by William Carter and Mark Taylor
The night is just like any other. The moon shines high in the sky and the streetlamps illuminate the roadways as if they are revealing hidden passages. A crisp wind blows through the alley and swings the sign of a nearby tavern. Outside the tavern, stands a large, brawny stranger in an overcoat topped with a wool flat cap and exceptionally black, shinny shoes. As he twirls his finger through his very cultured moustache, he enters the tavern and sits at the bar. The tavern-keep pours soda from the tap and presents the glass to the stranger. He looks at it as the bubbles fizz to the top. Uninterested in the soft beverage, the stranger pulls out a few bills and tosses it onto the bar. His eyes meet with the tavern-keep as they stare at one another.
The sound of laughter and enjoyment coming from the other patrons catches the stranger’s attention. He surveys the area and notices just how much the others are in good spirits. Bringing his attention back to the bar, the tavern-keep is gone along with the soda and the bills, but a lone mug, filled to the brim remains. The stranger drinks from the mug; a smile eerily creeps along his face. He leaves the tavern. Moments later, a huge commotion bursts through the tavern doors. Men with hammers, crowbars, and other instruments storm towards the bar. Realizing the raid, the tavern-keep tries to escape, but is quickly apprehended and escorted out. As the he approaches the exit, he looks up and sees the stranger he recently served. With the overcoat, flat cap, and now, the very noticeable police badge; however, what stood out the most was his exceptionally shinny shoes and the sound of splitting wood coming from the bar. Just another night during the prohibition era of America.
Recent major budget films, such as the adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (2013), are indicative of America’s renewed love affair with the age of depressed excess. Concerned more with style than substance, these films focus on the popularized image of either the well-to-do socialite or the mob fighting moral crusader. However, one does not have to search far for a more authentic representation of life during prohibition. Leslie Jones (1886 – 1967) was a photographer whose photos documented the usual as well as the unusual life in Boston during prohibition. Always interested in photography, an unfortunate factory accident led him to become a full-time staff member of the Boston Herald Traveler newspaper. His photo collection, now maintained by the Boston Public Library and freely available to the curious public, captures much of the day to day life in Boston during the 20s. The collection contains everything from images of local car accidents, parade events, and dead mobsters to photos of animals in the local zoo, the construction of Navy ships, and local artists at work. While all of the images are great examples of Americana, Jones’s photos of the federal agent raid on the 153 Causeway St. speakeasy are so much more. The images are in fact a narrative telling the widely forgotten story of prohibition during its dying days: a tale of struggle for the right of autonomy fought between a people and their government.
From 1920 to 1933, the American government passed a nationwide ban that prohibited the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic drinks. Many local areas and some states completely banned the possession of alcohol even though the private consumption or ownership of alcohol wasn’t illegal under federal law. In response to prohibition, organized crime syndicates led to alcohol bootlegging in which people could illegally purchase and consume alcohol at speakeasies (“Prohibition in the United States”). Though these unlicensed bars or saloons made bootlegged alcohol available to the public (“Munch goes to the Blind Pig”), many were subjected to police raids such as the raid of the 153 Causeway St. speakeasy in Boston, Massachusetts.
Prohibition was initially accepted by many in Boston.
Massachusetts had been among the very first states to ratify the 18th Amendment to establish National Prohibition.”
However, the state of Massachusetts was also an early decenter of prohibition.
In 1930, the obvious failure of Prohibition led voters of the state to repeal its enforcement within the state” (Hanson, “National Prohibition”).
This change in state policy was somewhat problematic as national ratification of the repeal of Prohibition through the 21st Amendment did not take place until 1933 (Hanson, “Repeal of Prohibition”). In other words, alcohol sales in Massachusetts were similar to the sale of marijuana in Colorado and Washington: legal according to the state but not legal according to the federal government. Therefore, the federal agents that took down the 153 Causeway St. speakeasy acted without the support of the state.
Not only was the alcohol confiscated and most likely destroyed, these photos depict that the entire speakeasy was dismantled. Having a speakeasy torn down was major news of its time because not only did it preserve the law of prohibition, it was also a major blow towards organized crime; therefore, media coverage ensued, putting photojournalists like Leslie Jones on the front line of the struggle between a populace of drinkers and a federal government of abstinence.
As word spreads across the area of the present speakeasy bust, spectators litter outside the tavern to witness the spectacle. Police sirens screech through the midnight air and a dance of red and blue lights strike the darkness of the night. A few officers work to keep the civilians at bay while others detain those caught within the tavern; sounds of flipped tables, broken glass, and busted pipes are heard inside. The men of the raid diligently bring down the foundations of the establishment; one bends to lift up a crate of bottles. As he begins to carry it, a bright flash blinds his vision. His sight quickly returns as he looks upon another man who wields a camera and wears a badge that says “PRESS”; there’s no news like breaking news.
