Crime 1920-1940

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Crime 1920-1940

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
Notable People
Primary Sources
Suggested Research Topics


In America, just as in many countries, outlaw heroes and larger-than-life lawmen historically have appeared and been looked to by the public in response to certain situations. These situations may include unjust or unpopular government regulation, concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, or widespread poverty. All of these situations existed in the United States during the early years of the Great Depression, 1929–1933. Preceding and through the early Depression years the government banned alcohol in what became known as the Prohibition years, 1920–1933. This policy was highly unpopular with the public. At the same time, a very small percentage of Americans controlled a high percentage of wealth in the country. As a result, due to the extreme economic depression, many middle class citizens experienced poverty for the first time in their lives. To the workers and needy the early years of the Depression brought desperation and conflict. Crowd violence in the form of food riots and unemployment protests of the early years of the Depression gave way to labor strikes and violent clashes with troops and law authorities in the later 1930s. At the beginning of the Depression the U.S. government had appeared ineffective at solving many problems affecting the average citizen.

In the midst of the Great Depression, faced with economic hardship and desperation, the American public needed heroes. Thirsty Americans especially needed someone to outsmart the government's ban on alcoholic beverages. Quick to respond to the call throughout the 1920s, ethnic gangs in the ghettos, which were once groups that were loosely associated through criminal activity, organized and had been delivering the "goods," specifically bootlegged liquor. As a result, by the late 1920s, these criminals, now operating in well-structured groups generally referred to as organized crime, were established and wealthy. Powerful members of organized crime units, or gangsters, such as Al Capone of Chicago became public figures of mythical proportion. In addition, by 1933, outlaws in the Midwest began racing through the heartland robbing banks. To some citizens who had lost all their savings in bank closures, these outlaws were often seen as contemporary Robin Hoods. On the other hand to those who lost their money in bank robberies, it was another cruel feature of the Great Depression.

The presidential inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in March 1933 saw the advent of the New Deal—Roosevelt's plan for relief, reform, and recovery. Government suddenly seemed responsive to the common man. These new government programs designed to raise employment and restart the economy rekindled a spark of hope in Americans that their economic woes would come to an end. Due to this renewed faith in their government and new hope for the future, Americans began to view crime more negatively and as something that must end.

Thus, the expanding role of the federal government in people's daily lives during the Great Depression was not only in economic programs regarding business and finance, but in law enforcement as well. Congress passed expanded anti-crime legislation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) grew into America's finely tuned investigative arm under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover.

Such violent events as gangster wars, outlaw raids, food riots, unemployment protests, and labor confrontations that played out on the streets of America proved to be one of the hallmarks of the Great Depression.


Prohibition begins as the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act make the sale and consumption of alcohol illegal.
Bootleggers, by supplying illegal alcohol to the public, become wealthy and public cult heroes as the Great Depression sets in and respect for the government declines.
Gangster movies Little Caesar and Public Enemy premier in Hollywood glorifying the financial success of gangsters during a time of economic depression.
In New York City, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky murder old line Mafia heads and form the new American Mafia.
October 24, 1931:
Al Capone, the nation's most notorious gangster, receives an eleven-year prison sentence for income tax evasion.
Midwestern outlaws rob and murder in America's heartland gaining notoriety from a public whose confidence in the U.S. banking system and the government is shaken by the Great Depression.
December 5, 1933:
Prohibition ends with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment as the New Deal begins, restoring public faith in government and the U.S. economy.
Congress passes and President Roosevelt signs Attorney General Homer S. Cumming's anti-crime package.
J. Edgar Hoover's Special Agents capture or kill all of the famous Midwest outlaws.
The Hollywood gangster movie G-Men opens in cinemas reinforcing the growing public respect for federal government.
J. Edgar Hoover shifts the FBI's focus to fascists and communists.

