19 Dec Merry Christmas, You Filthy Animals
Christmas was never intended to be a sober holiday. It’s a holiday meant for peppermint schnapps, gin that tastes like Christmas trees smell, and a shot of cinnamon something in the coffee while kids open Christmas presents. So Christmas during Prohibition must have felt very different than the days ahead as we creep towards the 20’s again.
Americans couldn’t have known yet on December 27, 1929 that the end of Prohibition was near, but from an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune that day, we can see how the country’s attitude had taken a distinct turn from the dry-side of life. An article published that day, titled, “A Prohibition Christmas” accuses Prohibition agents of taking advantage of the Christmas holidays to murder an American citizen on December 25, 1929 that they happened upon in a boat on the Niagara River. Boats that close to Canada were presumed to be bootlegging operations and “combined with Canada’s sanity in law making” led to Prohibition agents to shooting and killing on the presumption of guilt.
The victim was Eugene Downey, son of a Buffalo, New York cop. He died an hour after he was shot and no alcohol or narcotics were ever found in his boat.
By Christmas 1930 the press complained that the jails across the country were overcrowded with too many Prohibition violators spending Christmas behind bars. As many as fifty thousand people waited for Santa in dark jails for nothing more than enjoying a bit of Christmas spirit. Seriously? Can you imagine spending the holiday in jail because you spiked your punch at your office Christmas party in order to survive?
Despite the Christmas murder and overcrowding jails, nearly every year during Prohibition, the federal government issued press releases claiming that this would be the “dryest Christmas yet”. They were, of course, always wrong. Chicago was never fucking dry! The booze just went underground, the profits were swept by the mob instead of the government, and everyone was still a little lit by the Christmas tree. It was, and remains, an American tradition to share a toast while waiting for Christmas…or waiting for Christmas to end, whatever you’re into.
The feds always knew Chicago was as wet as Lake Michigan and they always knew who the catalysts were for bootlegging. That’s why every year, the feds sent additional Prohibition agents to Chicago for Christmas at the same time that they released statements to the press claiming that everything was already under control. Or maybe it was for the City’s romantic Christmas lights and snow covered sidewalks that drew the feds in for the holidays.
Cheers to a spectacular holiday season—just stay out of jail and off the Niagara River this year!
Written by Amy Williams