Prohibition in Colorado: Speakeasies, Gangsters, and a Lasting Outlaw Spirit

Words: Kendall Ashley

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While most people don’t first think of Colorado when they think about the Prohibition Era, it has its own fascinating Prohibition history. It may not have been the home of famous gangsters like Al Capone, but Colorado was its own hotbed of crime and controversy during this anti-alcoholic period on our state’s history. 

When Temperance Loses Its Temperance

New Year’s Eve is traditionally a time filled with parties, celebration, and yes, quite a lot of booze. But on January 1, 1916, Colorado became one of the first states to officially outlaw alcohol. (For those keeping score at home, that’s about four years before the national Prohibition happened.)

Like any significant government action, there were several contributing factors to Colorado becoming a dry state, but the main one centered on fear. Religious fears of the depraved nature that stemmed from drinking and being drunk, the lewd and uncouth behavior that resulted from a room of drunk individuals, and the religious beliefs held by city and state leadership—like the Quaker beliefs of the Colorado Springs founder, William Jackson Palmer—all helped push Colorado to banning alcohol. The so-called temperance movement saw outlawing alcohol as the way for making a safer, more moral, and generally better environment for men, women, and children to live and thrive within.

But Prohibition went beyond simple moral policing. Racism and a fear of immigrants also heavily influenced the Prohibition Era. Excessive alcohol use was often associated with individuals who appeared to be “foreigners,” and with more and more immigrants traveling to Colorado, groups like the Ku Klux Klan preyed easily on locals’ prejudice. By using irrational fear tactics, intimidation, and occasionally force, the Klan frightened people enough to both oppose foreign immigration and stand with Prohibition. And while Colorado took a few years to become a bone-dry state, the temperance movement could tie Prohibition to patriotism, stating that “wasting” vital ingredients in the creation of alcohol was flippant and foolish during World War I.

Still, the temperance movement forgot one key thing in their move to rid the nation of alcohol. Ironically, that one thing was temperance. To a Prohibitionist, all alcohol was evil, all the time. There wasn’t such a thing as a moderate or social drinker, so harsh rules and laws were more important than individual freedom. So, while a lot of the nation and Colorado aligned with the movement to shut down saloons, most thought total abstinence was an outrageous request from the government. 

Because of this, people naturally kept drinking. This unique and hungry client base gave rise to some particularly determined business people, the “bootleggers.” Several bootleggers smuggled alcohol into Colorado—
but true to Coloradan form, a lot of illicit booze was simply made within the state’s borders in secret. 

The Bootlegger Wars in Colorado

While a lot of bootleggers and homebrewers were just regular people who disagreed with Prohibition and were trying to make a living, the illicit market also brought in its share of violence. Gangsters like Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, and Lucky Luciano had their vast empires in the east, and Colorado also had its share of powerful crime families. 

In Colorado, there were very powerful factions of bootleggers in both the Pueblo and the Denver areas. While Pueblo isn’t notorious today, back then it was run by brothers and gangsters Sam and Pete Carlino. Denver, meanwhile, was run by the Danna brothers. It wasn’t terribly uncommon for these big crimelords to die horribly and for a new regime to immediately take its place. So when the final Danna brother was killed in 1930, the Carlinos made their move to expand their territory from Pueblo to gain the lucrative new territory of Denver. 

Such an intense move didn’t come without ruffling some feathers, so the Carlinos made a powerful alliance with another mobster already doing successful business in the Denver area: Joe Roma. Roma, a short grocer by day and successful mobster by night, already had a lucrative bootlegging operation out of his grocery store. It was the perfect partnership for the Carlinos. 

Despite that powerful alliance, the Carlinos and Roma were never able to successfully grab control of the Denver area. A meeting with rival gangs to negotiate territory was broken up by federal officers, and everyone there was arrested. The snag in business caused the Carlinos cash flow to significantly drop, and to make up the difference, the brothers hatched the very lucid and level-headed plan to blow up Pete Carlino’s home for the insurance money. Unfortunately for the Carlinos, the plan didn’t work as seamlessly as they had hoped. One of the Carlino’s men was arrested for the arson, Pete Carlino was forced into hiding and was ultimately arrested, and Sam Carlino was shot by a man named Bruno Mauro from a rival Pueblo gang. While Joe Roma ended up bailing Pete Carlino out of jail, Carlino would be mysteriously killed just three months later in 1931. Though it’s suspected he was murdered by a rival gang, the actual culprit was never discovered. 

It’s worth mentioning that Joe Roma ended up taking over Pueblo in the wake of Pete and Sam Carlino’s death. Regardless of what assumptions one could draw from that violent exchange of power, Roma’s reign was short-lived as well, as he was murdered in his own living room in 1933—two of his top men, Clyde and Eugene Smaldone, ended up taking over Pueblo and Denver after Roma’s death. 