Issue Summary

The Great Depression and Crime

The onset of the Great Depression in the years of 1929 to 1933 brought some continuity but also major changes as well as public exposure to crime. Organized crime that rose with the beginning of Prohibition and gained much media and public attention through the 1920s continued through Prohibition's end in 1933. Bootlegging, which proved extremely profitable for gangsters, involved the smuggling of liquor across borders and delivering it to establishments known as speakeasies that illegally sold liquor, or to private customers. Usually the corruption of local law authorities aided the success of such criminal operations that often were reliable systems of supply for their customers. A new crime wave catching public attention, however, was street crowd violence. This social response to the new economic crisis became increasingly pronounced during President Herbert Hoover's (served 1929–1933) tenure in the White House. Hoover showed little sympathy for those who had fallen on hard times, and his efforts at recovery proved ineffective. As a result many of those affected, as the unemployment rate climbed from three percent in 1929 to 25 percent in 1933, felt a growing sense of hopelessness and despair. The U.S. economic system based on free market capitalism was being seriously called into question for the first time and financial leaders were viewed with rising disdain. Mass demonstrations were occurring and many feared a loss of government control leading to anarchy, or lawlessness, was not far away.

The mob violence of the early years of the Great Depression decreased as President Roosevelt, through his personal charm and new programs, reestablished public confidence in the United States. The quick resolution of a national banking crisis in March 1933 in which many banks had been going out of business and the quick adoption of radically new economic programs through his first one hundred days of office began to renew hope. Though violent incidences out of frustration over the lingering Great Depression continued, the focus of public crime shifted to labor strikes that only rarely involved battles between labor activists and the police.

Many factors led to major changes in public reaction to crime. The federal government's inability to first control organized crime through the 1920s and then solve the economic problems of the Depression in the early 1930s fed the public's lack of confidence in government and in the future of the nation. In a way the more notorious criminals were seen as a sort of hero reflecting the traditional U.S. model of individualism and economic success. The combination in the early 1930s of the rise of street mob violence, the seeming threat of anarchy, President Roosevelt's effectiveness in at least stopping the decline of the economy, and the increasing size of the federal government to cope with social and economic problems, however, led the public to disdain crime again. The majority of Americans sought a restoration of law and order to accompany the slowly recovering economy.

More About…Bootlegging

Bootlegging is a term originated by early Native American traders. Since it was either illegal or severely frowned upon for a Native American to have a bottle of liquor, they carried their bottle in their boot. Hence early on a bootlegger was a person who illegally transported liquor.

Bootleggers made huge profits during Prohibition, from January 1920 until December 1933, when the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. Best estimates put American consumption of bootleg liquor at more than 100 million gallons annually during this time. Most of the liquor came into the country over land through Canada and Mexico or by boat. The wealth accumulated by gangs distributing and selling liquor allowed organized crime to expand and prosper.

Bootlegging did not disappear, however, with the repeal of Prohibition. A person making batches of "mountain dew," also known as "moonshine" or "white lightening," could sell the product at lower prices than legal liquor because the seller did not pay any alcohol taxes. Bootleg liquor, however, often had serious consequences for the buyer.

Some producers mistakenly used methyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) in production of bootleg liquor. One batch made in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1951, killed 42 of its consumers. Producers were also known to add lye to whiskey to give it a sting or to mix in ether or fuel oil. Taking a drink of bootleg liquor wasn't always a safe bet, but in the time of Prohibition, many were willing to take that chance.

Crowd Violence

Following the crash of the stock market in October 1929 the national economy began a steady downward spiral. Unemployment was increasing, banks were failing, companies were filing for bankruptcy, and homes and farms were foreclosed on and repossessed by banks. President Hoover's personal aloofness portrayed an uncaring administration as he ineffectively emphasized voluntary efforts by industry to curb layoffs and private charities to provide relief. A sense of public helplessness led to hopelessness and then anger and despair by those most affected by the downturn. A number of important events followed that further dramatized this trend.

March 6, 1930, was declared an International Unemployment Day by the U.S. Communist Party, which was trying to take advantage of the growing public unrest to further its political agenda and increase its membership. Protest marches were held throughout the nation demanding government action to assist the unemployed. In the previous month several thousand had marched in Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia and clashed with police setting the tone for further demonstrations. One of the more violent events on March 6 occurred in New York City when 35,000 people, both workers and the unemployed, gathered to hear Communist Party leaders, including William Z. Foster, speak at Union Square. At least three hundred police lined around the event that began peacefully until the crowd heard they were denied a permit by the city to march to city hall and about two thousand began marching anyway in defiance. Their intention had simply been to demand action by the city in providing more job relief. On their way to city hall, however, they were met with police both on foot and on horses armed with nightsticks. On that same day in Washington, DC, police used teargas to disperse a similar rally in front of the White House.

