No city became as heated, violent and infamous in its rebellion against the decade-long social experiment known as Prohibition than Chicago.
Directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick explore the city's special role in the debate over the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933, in their new documentary, "Prohibition," which airs at 7 p.m. Oct. 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 3 and 4 on WTTW and will be released Oct. 4 on DVD and
"We're in the job of resurrection," Burns said during a recent appearance at the Chicago History Museum. "And one of the aspects of that is the centrality of this city to the American imagination. Chicago is really the most American of all cities. Sometimes the focus on the coastal powers can distract from that, but Chicago really is central to the American story.”
Novick and Burns explained how Prohibition was pushed by an eclectic coalition of women’s rights groups, anti-immigrant sentiment and progressive groups hoping to improve the lives of the poor. In the film, they show how the issue of alcohol blended into debates about feminism, immigration, conflicts between urban and rural populations and even World War I.
“There were many alliances of convenience that made for strange bedfellows,” Novick said.
According to Burns, the impact of Prohibition on Chicago and American society in general cannot be overstated. The film spends a good chunk of time focusing on the legendary Al Capone and Chicago’s “Beer Wars,” which would turn the city into the Wild West for nearly a decade. Shootouts on Michigan Avenue, speakeasies opening around the city and the violent deaths by “shooting, stabbing, and bludgeoning” of dozens of gangsters became the norm during the ban on alcohol sales.
“Alcohol had been a part of human history for a millennium,” said Novick, explaining the impact of the laws’ many unintended consequences, “and eradicating alcohol proved highly difficult.”
Burns has focused his camera on Chicago in past films “Baseball,” the infamous tale of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the 1919
“If you’re drawn to telling stories, you don’t have to be didactic,” he said. “By telling complicated stories you just run into those complicated things naturally, and you get this fully integrated view of a time and place.”
CHICAGO PROHIBITION TRIVIA
Chicago played a major role in the history of prohibition. Here are sixfacts explored in the documentary "Prohibition." S.M.
- Proponents for the 18th Amendment pointed to Chicago’s Levy District as a prime example of alcohol’s harmful nature. Located on the South Side, the Levy District was home to 500 saloons, 500 brothels, 56 pool halls, 15 gambling halls and countless cocaine parlors. The 1st Ward alderman was in charge of this riotous operation.
- Mere minutes after Prohibition became law, six masked bandits armed with pistols hijacked a truck and stole four cases of grain alcohol in Chicago, while another gang hijacked a truck loaded with bourbon and yet another emptied two freight cars loaded with whiskey.
- The favorite drink of Chicagoans during prohibition was called “yak-yak bourbon” and consisted of raw alcohol mixed with burnt sugar and iodine. Yes, iodine.
- Al Capone, the man who would make Chicago “synonymous with ‘murder and mayhem’ for a generation,” began his criminal career as the chief enforcer for gangster Johnny Torio, who retired after being shot five times and surviving. Capone earned the nickname “Scarface” due to three horizontal slashes across his left cheek. He rode around the city in a seven-ton bulletproof Cadillac.
- The government failed to connect Capone to any of the murders, bootlegging or other illegal activities for which he was responsible. Finally, the feds managed to convict Capone on 22 counts of income tax evasion, the irony being that the income tax existed largely because prohibitionists had needed to find a way to replace the lost tax revenue from banning alcohol.
- At the height of the violence in 1926 and 1927, 126 gang members were found shot, stabbed or bludgeoned to death in Chicago. The legendary NewYork gangster Lucky Luciano pronounced the city “a real goddamn crazy place.”