Colonial America’s consumption of alcohol progressed from a standard, oft-daily routine to a chronic national health hazard by the late 1800s. The two-percent, low-alcohol beer served liberally throughout the day (including breakfast) was eventually replaced, in the same quantity and frequency, with distilled grain beverages that carried a significantly
higher alcohol content.
It took time for the culture to realize that the effect of consuming large quantities of grain-based booze was detrimental to one’s health, behavior, and family. There was no police or legal protection for the increasing domestic violence leveled by drunkards. Wives and children were abandoned and left penniless. The jails were full of inebriated bad actors. America had inherited a serious drinking problem.
The anti-alcohol Temperance Movement won its 100-year long battle to ban booze in America. Saloons closed down when Prohibition went into effect on January 17, 1920—making the sale, production, import, and transport of alcohol illegal (though Barrington made the same decision to ban alcohol earlier, in 1908). The new law resulted in a large portion of the American public becoming minor criminals, ignoring the law and partaking of illegal alcohol. This defiant and rebellious culture of the Roaring Twenties was one by-product of Prohibition.
Following World War One, the United States enjoyed a decade of economic growth as it moved into peacetime. The prosperity of the Roaring Twenties invited consumer excess. There was more of everything—and people had the resources to buy it. Mass production introduced affordable lifestyle amenities such as automobiles, radios, and telephones. The wonder of “moving” pictures elevated public entertainment to a whole new level.
Media accelerated American culture through its news with sensationalism and romance as the lead. Notables included Babe Ruth in sports—legendary on and off the baseball field. Aviation heroes Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart drew huge crowds and even larger news coverage. The 1920s movie stars, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, and Rudolph Valentino gave meaning to the words “matinee idol”. While larger-than-life characters have always existed, the news pushed out the stories of celebrities and heroes with fervor.
The 1920s was built on a strong economy and Americans were living large. But serious trouble was on the way. The bull market of 1928-29 seemed as if it would last forever—encased in a social, political, artistic, and rebellious cultural bubble. Yet underneath the spirited and jazzed-up Roaring Twenties, the financial infrastructure of the country was about to bottom out. No system existed to mitigate the looming banking fluctuations, nor the oncoming stock market collapse on Wall Street.
October 24, 1929 ushered in America’s most devastating stock market crash. Banks holding worthless stocks in their portfolios became strained, and by 1933, 11,000 of the 25,000 U.S. banks were forced to close. The Great Depression ruined the lives of thousands of individual investors and banks. Confidence in the economy, in banking, and the establishment in general was lost. Disillusion set in. The days of excess withered into America’s Great Depression. Meanwhile, Chicago’s gangster activity rose to an all-time high.
Organized crime was prepared to capitalize on Prohibition opportunity. Mob bosses had earned livings from theft, gambling, and prostitution; but bootlegging and rumrunning made them multi-millionaires. Thirsty Americans also got in on the action, following organized crime underground into hidden speakeasies, until the 18th Amendment that created Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
The 1920s intersection of excess (a time not enjoyed by all), Hollywood and the media fame machines, a public that ignored Prohibition law, and a distrust of banks created a culture that not only tolerated organized crime—but one that hoisted it to a point of mythology. Gangsters with colorful monikers, like “Roger the Terrible” and “Baby Face Nelson” became national “folk heroes” during the heyday of their reign.
News reporters embellished and intensified the stories of gangsters and a disenfranchised, celebrity-hungry public couldn’t get enough. May Jackson, a Deer Park, Illinois resident, was 12 years old in 1934. “Other small-time gangsters would ‘copycat’ the jobs. They all wanted to be like [Al] Capone,” Jackson said.
May Jackson lived in Evanston, and recalled the “excitement and romance—drama that the Europeans [immigrants] had never experienced.” It made the front pages every day, she said, and became the talk of the town. “In the 1920s, newspaper headlines regarding gangland doings were dramatized with special issues, and newsboys on street corners barked, ‘Extra! Extra! Read all about It!’ which sold papers,” Jackson said.