Other forms of crowd disturbances were occurring at this time. Food riots broke out in 1930 and 1931 in a number of U.S. communities. Some notable disturbances occurred in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Van Dyke, Michigan; San Francisco; and Oklahoma City. In Minneapolis a crowd of women broke windows of a grocery store and surged in to raid the store shelves. Another Minneapolis grocery store raid in February 1931 led to the arrest of seven raiders. Throughout the spring and summer of 1931 hunger and unemployment marches with related violence occurred in cities across the country.

One of the most notable events occurred in 1932 when up to 20,000 veterans of World War I (1914–1918) and their families, many out of work, arrived in Washington, DC, from across the country. Calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, or more simply the Bonus Army, they came to support a proposed bill in Congress that would pay a bonus to war veterans for their services. Congress had approved the bonus in 1924 to be paid in the form of a life insurance policy in 1945. The new bill proposed to pay each veteran $500 cash immediately instead of deferring the payments. President Hoover initially received the Bonus Army peacefully providing food and supplies. When the new bill was defeated on June 17 in the Senate President Hoover requested that the crowd disband and return home to avoid further violence.

About two thousand remained, however, to protest the defeat of the bill. Violent confrontations with the police led to four being killed. By July 28 Hoover decided to remove the remaining Bonus Army members and one thousand U.S. soldiers along with tanks and machine guns under the command of General Douglas MacArthur and Major Dwight D. Eisenhower were sent to clear the veterans. The military charged aggressively through the area against men, women, and children, with bayonets drawn and tear gas bombs exploding. Shantytown structures that had been erected through the previous months caught fire. Two veterans were shot and wounded and more than 60 injured. One of the most devastating events of the day occurred when a baby died from tear gas exposure. The public was outraged by the government's harsh actions.

Violence was in no way limited to cities and industrial workers. Since World War I farmers had been producing too much food. As a result they were getting very low prices for their crops. Many could not make ends meet or afford to make their farm mortgage payments to the banks. Banks were foreclosing on those who could not make their payments, taking possession, and then selling the farms at auctions to recover what money they could. Seeing no help coming from Hoover, in 1933 farmers in the Midwest began taking matters into their own hands. They began organizing to push for mortgage relief legislation and a guarantee that at least their farming production costs would be covered. Some went beyond lobbying to forcefully stopping eviction sales and intimidating judges, bankers, and insurance agents. In Dennison, Iowa, a crowd of farmers attacked collection agents and sheriff's deputies attempting to foreclose on a farm. Such violence in early 1933 was growing so much that the governor of Iowa placed six counties under martial law, which meant suspending local civil laws and placing military forces—in this instance armed National Guard troops—in control to maintain peace. Some warned President-elect Franklin Roosevelt that economic strife was so widespread and severe that a violent revolution was brewing in the Midwest farm region. Farm relief became a top priority of Roosevelt's first New Deal programs.

Labor Strife

As part of the New Deal, Congress passed laws favorable to labor. The laws recognized the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain, or negotiate working conditions as a group with company leadership. Passage of these acts, however, fell far short in solving U.S. labor issues. Many companies were slow to recognize unions or to sit down at the bargaining table. In many cases labor leaders had to resort to more aggressive tactics to force union recognition. Throughout much of 1934 the level of violence between labor activists, local authorities, and company security guards rose to levels the nation had not seen for several decades. The Communist Party aided many of the strikes and protests. Others, however, occurred without any political or organized labor involvement.

