Prohibition and Crime

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Prohibition and Crime

In October 1929 the crash of the stock market triggered a crisis in the U.S. economy. By 1930 Americans were starting to realize how severe the economic depression would be. Every day more banks failed, businesses folded, factories closed their doors, and increasing numbers of Americans lost their jobs. This depression was to become the Great Depression that lasted for more than a decade. Those who managed to keep their jobs saw their income greatly decrease. Americans' hope for prosperity faded as they struggled to hold on to a minimal standard of living. To most people the U.S. government seemed distant and ineffective, providing no solutions to the difficulties and no relief.

In addition to the nation's economic troubles, for many Americans there was another source of distress: Prohibition. Prohibition began in 1920 when the Eighteenth Amendment (the Prohibition amendment) to the U.S. Constitution took effect. Prohibition banned the manufacture, sale, and (with the Volstead Act) possession of alcoholic beverages, including beer and wine. The new law did nothing to lessen Americans' desire to drink; people wanted their favorite beverages at meals, at parties, and at their neighborhood bar or saloon. Responding to the public's desire, gangs in the cities organized and delivered the liquor. As a result, by the late 1920s organized crime was established and prospering. Gangsters such as Alphonse Capone (1899–1947) dominated entire cities and became heroes of mythical proportions. Then, beginning in 1933, midwestern outlaws began roaring through America's heartland, robbing banks and outsmarting the hapless local police. For a while these outlaws seemed like modern Robin Hoods to people who had lost all their savings in bank closures. It seemed that Americans had accepted a certain amount of lawlessness in the nation.

After Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) was inaugurated as president in March 1933, he introduced a New Deal for Americans. The New Deal was a series of programs designed to bring relief, recovery, and reform to the United States. By that time, the Prohibition amendment was recognized as a failure. A new amendment, the Twenty-First, was in the process of being ratified (approved) by the states. It would in effect repeal the Eighteenth Amendment and again legalize liquor. As soon as liquor became legal, the gangsters who had been supplying it on the sly would no longer be needed. This came as a relief to many Americans who had begun to view crime differently. To them it seemed that something more important than the economy was in shambles—they feared America's morals were in a state of decay. They looked to the new federal government to fight crime and restore respect to law enforcement. They were hoping for a "new deal" on crime as well as improvement in the country's economic condition.

In response to the general public opinion, Congress passed anticrime legislation drawn up by President Roosevelt's attorney general, Homer S. Cummings (1870–1956). Carrying out the war on crime would be J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972) and his agents, or G-men, all from the Bureau of Investigation. In 1935 the bureau changed its name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the G-men were called FBI agents. Thus the New Deal expanded the federal government's role not only in business and economic matters but in law enforcement as well.

Prohibition: Stopping the "demon rum"

America's earliest colonists considered liquor a good gift of nature, a necessity of life. Rum was generally present at all community gatherings. However, it was considered a sin to drink too much. But gradually more and more people did misuse rum, and movements sprang up to stop this misuse. These campaigns to promote wise liquor use or curtail use altogether were called temperance movements. By the early 1870s women's groups had formed to fight the "demon rum." The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) campaigned against liquor and in support of Prohibition. A new major force in the Prohibition movement appeared in 1893, the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). The ASL grew rapidly nationwide and spent millions on anti-alcohol literature and lobbying the federal and state governments for legislation banning alcohol. As a result of ASL's well-orchestrated efforts, individual states began passing Prohibition laws in 1907. Eleven states had passed such laws by the end of 1914. With the powerful ASL influencing congressional elections in 1916, ALS-supported candidates won many seats and, in 1917, Congress agreed to draft a constitutional amendment to establish Prohibition nationwide. The resulting state ratification (formal approval) process went relatively smoothly and the required number of states, thirty-six, had ratified the amendment by January 1919.

