Speakeasies, bootleggers, and jazz at the West End Museum

Special to Times

Back in the days of Prohibition, there were speakeasies all over Boston…including Beacon Hill and the West End. Emily Sweeney, Boston Globe journalist and author of several nonfiction books, including ‘Boston Organized Crime’ and ‘Gangland Boston,’ notes that a speakeasy known as the “Lighted Lamp” was located in the basement of a building at the corner of Myrtle and Grove streets. On the night of Jan. 22, 1921, explains Sweeney, officers from the Joy Street police station raided the club using sledgehammers to break down the doors. There were more than 50 young people partying there that night. Police found a half dozen empty whiskey bottles, a half-empty bottle of brandy, and took several flappers away in a patrol wagon.

Just a short walk from Beacon Hill, the Club Garden on Causeway Street epitomized the clandestine speakeasies that thrived in the West End during Prohibition. Beyond mere drinking spots, these venues symbolized defiance against the era’s restrictive laws. Intricate entry rituals, including passwords and secret knocks, infused the experience with an aura of mystery and thrill.

Enforcing Prohibition posed considerable difficulties. Despite extensive endeavors by law enforcement, including federal agents, to suppress illicit alcohol activities, speakeasies persisted. The irresistible appeal of alcohol, alongside the substantial profits from bootlegging, sustained a thriving underground economy. Figures such as Charles “King” Solomon seized upon this demand, emerging as influential figures in Boston’s criminal underworld. Solomon’s vast empire, featuring establishments like the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, epitomized the convergence of vice industries during this era.

The eventual repeal of Prohibition in 1933 with the passage of the 21st Amendment marked the end of this contentious era. The repeal reflected a shift in public sentiment, as many Americans grew disillusioned with the unintended consequences of Prohibition, including the rise of organized crime and the erosion of civil liberties.

On June 23, you can delve into the clandestine world of bootleggers, bathtub gin, peepholes, and secret passwords that defined this fascinating period of Boston’s history at a high-spirited program at the West End Museum that blends historical storytelling and live music. Cool cat jazz musicians Justin Ouellet (violin) and Justin Piper (guitar) will take the stage performing prohibition-era standards by greats such as Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin, and Emily Sweeney will share her expertise on the rise of speakeasies, the influence of organized crime, and the societal impacts of Herbert Hoover’s “noble experiment.” Your admission includes a “Bees Knees,” a popular cocktail of the era, courtesy of our friends at The Tip Tap Room. You won’t want to miss this unique and multi-faceted experience which is sure to be the cat’s pajamas!

Tickets are available at westendmuseum.org and crescendoproductions.com.

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