the Klan and other prohibition groups overlapped, and they often coordinated activities. For example, Edward Young Clarke, a top leader of the Klan, raised funds for both the Klan and the Anti-Saloon League."

"Klan delegates played a significant role at the path-setting 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City, often called the "Klanbake Convention". The convention initially pitted Klan-backed candidate William Gibbs McAdoo against Catholic New York Governor Al Smith."
posted by iviken at 3:45 AM on July 5, 2009

Just read Sidhedevil's comment about Walker and the 21 Club - murky memory here --- the raids everyone feared were from the Feds cracking down on illegal drinking, not the NYPD.
posted by jbenben at 3:49 AM on July 5, 2009

Support for Prohibition? Like I needed another reason to hate the Klan.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:51 PM on July 6, 2009

« Older Failed to get a PhD, now what?   |   What do you mean Mario retired? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.