Friday, June 3, 2011

Author Interview: Garrett Peck Writes History of Prohibition-Era Washington, D.C.

When Woodrow Wilson left the White House in 1921, he moved to a 12,000-square-foot home in Kalorama, an elevated section of Washington that provided him and his wife with an unobstructed view of the city all the way to the Potomac River.

Moving his household necessitated a special dispensation from Congress because Wilson had a large collection of fine wines and, under the terms of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, the transportation of alcoholic beverages – even within a city, even over a distance of barely a mile – was illegal.

This anecdote is one of many contained in a new book by Garrett Peck, a writer based in Arlington, Virginia, who has a keen interest in local Washington history and the history of alcoholic beverage regulation. (His previous book was called The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet.)

So it was no surprise that the book party celebrating the publication of Peck’s Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t was held at the Woodrow Wilson House, now a museum (in fact, the only presidential museum in the District of Columbia), which still holds one of the largest remaining collections of Prohibition-era wine.

Starting with the ‘Temperance Tour’
Peck explained in an interview that the Wilson house is the final stop on the “Temperance Tour” of Washington that he has led since 2006. This walking tour gave him the idea for his most recent book and also provided him with much of the material for it.

Garrett Peck at Woodrow Wilson House
Using primary source material, including newspaper databases, microfilm, diaries, memoirs, and magazine articles, Peck prepared a chapter “on spec,” which he presented to his eventual publisher, The History Press.

That chapter was called “The Man in the Green Hat,” and it was about George Cassiday, who was the personal bootlegger to Members of Congress during Prohibition.

One he sold the idea for the book, he dived deep into his source material.

“I used a lot of primary material,” he said, such as “the Washington Post online archives. I went to the D.C. Public Library and dug through microforms of different newspapers.”

He discovered that there are “actually a lot of biographies from the 1920s, so I used a lot of those. Probably 90 percent of the book is primary research,” he explained, which included interviews with descendants of some of the key players of the era.

Surprising and unexpected
Three things struck Peck as surprising as he conducted his research.

One was the “size of the brewing industry before Prohibition,” in Washington, he said, “which was huge, and then seeing it just collapse with Prohibition. That was really surprising.”

He also wrote a chapter on African-Americans in Washington during Prohibition.

Nobody, he pointed out, had previously written about that community, “because the press was segregated at the time.”

That lack of coverage had the result, Peck said, that the chapter on Washington’s African-American neighborhoods absorbed “about half of my research time, just trying to come up with an answer to, ‘What did black people think about Prohibition?’”

The difficulty of researching that topic “really surprised me,” he said.

The third surprise he found were the “back-to-back stories of Rufus Lusk and George Cassiday,” which came out in the press “within about a month of each other” in the fall of 1930. Lusk, who founded a real estate records firm that still bears his name, had published a map of Washington showing all the speakeasies in the city, meant to demonstrate how ineffective Prohibition enforcement was.

Cassiday “spilled the beans about bootlegging in Congress” in a series of articles for the Washington Post. That, together with Lusk’s map, Peck explained, “just had a huge impact for the wet cause and helped shift the country towards repeal” of Prohibition, which finally came in December 1933.

3,000 speakeasies
In remarks at his book launch party, Peck noted that prior to Prohibition – which, according to his book, actually began two years earlier in D.C. than in the rest of the country, thanks to the Shepard Act passed in 1917 – there were 300 saloons in the city of Washington. During Prohibition, there were at least 3,000 speakeasies (illegal drinking establishments), an increase by a factor of ten.

1922 Woman putting flask in her Russian boot, Washington, D.C. Prohibition
D.C. woman putting flask in her boot, 1922
The explosive growth is easy to explain, he said.

It makes sense “from an economic standpoint,” he explained.

“It was an economic opportunity for a lot of people. People still wanted to drink.”

The law of supply and demand meant that, “if there are people who want to drink, there are going to be people to meet that supply.”

According to Peck, “Plenty of people realized, ‘Hey, I can make a good living selling booze to people, whether it’s in my apartment or if I set up a club.’ Here in D.C.,” he explained, speakeasies were located in “a lot of apartments or [in] a room above a business so it looked like it was legit.” Many of these were hidden in plain sight, as shown on the widely-seen map published in 1930 by Rufus Lusk.

Local Prohibition history
While he prefers to “stick with DC” because it’s the city he knows best, Peck acknowledges that Prohibition in Washington, D.C. could be the start of a series of volumes of local history along the lines of “Prohibition in St. Louis,” “Prohibition in Milwaukee,” or “Prohibition in Buffalo.”

“I would certainly encourage historians in those other cities to explore those questions, especially where they know in fact there was a huge Prohibition culture,” he said, adding:

“I think Cleveland could write a story, Detroit could certainly write a story, Boston. Each one could definitely tell its own story about how the mayhem unfolded in their particular city. I would encourage that. I think the History Press would love to see more proposals like that.”

Garrett Peck will be speaking about his new book, Prohibition in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 9, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., at the Arlington Central Library, 1015 N. Quincy Street, in Arlington, Virginia.

Peck also noted that his book is available for purchase in the gift shop of the Woodrow Wilson House and available through on-line booksellers and Barnes & Noble.

(An earlier, slightly different version of this article originally appeared on in two parts on May 27, 2011.)

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