One such strike occurred at several factories in Toledo, Ohio, where automobile parts were manufactured. In early February 1934 a labor strike in Toledo appeared quickly settled and resulted in improved pay and an agreement to further discuss further union recognition. One factory, however, pulled out of the deal. In reaction factory workers joined by some unemployed workers established picket lines around the plant. The company obtained an injunction, which is a court order prohibiting a certain action, against the pickets. The injunction limited how many could picket at any one time and where. The injunction, however, was largely ignored as more picketers joined, eventually growing to ten thousand protesters. To enforce the court order police moved in with tear gas, fire hoses, and guns. They were joined after several hours of battle by seven hundred National Guard troops. During the confrontation the National Guard opened fire killing two strikers and wounding 15 others. A truce was finally called and a negotiated settlement reached after two weeks of discussions, resulting in workers receiving a 22 percent raise as well as union recognition.

The West Coast witnessed such violent outbreaks as well. The International Longshoreman's Association in San Francisco, California, went on strike on May 9, 1934, and consisted of a labor walkout and the forming of picket lines. The workers demanded formal recognition of their union and improved working conditions. Companies that were responsible for loading and unloading ships held out, not giving in to workers' demands. By July 5 the companies decided to begin operations again by crossing the picket lines with trucks to haul goods under police escort. Violence erupted with protesters and police using clubs, stones, tear gas, and eventually guns. Two strikers were killed and many injured as the National Guard arrived to restore order. In reaction to the violence the strike spread to other unions who joined in. Within a few days, however, the strike was ended. The longshoremen eventually won most of their demands through later negotiation.

Violence continued through the mid-1930s as many companies resisted union activity at their places of business. On January 11, 1937, a sit-down strike at a General Motors automobile plant in Flint, Michigan, led to a clash between strikers and the police involving rocks, bottles, tear gas, and pistols. The violence in Flint was unlike any seen in any other sit-down strike, however, it was only as a result of company guards and police trying to prevent food delivery to the strikers inside. Strikers overcame the guards and took over the gate, and with police intervention a riot ensued. A 1937 strike at a Republic steel mill in South Chicago led to a Memorial Day battle between picketers and police, leaving ten strikers dead, 30 wounded and another 28 picketers injured

Finally workers at the Goodyear Tire Factory in Akron, Ohio, tried a more peaceful strategy—a sit-down strike. The workers shutoff their machines and refused to leave until the company recognize their union. The success of the strike led to other workers around the country adopting this more peaceful approach. Approximately 170 sit down strikes occurred in U.S. factories through 1937. By the early 1940s the industrial mobilization for World War II (1939–1945) and the resulting full employment eventually led to a major decrease in violent labor actions.

At a GlanceWhat's a Gangster to Do?

With the end of Prohibition in 1933 gangsters had to find new business ventures in Depression America. Many went back to old standbys of gambling and prostitution, while innovators found new lucrative rackets of loan-sharking, labor racketeering, and drug trafficking.

After gambling, loan-sharking was the major source of steady income for organized crime. Gamblers and high-risk credit individuals who could not obtain a loan from a legitimate bank often became customers to loan sharks. Typically, loan sharks charged "six for five." For every five dollars borrowed, six must be paid back each week. That amounts to a 1,004 percent loan rate per year! One investigation in New York found the organized crime syndicate netting 3,000 percent. In contrast, a less expensive loan shark was loaning money to customers for a rate of only 585 percent.

Labor racketeering became another popular venture for gangsters. Members of criminal groups worked their way into positions of authority in labor unions. Once inside the unions they used pension and health funds to invest in high-risk ventures or to loan themselves money that they never paid back.

Drug trafficking was a natural extension of bootlegging, supplying the demand of an illegal substance desired by the public such as opium, heroin, marijuana, cocaine, or amphetamines. By 2000 drug trafficking and laundering money of the proceeds were organized crime's biggest businesses.

End of the Gangster Period

In March 1930 gangster Al Capone returned after nine months in jail to a far different place than the rowdy and vigorous Chicago he had left. The stock market crash of 1929, which occurred during his stint in jail, had provoked a collapse of the nation's economy, causing the previous sense of security and confidence to evaporate. Every day more Americans lost their jobs and found it increasingly difficult to put food on the table.

For favorable publicity and a personal desire to help, Capone opened a soup kitchen at 935 South State Street in Chicago. Three times a day his kitchen fed the hungry, and on Thanksgiving Day alone, five thousand men, women, and children were fed. Capone often wondered why the government was wasting its time trying to prosecute him when such pressing social problems like feeding the hungry existed.