The violent wars between rival gangs—gangs that had come to power thanks to Prohibition —created a huge spike in crime, violence, and murder in Colorado. Because of all this violence, police were constantly working to try and shut down all bootlegging operations, as well as close any establishment that was a front for these gangs. But not only was imprisoning the high-ranking members of the gangs nearly impossible, but conflicting and difficult laws thanks to overlapping federal, state, and local jurisdiction made it very hard to enforce the alcohol ban in court (even Al Capone himself was only sent to jail on tax evasion charges). And while the government worked to sort itself out, men like the Carlinos, the Dannas, and the Smaldones were ruthlessly ruling Colorado in a torrent of corruption and violence. 

The End of the Prohibition Era

Still, in the face of all this crime and violence, many Coloradans still were staunch opponents to Prohibition. Courts and police officers were inundated with work to attempt to sentence people with illegal alcohol or search homes suspected of bootlegging or containing contraband. The constant struggle between the temperance movement and individual civil liberty not only was seen in day-to-day life, but was constantly being battled over in courts across the country.

Prohibition was becoming harder and harder to enforce, and the movement was losing steam. The Methodist Episcopal Church of Colorado stopped its annual temperance report during its annual convention, saying that the pro-liquor movement was far stronger than the Prohibitionists thought. Because there wasn’t enough focus put on teaching the public the moral and ethical values of Prohibition, the act was largely unsuccessful. Regardless of the moral standpoint, it was clear that Coloradoans were unhappy with the restrictions set on their individual liberties, the increased danger thanks to the bootleggers, and higher arrest rates thanks to Prohibition. 

In 1932, Colorado voted to nullify all laws relating to liquor on June 30, 1933, and Denver would repeal all local temperance ordinances a few months after the statewide decision. The overwhelming thought was that in addition to infringing on a person’s rights, Prohibition was turning normally law-abiding citizens into criminals. While the mob was using Prohibition as a means to a financial and power-grabbing end, everyday citizens fought Prohibition to get their rights and safety back. That conviction was far more powerful than anyone in the temperance movement could have guessed, so nationally, the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in December 1933. 

Modern Speakeasies Carry On Prohibition Legacy

Today, it’s not uncommon to see a trendy bar pop up with the moniker of a speakeasy. But these modern speakeasies are more than just trends. Each of these establishments have their own, unique feel that cleverly taps into an era in our nation’s history. Speakeasies have always been the symbol of a resilient, rebellious spirit mixed with a spark of ingenuity. The Prohibition Era was a time in Colorado when outlaws and criminals roamed the streets and people fought against the system to maintain their individual rights. Places like speakeasies were founded to serve those wild-hearted people. 

A modern-day speakeasy has a fun, Prohibition Era vibe to it—offering up a place that offers just as much atmosphere as it does great food or drink. Most speakeasies you find in Colorado have some rules about conduct—speaking quietly, restricting cellphone use—while kicking up the ambience with jazz music and throwback décor. It’s truly like travelling back to the Prohibition Era (you know, without the pesky worries of the mob or being arrested). 

Colorado Springs locals can hit up Brooklyn’s on Boulder St., the home of Lee Spirits Company, which has fully adopted the speakeasy vibe, posing as a haberdashery by day, a gin distillery speakeasy by night. With vintage cocktails, retro décor, and even a doorbell to enter the distillery should your needs extend beyond Brooklyn’s haberdashery services. Brooklyn’s offers a cool, relaxed, retro vibe, and is worth the trip for anyone looking for a taste of the Prohibition Era. 

If you’re in Denver, you can try speakeasies like Williams & Graham and Green Russell. Williams & Graham was voted Best American Cocktail Bar in 2015 at the Spirited Awards, and it will delight you with its retro feel and delicious, hand-crafted cocktails. They’re also a full-service restaurant, so you can experience great drinks and great food as you travel back to Prohibition. Green Russell is a chef-driven cocktail joint and is delightfully tucked at the bottom of a flight of stairs off Larimer Street. True to Prohibition style, they style their speakeasy to look like a pie shop—Wednesday’s Pie, to be exact—which actually does serve pie during the day on Wednesdays. Like Brooklyn’s subtle “ring for service” entrance, Green Russell’s entrance is a hardly distinguishable stainless steel door that looks like it would lead to a kitchen.

Fort Collins residents can hit up Social in Old Town. You can find the speakeasy by spotting an illuminated clock near a flight of stairs that has “Social” written delicately at the top. The actual doorway leading you into the speakeasy is nothing more than a wooden door—perfect for throwing off those feds. Like most speakeasies, it’s decorated with 20s décor and some truly unique pieces, like a typewriter that allegedly belonged to Ernest Hemingway. 

Colorado has always been a state full of resilient and ingenious rebels, and the state’s history during Prohibition proves that. The resurgence of speakeasies today highlight that spirit and how it is still with Coloradans today. Prohibition left an indelible mark on Colorado and has filled the state’s history book with fascinating and often gruesome tales with the state’s own, unique, outlaw spirit.

Originally published in Vol. 4 of Colorado Collective, June 17'


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