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Saturday, August 24, 2019

Historical Note: Doc Hamilton's Barbecue Pit

Warning: Offensive image included

Doc Hamilton's Barbecue Pit, Seattle, WA
I recently acquired the original art for the prohibition era cartoon by Seattle Times artist Stuart Pratt, included here. Of course what immediately leaps out to you is the anachronistic racism. But what really drew my attention was the subject: one John Henry "Doc" Hamilton.

Doc Hamilton ran what may have been the most famous and elegant of Seattle speakeasies during prohibition, what some people compare to Harlem's Cotton Club. He moved to Seattle from West Point, Mississippi and served in France with the famous 92nd (Buffalo) Division during World War I. From 1926 to 1931, Doc Hamilton's Barbecue Pit was located at 908 12th Avenue, the current location of The Chieftain Irish Pub, across the street from Seattle University. Below is a description from Paul De Barros's invaluable Jackson Street After Hours:
Racist Seattle Times cartoon of Doc Hamilton
c.1931 (collection of the author)
"Limousines lined the curb out front, while Seattle's social elect, including the mayor, ducked in and out of the club.  Downstairs was the action -- roulette and an all-night dice game.  Should there be a raid, the Barbecue Pit was prepared.  A complete alarm system of bells, bars, and pulleys, snaked through the building.  A button convenient to the cashier at the lunch counter was wired to a buzzer at the triple-barred doors of the cabaret basement."
John Henry "Doc" Hamilton
(Photo via

A bit more, from Brad Holden's highly readable Seattle Prohibition: Bootleggers, Rumrunners and Graft in the Queen City:

"Guests would pull up to the front and be greeted by a well-dressed doorman who would escort them to their table. Once inside, Doc Hamilton would walk around and personally introduce himself to all visitors. The Barbecue Pit was always well-stocked with top-shelf booze, courtesy of [Roy] Olmstead's bootlegging operation, and offered a variety of delicious barbecued meats. It also served as one of the top venues for local jazz bands, so it was regarded by many as one of the city's best music spots.... Hamilton's speakeasy soon became the favorite watering hole of Seattle's business and political elite, with many important meetings held inside. The status of his clientele certainly helped keep his business from being shut down, and the Pit remained one of the city's top speakeasies throughout most of prohibition."

John Henry "Doc" Hamilton
(Photo via
Like most of the more successful/notorious speakeasies in Seattle, Doc's places, including The Pit, alternated between police raids and police protection resulting from payoffs under the long-running, unofficial Seattle "Tolerence Policy," as fickle political winds blew. But whereas most arrestees were released to resume business hour, Doc was eventually given a 5-year sentence, most likely the event captured in this cartoon (which replaces Hamilton's obvious business sophistication with some blackface style jargon). A description from

"Doc Hamilton was able to keep his illegal business running not only because of the status of his patrons but also by payments to local law enforcement officers. The payoffs, however, only provided protection for a while. The Barbecue Pit was raided often. For some time the police would simply jail Hamilton for a night and make him pay a fine.  However, when King County Sheriff Harry Lewis raided Hamilton’s suburban club, the bootlegger was sentenced to five years in a federal prison. Hamilton’s sentence was surprisingly severe, considering that no white prohibition club owners faced comparable consequences. 
Doc Hamilton was pardoned on September 8th of 1933, after only 10 months in prison. However, after losing his clubs and his regal, European style home in Madison Valley, he was never able to reestablish his former success.  John Henry “Doc” Hamilton died alone in the Mar Hotel in Seattle’s Chinatown in 1942."

The bar currently in the location evinces few hints of glory days of Doc and The Pit. The rollicking jazz and speakeasy scene here and largely south of Yesler have been largely forgotten. But an increasing number of books, walking tours, historical presentations by institutions like MOHAI, and articles appear to be reinvigorating interest in the era and its institutions. De Barros's "Jackson Street," out of print but available used at places like Amazon, remains the indispensable guide to Seattle's nearly forgotten jazz era.

908 12th Ave, Seattle, WA
Est. 1926 - Closed 1931 - Building constructed: 1926
Subsequent bars in this location: The 908 Club, Habibi, The Chieftain
Articles: - mohaiminute (video) - 12thaveseattle - capitolhillseattle 

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