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Capone’s Chicago

June 2024
2min read

The attraction stands at 605 North Clark Street, within easy machine-gun range of the ubiquitous Hard Rock Café. Its main feature is a twenty-five-minute multimedia presentation of gangster history in which events are brought to life by complex automatons. We see a jaunty Al Capone seated beside the actual fireplace that decorated his office in the Lexington Hotel. We are entertained by a ranting Carry Nation, a coy flapper, and a lifelike Louis Armstrong. Murals on the outside of the building re-create famous crime sites. It’s interesting that in staging even this sanitized version of events, Graham met opposition from city fathers squeamish about Chicago’s image.

After this capsule history of the decade, the visitor can view Graham’s excellent collection of 1920s photographs and the displays of such memorabilia as the equipment used by cottage-industry distillers. The building also houses the Four Deuces Gift Shop, full of T-shirts and bumper stickers, where you can pick up an Al Capone shot glass (“one shot will kill you”) or The Quotable Al Capone , a kind of “Quotations of Chairman Al” for crime buffs.

What interests me about crime is those moments when the candlepower of reality is turned up to its maximum.

“When I sell liquor, they call it bootlegging,” Al said. “When my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, they call it hospitality.”

Graham deserves credit for emphasizing the social context of the era. Even in Chicago the decade was far more than a ten-year shooting spree. It was a time of advances for women, who won the right to vote in 1920. It was a golden age for jazz musicians, who flourished in the wide-open atmosphere of speakeasies and nightclubs. It was a time when a resurgent Ku Klux Klan spread poison in reaction to the candidacy of the Catholic Al Smith.

The exhibit points to Prohibition as the engine that drove the gangster era. Campaigners against demon rum had been marching since the Civil War. Carry Nation served as a colorful standard-bearer. In 1900 she campaigned through the saloons of dry Kansas with her ax and her battle cry “Smash! Smash! For Jesus’ sake, smash!” She would later re-enact her harangues for vaudeville audiences.

More influential was Frances Willard, who led the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union from 1879 until her death a generation later, tying the issue to women’s rights. Her home in nearby Evanston is preserved as a museum.

The WCTU and the later Anti-Saloon League were the foundation of what would be the most aggressive lobbying campaign of the time, a prototype of the modern special-interest movement. They cowed Congress into passing the Eighteenth Amendment in 1917. The states quickly ratified it. “No tendency is quite so strong in human nature,” said William Howard Taft, “as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people.”

Chicago, populated by hard-drinking Irishmen, Germans, and Poles, ignored Prohibition from the start. Many saloons simply kept operating. More secretive speakeasies joined them, as did blind pigs—grocery or hardware stores that fronted for grogshops. The importation of juniper oil, used to flavor homemade “gin,” skyrocketed. For those with political connections and a propensity toward lawbreaking, a career as a bootlegger offered almost limitless wealth.

The city was far from innocent when the decade opened. Chicago has been a hustler’s town from the time the first traders bought pelts from the Indians at Fort Dearborn. A city, the writer Nelson Algren said, “that was to forge, out of steel and blood red neon, its own peculiar wilderness.”

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