8 Fascinating Speakeasies that Helped the 1920s Roar
8 Fascinating Speakeasies that Helped the 1920s Roar

8 Fascinating Speakeasies that Helped the 1920s Roar

Larry Holzwarth - November 10, 2017

8 Fascinating Speakeasies that Helped the 1920s Roar
Chumley’s Bedford Street door, unmarked but with a spy door allowing prospective customers to be inspected. Wikimedia


Leland Chumley opened his speakeasy on a corner lot in 1922 in New York’s Greenwich Village. A corner lot was particularly handy for an establishment devoted to the dispensing of illegal liquor. In the event that there should be unwelcome attention from the constabulary, a convenient second door on the side of the building provided the opportunity for rapid egress from the premises without running the gauntlet of incoming policemen.

Neither door leading into the establishment was marked, other than the address. Chumley’s rapidly became popular with the Village crowd, writers and poets, social activists and journalists, and other denizens of that famously eclectic neighborhood.

Chumley’s address (marked on one door) was 86 Bedford Street. The term “86”, meaning to discard something among restaurant employees, has been said to originate from the address. Leland Chumley paid protection money to co-operative local policemen (many of whom were devoted customers) and was rewarded with advance notice of an intended raid on the premises.

Reportedly one of the bartenders would answer the phone to hear the cryptic message to 86 the patrons and any visible booze, resulting in a quick emptying of the bar of patrons and products through the door bearing that number. The call signified the police would enter through the side door. Beside the side door, Chumley’s contained (and still contains) numerous hidden doors and connecting tunnels to allow for quick departure.

The side door, which opened into a small courtyard, was known to the patrons as the Garden Door. Both doors could be used for entry by customers in the know and known to the establishment. Chumley’s remained open long after Prohibition, always a favorite haunt of New York writers, and has recently been renovated. Perhaps in deference to its days as a speakeasy, both doors remain unadorned with signage, and customers desiring to enter must know exactly where they are going, as their forebears did during the Roaring Twenties.

8 Fascinating Speakeasies that Helped the 1920s Roar
One use of Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse was to warn patrons if the Coast Guard got too close to Cap’s Place. Wikimedia

Cap’s Place

The citizens of South Florida were so disdainful of Prohibition that it would seem as if speakeasies were unnecessary. Rumrunners and bootleggers were rife and the police exhibited little interest in stopping them from completing their self-appointed rounds. When they did, the courts and juries were hesitant to convict. In one famous case, a New York real estate magnate (and bootlegger) named Harry Black was arrested with more than 50 cases of liquor stashed in his private railroad car. When bottles of the illicit liquor were used as evidence in his trial four members of the jury insisted on sampling them to ensure that they did in fact contain booze. The jury deliberated for less than ten minutes before Harry Black was found not guilty.

Regardless, some entrepreneurs opened blind pigs and speakeasies, and one such was Lighthouse Point’s Cap’s Unique. Cap’s was opened by Eugene “Cap’s” Knight, a former merchant mariner, sometime fisherman, and enthusiastic rum rummer. Cap beached a barge near a small inlet and erected a bar and gambling facility using the barge as a base. Because he was well known to the locals as “Cap” the establishment became universally referred to as Cap’s Place.

Cap’s was quickly popular as a gambling and drinking establishment and while it was well known for its illegal activities it was mostly left alone. Soon additional buildings were erected on the nearby shore, mostly for legal activities, though some were used to store additional liquor and other supplies.

Cap’s was reachable only by water, which provided additional security in the unlikely event that the authorities would attempt to curtail the fun. A thirsty hopeful would park near Hillsboro beach facing the speakeasy and flash headlights, in a previously agreed pattern. If the pattern was correct a small boat would emerge from the shadows of the barge and row ashore to collect the patron.

Nearby Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse was used as a vantage point to ensure there was no encroachment by federal officers or the Coast Guard approaching by sea. The Lighthouse, manned by Cap’s brother Tom, would flash its beacon when unknown vessels got too near. Since 1990 Cap’s Place, formerly patronized by Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Humphrey Bogart (while filming Key Largo), and more recently George Harrison and Mariah Carey, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.