Prohibition in Detroit: Inside the city’s most infamous speakeasy

DETROIT – The Prohibition Era in Detroit was a wild time, to say the least.

Although the start of national Prohibition was on Jan. 17, 1920, in Michigan, the ban of alcohol was old news.

Bootlegging operations and smuggling networks formed within hours of Michigan’s prohibition going into effect on May 1, 1917.

By the time Prohibition took effect nationally, the residents of Michigan and Ontario were well versed in bootlegging, and they nearly perfected their trade during the next 13 years.

Related: 6 Metro Detroit bars that used to be speakeasies during Prohibition era

Seventy-five percent of all the alcohol smuggled into the United States during Prohibition crossed the border at the Windsor-Detroit Funnel.

By 1929, rum-running was Detroit’s second largest industry, netting $215 million per year.

More: How rum-running became one of Detroit’s biggest industries during Prohibition era

Gangs began capitalizing on the smuggling trade in 1923, especially Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang. Prohibition was intended to improve family life and reduce crime. Instead, a new and dangerous criminal class had developed.

Aniwa Club

One of the city’s most infamous speakeasies was the Aniwa Club.

It was only open for two years, but drew considerable attention from media -- and police -- after opening back in Feb. 1929. Here’s some background from Prohibition Detroit:

Owned and operated by proprietor and underworld mobster Al Wertheimer (associate of the Purple Gang), it catered to Detroit and Grosse Pointe’s high society and wealthy business élite. Altogether it offered three floors of fine dining, cabaret entertainment and an orchestra for ambiance and dancing, but it was the gambling and smuggled-in booze that made it one of the most exclusive speakeasies in the city.

During one of the Aniwa Club’s first raids in March, 1929, various gambling paraphernalia as well a list of the distinguished members that patronized the club were confiscated. When word got out about the raid, both Detroit Police Commissioner William Rutledge and acting Mayor John C. Lodge were “besieged with requests from prominent men and women that the names not be made public.”

Read more on the background here.

The mansion still stands today, but is slated for redevelopment, according to Crain’s Detroit.

Watch Alex Atwell’s Uniquely Detroit feature story on the Aniwa Club in the video player above.

About the Authors:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.