Ultimately, at the fateful hour of 12:01 a.m. on January 17, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Prohibition amendment banning the manufacture or sale of alcohol, took effect nationwide. Americans in favor of Prohibition expected the amendment to make the United States a perfect, wholesome place to live. To ensure adequate enforcement, Congress had passed the Volstead Act in October 1919, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, barter (trading for), transport, import, export, delivery, or illegal possession of any intoxicating beverage. "Intoxicating" was defined as one-half of 1 percent alcohol by volume. Since beer was normally 3 to 7 percent alcohol and wine was up to 15 percent alcohol, both were included in the ban. Special permits were allowed for the production of alcohol for medicinal, religious, and industrial use.

Prohibitionists believed the enforcement of the Volstead Act would be easy and inexpensive. They believed "wets" (anti-Prohibitionists) would obey the law and gracefully accept the inevitability of Prohibition. Their outlook proved quite wrong.

Beating Prohibition: A national pastime

During the first year of Prohibition, problems with enforcement quickly multiplied. It became apparent that many Americans did not feel obligated to stop drinking when Prohibition became part of the U.S. Constitution. Although the rate of compliance with the law was difficult to determine, polls indicated that only about one-third of the adult population was willing to abstain. (Abstain means to refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages.) Those who wanted to drink were not stopped by Prohibition.

Where did the illegal liquor come from? Most of it came from illegal stills in homes across the country. Americans could learn all they needed to know at any library, where books and magazines described methods of distilling alcohol in ordinary kitchens. Stores sprang up selling all the needed supplies. Ready-to-use stills of one- to five-gallon capacity were also sold. Most stills were family operations set in basements, in tenement buildings, or behind stores. After only a few years, organized gangs began taking over these operations. Of course, most home stills were too small for gangs to bother with, but the larger operations became part of gang networks. To protect their deliveries of alcohol to customers, many still owners had to pay off the gangsters. Gangs also operated their own large distilleries and paid enforcement agents, police, and politicians to look the other way. By the late 1920s organized crime was established and immensely wealthy. Prohibition, intended to bring abstinence (the voluntary decision not to drink alcoholic beverages) and therefore harmony to the lives of Americans, had instead unleashed a crime wave.

A large amount of illegal liquor came from outside the United States; it was smuggled in from the seas off both the east and west coasts and brought overland from both Canada and Mexico. The boom of bootlegging (smuggling) liquor into the United States overwhelmed Prohibition agents. Organized crime was heavily involved in bootlegging, and daily reports of bribery and corruption eroded the public's respect for the law.

Americans did not stop drinking alcohol, but Prohibition did change their drinking habits. Before Prohibition nearly all heavy drinking was done in saloons, restaurants, cafés, and cabarets (restaurants featuring singing and dancing shows). Prior to Prohibition, saloons were generally the domain of men as drinking by women was socially unacceptable. Prohibition changed that custom. During Prohibition at-home drinking became commonplace and, as a result, women as well as men were able to drink their favorite alcoholic beverages.

When people wanted to step outside their home for a drink, they went to a speakeasy. After Prohibition took effect, saloons and bars had merely gone behind closed doors to operate secretly as speakeasies. The "speaks" catered to women as well as men. To enter, all a person had to do was "speak" an "easy" code word or phrase such as "Joe sent me," and the door would be opened. New York City's saloons grew from sixteen thousand before Prohibition to at least thirty-three thousand "speaks" by the early 1920s. Of course, the cost of a drink was many times more than what it had been before Prohibition. Supplied by gangsters, several hundred thousand speakeasies across the nation served drink after drink. If agents raided a "speak" and arrested its bartender, another bartender took over and generally reopened the speakeasy the same night.

In defiance of highly unpopular laws banning alcohol, in the 1920s drinking became a symbol of independence and sophistication. People associated drinking with romance and adventure. Breaking the law had become a national pastime, perhaps even more popular than baseball. Otherwise law-abiding citizens delighted in finding ways to break the law of Prohibition—to them drinking seemed only slightly illegal.

The Origin of "Bootlegger"

In certain regions of colonial America, colonists had made it illegal for Native Americans to possess liquor. Therefore, some Indian traders would strap bottles to their legs and conceal them with their boots—hence the term "bootlegger." In time, any person who illegally transported liquor was referred to as a bootlegger.

