Tales from Columbus' wild-yes, wild!-days of Prohibition, 95 years after Ohioans voted to ratify the 18th amendment (and 80 years after its repeal)

Tales from Columbus' wild-yes, wild!-days of Prohibition, 95 years after Ohioans voted to ratify the 18th amendment (and 80 years after its repeal)

During Prohibition, "[Columbus had] about one thousand speakeasies and beer flats and approximately four thousand bootleggers-and that is a conservative estimate, if bell boys, taxi drivers, and … hip-pocket vendors are included."

Columbus Landmarks historian Doreen Uhas Sauer didn't realize how rampant the underground booze economy was in Columbus until she read this quote attributed to an unnamed journalist in David Gold's "Democracy in Session: A History of the Ohio General Assembly."

But as the co-author of local history books "Historic Columbus Taverns" and "Columbus Neighborhoods" dug deeper into Columbus' Prohibition culture between 1920 and 1933, she found a city littered with tales of bootleggers, gangsters and government corruption.

"The air of crookedness is so delicious," Uhas Sauer says.

During the 13 years the U.S. would attempt to go dry-thanks to the National Prohibition Act ratified 95 years ago this month-Columbus saloons were converted into grocery stores and restaurants. Many of the wealthy German brewers, who lived and worked in the south end of the city, closed shop. And the economy thrived in Westerville, where the town's single biggest employer-the state-of-the-art union printing facility for the national Anti-Saloon League-turned out pamphlet after informational pamphlet on the dangers of alcohol.

"These [anti-alcohol] groups saw the saloon as the result of all evil-societal ills," says Beth Weinhardt, local history coordinator with the Westerville Public Library and Anti-Saloon League Museum. "Of course, they didn't reckon on organized crime."

While Prohibition achieved its intended goal (the consumption of alcohol in the country did go down), it gave rise to a backroom, underground circuit of bootleggers and speakeasies. Columbus was no exception. Booze either came into the city from the backwoods of Kentucky or across the Great Lakes, or it was made right here in Columbus.

So where are the speakeasies?

It's a legitimate question, Uhas Sauer admits, but it's not one that has an easy answer. What we do know is that in the 13 years of Prohibition, Columbus residents found clever ways to make, bottle and sell booze.

Anti-Saloon League

At the turn of the century, Columbus was best known for its support of Prohibition. The Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893, located its printing headquarters in Westerville in 1905. At its peak, the shop would turn out 40 tons of printed materials a month, shipping the modern-looking propaganda-posters, pamphlets and newsletters with color, statistical graphics and cartoons-all over the country. "All these things left with 'Westerville, Ohio' printed on them," says Weinhardt, who curates the Anti-Saloon League Museum inside the Westerville Public Library.

And according to Uhas Sauer, a New York Sun columnist once said speakeasies were so ubiquitous that the history of the United States could be told in 11 words: Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, Volstead, two flights up and ask for Gus.

Confectioners, Groceries and Restaurants

"The beer flowed freely in North Columbus," says Uhas Sauer, alleging that within the two-tenths of a mile between Hudson and Arcadia along High Street in Old North Columbus, there were nine speakeasies. Or at least that's what she figures using a 1931 Columbus directory.

The context clues that help her discern what might have been a speakeasy are the kinds of business operating there. It's easy to suspect pharmacies, grocery stores and restaurants, which had access to liquor permits or had sold booze before. Confectionaries-a list that takes up more than a page in the old directory-opened with suspicious rapidity during this time period.

"They were everywhere because you could get sugar," says Uhas Sauer, explaining that could be turned into liquor. "It wouldn't be unusual to make fudge and sell it out the front, and make beer and sell it out the back. Baking is an acquired skill. So it wouldn't be suspicious."

German Village

It's probably not surprising that German Village has the best documented speakeasies in the city, thanks to the neighborhood's long history of beer-making, which never really stopped, Uhas Sauer says. There are stories surrounding current-day restaurants like the Olde Mohawk, which offered a grocery in front and allegedly sold beer out of the back. What's now Barcelona was a saloon before 1920. "The main dining room has been a restaurant or bar slinging some kind of food and liquor for more than 100 years," says Barcelona owner Scott Heimlich. During Prohibition, the back half of the restaurant was a Piggly Wiggly, while the front was a Parkmore Pharmacy-a transition that raises Uhas Sauer's suspicions as to what was really going on inside.

