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Pottermore's guide to the twenties: crime and punishment

When Newt Scamander and his suitcase of fantastic beasts arrive in New York in 1926, it is to a city – and a country – probably in need of a stiff drink. Why? Welcome to Prohibition-Era America…

Revenue agents during raid on a speakeasy in Washington, April 25, 1923.
Revenue agents during raid on a speakeasy in Washington, April 25, 1923. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images.

In the early weeks of 1920, America went dry.

The decade that followed is now known as the Roaring Twenties, a golden era of prosperity and exuberance sandwiched between the Great War and the Great Depression. A time of music, fashion, art and technological advancement. And a time when no one could really go out and toast to that.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, otherwise known as the Prohibition Amendment, banned the production, transportation and sale of liquor. It came into effect on 16 January 1920, though it had been a long time coming: prohibition was actually ratified in 1919 after campaigning from groups like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League won popular and constitutional support, and some states had been voluntarily dry for years before national prohibition. But once the act was passed, it stayed passed for 13 years - it was 1933 before the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed and Americans could legally enjoy a drink again. (No-Majs could anyway; as we have recently learned, MACUSA did not apply the ban on alcohol to American witches and wizards.)

No-Maj Jacob Kowalski gets a glimpse into New York's secret magical world with Queenie Goldstein at The Blind Pig speakeasy
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Perhaps surprisingly, prohibition – this so-called noble experiment that aimed to reduce crime and stem the tide of what temperance campaigners saw as the ungodly and destructive saloon culture – did not make the actual consumption or private possession of alcohol illegal. If you could get hold of some booze, you were entitled to drink it in private. But in a country where the commercial manufacturing, importation and transportation of liquor had been outlawed, where was a law-abiding No-Maj supposed to lay hands on a drink?

If you wanted to stay law-abiding, there weren’t many options. For those willing to bend the rules though, there were ways and means.

First there was moonshine – a high-proof distilled spirit (as in the alcoholic kind, not some sort of ghost) that was often brewed at home. Indeed, another name for this kind of homemade spirit was 'bathtub gin', named for the home brewer’s key piece of kit. Apparently, brewing hard liquor is easier than brewing beer. Even in a bath.

Supplying moonshine or any kind of alcohol to others – illegal under the terms of prohibition – was known as bootlegging, and this is where one of the major unforeseen consequences of prohibition really bit. Gangland boss and prolific bootlegger Al Capone, whose gang dominated Chicago’s organised crime scene, once said: ‘All I do is supply a public demand.’ Prohibition didn’t stop the demand for alcohol, it just drove it underground, creating a black market for booze that gangs like Capone’s were happy to supply.

Barrels of  'moonshine' displayed on the front lawn of a house, with a clear declaration of the crime.
Barrels of 'moonshine' displayed on the front lawn of a house, clearly spelling out the crime. Hulton Deutsch / Contributor/ Getty Images.

The ‘ungodly’ saloons that temperance campaigners had so hated were replaced by bars called speakeasies – also known as blind tigers or blind pigs (the bar Newt and his friends visit in Fantastic Beasts is called The Blind Pig, most likely a nod to this cultural phenomenon.)

Speakeasies were unlicensed bars, so-called because of the need to speak ‘easily’ or quietly about such a place in public. They were often supplied or owned by gangs like Capone’s, but their clientele was wide-ranging. New York in 1926 was home to thousands of speakeasies, and though there are unlikely to have been many like Fantastic Beasts’ own Blind Pig, it was in bars like this that jazz flourished. In an era when segregation was commonplace, speakeasies generally welcomed people of all races and whereas the drinking culture of the saloons had largely been the preserve of men, the emancipation of women during the 1920s saw their roles expand and they too were as likely to frequent a speakeasy as a man. This was quite a leap from pre-prohibition America, when the temperance movement had proved particularly popular with women.

So while the early 1920s saw a decrease in alcohol consumption, as the decade progressed it became clear that far from reducing corruption, prohibition actually escalated it, turning otherwise ordinary citizens into criminals for the price of a drink. As the 20s wore on organised crime became more deadly, culminating in the infamous St Valentines Massacre in February 1929, which saw members of Al Capone’s gang murder seven of their rivals using submachine guns. They were dressed as policemen at the time.

Al Capone on the day of his release from jail, Chicago, 1939
Al Capone on the day of his release from jail, Chicago, 1939. Chicago History Museum/Contributor/Getty Images.

As the consequences of criminalising alcohol became clear, support for prohibition decreased, and another key moment in 1929 provided an additional catalyst for repeal.

In October 1929 the Wall Street Crash heralded the Great Depression, a severe worldwide eco-nomic decline. The after-effects of the crash were vast, but it did signal the beginning of the end of America’s enforced alcoholic abstinence. The economy needed a boost, and the US government wanted to collect the beer and liquor taxes that prohibition had taken. That year, groups like the Women’s Organisation for Prohibition Reform – led by Republican Pauline Sabine – began to campaign for the end of prohibition, and by 1932 the new Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D Roosevelt was promising repeal. By 1933, prohibition had gone – the only constitutional amendment ever to be repealed – and No-Majs could drink again. For wizards, of course, access to ‘Gigglewater’ had always been non-negotiable.