In trying to placate prohibitionist forces in South Carolina, the wily Tillman, shown left, had proposed a halfway solution: Saloons would close along with all liquor dealerships but whiskey, wine and beer would still be available everywhere through a state dispensary system. Just before Christmas in 1892, compliant legislators voted to establish the scheme, in part because some recognized the significant revenues (and possible opportunities for graft) it would generate when the only alcohol that legally could be sold in South Carolina had to be purchased through a government bureaucracy.
In Charleston where drinking beer, wine and whiskey was heavily entrenched, the residents viewed the use of alcohol not merely as a tradition but as a right. The order to close up saloons and liquor sales was widely ignored and in that atmosphere, extremely difficult to enforce. Speakeasies called “Blind Tigers” became rampant throughout the city. Tillman was outraged. He vowed that if Charleston did not comply he would make it “dry enough to burn” and would send enough compliance officers “to cover every city block with a man.”
In July 1893, Tillman’s officers made their first arrest. Vincent Chicco. He was alleged to have opened his first Blind Tiger just two weeks after the dispensary bill became law and was continuing to sell alcohol, including an illegal beer to one of Tillman’s detectives. Chicco likely was targeted because of his Italian ethnicity, being an immigrant, and not part of Charleston’s establishment. He was born in 1851 in Livorno, Tuscany, the son of Charlotte and Salvator Chicco. With only limited education, Vincent had left home in his teens and shipped out as a merchant seaman on an ocean schooner. When the ship docked in Charleston, he liked the place, and decided to stay.
Chicco first found work on a local rail system but left to join the Charleston police force. Becoming an American citizen in 1874, in 1885 he met and married Mary Ann Burke, a local girl. Vince was 34; Mary was 24. They had five children during their marriage, three girls and two boys. Soon after his marriage Chicco left the police force and opened an establishment he called a “grocery” on Market Street. In fact it was far more than that — delicatessen, cigar shop, saloon, and liquor store. The building was captured on a postcard with a portrait of the young Chicco superimposed.
Chicco’s arrest occasioned a near riot as locals supporters rallied to protest the action. Taken to court, he faced a friendly judge who freed him immediately and, it was reported, arrested Tillman’s officer for committing assault on the saloonkeeper. Overnight Chicco became a local hero in Charleston, dubbed as the “King of the Blind Tigers.” He was emboldened to issue a five cent token in which the obverse shows a tiger wearing a blindfold.
In short order Chicco had become a nemesis to the Tillman, a man whom the governor publicly called “a kind of Dago devil.” Hauled into court repeatedly over the years, Chicco repeatedly walked away a free man. One of his appearances before the courts in 1909 is in the public record and gives a clue to his methods. Chicco was accused of operating a business at 83 and 85 Market Street “where people are permitted to resort for the purpose of drinking alcoholic liquors and beverage” in a manner not authorized by law.” To allow him to continue would allow “great injury to the public,” according to the prosecution. The court was asked to issue a cease and desist order.
While admitting that he operated a restaurant and grocery store at 83 and 85 Market Street Chicco averred nothing illegal went on there. His family lived above those addresses at 83 & 1/2 Market. That address had not been included in the complaint. When asked what he did or kept at 83 & 1/2, Chicco declined to answer on the grounds it would incriminate him, implying that anything illicit might going on at that address — not part of the indictment.
In fact, Chicco was advertising quite openly his sales of wines and liquors at his Market Street addresses. He also was said to be running “blind tigers” in other parts of Charleston. Shown here is postcard view of another Chicco establishment in Charleston identified as a cafe and store, almost certainly selling alcohol in defiance of South Carolina’s dispensary law.
Tillman’s attacks on Chicco heightened into a personal battle, one that the Italian immigrant seemed to relish. He introduced a line of cigars he called “The Two Determined.” They came in a box with his picture and Tillman’s on the lid. Chicco explained the concept to newsmen this way: Tillman was determined that he should stop selling liquor; Chicco was equally determined to continue selling it. I find the illustration fascinating depicting militant objects above and the figure of Cupid with a lyre below, usually a symbol of love, not conflict.
