Breakin’ the Law: Prohibition in DC

Garrett Peck
Garret Peck (photos by the author)

Wednesday night I attended a talk on Prohibition in DC by local author Garrett Peck. He’s got a new book on the subject, developed as a result of his research for his first book, along with the knowledge he’s amassed leading the Temperance Tour. Much as it is now, DC was a playground for politicians who wanted to try out new rules. Prohibition was thus imposed on the District in 1917 by politicians who, privately (and sometimes publicly) didn’t themselves care much for or about the law.

Peck pointed out in his talk that there were more speakeasies in DC during Prohibition than there had been legal drinking establishments before it. It wasn’t illegal to possess alcohol, it was just illegal to produce it, sell it, or transport it across state lines. The assumption had been that the District (and later the country) would just drink itself dry and that would be the end of that. As you might guess, things didn’t work out that way.

One of the most interesting tidbits was on the so-called Man in the Green Hat, a bootlegger named George Cassiday. He was famous for two reasons: first, for ten years during Prohibition he had offices in US Government buildings, first the House Office Building, and then (after a bust) the Senate Office Building. Second: he wrote about his work for the Washington Post while Prohibition was still in effect.

Another interesting revelation was in the slides that accompanied the talk (all of which are also to be found as plates in the book). In 1932 a pro-repeal organization called the Crusaders produced a map of speakeasy busts in the District during 1931 – 1,155 of them. It was published in newspapers nationwide. There are clusters along 7th St NW, K St NW, and across from the Navy Yard, and three marked as having occurred on government property (one just a few hundred feet from the offices of the Anti Saloon League). Oddly enough, Cassiday was arrested in 1930, so the busts in 1931 involved other bootleggers to Congress.

Garrett Peck

Peck pointed out the locations of several breweries in DC that were permanently shuttered by Prohibition. The Safeway on the Hill was once a brewery (and also an ice cream plant, thanks to its refrigeration capabilities). Few of the buildings exist in those forms today. He also highlighted the locations of the Anti Saloon League offices (no longer standing) and the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals (now the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society). More sites can be seen on the next Temperance Tour.

I enjoyed the talk and look forward to reading the book in its entirety. If you’re interested in the history of Prohibition and its effects, you can also check out Peck’s first book, along with Daniel Okrent’s excellent history of Prohibition Last Call, and Iain Gately’s exhaustive Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol (both available from the DC Public Library and wherever quality books are sold).

Fedward Potz moved into the District in 1999 with a four year plan and never left. He enjoys good food, craft cocktails, photography, music, and long walks on the beach.

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