Leslie Jones used glass negatives when shooting photos of the 153 Causeway St. speakeasy in Boston. Based on the date, the glass negatives were likely made using dry plates, which were a technological improvement to wet glass plates used early in the 20th century (Bahnemann). The negatives are held by the Boston Public Library and have been scanned and added to the library’s online collection through the use of a light table and a digital camera (Leslie Jones Photography).
Jones likely used either a Graflex or a Graflex Speed Graphic camera to take the 153 Causeway speakeasy bust photos (the exact models are unknown). Multiple photos of Jones show him with Graflex style cameras, and the press made large use of Speed Graphics, which Jones was likely to have come into connect with through his employment as a photojournalist. Both cameras were capable of using glass plates. The Graflex camera is easily identified as a box with a collapsible focusing hood and a retractable lens. For photographers on the move, these boxes with leather handles symbolized freedom, as the design allowed one to easily carry the camera, or multiple cameras as Leslie Jones proves in the photo above. The Graflex cameras were also known for their “sturdiness and continued functioning under adverse conditions” (“Instruction Manual”).
The Speed Graphic camera, built “specifically for the emerging ‘press’ photographer,” had several features that made it popular (“The Graflex Speed Graphic”). While maintaining the ability to use plates, both glass and film plates, the camera also had some of the folding features that made the previous Graflex Cameras popular for mobile photographers. Early versions such as the “Pre-Anniversary,” were in use during the speakeasy bust, included a “4inch lensboard for tele and speed lenses” (“Graflex Graphic Model History”). The major difference between the Speed Graphic and the previous Graflex camera is the way the photographer viewed the scene before shooting. The Graflex camera’s focusing hood required the photographer to look down into the camera. The Graflex Speed Graphic allowed the photographer to look straight at the scene through the camera, which could be seen as an advantage as it allows the photographer to maintain a better connection with human subjects and a better appreciation for the scene in fast changing situations. Even though these new technologies may have made the Speed Graphic the favorite camera of the press, there is no way of knowing for sure which of the two cameras Leslie Jones used the day the Causeway speakeasy was destroyed by federal agents.
Initial assumptions about photography’s ability to present an objective image were questioned by scientist when they came to find that,
Photography wasn’t telling them the whole truth,” leading them to “ascertain just how far photography imitated the world” (Wilder 66).
Many of the early concerns about photography’s objectivity were related to the quality of the equipment. The ideals of naturalism were paramount to the scientific use of photos, and scientists took issue with the limits of photographic equipment. Press photographers, however, did not constrain themselves with a strict adherence to naturalism. As with the reporter, the press photographer found the story/image to be of primary importance, and a touch of artistic flair was not only acceptable, it demanded presence. The images of the 153 Causeway St. speakeasy are not snapshots of natural action; they are staged photos representing a larger story. The agents stand posed, halted in a play of deed. While the bust was a real occurrence, the photos captured a created theatrical scene, not a natural one. In the context of prohibition, these photos would act as pro-federal propaganda, a declaration of the government’s ability to supersede state law and to sniff out even the most sophisticated of hideaways. Jones’s photos are just one part of a larger story, a story that has two opposing forces. Because of the different levels of acceptance of prohibition, the images represent to the Federal government a legal act, but to the citizens of Boston, the photos are evidence of an act of tyranny by an overreaching government; whatever camera he used, Leslie Jones captured more than just a typical speakeasy bust.
Bahnemann, Greta. “The preservation of Glass Plate Negatives.” Webjunction.org. OCLC, 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 18 February 2014.
“Graflex Graphic Model History.” Graflex.org. n.p., n.d. Web. 18 February 2014.
Hanson, David J. “National Prohibition and Repeal in Massachusetts.” Potsdam.edu. D.J. Hanson, 2013. Web. 18 February 2014.
Hanson, David J. “Repeal of Prohibition.” Potsdam.edu. D.J. Hanson, 2013. Web. 18 February 2014.
“Instructional Manual for Graflex Cameras.” Graflex.org. n.p., n.d. Web. 18 February 2014.
Leslie Jones: The Camera Man. The Boston Public Library, n.d. Web. 18 February 2014.
“Munch goes to the Blind Pig.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 30 June 2011. Web. 25 February 2014.
“Prohibition in the United States.” Whatis-whatis.com. 2014. Web. 25 February 2014.
“The Graflex Speed Graphic FAQ.” Graflex.org. n.p., n.d. Web. 18 February 2014.
Wilder, Kelley. Exposures: Photography and Science. Reaktion Books: London, 2009. Print.