Capone also exhibited generosity on a private level. Friends report he helped the elderly people of Chicago earn a few dollars and stay off welfare. One of his tactics was to ask if he could rent the person's garage or basement, saying he might need the space. Capone never actually used the space, but he would pay rent each month. By the end of 1930 Al Capone had never been more popular. His life was taking on mythical proportions as a real life Robin Hood, an outlaw who gives generously to the poor and needy. He seemed to have genuine regard for the underprivileged as much as he had little regard for public agencies and seemingly inept law enforcement.

Despite the new public acceptance of Capone, the federal government did not change its opinion of him. It continued to consider him a criminal who needed to be brought to justice. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) pursued a determined and exhaustive investigation into Capone's tax records. Likewise Eliot Ness and a fearless group of men he recruited, dubbed the "untouchables" because they could not be bribed by criminals to look the other way, wreaked havoc on Capone's breweries as they uncovered Prohibition violations. Eventually, tax evasion charges led to Capone's conviction. On October 24, 1931, Capone was shocked when the court handed down an 11-year prison sentence. He would eventually be released due to ill health in 1939 and die in 1947. Less than two years after Capone's conviction Prohibition would be officially ended and the era of gangsters who bootlegged alcoholic beverages would draw to a close.

Crime in the Movies

As the Great Depression worsened in the early 1930s, economic paralysis took hold of the country. A shop closed in one neighborhood, a factory in another, and a bank in yet another. Disillusionment with American institutions, including the government, big business, and the legal system, ran high. Uncertain and frustrated Americans became a receptive audience to the entertainment and escape of Hollywood movies. As unemployment numbers moved steadily upward to 15 then 25 percent of the population, weekly movie attendance continued to average sixty to seventy million. Although they could barely afford to be there, Americans continued to find respite from the worries of real life by attending movies.

The movies often provided an outlet for feelings of frustration, loss, struggle, and hope. Viewing the travails and triumphs of characters on the big screen allowed audiences to forget their own worries for at least the duration of a movie. One genre of movies that became very popular during the Depression was the gangster movie, which began to depict the gangsters' new standing in national society. Hollywood presented crime as a highly successful and organized business, and often depicted criminals as essentially likeable despite their unlawful activity. Little Caesar (Warner Brothers, 1930) was the first great gangster "talkie," a movie with sound. Caesar Enrico Bandello, "Rico," played by Edward G. Robinson, followed all the idealized stereotype of an American's climb from the bottom rungs of society upward to success. Rico was a thinly disguised, fictional version of Al Capone. He robbed and murdered, but at the same time was kind and generous. Ultimately and morally, since his success was outside the law, his story ended in death.

With the box office success of Little Caesar, some fifty gangster films appeared in 1931. Civic groups and parent-teacher associations denounced the glorification of the gangster and the disrespect shown to law enforcement authorities. Despite the clamor, a great many people, young and old, packed the movie houses. Actor James Cagney drew more audiences when he appeared on the screen as Tommy Powers in Public Enemy (Warner Bros., 1931). Cagney's character was irresistibly appealing to moviegoers. Tommy Powers was industrious, classy, a wise guy, and a ladies' man, who never wavered from the system of values held by fellow thieves. Only when his criminal conduct pushed too far outside the law did he become doomed to die. Cagney's character was not seen as vicious or troubled, rather he was considered to be a man who had directed his rage against injustice.

The heyday of American gangster movies was 1930–1931, however, by 1932 the anti-gangster crusade began to gain momentum and fewer gangster movies were made. Historians look back to the gangster films and speculate as to why so many Americans spent so many hours inside the theaters. It seems that during even the most wrenching years of the Depression crime and the criminal were closely tied to success. Crime figures in the movies were shown as rugged individualists who on their own initiative raised themselves from poverty to a life of financial wealth. Success starved Americans could triumph through the fictional stories in films. Americans, however, often held conflicting attitudes towards individual success. Those attitudes included admiring approval and, at the same time, a jealous disapproval. Therefore, the success of gangster films may have represented to some a self-centered, greedy rise to the top much like the rise of very wealthy Americans whom many blamed for their economic woes. A gangster character's ultimate failure then also represented social justice to this group of moviegoers. Still another group of moviegoers may have simply identified with the fictional characters as men who worked hard but failed, just as the moviegoer who had worked and failed due to the economic collapse that resulted from the Depression.

