POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Did Boston Roar in the 'Twenties?

by David Trumbull

August 11, 2006

Cleveland Amory opened his 1947 book, The Proper Bostonians, with this anecdote about Boston in the 1920s:

A Chicago banking firm once asked a Boston investment house for references on a Beacon Hill scion. Promptly the Chicago bank was informed that the applicant descended from Cabots, Lowells, Saltonstalls --in short could not be more acceptable. "We were not," the Chicago firm replied curtly, "contemplating using Mr._ _ for breeding purposes."

Okay, Boston was no New York or Chicago during the flapper era, but the Roaring 'Twenties happened here just as everywhere else. On Monday, August 21st, I'll be leading a walking tour of some of the Downtown and Beacon Hill sites associated with that Jazz age, prohibition era.

Here are some 1920s era Boston landmarks I'll talk about during the walk.

The folly of the get-rich-quick formula was already a familiar story in 1920 when Charles Ponzi's descent into financial criminality forever connected his name with the pyramid scheme. The smart talker and smart dresser --one Boston newspaper dubbed him the man who put the "crease" in Croesus-- worked his scheme out of a Downtown office in the Niles Building on School Street (and later a second office on Hanover Street in the North End).

Our stroll will also take us past the site near the State House where wise-cracking writer Dorothy Parker got herself arrested, by the Beacon Hill jail she landed in, and by the Pemberton Square courthouse she was arraigned in, for protesting the Sacco and Vanzetti verdict. Asked if the Boston cops took her fingerprints she replied "No, but they left me a few of theirs." The Sacco and Vanzetti defense, by the way, operated out of an office on Hanover Street.

This view of Boston in the lawless decade appropriately includes a visit to [Old] City Hall, where James Michael Curley was in power through much of bathtub gin era and to The 21st Amendment a neighborhood saloon whose name celebrates the return of the legal drink.

Curley came back as mayor for one term in the 1930s. In was then that he closed down, for a month, The Old Howard theatre. The Howard, originally built as a tabernacle for the Millerite sect, became first a legitimate theatre and later, by the 'twenties, a burlesque house with the strip-tease. A bronze plaque behind One Center Plaza marks the location of the stage of the Old Howard, which survived Curley, the Watch and Ward Society, and the advent of television only to be demolished in 1961 following a fire of suspicious origin.

If you are interested in joining the tour, which is sponsored by the Union Park Neighborhood Association (, meet us at 6:30 p.m. at the Omni Parker House (corner of Tremont Street and School Street.) The event is free.