New York City Signs 100119

Chumleys Speakeasy

Dedicated to my surrogate parents of my undergraduate Days: Haig and Sheena enjoy!

Prohibition. the 18th amendment to The Constitution of the USA (ratified 1919).

The only amendment to fail the day it started. The only amendment to be repealed (by the 21st Amendment). Gave rise to Al Capone, organized crime and down the corridors of time perhaps even Stonewall and gay rights. It also gave rise to some idioms in the English lexicon that are still known today, like ‘speakeasy‘ and to ’86’ something.

Welcome to Chumley’s. A ‘speakeasy’ during prohibition days. This obscure little buildling in the west village is historic. It was the favorite place to drink for literary giants such as John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, William Faulkner, E.E. Cummings and Jack Kerouac.

As many buildings in the neighborhood, built in 1831, it started as a stable and blacksmith shop, and also served as a hiding stop for runaway slaves. I consider it a ‘best kept secret’ as it is true to it’s heritage, no signs, no indication of what’s behind the intimidating door.

The location was chosen by Lee Chumley as the perfect place for a speakeasy because it had multiple exits and secret passageways (some behind bookcases).

To gain entry, you would do the correct secret knock on the door. The doorman inside would open the little window at the top and ask you the days “password”. You would give them the password and he would open the door and let you in.

The Marx Brothers did a legendary film segment of how this works.

Police Raids

Corrupt police would call the speakeasy and tell them they would be raiding shortly. Sometimes the raid would be a surprise. Either way, while the police were trying to get in the door on Bedford Street, the bar tender would pull a lever that would make the horizontal shelves go verticle allowing the bottles to slide into the basement, break and the liquor to go down the drain. Simultaneously the patrons would leave out the back door into the courtyard and out onto Barrow Street, disperse and avoid arrest.

Here’s the courtyard in the back where patrons would exit. There are several buildings with exits on the courtyard, so once you’re out of the bar, you are out of the bar and risk free.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia La Guardia, a progressive, was one of the first Republicans to voice his opinion about prohibition, urging that the Dry cause “would prove disastrous in the long run”. This was breaking a taboo, given the fact that both parties “avoided taking a stand on prohibition issues”.

An echo down the corridor of time

Decades later there was prohibition against gay men. Once again corrupt police took advantage of the situation. The Stonewall Inn, home of gay liberation, operated as a speakeasy, not because the alcohol was prohibited, but because homosexual behaviour was prohibited by local law. It’s noteworthy that great and popular comedians like Milton Berle never had to fear arrest while doing his drag act, but gay men in a secret, private speakeasy did. Many decades later as the city was trying to close gay sex clubs, the owners posted signs that said “lips above the hips or 86”.

Full Text of the 21st Amendment

The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.


Chumley’s is reported to be haunted. Henrietta Chumley died at her favorite table drinking her favorite drink, a Manhattan. She reportedly makes appearances overturning drinks and bottles. Leeland Chumley has been reportedly seen mingling with patrons.

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