Birth of the American Mafia

The poor economic conditions actually helped stabilize organized crime. Many Italians and Jews living in the ghettos had been ready to rise out of the ghetto, just as the Irish had earlier, but the battered national economy froze them in place. Most young people living in ghettos remained trapped there, with crime being one of their few hopes for making a decent living. With a steady supply of new recruits, organized crime grew and became more sophisticated.

Alongside the rise of the gangster movies in 1930 and 1931 came the very real gangster war, specifically the Castellammarese War in New York City. By September 10, 1931, Lucky Luciano and his allies, including Jewish boss Meyer Lansky, had risen to the top of the crime world. Together, Luciano and his allies succeeded in murdering old line "bosses," a term used by organized crime to describe a leader, and in so doing, formed the new American Mafia, a secret criminal organization composed primarily of people of Italian and Sicilian ancestry.

Five New York crime families emerged in the aftermath of the crime war. They formed a new alliance, or syndicate, sometimes referred to as the Luciano-Lansky plan. The new Mafia had no tolerance for the old Italian Mafia's ideas. The old Mafia believed in a certain "honor" which demanded ethnic purity, allowed warring against other Italians, and concentrated on settling old vendettas rather than making money. The new Mafia organized the various ethnic groups into an efficient, cooperative underworld syndicate whose sole goal was making money. They only killed those who stood in the way of profits. Luciano also reinstated the "Commission" as a leadership body for the crime organization. Ironically this "Americanization" of the Mafia took place at approximately the same time that Al Capone was seeing his career end in a tax evasion trial. The new syndicate had become so wealthy during the last years of Prohibition that it was able to withstand the effects of the Depression, at least for awhile.

More About…The Juvenile Delinquent

By the late 1930s Americans had become acutely aware that the Depression years had taken a toll on families. As a result troubled homes were producing troubled kids. Between the film releases of Public Enemy (1931) and Dead End (1937), Hollywood, in step with the latest social thought, found a way to show how a child's environment could lead to juvenile delinquency. Gangster movies of the early 1930s had presented crime as an oftentimes glamorous lifestyle and did not explore its causes, but that would later change along with public attitudes about crime and criminals.

By 1937 Hollywood had changed its emphasis dramatically. Dead End explored the lives of five very believable teenage boys from the East River slums of New York. Their parents, unemployed, drank and argued and their home surroundings were filthy. The "friends" fought amongst themselves, swam in the polluted East River, and mimicked the toughest hoods of the day. The gangster myth buried, Dead End linked hoodlums and crime with upbringing in squalid conditions.

James Cagney, the gangster in Public Enemy and the lawman in G-Men, gave another brilliant performance in the 1938 film Angels with Dirty Faces, playing the character of Rocky. To the dead-end kids of Angels, Rocky was a hoodlum hero who had grown up in their neighborhood. Father Jerry, a friend of Rocky's since childhood, came to him on death row and asked Rocky to destroy his own popular hero image by dying like a coward, resisting his death sentence like a man afraid. As Rocky and Father Jerry walk the last few steps together, finally, Rocky complied by being dragged screaming and sobbing to the electric chair. The dead end kids were told he died "like a yellow rat" (Clarens, Crime Movies: An Illustrated History. p. 155). Father Jerry then urged the boys, despite the lifestyles from which they came, to find a better way.

By 1932 it was clear through increasing opposition and the government's inability to enforce alcohol restrictions that Prohibition would soon end. It finally did with passage of the Twenty-first Amendment on December 5, 1933, making the sale and consumption of alcohol legal again. The bootleg gangs of Prohibition, which had become organized crime syndicates, managed to stay together and returned to their earlier businesses of gambling and prostitution. More importantly, the new Mafia also moved ahead into new ventures of labor racketeering, which uses the power of labor unions to control business and industry, loan sharking, and drug trafficking.

