One of two safes with unlaundered liquor money left over from Prohibition in the basement of William Barnacle Tavern
Prohibition may be over, but our fascination with the era continues with NYC’s themed lawn parties and interactive theater pieces. The William Barnacle Tavern in the East Village, however, housed an actual speakeasy less than a century ago. Our latest Untapped Cities tour with the Museum of the American Gangster, located just upstairs from the bar, delves into the layered and complex history behind this “bar your grandmother probably went to.” [Get tickets to our next tour on December 8th!]
Nowadays, the William Barnacle Tavern is a cozy and authentic absinthe bar, with half of the wooden horse shoe shaped bar still intact, serving a variety of 20s-inspired drinks and featuring a neighboring crêpe stand. But some ninety years ago, the same bar was invisible from the street.
Originally, the entrance to this illicit bar––located in a neighborhood frequented by Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, and John Gotti––was through the neighboring butcher shop. The bar also attaches to a theater, now Theatre 80 St. Mark’s Place, where jazz icons including Harry “Sweets” Edison, John Coltrane, and Frank Sinatra once performed. In fact, the entire structure has its basis in layers of history––Leon Trotsky lived for a time in the gallery space.
A tour of the museum and bar guides you through this history, especially regarding organized crime and how it relates to prohibition. Museum co-owner and curator Lorcan Otway described American history as a “pendulum between moral certainty and liberty,” and Prohibition certainly makes sense in this context.
Join our next tour which you can finish off with a Prohibition-era cocktail on December 8th!
The upstairs museum features a section on the bootlegging process, featuring artifacts ranging from old copper whiskey stills from Appalachia to vintage bottles of booze advertising “no government additives.” The tour explains in depth the history of rum runners, booze smugglers, and organized crime in America. It also covers a range of lesser-known phenomena including the Chemist’s War, wherein the U.S. government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols that bootleggers often bought and re-sold as spirits.
An old phone case in the bar’s basement, where the ghost of a murdered South American actress has been rumored to appear.
For those interested in American gangsters of the 1920s, the museum features genuine death masks and bullets from the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. But the speakeasy carries its own fascinating story. Under the ownership of gangster Walter Scheib in the twenties, the bar flourished as a hub for illegal liquor and the corresponding liquor profits. Upon purchasing the building from Scheib in 1964, Otway’s father, Howard, discovered two still-secured safes. Otway and his father cracked them open and discovered clusters of old hundred-dollar bills, the headshot of a young South American actress, and empty beer bottles from the era. The details of the story surrounding this money are still, in great part, a mystery.
The bar’s basement, home to the mafia escape tunnels through which alcohol was smuggled in the 1920s.
Today, you can drink absinthe at the same wood bar used during prohibition. The original mafia escape tunnels are still accessible, as are the two safes. If you’re in the East Village, stop by to sample the fée verte, or catch one of the shows––including Bayside! The Musical––at the adjacent Theatre 80.