Understaffed government agencies had the impossible task of trying to dry up America and keep it dry. Attempts to do so proved futile. Also, the federal government lost millions of dollars in revenue taxes, which before Prohibition were collected on the sale and manufacture of all alcohol. At the same time, enforcement efforts cost more than a billion dollars.

Organized crime and Al Capone

Prohibitionists never anticipated that a legal ban on drinking would foster public lawlessness and organized crime, but that was exactly what happened with Prohibition. Before 1920 criminal gangs had limited their activities to thievery, gambling, and murders. After Prohibition took effect, these same gangs transformed into organized groups of bootleggers intent on supplying America with illegal alcohol. Gangsters became millionaires. Bribery and corruption of law enforcement officers became widespread. Newspapers profiled gangsters' lives and activities on the same pages that featured the Hollywood stars. Low-life thugs, previously looked upon as menaces to society, became public heroes.

Above all other gangsters, one stood out: Alphonse Capone (1899–1947). Only half a year before the stock market crash of 1929, Alphonse Capone had captivated Americans. They marveled at his wealth and power. He had reached across ethnic boundaries to form racketeering ties with Jews, Italians, Polish groups, and black Americans. His empire—built on prostitution, gambling, and above all, bootlegging—reached from New York to Chicago. Capone's Chicago gang cooperated with gangs in New York and with the infamous Jewish Purple Gang of Detroit. Capone maintained several bases in Chicago, the hub of the organized crime world. He dominated not only business but the politics of Chicago as well. Although Capone seemed invincible, his fame caught the attention of the federal government. Only days after taking office in March 1929, President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) pressured the U.S. Treasury Department to spearhead a campaign to bring down Capone on tax evasion (failing to pay income taxes) charges. Capone joked that he had no idea taxes were due on his illegal activities. Uncertain whether the tax evasion charges would be enough to imprison Capone, Hoover ordered Prohibition agents to collect proof of Capone's Prohibition violations. Meanwhile, Capone, on his way back home from a crime organization meeting, was arrested in May 1929 on the streets of Philadelphia for carrying a concealed deadly weapon. He was sentenced to a one-year jail term. Released from jail early due to good behavior, Capone returned to his Chicago home in March 1930.

On his return Capone found a far different place than the vibrant city he had left almost a year earlier. The U.S. economy had collapsed, and the plight of American people worsened with every day as unemployment rose rapidly. Capone observed ragged, half-starved men roaming the streets of his beloved Chicago. Within days of Capone's return to Chicago, Frank J. Loesch, head of the Chicago Crime Commission, dealt Capone another blow. To enlist public assistance and support, Loesch had put together a list of twenty-eight Chicago men, all murderers and hoodlums, and Capone's name was atop the list as Public Enemy No. 1. Angry and humiliated by having his name included with what he considered common criminals, Capone decided to take his case to the court of public opinion. Hoping to gain favorable publicity and help the city's people, he opened a soup kitchen at 935 South State Street. Capone's kitchen fed the hungry three times a day. Capone stated that it was a shame the government was trying to find ways to prosecute him when there were more pressing problems to solve, such as feeding the hungry.

Yet press on the government did. One of the agents assigned to Capone's case was Eliot Ness. Ness and his "untouchables," a fearless group of young men who could not be bribed, wreaked havoc on Capone's bootlegging activities as they uncovered his Prohibition violations. Like many Americans, Capone had long viewed law officials as pesky and inept. But on October 24, 1931, a shocked Capone was sentenced to eleven years in prison on the tax evasion charges alone. At the same time Capone was having his troubles in Chicago, the new American Mafia emerged in New York City.

The American Mafia is born

The organized gangs in New York City had become so wealthy in the 1920s during Prohibition that they weathered the Depression quite well early in the 1930s. The downturn in the economy actually helped stabilize gang membership: Many young Italians and Jews had made large amounts of money from Prohibition violations, enough that they were ready to leave crime and their poor neighborhoods for a different life. But then the Depression hit, and economic conditions froze them in place; they were trapped, with continued crime their only hope for a decent living. As a result, the ranks of organized crime increased.

