LINCOLN PARK — Break out the spats and hip flask, it's time for Chicago History Museum's annual "The Last Speakeasy" event.
Celebrating what is now the 83rd anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition on Dec. 1, 1933, it's become one of the museum's biggest events.
"While this is a fun event and there's a lot of dancing and music playing, it's also a reminder of Chicago's history," said John Russick, the museum's vice president of interpretation and education.
"This isn't to celebrate gangsters or lawlessness. This is coming to terms with the reality of what it means to be from and to be about Chicago," he added. "It's a way for us to acknowledge that the gangster era existed and really did have a shaping effect on the city's identity."
The History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., turns itself into a grand speakeasy with drinking, dancing, music and games of the era (bring your mah-jongg tiles). Tickets at $100 were still available Wednesday, but going fast.
"The title comes from the idea that this is your last night to be in a speakeasy, breaking the law, flaunting the rules, because alcohol is going to be legally available again as of tomorrow," Russick said.
In Chicago, he acknowledged, there wasn't much difference from one day to the next. Chicagoans could get a drink illegally and then legally the next day. But for the city's gangsters it was the beginning of the end.
"The American gangster as an icon of American history really emerges because of prohibition. That's not to say there wasn't gangsterism and vice before that," Russick said. "If you go back and you look at what the gangs were up to prior to 1920, when Prohibition was enacted, there were gangs that were here, they were certainly fighting over turf and control of vice. But vice was gambling and prostitution and things of that nature — drug culture. It wasn't alcohol, and alcohol, it just changed everything.
"We get the rise of a very violent gang of people who found tremendous success, and financial success, in the illegal distribution of alcohol. And because they made so much money, they were able to corrupt the system. They were able to buy off police and judges, and the whole thing sort of spiraled out of control for over a decade."
Things along those lines were bad nationwide, but Chicago proved to be an epicenter, in part because of Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson, the last Republican to hold the office. "He was horribly corrupt, and he really had a sort of laissez-faire attitude toward Prohibition and restrictions on the gangs. He was not a strict law-and-order kind of guy," Russick said. "He really allowed a lot of the gangs to thrive."
Thompson held office from 1915 to 1923, when he lost to William Dever, a reform-minded Democrat. Although the gangs moved some of their operations to nearby Cicero, Dever found enforcing Prohibition "a near impossibility," Russick said. Thompson was elected back into office in 1927, "and the whole thing starts all over again."
Most infamous of them all, of course, was Al Capone.
"We need as a city to come to terms with what it meant," Russick said. "We had Public Enemy No. 1 here during Prohibition."
Yet Thompson was unseated in 1931 by Anton Cermak, a political ally of Franklin Roosevelt, who ran for president in 1932 on a platform to repeal Prohibition. Capone, meanwhile, went to prison on tax-evasion charges in 1931.
"By '32, the writings on the wall that this is just a matter of time before we repeal this," Russick said.
For all the turbulence of that era, there were gains, Russick added. Bathtub gin and cheap hooch might have flourished during Prohibition, but they were around before that, because of a lack of government regulation.
"Alcohol was so inconsistent and so dangerous and so volatile" before Prohibition, he said. "There were no laws governing alcohol production. One of the arguments for Prohibition was the alcohol industry wasn't regulated and it was killing people." Afterward, the industry readily accepted regulations that made alcohol at least consistent and not lethal.
A legal drinking age was also adopted by cities and states. "There's no drinking age in America prior to repeal," Russick said.
So, Americans were prepared to accept some laws in order to get their beer and liquor back.
Lessons were learned all around, Russick added, politically as well.
"The idea you could outlaw something that so many people found so normal, so everyday, so much a part of their culture and their heritage and their history, that you could take that away and not expect there to be resistance to that, that was really the crazy overreach of Prohibition."
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