The Outlaws

The continued economic downturn of the Great Depression led to yet another crime phenomenon that caught the country's interest. A new breed of criminal arrived—the Midwest outlaw. These rural bandits appeared on the scene and briefly operated in the Midwest and South in 1933 and 1934. Traveling in fast-moving cars, toting Tommy guns and sawed off shotguns, they struck at isolated banks and filling stations. They would shoot up buildings and people before roaring away with their stolen money, and they preyed on inept and corrupt local police.

Descended from American frontier outlaws of the nineteenth century, these bandits—John Dillinger, George "Baby Face" Nelson, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and "Ma" Barker and her sons—stole only a fraction of the money that Al Capone and other East Coast gangsters made. Gangsters considered these bandits small time thrill seekers. The Depression weary public, just as it had done with the fictionalized silver screen gangsters, tended to romanticize the outlaws as daring and resourceful Robin Hoods.

By 1933 many Americans in the heartland had lost jobs and seen their farms foreclosed by the banking establishment. Nearly helpless against these economic forces, people welcomed stories of banks being held up by outlaws boldly taking what they wanted at gun-point, who easily escaped with the goods. When "Pretty Boy" Floyd, waving a machine gun, rushed into a bank, he often took, in addition to cash, mortgage notes on local families' homes and farms, which he promptly destroyed. It was actions like these that provided a measure of public support for the outlaws. While not condoning the brutality employed by the outlaws, Americans felt that government in general—and public officials in particular—were ineffective in dealing with the problems of the day, be they economic or criminal. The outlaws and their ability to evade the police further reinforced this belief.

Among the outlaws, John Dillinger emerged as one of the most infamous as he projected an appealing bravado, leaping over barriers to grab moneybags from hapless bank tellers. Newspapers reported his every move as he roamed and robbed from state to state. Although Dillinger had killed ten men, his ability to break out of jail and elude police fascinated the public. He was finally gunned down in July 1934 as he left a movie house where he had watched Clark Gable in "Manhattan Melodrama," a New York gangster film.

The New Deal Responds to Crime

Although gangsters and outlaws captivated America's imagination, their brutal activities coupled with the horror of a high profile kidnapping case leading to the murder of the infant son of popular aviator Charles Lindbergh, increasingly caused the public to believe a moral as well as economic crisis was at hand. By 1933, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) assumed the presidency, Americans began to look to the federal government not only for economic relief and jobs, but also for a solution to the crime problem. Local enforcement agencies, riddled with corruption and hampered by restrictive laws, had been unable to cope with the growing lawlessness. Now every new bank robbery and kidnapping was proof to many Americans that criminals were at war with society.

Just as President Roosevelt took over the reigns of federal government in Washington, DC, MGM Studios released a film, Gabriel Over the White House, that illustrated the shift in public attitude towards crime and criminals. In Gabriel a U.S. president is able to put a quick end to crime by allowing speedy trials and firing squads. Clearly the movie industry and many in the public were no longer enamored with crime and violence. Although such a radical course was outside the boundaries of a democratic society and therefore beyond President Roosevelt's consideration, the movie illustrated that some people were reaching a desperate willingness to abandon democratic principles in favor of immediate action.

While not acting with the flourish and flash of a Hollywood movie, Roosevelt did take action to bring crime under control. He selected Homer Stillé Cummings as his Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice, which included the Bureau of Investigation. In 1933 and 1934 Cummings served as Roosevelt's chief architect for the New Deal's war on crime. As with the economic recovery programs, the goal was to instill public confidence in government and U.S. society.

In early 1933, despite his efficient organization of the Bureau of Investigation, neither its leader, J. Edgar Hoover, nor his bureau was well-known outside of government circles. Hoover's top-notch corps of Special Agents was severely limited under the law to carrying out basic tasks such as trailing prostitutes or violators of antiquated laws such as the Migratory Birds' Act, which placed restrictions on the hunting of migratory birds. Special Agents could neither make arrests nor carry guns. The Federal Bureau of Investigation as Americans knew it at the end of the twentieth century did not yet exist.