Charles "Lucky" Luciano (1897–1962) and his allies, including Jewish boss Meyer Lansky (1902–1983), sat at the top of the New York City crime world by September 1931. They were the victors of the Castellammarese War, a gangster war against the old-line Mafia bosses. The Italian and Sicilian Mafia had existed in Southern Europe for centuries and by the early twentieth century still controlled economic activities in certain areas of Italy and Sicily. They often made their money through smuggling and through extortion, such as being paid by shop owners through threats of violence to provide the businesses protective services from other criminals or gangs. As immigration of Italians and Sicilians to the United States took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Mafia began to emerge in a new setting. These old-line Italian Mafia bosses had required that Mafia members be Italian and had focused on settling vendettas (bitter, prolonged, violent feuds) among themselves rather than making money. However, the prevailing Luciano–Lansky faction, after 1931, concentrated solely on making money and killed those who stood in their way. With the highly profitable bootlegging period over in 1933, they focused on gambling, loan-sharking (loaning money at very high interest rates and using threats to receive repayment), narcotics distribution, and prostitution. They would invest some of their illegally gained profits into legitimate businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs. Luciano also reenergized the "Commission," an organized body of representatives from various crime groups. The "Commission" guided the operations of organized crime. This change of direction away from the old Italian Mafia reign, along with the reestablishment of the "Commission," is known as the Americanization of the Mafia.

End of Prohibition

It was clear to most Americans by 1932 that Prohibition would soon end. Prohibition was a social experiment that had failed. First it took jobs away from thousands of honest people employed in the brewery, distillery, and wine industries. Then it created widespread disrespect for the law. Organized crime had become incredibly wealthy. Many Prohibition agents, police, and innocent citizens had lost their lives in shoot-outs over illegal trafficking of alcohol. Furthermore, bootleg alcohol containing poisonous chemicals had caused physical harm, blindness, and sometimes death in over ten thousand people. Prohibition overburdened the court system, and it cost massive amounts of money to enforce. And perhaps most important, many Americans believed that the Eighteenth Amendment was an infringement of personal rights. For all these reasons, Prohibition was doomed.

By 1930 an unlikely group of organizations banded together to form the Prohibition repeal movement: the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, predominantly businessmen; the Women's Organization of National Prohibition Reform, a large contingent of women headed by Pauline Sabin; intellectuals, writers, critics, and journalists who had always opposed Prohibition; and organized labor, a group that had long been dismayed that the wealthy could afford to purchase illegal alcohol and keep on drinking while common laborers could not afford an illegal beer. A new constitutional amendment would have to be crafted to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. This had never been done before, and anti-Prohibitionists were not certain that outright repeal would even be possible.

In attempting to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment, anti-Prohibitionists took a practical approach. They laid part of the blame for the Depression on Prohibition. Legalizing alcohol, they claimed, would bring back jobs, generate tax revenue for the government, and stop expensive attempts to enforce Prohibition. Under intense pressure from the public, Congress agreed to draft a constitutional amendment ending Prohibition. The Twenty-First Amendment was written by Congress and submitted to the states for ratification (approval) in February 1933.

As soon as President Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, he issued an executive order drastically reducing the appropriations (funds) used to enforce Prohibition. Knowing it would take the rest of the year to ratify the Twenty-First Amendment, he urged Congress to pass a bill legalizing 3.2 percent alcoholic content, so that at least beer could be legally produced. The bill passed and went into effect on April 7, 1933. Over two hundred breweries immediately hired workers and produced real beer. Speakeasies suddenly became legal beer houses. In cities nationwide, parades, sirens, and cowbells marked the first day of legalized beer.

On December 5, 1933, Utah became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Twenty-First Amendment, and Prohibition came to an end. That evening Roosevelt issued a proclamation that ratification was complete and that not only beer but liquor was again legal.