Perhaps the best documented speakeasy is the Hey Hey Bar & Grill, which has been a bar since it was built in the 1890s. Come Prohibition, it was boarded up and turned into a place where men could play cards, says Sue Gall, who owns the Hey Hey with her husband Tim.

"There was a barn out back where they hid the liquor," Sue says. In the back, where the kitchen is today, you can still see the three rooms where cards were played, she adds. When delivering beer, bootleggers would knock on the door and say, "Hey, hey. The beer is here." Eventually the name stuck.

Hotels: The Deshler & Neil House

"The old Deshler Hotel and the Neil House did a hell of a business," says Uhas Sauer, adding liquor flowed freely at the Great Southern Hotel, too. Entry to speakeasies wasn't granted with a knock on a door and a whispered password, Uhas Sauer says. Everyone knew where to get a drink. Guests, politicians and residents would drink behind the closed doors of a hotel room-inquiring about a drink with hotel attendants, who had a reputation for delivering good booze on the quick.

"There was probably more legislation done in hotels than there were ever in the Statehouse," she says.

Both the Deshler and Neil House stood at Broad and High streets. The Neil House was rebuilt twice on this same plot of land-once after a fire destroyed the original, and then again in 1923, before being torn down in 1970. The second incarnation was where the liquor really flowed, Uhas Sauer says.

Al Capone and Columbus' Only Gangster

There's a legend that Al Capone came to Columbus during this time, likely interested in exploiting the notoriously corrupt state legislature. A popular version of the story has Capone drinking in secret at the Olde Mohawk. Capone probably did come to Columbus, Uhas Sauer says, but he likely didn't stop by the German Village tavern. Capone's visit was a widely known happening, so he didn't need to drink inconspicuously, she argues, speculating that he most likely went to the Deshler.

What is less disputed is with whom Capone met- Columbus' only gangster, Pat Murnan, was a splashy dresser and colorful figure who owned a taxi establishment at Broad and High and ran numbers on the second floor.

"As the story goes, Al Capone lost interest when he met Pat Murnan," she says. "[Murnan] looked the part of what the well-dressed gangster would have worn. He was able to buffalo Capone and show him Columbus wasn't worth it. The subtitle to that is probably 'How a Gangster Saved Columbus.' "


The Brewery District was devastated during Prohibition. Some brewing companies were able to survive by bottling-the Shilling Bottle Co. bottled and sold seltzer water.

Others continued to make beer, says Sue Gall of the Hey Hey, which was once owned by Hoster Brewing. (It was common before Prohibition for local breweries to establish beer trusts-they'd buy local bars and supply them with glassware and beer to help turn a profit.) Taking advantage of the underground network and the relationships they had forged as former tavern owners, breweries began labeling bottles of beer as vinegar. "That's how they could get the beer out of there," Gall says. "And that included wine, too."

Learning to Adapt

While most of the breweries of the time period closed during Prohibition, others saw opportunity. Wasserstrom Co. had been considering getting into the tavern business, but after alcohol was banned, the company decided instead to sell brewing equipment and supplies, since it was still legal to make near beer. "Wasserstrom started their whole business based on beer-making apparatuses. And it was legal," Uhas Sauer says.

The Feud

In Westerville, the Temperance movement was working to shut down every saloon. "There was a growing fear of the dangers of alcohol," Uhas Saur says, "and the Anti-Saloon movement knew how to wheel and deal." Targeting the brewers, the league published pictures of the brewers' mansions to say this was where tipplers' liquor money was going-to these rich German brewers.

In retaliation, the brewers took out full-page newspaper ads with pictures of the new Craftsman-style homes of Temperance Row, where leaders of the Anti-Saloon movement lived in Westerville. The ads claimed a slum lay within 250 feet of these homes. The message: Somebody nearby was in need and the Anti-Saloon leaders hadn't done anything to help.

"They were enemies," says Weinhardt, of the Westerville library and the Anti-Saloon League Museum. "It's a real clash of cultures." It was a clash between the teetotalers in Westerville and the brewers in German Village, but also the rural versus the urban lifestyles.