Visiting Greenwich Village in the Speakeasy Era

The Hudson River was popular with liquor smugglers during Prohibition. Smaller ships and boats picked-up liquor from floating, foreign liquor ships, 12 miles southeast of Long Island and Nantucket, and smuggled these into the Narrows, then up the Hudson to docks near the West Village and Greenwich Village.

Bill Dwyer, a union longshoreman with key connections on the waterfront, headed the Irish Liquor Syndicate. He was a protégé and partner of George Shevlin, the latter born and raised in the apartment building attached to the White Horse Tavern on Hudson and Eleventh. Dwyer was convicted of smuggling, served a year in prison, and then assumed ownership of the Phoenix “Cereal” Company at West 26th and West 10th Street, a pre-Prohibition brewery which illegally produced real beer during Prohibition while licensed to produce near-beer (non-alcoholic).

The Village had the earliest speakeasies and nightclubs. Several of these early speakeasies remain open today, namely Julius’ and the Green Door, known as the Ear Inn today.

However, most clubs and speakeasies did not survive after Prohibition ended in December 1933. Barney Gallant, manager of the old Greenwich Village Inn on Sheridan Square and Seventh Avenue, was the city’s first hero of Prohibition. When his waiters were arrested under wartime Prohibition, Gallant insisted the judge release his waiters and let him serve their time. Petitions to free him circulated in the Village and he served 30 days in the infamous Tombs prison.

Then Gallant capitalized on his new-found fame by opening Club Gallant at 40 Washington Square, a site today occupied by NYU Law School. Eventually, he opened an exclusive nightclub at 19 North Washington Square known as the Washington Square Club. The site today is occupied by NYU Abu Dhabi.

The Village also spawned the first and second speakeasies of Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns, a Fordham and a NYU student from the Lower East Side. Their first speakeasy, the Red Head, was at 359 Sixth Avenue and catered to college students. If you open the outer door at that address today, you can see a wooden door with the number 359. From the outside, you can see a bricked in second floor with no windows, where the speakeasy was located. Then the two cousins moved across Sixth Avenue to 350 and opened a more upscale place called the Fronton. That building is long gone as is the nearby Golden Swan, known as the Hell Hole, today located by a marker.

When they operated speakeasies in the Village, a well-known Prohibition agent named Izzy Einstein would stop-in for a free drink and did not bother them. He knew their families from the Lower East Side where he also lived. They were harassed at first by gangsters in the Village until a childhood friend, a federal agent, brought others and threatened the gangsters with retaliation.

Eventually, the cousins moved uptown to West 49th to open the Puncheon Club. Theyclosed it when Rockefeller Center was built and moved to 21 West 52nd to open the famed Club 21. When they moved uptown, they paid off police to protect them from gangsters.

Don Dickerman’s Pirate’s Den, on 10 Sheridan Square, existed before and during Prohibition. Waiters dressed as pirates and re-enacted scenes from Treasure Island. At some point this den was also located on Minetta Lane and on the corner of Sixth and Greenwich. Nearby, on the corner of Christopher and Greenwich was the Miami Inn where 150 guests were arrested one night in the mid-1920s and hauled across the street to the Jefferson Courthouse (now the Jefferson branch of the New York Public Library) to be freed by a judge who admonished the police that the 18th Amendment forbade production, transportation, and sale or liquor but not the act of drinking it.

One of the most famous Village speakeasies was Chumley’s on 86 Bedford which opened late in Prohibition but lasted many years beyond. Today it is closed. Jack’s, a speakeasy in the basement of 88 Charles Street served students coming to the Village from Columbia. Today, it is a sedate brownstone and the head of the building had never heard of a speakeasy there but had heard a rumor of a sub-basement which was once a winery. Nearby, at 159 West 10th Street, is a building which housed John and Jean’s speakeasy.

There was also a speakeasy at 19 West 8th Street called Three Steps Down because you had to go down three steps to enter it, the first floor being occupied by a restaurant. Supposedly, Ira Gershwin’s in-laws operated this speakeasy and George Gershwin sometimes stopped by to play the piano.

For more information on New York City during Prohibition, including three chapters on smugglers, one on the rise of the Broadway mob from ethnic neighborhood syndicates, and one on repeal, go to where you will find a description of a new book from SUNY Press of the same title, reviews, miscellaneous information, and free downloadable photos of smugglers and bootleggers from the National Archives which can be used as screensavers.

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