New ventures for organized crime

The repeal of Prohibition put an end to the bootlegging business. Gangsters had to find new business ventures in the midst of the economic crisis. These new ventures included loan-sharking, labor racketeering, and drug trafficking. Loan-sharking became a major source of steady income for organized crime. Typically loan sharks required that for every five dollars borrowed, six dollars had to be paid back each week. That amounted to a loan rate of over 1,000 percent per year.

Labor racketeering was another popular venture. Gangsters worked their way into positions of authority in regular labor unions and then took money from the union's pension and health funds. Drug trafficking was a natural extension of bootlegging: Organized crime again supplied an illegal substance desired by the public. By the twenty-first century drug trafficking remained organized crime's biggest business.

The outlaws

By 1933 another lawless group had appeared on the American scene: the midwestern outlaws. These outlaws were rural bandits who operated in the Midwest and South in 1933 and 1934. Toting Tommy guns (an automatic weapon with shortened barrel; more formally known as Thompson submachine gun) or sawed-off shotguns and driving fast cars, they robbed banks and gasoline service stations in isolated areas. Before roaring away, they shot up the building and frequently injured or killed people in the way.

The outlaws operated individually or with a partner or family members. Unlike the members of organized crime, outlaws were not unified in any way. The most famous outlaws were John Dillinger (1903–1934), Bonnie Parker (1911–1934) and Clyde Barrow (1909–1934), George "Machine Gun" Kelly (1895–1954), "Ma" Barker and her boys, George "Baby Face" Nelson (1908–1934), and Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd (1901–1934). Their total take from robberies was tiny compared to the money organized crime amassed through Prohibition violations. Organized crime considered the outlaws freaks and small-time thrill seekers. However, the organized gangsters and the freewheeling outlaws had at least one thing in common: They both made a mockery of the hapless and often corrupt local police forces.

The Depression-weary public tended to romanticize the gangsters and the outlaws. Americans identified with the outlaws, who were portrayed in newspapers as Robin Hood figures—stealing from the banks where so many Americans had lost their life savings. John Dillinger became a sort of folk hero, leaping over barriers to grab money bags from bank tellers. Newspapers followed his every move just as they followed the movie stars. Although the public was aghast when Dillinger killed innocent people, they were fascinated by his ability to break out of jails and elude police.

The Lindbergh kidnapping

As America continued its love/hate relationship with crime in the early 1930s, one incident jolted the entire nation. Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974), a fearless pilot, had completed the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927. The "Lone Eagle" was America's foremost hero. He married Anne Morrow in 1929, and together the couple flew on tours across the United States to promote air travel. On March 1, 1932, the country was stunned by the news that the Lindberghs' first child, twenty-month-old Charles Jr., had been kidnapped from his bedroom. The body of the toddler was found in May, a short distance from the parents' home. Eventually Bruno Hauptmann (1899–1936) would be convicted of the murder. Although he maintained his innocence, he was executed on April 3, 1936. For many Americans the abduction was overwhelmingly disturbing. In mid-1932 Congress quickly moved to pass the Federal Kidnapping Act, popularly known as the "Lindbergh Law," which made kidnapping a federal crime. This law was the first allowing federal officers to chase criminals, at least kidnappers, across state lines.

A New Deal response to crime

The stories of gangsters and outlaws had captured Americans' curiosity, but the brutality of these criminals together with the horror of the Lindbergh kidnapping case made some people wonder whether the United States was in the middle of a moral crisis as well as an economic one. Crime was not an issue in the 1932 presidential race. However, by the time Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in March 1933, Americans hoped that he could solve both the economic crisis and the crime problem. Local law enforcement had been unsuccessful in dealing with the lawlessness. The local agencies were hampered by restrictive laws and often were riddled with corruption.