Law-abiding citizens who felt they had been held hostage by events of the Great Depression secretly identified with bank robbers demanding piles of money at the teller window. Well-dressed gangsters morphed into folk heroes—offering drama, excitement, and exaggerated romance, and blurring the line between heroes and villains.
Chicago was a stronghold for organized criminals that ran bootlegging, prostitution, gambling, and money laundering operations in the early 20th century. By the mid-1920s, the Chicago Outfit had gone viral. Armed with Thompson submachine guns and hefty wallets, gangsters had the means to buy off politicians, police, and judges with threats, bribes, or both.
But like all “businessmen”, the big bosses needed to get away, rest up, and relax. Illinois offered refuge north and northwest of gangster central. It was also a place where mobsters could escape the borders of Cook County law enforcement. Midwestern country roads and forested hideaways were ideal for America’s “most wanted.” They favored Lake Geneva and Northern Wisconsin for refuge, entertainment, and family time. A direct route from downtown Chicago to Lake Geneva was the newly-formed Federal highway, cobbled together in 1933 from a patchwork of Illinois roads designed to connect Chicago to the Winona, Minnesota terminus of an existing Route 14 that went all the way from Winona to Yellowstone National Park.
Heading northwest out of the city became easier in 1933 on the newly formed Route 14 that ran through Barrington and its neighboring towns—and to important gangster destinations. Well-traveled by Public Enemies and the FBI alike—Route 14 emerged as Illinois’ notorious Gangster Highway.
New York City’s most notorious exports came to Chicago in 1919 to build a criminal empire known as the Chicago Outfit. Johnny Torrio brought his 19-year-old protégé, Al Capone, with him. Six years into the expanding gangster operation, Torrio survived an assassination attempt. But the experience caused him to rethink his job as Chicago’s top crime boss—and he quit and moved to Europe. He handed the reins over to Al Capone.
The Lexington Hotel was a grand, ornate structure designed for glamourous times. It was hurriedly built in 1892 to accommodate the visitors of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The 1890s were boom years for Chicago’s South Side, and the Lexington attracted well-to-do and famous clientele. From 1928 to 1931, Alphonse Capone made the
hotel at 2135 S. Michigan Avenue his gangland headquarters—an association that the hotel’s reputation never escaped. He rented a fifth floor suite of rooms under the name George Phillips. His armed guards kept watch.
Following the good years, the hotel became dilapidated and was never refurbished and reopened. Television news reporter, Geraldo Rivera, staged a live vault break-in at the hotel for a national audience in 1986. Any hope of remaining treasure was dashed when the vault was found empty. Potential new owners surveyed the property in 1980 and found tunnels to taverns and brothels and the usual escape routes for its one-time infamous client.
Al Capone and his brothers, Frank and Ralph, worked together. Ralph was known for his back-room expertise in running the organization, and the mild-mannered Frank lost his life trying to control an election in
Cicero. Al was the public face of the Outfit. He made frequent appearances, “worked” the media, and provided soup kitchens to feed destitute and unemployed Chicagoans. He was the ultimate Robin Hood character.
Bootlegger Roger Touhy realized that Chicago’s water supply wasn’t clean enough for his beer operation. He wanted to brew the best beer possible in Chicago—especially since he sold hundreds of barrels a month to the boss, Al Capone. Touhy found a water supply in Roselle that worked, and he opened up breweries in locations that included the Wilson Farm in what is today known as Inverness. The Wilson Farm, also called “Wolf Stock Farm,” was the perfect place. The farm silos were used for grain storage; the barn held the equipment, and there was a farmhouse next to the barn.
In 1928, Federal agents discovered the operation due to the smell that traveled toward Quentin Road. Back-up support was called in to complete the raid, and the agents destroyed the brewery, which was the largest ever found in Cook County. Capone wanted to take over Touhy’s business. A few years later, Capone’s master plan to have Touhy jailed by framing him worked. But after the jail time ended and Touhy walked free, Capone’s gang killed him a few months later. The farmhouse was moved to its present day location at Route 14 and Quentin. It the 1930s, it was an illegal casino. Today, the building houses Brandt’s restaurant, a local favorite.