Personalities of Prohibition: A Review of the Museum of the American Gangster

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is provided by Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, associate professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder. There, she teaches and writes on Japanese history. Her latest book, Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History, was published by University of California Press in 2013. 

The Museum of the American Gangster, which opened in 2010 in trendy St. Marks Place in Lower Manhattan, celebrates the so-called heroes of Prohibition who kept the nation awash in alcohol against the bumbling efforts of moralizing temperance reformers and corrupt law enforcement during the years of national temperance (1919-1933).

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Photo by Manhattan Sideways

Open from 1-6 p.m. daily excluding Mondays, the museum offers tours of approximately 75 minutes at 1, 2:30, and 4 p.m. It would be possible to walk around the main rooms on one’s own, but most guests would probably find the exhibition much less lively that way; moreover, the basement and underground tunnels of the speakeasy next door cannot be entered without a guide. On weekends the museum is a popular attraction despite the rather steep cost of admission ($20 for adults, $12 for students). The 4 p.m. Sunday tour that I joined had at least a dozen people, about the maximum that could comfortably move through the small space.

The tour begins in the main building, which dates back to the early nineteenth century and is believed to have been constructed on the site of a Dutch farmhouse of the New Amsterdam era. An enthusiastic guide described its early history as a stop on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves. A century later, it fell into the hands of Frank Hoffman, a German immigrant with a penchant for South American beauties who made his fortune importing and selling alcohol during Prohibition (1919-1933). His speakeasy, which once welcomed Al Capone and other notorious gangsters, today draws mostly a student clientele from nearby NYU as well as museum-goers with a post-tour thirst.

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An enthusiastic guide informing hard-hatted visitors. Photo: Yelp

After pointing out the distinctive original bar, carved from durable mahogany, the guide passed out hard hats to protect our heads from the low ceilings and led our group downstairs to the basement, where Hoffman hid his liquor stocks. He also pointed out the tunnels to the East River, through which contraband was taken in and cash was smuggled out. As bullet holes in the walls attest, these passageways were more than once the scene of a deadly confrontation between the bootlegger and his rivals. Yet thanks to certain structural modifications made by Hoffman’s gang—crudely constructed plaster walls, windows covered in steel sheeting—police never discovered (or at least never raided) the lair.

At the close of Prohibition, Hoffman returned to his native country to visit family, leaving his businesses and two basement safes containing approximately $12 million in the care of his confederate Walter Scheib. Although he intended to return to the United States, Hoffman was trapped in Germany by the accession of the Nazis. Nonetheless, Scheib’s fear of the redoubtable gangster was so great that he could not bring himself to open the safes. In 1964 he sold the building to an aspiring theater owner, who struggled to make mortgage payments until his first hit: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

The fate of Hoffman and the money is the tour’s best story; I would not wish for this review to spoil the suspense and drama of the (admittedly speculative) big reveal.

Contextualizing Hoffman’s exploits, the museum also surveys the larger history of Prohibition. As our guide narrated, the national ban on the distillation and sale (but not consumption) of alcohol sparked the birth of a vast criminal underworld to keep flasks filled. The museum depicts the “gangster character” as a response, at least in part, to the social and economic exclusion of minorities. In New York, marginalized Jews dominated the early mob scene. A guide who self-identified as Jewish spoke of her “ethnic pride” in “ancestors” who suppressed Nazi rallies and spearheaded community welfare initiatives. Of less interest to the museum are the heinous crimes they committed along the way: torture, murder, arson, assault, and theft, to name just a few.

Defending Prohibition against these gangsters, “comical and sketchy” law enforcement resorted to means that ranged from uproarious to atrocious, with little in between. The museum’s critique of police brutality was particularly pointed; I noticed my fellow tourists nodding in recognition at our guide’s description of the bloody, extralegal apprehension and execution of charismatic mobsters.

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A nuanced look at Prohibition. Photo: W. W. Norton

Yet for most historians, the “antihero vs. villain” narrative is as anachronistic as Prohibition itself. Recent works such as Lisa McGirr’s The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (Norton, 2016) have shown that temperance enforcement was far from either a risible game or a dead letter in many communities. Rather,  middle-class Anglo-Saxon Protestant reformers and the state wielded the weight of the law as a weapon against the poor, the non-white, the urban, and the foreign-born—all seen as threateningly “un-American.” Meanwhile, despite the romantic myths that have come to surround gangsters, most were neither swashbuckling icons of bravado and wealth nor benevolent Robin Hoods, but rather violent, sometimes pathological menaces to lawful as well as mob society.

The museum carries the story of gangsters into the 1930s, when the end of Prohibition and the onset of the Depression shifted the criminal spotlight to their putative successors: bank robbers. Thereafter, their story ends (aside from an exhibition of paraphernalia donated by Henry Hill, the protagonist of the hit film Goodfellas). The term itself now seems quaint: today’s “gangsters” are more likely to be referred to as “gang leaders.” The former unquestionably enjoy a vastly more positive popular image (can we imagine a museum about gang leaders?). Undoubtedly, the legalization of alcohol retrospectively reframed gangsters as (ironically) icons of “progressivism” and modernity. Too, racism separates our perception of gangsters and gang leaders. The Jewish and Italian minorities who dominated the Prohibition underworld are today viewed as “white,” unlike many of today’s gang leaders.

But are they really so different? Gang leaders and gangsters are defined by similar activities: trafficking banned intoxicants, imposing their will through threats, corruption, and bloodshed, and inciting vicious battles for territorial control, particularly in the inner cities. At the end of the tour, our guide led us to the most distant basement recess of the speakeasy. One of Hoffman’s two safes still sits on the floor where the bootlegger left it in the 1930s. The guide pointed to a wire leading from the door to a spot on the wall. He knocked, producing a hollow sound. To prevent anyone from tampering with the safes, the gangster had packed the hole with dynamite.

 

 

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