In addition to openly flouting Ben Tillman’s unjust and corrupt dispensary laws, Chicco saw an opportunity in his Charleston celebrity to embark on a political career. He ran for alderman in his neighborhood, Ward Three, and was elected. Apparently serving with the continuing approval of his constituents he was elected four more times. His business directory listings prominently listed “Charleston alderman.”
Despite his aldermanic duties and constantly being hauled into court, Chicco proved to be a loving husband and caring father. For the first thirty years of their married life Mary Ann and his children had lived above his restaurant and store. About 1915, Vincent moved the family into a large mansion in the fashionable Ansonborough district of Charleston. Built in 1843, the home featured an Italianate front door leading to an open air piazza that stretched around building. The interior decor included one-of-a-kind etched glass panes, Greek Revival moldings, and marble fireplaces. Shown here as it looks today, the Chicco house has been divided into three spacious apartments.
Meanwhile, Tillman’s South Carolina alcohol dispensary system had “crashed and burned.” Awash in money, the dispensary became so potent a political machine that it alarmed Progressive-era reformers as well as preachers and their flocks who wanted to ban alcohol completely. Moreover, hearings in he South Carolina Legislature had revealed rampant corruption. Officials regularly were siphoning off dispensary money, soliciting bribes from suppliers, and selling liquor on the sly. In 1907 legislators abolished the central state dispensary, allowing each county to decide for itself whether to go “dry” or to continue its local dispensary.
Meanwhile, in 1895 Tillman had moved on to the U.S. Senate. Once again he picked a formidable opponent. Known for his bombastic speeches on the Senate floor, Tillman gained the nickname, “Pitchfork Ben,” after an 1896 address in which he announced his determination to go to the Oval Office and stick a pitchfork into the rump of President Grover Cleveland -- a sizable target. The South Carolina senator, a Democrat like Cleveland, subsequently was barred from the White House.
Chicco’s liquor trade suffered a blow in 1915 when by referendum the entire Stat of South Carolina went “dry.” He sustained another loss in December 1918 when Mary, his wife of 33 years, died. The 1920 census found Chicco, age 68, living in the Hassell Street mansion with three unmarried children, Natalie, 32; Vincent Jr., 31. and Joseph, 26. In 1920 he sold his grocery and delicatessen, now sans liquor, to the Cockinos brothers of Charleston who at least initially kept his name on the business.
As he aged, Chicco developed a chronic heart condition. In October 1928, at 78-years old, he was felled by the flu, developing acute bronchitis leading to heart failure, according to his death certificate. He was buried next to Mary Ann in Charleston’s St. Lawrence Cemetery. Their joint monument is shown here.
According to Journalist Timmons Pettigrew: “The city nearly shut down for his funeral in 1928, as well it should have. The "King of Blind Tigers" is someone we can all draw inspiration from. He was an underdog, a free spirit, an independent thinker….” His obituary in a Charleston newspaper characterized Chicco as "possessing a forceful personality" and as a "raconteur of ability.”
Vincent Chicco’s battle with Ben Tillman has elements of a “David versus Goliath” story. The “Dago devil” had proved a more than worthy foe for the racist governor, seemly besting him at every turn. Deservedly, he continues to be remembered in Charleston. Several years ago when a new Italian restaurant opened in the city, as shown here, it bore the name “Vincent Chicco’s.” Appropriately, it sold alcohol.
Note: The information for this post was gathered from a wide range of sources. Principal among them was the book “Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the South, with Recipes,” by Robert F. Moss, no date. The court material is from “State ex rel. Lyon, Atty. Gen. vs. Chicco,” Supreme Court of South Carolina, Jan. 11, 1909. This blog featured a post about Ben Tillman and the South Carolina Dispensary on November 20, 2013.