Personalities of Prohibition: A Review of the Museum of the American Gangster

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is provided by Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, associate professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder. There, she teaches and writes on Japanese history. Her latest book, Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History, was published by University of California Press in 2013. 

The Museum of the American Gangster, which opened in 2010 in trendy St. Marks Place in Lower Manhattan, celebrates the so-called heroes of Prohibition who kept the nation awash in alcohol against the bumbling efforts of moralizing temperance reformers and corrupt law enforcement during the years of national temperance (1919-1933).

Photo by Manhattan Sideways

Open from 1-6 p.m. daily excluding Mondays, the museum offers tours of approximately 75 minutes at 1, 2:30, and 4 p.m. It would be possible to walk around the main rooms on one’s own, but most guests would probably find the exhibition much less lively that way; moreover, the basement and underground tunnels of the speakeasy next door cannot be entered without a guide. On weekends the museum is a popular attraction despite the rather steep cost of admission ($20 for adults, $12 for students). The 4 p.m. Sunday tour that I joined had at least a dozen people, about the maximum that could comfortably move through the small space.

The tour begins in the main building, which dates back to the early nineteenth century and is believed to have been constructed on the site of a Dutch farmhouse of the New Amsterdam era. An enthusiastic guide described its early history as a stop on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves. A century later, it fell into the hands of Frank Hoffman, a German immigrant with a penchant for South American beauties who made his fortune importing and selling alcohol during Prohibition (1919-1933). His speakeasy, which once welcomed Al Capone and other notorious gangsters, today draws mostly a student clientele from nearby NYU as well as museum-goers with a post-tour thirst.

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