President Roosevelt chose Homer S. Cummings (1870–1956) as his attorney general—the person in charge of the Department of Justice. Cummings would lead the New Deal war on crime. The Justice Department included the Bureau of Investigation, headed by J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972). With his superior organizational skills, Hoover had put together a top-notch corps of special agents. However, the corps was by law limited to carrying out dreary chores such as trailing prostitutes and checking on violations of obscure laws. The corps could neither make arrests nor carry guns.

On June 17, 1933, special agents and unarmed police officers were escorting bank robber and prison escapee Frank Nash back to prison. Suddenly, three men armed with machine guns ambushed the group, killing three of the police officers and one of the special agents. The nation was outraged. Attorney General Cummings used the incident, called the Kansas City Massacre, to spur the development of an anti-crime package, which was approved by Congress in May 1934. The package included provisions that made almost any crime that involved crossing a state line a federal offense and fair game for federal agents. Robberies of national banks, illegal use of telephone and telegraph wires, and attacks on federal officials were all made federal offenses. Congress also allowed J. Edgar Hoover's special agents to carry guns and make arrests.

Cummings knew that restoring the public's confidence in law enforcement was key to winning the war on crime. He decided to commit federal agents to raids that would offer the biggest publicity payoff. J. Edgar Hoover and his special agents would play the key role. Cummings and Hoover focused on celebrity criminals who were the symbols of America's crime problem. Hoover and his agents, including Agent Melvin Purvis (1903–1960) who was chief of the bureau's Chicago office, went after the infamous midwestern outlaws. Working with local law officers, they gunned down Bonnie and Clyde in May 1934, John Dillinger in July 1934, "Pretty Boy" Floyd in October 1934, "Baby Face" Nelson in November 1934, and "Ma" Barker and son Freddie in 1935.

Cummings was the supreme symbol of law and order by the end of 1934. By 1935, in the eyes of the public, J. Edgar Hoover was a larger-than-life hero. This image was cemented in the public's mind with the release of the 1935 megahit movie G-Men. The film traded the old gangster myth for a new story: a tough lawman bringing criminals to justice and credibility back to law enforcement. Americans welcomed this New Deal on crime. J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men—with some help from Hollywood—had redeemed U.S. law enforcement.

Organized crime continues to grow

In 1935 the Bureau of Investigation changed its name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Hoover's Gmen became known as FBI agents. Hoover and his men had demolished the midwestern outlaws, but the now-national organized crime syndicate (a network of groups) encountered almost no resistance from the FBI. Organized crime continued to grow and prosper but kept a low profile. Hoover chose not to battle organized crime. He did not want to risk a poor showing against the underworld. To preserve the respect the FBI had gained, Hoover continued to go after easier, high-profile targets that would bring lots of favorable publicity to him and his agency.

In 1936 President Roosevelt ordered Hoover to make national security the FBI's top priority. The FBI was to keep the president informed of any foreign-influenced subversive activities in the United Sates. The FBI's focus remained in this arena for years to come. The agency's failure to pursue the gangsters of the organized crime syndicate left one of the Depression era's legacies—a well-established and wealthy underworld network of crime.

For More Information


behr, edward. prohibition: thirteen years that changed america. new york, ny: arcade publishing, 1996.

bergman, andrew. we're in the money: depression america and its films. new york, ny: new york university press, 1971.

bergreen, laurence. capone: the man and the era. new york, ny: simon & schuster, 1994.

kelly, robert j. encyclopedia of organized crime in the united states: from capone's chicago to the new urban underworld. westport, ct: green-wood press, 2000.

kennedy, ludovic. the airman and the carpenter: the lindbergh kidnapping and the framing of richard hauptmann. new york, ny: viking, 1985.

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powers, richard gid. secrecy and power: the life of j. edgar hoover. new york, ny: free press, 1987.

rose, kenneth d. american women and the repeal of prohibition. new york, ny: new york university press, 1996.

ruth, david e. inventing the public enemy: the gangster in american culture, 1918–1934. chicago, il: university of chicago press, 1996.

severn, bill. the end of the roaring twenties: prohibition and repeal. new york, ny: julian messner, 1969.

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Prohibition and Crime

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