When you live in Seattle long enough, at a certain point you need to sit down and read a history that ties together the half-heard stories about vice dens and crooked cops you've pieced together from locals at the bar. Brad Holden's Seattle Prohibition, a slim but dense account of Seattle shortly before, during, and after prohibition, is an excellent place to start. He paints a complex portrait of the era's movers and shakers, as well as the political dynamics at play in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Before craft breweries and $14 cocktails took over Seattle, moralists and vice lords clashed on the issue of who got to have fun. Many pioneering Seattleites wanted an open town, where saloons and brothels were legal in certain parts of the city. Others, citing the Bible and being tired of getting beat up by their drunk husbands, wanted a closed town, where saloons and brothels were prohibited.
Holden shows how those two broad political stances shaped the city we've come to know and not be able to afford. He draws a direct line from the teetotaling Arthur A. Denny and the vice lord David Swinson "Doc" Maynard, both early colonizers of Seattle, up through bootleggers such as Roy Olmstead, aka "The Gentleman Bootlegger" (so called due to his no guns and no violence policy), and raving moralists such as Mark Matthews, the guy who established the Seattle Presbyterian Church, one of the largest evangelical churches in the United States at the time. And, of course, Holden covers all their deeply intertwined connections to the "wet" and "dry" mayors.
Holden spends most of his time on Olmstead (arrested and imprisoned at McNeil Island before being pardoned by FDR), Johnny Schnarr (a badass rumrunner), Frank Gatt (a bootlegger who hid his massive distilleries in dairy barns to hide the smell), and William Whitney (of the Seattle Prohibition Bureau, who was tasked with shutting all this down). He also mentions William Belond, who hosted regular cockfights and dogfights at his bar Billy Mug's, in the building that later housed the Double Header.
Along the way, Holden drops interesting tidbits I'll be screaming about while pretending to be a mossback at the nearest watering hole. Here are three: (1) Women couldn't order their own drink at a bar in Seattle until 1969! (2) KOMO, which recently published a dehumanizing screed against addicts in crisis, owes its existence to the most famous bootlegger in the Puget Sound region! (3) A brothel on Elliott Bay was outfitted with trap doors in the floor, so if a man tried something a sex worker didn't like, she could pull a lever and watch him drop into the drink. (Let's bring those back!)
A book about "bootleggers, rumrunners, and graft in the Queen City" is always in danger of slipping into a schlocky, noir tone. Holden begins a few introductory paragraphs with that kind of breathless energy, but he quickly and welcomely abandons that voice for a clear, straightforward account of wild stories. This is a riveting drama of plainly told facts.