One hundred years ago, on January 17, 1920 at 12:01 AM, the United States collectively lost its mind.
Well, perhaps less dramatically... the 18th Amendment officially went into effect across the United States and its territories, prohibiting "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" for beverages purposes.
And as we all know, this ill-fated act ushered in a wild era filled with cocktails, flappers, gangsters, and a whole mess of problems before it was repealed thirteen years later with the 21st Amendment.
Of course, the actual 18th Amendment was completely lacking in clarity. The public raised many questions: "What constitutes an 'intoxicating liquor?'" "Will I be arrested for owning a case of 17th century bourbon?" "Can my grandmother still make herself some dandelion wine?" "What if I catch cold and only a hot toddy will cure me?" Burning questions indeed.
The National Prohibition Act (the Volstead Act) passed in 1919 sought to explain what was legal and what wasn't. Newspapers tried to break it down, and clearly everyone was trying to figure out the loopholes. Legally, you could:
•Drink liquor in your own home or in the home of a friend when you are a guest.
•Buy intoxicating liquor on a medical prescription of a doctor. (1 pint per 10 days)
•Consider any place you live permanently as your home. If you have more than 1 home, you may keep a stock of liquor in each.
•Keep liquor in any storage area if it’s for the exclusive use of your family or guests.
•Get a permit to move liquor when you change your residence.
•Manufacture, sell or transport liquor for non-beverage or sacramental purposes provided you obtain a Government permit.
On the other hand you could not:
•Carry a hip flask.
•Give or receive a bottle of liquor as a gift.
•Take liquor to hotels or restaurants and drink it in the public dining room.
•Buy or sell formulas or recipes for homemade liquors.
•Ship liquor for beverage use.
•Store liquor in any place except your own home.
•Manufacture anything above one half of one percent (liquor strength) in your home.
•Display liquor signs or advertisements on your premises.
From reading the Chicago Daily Tribune, it was clear that the tensions between the "Drys" and "Wets" were highly visible during those first two weeks of January. The Wets were doing all they could to procure, sell and consume alcohol before time ran out, preparing for one last big bash before it all went away. The Drys, it seemed, were calmly waiting it out. You can also imagine them tapping their batons, ready to start dumping barrels and pulling over trucks as soon as the clock struck midnight. (Although the Tribune tells us the everyday Drys basically said, 'hey, there's no way we're starting in on this without a full night of sleep. We'll start messing with everyone after we eat breakfast at 8 am, so have at it this last night."
While there was certainly a lot of terrible unintended consequences caused by Prohibition (ahem, rise of organized crime, massive gang violence, thousands of alcohol-related deaths, increased poverty for the have-nots), this was also a time of creativity and ingenuity in the manufacture, transportation and sale of illicit alcohol, the effects of which spilled over into art, music, fashion and song. Just imagine: Suits designed to hold hip flasks! New 'cocktail rings" to show off your wealth when you hold up your glass! Trucks built with false bottoms! Liquor-testing kits hidden in compacts to test your alcohol before you drink! (I mean, I'm sure that doesn't really balance at the bad effects...but it's definitely interesting to write about!)
By 1929, when my books are set, the effects of Prohibition--socially, culturally, economically etc--were well established (though not necessarily well-understood), and I try to bring in a lot of these tensions between Wets and Drys.
But on January 17, 1920, no one had any idea how everything was going to change...so cheers, I guess to at least the fun parts of this crazy venture!
The launch of MURDER KNOCKS TWICE has been such a whirlwind! But I do enjoy meeting readers at my book events, and telling new stories about my research and writing.
I've also had the chance to write a few blog posts on different aspects of my research and writing. Here are a few:
There's a funny thing about persistence that writers often talk about. We talk about continuing despite the odds, mustering up the courage to keep writing even when things get hard, just pushing on even when the outcome is not known.
This is what I felt with MURDER KNOCKS TWICE, and how moving it has been for me to see this book out in the world.
The journey of MURDER KNOCKS TWICE began about nine years ago. I was still querying--unsuccessfully--what would become the first novel in my new series--A MURDER AT ROSAMUND'S GATE. I kept getting rejected by agents, and I thought, 'Maybe I need to set aside this seventeenth-century novel, and try my hand at something different." (For the more complete journey of the first series, check out my post in HOW IT HAPPENED on the Thrill Begins).
Even though I'm a British historian by training, for many years I've been teaching a graduate course on the History and Philosophy of Higher Education. On several occasions, I had found my way to the amazing archives at my university, and I began to think about setting my book on a college campus (much like mine) in 1930 Chicago. I was interested in college rituals and the role of the first women in college.
I wrote about 200 pages of this book, which featured a young Egyptian woman named Shani, and her sidekick gum-cracking roommate Gina Ricci. I thought, this is going to be my new thing. My new historic period, my new world.
But then, an interesting thing happened.
That seventeenth-century novel ended up selling, and I ended up writing four books in that series (and will have a fifth out next year). So I set aside my 1930s Chicago novel, and it went in the DRAWER.
But then, a few years ago, when my publisher asked me about a new series, I came back to that drawer and made an interesting discovery. The sidekick roommate was really the star of the book, and I moved her out of college, and into a West side Chicago speakeasy. Most of those 200 pages were scrapped, but the idea of the story remained. I wrote the first part without a contract, and then it was picked up.
So there's a lesson in there, for me at least, about persisting even when the outcome is not known. The persistence was helped by loving the world that I was creating for my characters. I mean, speakeasies....cocktails....murder...?
Every writer I know is regularly asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" Some authors love this question, some hate it. For me, I'm somewhere in between.
With my very first novel, A MURDER AT ROSAMUND'S GATE, I was essentially answering a set of questions that had come to me while I was studying murder ballads as a graduate student (as one does!) So, back then, it was super easy and fun to answer.
With my new series, the ideas came to me differently, so my response is no longer so pat. But I am regularly inspired by 1920s newspapers.
Obviously the newspaper is a great way to learn about what's going on in the neighborhood where I set my Chicago speakeasy, providing a useful level of detail. But more importantly, this kind of event can also be so inspiring--WHY would someone bomb an ice cream parlor?
(Stay tuned--I answer that question in the second Speakeasy Murders)
And of course, the headlines reveal other interesting things about Chicago culture. This kind of headline, "Bare legs not immoral," is exactly the kind of thing I will stop to read. It gives a lot of nuance to our understanding of the "New Woman," and this is the kind of detail that will find its way into my story.
What inspires YOUR stories? Even if you don't view yourself as a writer, what inspires the stories you tell to others?
(Wow, that was unintentional cliffhanger! I thought I had published the actual content, but nope, I did not). So drumroll please....
...And the winning cocktail name is...
.....the HOTSY TOTSY!
Congrats to Kristopher Zygorski...the ARC of MURDER KNOCKS TWICE is on its way!
Thanks very much to all who submitted cocktail names for my contest. I had an unofficial panel of judges, but asked my next door neighbor and former bartender Lisa McCaw to make the final selection. We all agreed it seemed fun, and captures the spirit of my book really well!
Next up...figuring out the ingredients!!!
Well the cocktail break is finally over and I have returned to my blog!!!
I’m no longer entrenched in the gritty plague-ridden world of 17th century London—I’ve now ventured into 1920s Chicago—a world that is both sparkling and shadowy.
The first in my new series is called MURDER KNOCKS TWICE (Minotaur/St.Martin's), and it is set in a 1929 speakeasy on Chicago’s West Side.
MURDER KNOCKS TWICE IS EXPECTED TO LAUNCH
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.