1920s: Seattle’s King of the Speakeasies

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During the 1920s, after the Great War, America’s fabled capacity to produce anything was replaced by a capacity to consume anything.

It was this America of the 1920s that sparked Doc Hamilton’s great adventure as Seattle’s most affable and successful operator of speakeasies.  John H. “Doc” Hamilton came to Seattle in 1912 from West Point, Mississippi. His family members were poor black farmers in a quiet community where Jim Crow laws regulated a black citizen’s conduct and lifestyle.  After Doc’s stint as an American soldier in the Great War, he arrived in the Pacific Northwest full of hope.  And for years Doc thrived, with the courage and audacity to run a business that provided an illegal product used by almost everyone: booze.

In 1920 the temperance movement had helped manage the passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages.  Doc’s rise and fall in Seattle could be attributed to this alleged panacea for the ills of humankind — Prohibition.

While Americans listened to a new invention called the radio, and watched another called moving pictures, Doc Hamilton and many others opened subterranean, out-of-the way, private night clubs called “speakeasies.”  H.L. Mencken, literary critic and habitue of these unique saloons, wrote that the term “speak-easy” (he hyphenated it), may have come from the English “speak-softly-shop,” an underworld term for a smuggler’s house where liquor could be obtained.

Despite Prohibition, Seattleites and others would continue to drink – in Canada, surreptitiously at home, or within the convivial surroundings of a speakeasy.

Doc had the personality and experience to know that his first customers would be veterans of the Great War, many of whom came from old, well-heeled families of Seattle.  Seattleites who knew Doc described his sense of humor, engaging manner, and perpetual smile.  One politician and customer of Hamilton’s saloons said that if Doc had had white skin he could been governor of the state. Doc was handsome, tall,  smart — and careful.  His customers felt “at home” in his small secure apartment at 1017 E. Union Street (later an auto-parts wholesaler), where he ran the first of his two Prohibition speakeasies.

During Prohibition, intoxicating beverages had to be home-brewed or smuggled into the country.  Doc was known to serve only the best, which meant doing business with the motley fleet of fast boats that plied the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Haro and Georgia Straits.  Obscure islands in the San Juans and the remote Dungeness Spit became early-morning, chilly transfer points for Scotch whiskey.  Court reports in the Seattle newspapers of that time suggested that Doc did business with the local “King of the Rum Runners,” Roy Olmstead, who had a suspiciously busy out-of-town travel schedule.

In July, 1924, Doc’s Union Street quarters were raided by federal agents.  To gain entry, the lawmen had to break down three barred doors.  (The windows were also barred.)  Inside they found an elaborate interior with four pianos and silver cocktail shakers.  Six cases of whiskey and a small quantity of expensive liqueurs were seized.  Eight months later Doc was sentenced to 90 days in jail and given a $1 fine.

His “high-class clientele,” as his customers were described, several of whom had political influence, may have had something to do with keeping the law-keepers at bay.  Subscriptions, mostly in cash, were thrust upon Doc, and he opened another instantly popular night club, the Barbecue Pit, at 908 12th Avenue.  Later, this cozy retreat would be called the 908 Club.

Among those who really knew him, Doc had no enemies.  He loaned money generously, offered bail to customers, gave regularly to charity, and was unfailingly polite and helpful.  If a customer got unruly, Doc would send him or her home as gently as possible, usually offering to pay the taxi fare.  Occasionally a disgruntled patron would vow to “get even,” a circumstance that eventually brought about Doc’s downfall. 

Federal agents were stepping up their campaign against Prohibition violators, under pressure from local religious leaders and a young man named J. Edgar Hoover who had taken over a demoralized FBI in late 1924.

In January 1929 the Barbecue Pit was hit.  As a Seattle Times reporter wrote: “While costly limousines lined the curb and a number of Seattle’s socially elect peered aghast, a flying squad of Federal Prohibition agents raided the celebrated Barbecue Pit of J.H. “Doc” Hamilton at one o’clock yesterday morning.”   In November 1931 the Barbecue Pit was raided for the last time.  The two complainants who triggered the raid had been asked by Doc to leave the premises following a fracas.  One, an attorney and owner of a first-class Seattle hotel, arrived at police headquarters about 3:30 am Sunday morning, demanding that Doc’s establishment be raided.  The other complainant was a well-known Seattle businessman and sports figure.  Both were regulars at the Barbecue Pit.

John H. “Doc” Hamilton was sentenced to one-to-five years in the state penitentiary at Walla Walla.  Before sentencing, Doc told Superior Court Judge Howard M. Findley: “If I go to the penitentiary, Sir, there will be 25 people who will starve to death.  They are my father, mother, my children, and my employees.”

On February 12, 1933, Doc Hamilton entered Cell #13 at the state prison; ten months later Democratic governor Clarence D. Martin pardoned him.  The genial entrepreneur, who once sold what his customers wanted in elegant surroundings, returned to Seattle and, to salute an old friend who had helped obtain his release, Doc presented him a fresh salmon.  To earn a living, Doc tried his hand at raising potatoes and chickens in the Kent Valley.

Doc Hamilton died on September 8, 1942, age 51, alone in Seattle Chinatown’s Mar Hotel on Maynard Avenue.  His family was gone, Prohibition had faded to a dim memory, and America was entering the second year of another World War.

Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.

3 COMMENTS

  1. It’s wise to remind 21st Century readers that Washington State went legally “DRY” with a statewide vote in 1914, long before the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution created the nation-wide ban on booze in 1920. “Local option” votes in our state began in 1910, the year Washington women got the vote. An example: Everett voted to go “DRY” that year, then “WET” at the next election, 1912, and then back again to “DRY’ in 1914!

    Historian Norman H. Clark’s careful and amusing 1965 history (updated edition, 1988), “The Dry Years – Prohibition and Social Change in Washington,” published by U.W. Press, provides a detailed account of how the “big city” electorates of Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma voted against Prohibition, while rural areas outvoted them, taking the entire state “Dry,” effective in 1916.

    It took decades to sink the rumrunning ship in Washington, even after national Prohibition’s “Repeal,” because of “blue-nosed” laws crafted by attorney Al Schweppe, that banned serving “liquor-by-the-drink,” cocktail lounges (except in private clubs), and allowed only what essentially was “near beer.” There even were separate regulations for where men and women could be served and no liquor sales (long restricted to state-operated stores) on Sundays. Washington’s crypto Prohibition gave rise to widespread police corruption and organized crime that plagued Seattle and King County until journalists at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (and much later, the Times) and neophyte King County Prosecuting Attorney Chris Bayley brought it to light in the early 1970s .

  2. Great Write-up, Junius. Hamilton also opened up two early roadhouses north of the city – the first on the Bothell Everett Highway, the second on Highway 99. While Hamilton would only own these establishments for a brief period, he helped establish their popularity and his Highway 99 joint — The Ranch — would survive for three decades.

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