On last night’s season premiere of the British soap opera Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham didn’t have the right shirt to wear with his dinner jacket and instead had to wear a garment that was a little too fancy for the occasion.
“I look like a Chicago bootlegger,” he complained.
The earl’s remark was an attempt to establish the series had moved into the 1920s, when Chicago became world-famous for speakeasies, illegal hooch, and the gang violence that resulted. It’s an image that many foreigners still have of our city. As Russian president Vladmir Putin said just last year, “Yes, they say [Chicago is] good. Al Capone lived there.”
Capone, of course, is synonymous with “Chicago bootlegger.” And that’s the problem with Lord Crawley’s dig at Chicago. It was anachronistic. Yesterday’s episode was supposed to have taken place in the spring of 1920. The 18th Amendment, which imposed Prohibition on the United States, did not take effect until Jan. 17, 1920. (That very day, six armed men stole $100,000 worth of “medicinal whiskey” from a train in Chicago, the first recorded incident of Chicago bootlegging.)
Capone did not become a powerful local gang leader until the mid-1920s and did not become world famous until 1929, when he was blamed for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The earl, who gets all his news of the world from English magazines and newspapers, probably would not have heard of Capone until then.
It's OK to use stereotypes of Chicago that go back to the 1920s in a show about the 1920s, but Downton Abbey jumped the Tommy gun.