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The legendary story of Vincent Chicco, a 19th-century immigrant restaurateur who faced down the governor over booze laws and won

The legendary story of Vincent Chicco, a 19th-century immigrant restaurateur who faced down the governor over booze laws and won
August 2022
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And how he became a cause célèbre in the process



(Clockwise from above left) Vincent Chicco and his wife, Mary, are buried in St. Lawrence Cemetery on the upper peninsula; Governor Benjamin Tillman and Vincent Chicco immortalized on a cigar box label; Chicco capitalized on his notoriety by minting tokens for use in his restaurant and bar.

Our fascination with politicians, pundits, and people taking dramatic stands on hot-button issues is not a new phenomenon. More than a century ago, Charlestonians—and others nationally—breathlessly followed local restaurateur Vincent Chicco as he challenged a law and a lawmaker who detested him.

Born in Italy on August 15, 1851, Chicco had landed in the city as a young man, became a citizen, married, and opened a restaurant and beer parlor on Market Street. After a law banning the sale of alcohol except in state-run dispensaries took effect in 1892, Chicco was arrested for defying it. Governor Benjamin Tillman—who was behind the new system and resented Charleston for its effete ways—probably thought he had an easy mark in Chicco, a foreigner who wasn’t related to any established families in town.

However, Chicco prevailed in court while continuing to flout the law, and ultimately became a darling of the press. Meanwhile, his wife, Mary, made the papers in New York City for preventing gun-toting alcohol enforcement agents from entering their apartment above the store.

born merchandiser, Chicco promptly minted five-cent tokens good for use in his business; the reverse image was a blind tiger—the nickname given to places selling illegal liquor. Next, he sold cigars he dubbed “The Two Determined,” with an image of himself on the box, facing off against Tillman.

In a town where alcohol consumption was seen as a God-given right, Chicco, a lawbreaker, was elected five times to city council as an alderman. He even inspired a ditty: “The Tiger and the Lion they had a long fight/The Tiger worried the Lion day and night. This is no lie. This is really true.” The city lionized Chicco and kept him in office until his death in 1928. He and his wife are both buried in St. Lawrence Cemetery.

 

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Photographs courtesy of Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South, with Recipes (Ten Speed Press, 2016) by Robert Moss