An Anti-Crime Plan

On June 17, 1933, a major incident known as the Kansas City Massacre startled the country and solidified the growing anti-crime sentiment. Unarmed police officers and Special Agents were escorting Frank Nash, a bank robber and prison escapee, back to confinement. Three men with machine guns ambushed the party and opened fire, killing four officers, including one of the Special Agents. The incident enraged the nation. Cummings translated that anger into a plan of action in the form of a federal anti-crime package sent to Congress in 1934 that was approved in May of the same year. Any theft of $5,000 or more that was carried across state lines, as well as robberies of national banks, illegal use of telephone and telegraph wires, and attacks on federal officers, were all made federal offenses. Practically any other type of crime in which the criminal crossed a state line to avoid prosecution became open for pursuit by federal agents. Additionally, it was at this time that Congress granted Hoover's Special Agents the authority to carry guns and make arrests.

From his experience in the first hundred days of the New Deal, Cummings knew success for the war on crime depended on restoring the public's confidence in law enforcement. President Roosevelt, during the first hundred days of his administration beginning in March 1933 was able to restore public confidence in government by almost overnight solving the desperate banking crisis in America and initiating a number of innovative economic recovery programs collectively known as the New Deal. These programs addressed a wide range of the U.S. economic system including farms and industry. To similarly restore public confidence in law enforcement, Cummings decided that he would commit the federal government to pursuing criminals whose convictions promised the greatest publicity payoff. Cummings targeted celebrity criminals who had become symbols of the crime problem. By taking down these figures, Cummings intended to improve the public's perception of law enforcement and confidence in government.

Immediately agents from the Bureau of Investigation swept down on the infamous Midwest outlaws. Agent Melvin Purvis, chief of the bureau's Chicago office, and his men gunned down John Dillinger, then officially labeled Public Enemy No. 1, in July 1934; Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd in October 1934; "Baby Face" Nelson in November 1934, and "Ma" Barker and her son Freddie in 1935. Special Agents, along with local law officers in Louisiana and Texas, hunted down Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who had been on a nationwide crime spree that began in 1932. They were wanted for robbery, kidnapping, and murder. Thirteen people had fallen to the Barrow gang's guns, and several of the victims were police officers. One of the largest manhunts of the time was launched, involving the FBI and several state and local law enforcement agencies. A local posse, including Texas Rangers, finally gunned them down on May 23, 1934.

Although Attorney General Cummings was the nation's unchallenged symbol of law enforcement by the end of 1934, America in the fifth year of Depression still looked for larger-than-life myths and action heroes. One year later J. Edgar Hoover displaced Cummings as the public's new top law enforcement figure. This was largely due to the release of Warner Brothers' sensational 1935 hit G-Men. Hollywood breathed new life and credibility into the law by trading the old gangster myth for a new one of tough policemen. James Cagney, who had portrayed Public Enemy No. 1 in 1932, was the heroic lawman in G-Men. Just as the New Deal ushered in a new cooperation among individuals and levels of government to redeem the economy and assist society, Hollywood's "G-men" helped redeem American law enforcement in public opinion. It was in 1935, when opinion of law enforcement was making a comeback, that the name of the Bureau was changed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Organized Crime Continues Through the Depression

While J. Edgar Hoover's law enforcement organization destroyed the Midwest outlaws quickly and efficiently, the national organized crime syndicates encountered few difficulties from the FBI. Though it kept a low profile, organized crime continued to grow throughout the remainder of the 1930s. Despite the success against outlaws, Hoover chose not to battle organized crime. Perhaps he was reluctant to risk making a poor showing against the powerful underworld that would jeopardize the FBI's rise in public respect. Instead he preferred easier targets that would garner plenty of publicity for himself and the agency.

Through the remainder of the 1930s Hoover remained a publicity hound. In 1936, after FBI agents and the New York City police located bank robber and kidnapper Harry Brunnette, Hoover personally led the charge on the apartment. The newspaper headline read "25 G-Men led by Hoover capture bandit in West 102nd St."

In 1936 President Roosevelt ordered J. Edgar Hoover to compile information on any fascist and communist activities in the United States. The duty would be the FBI's main focus through the remainder of the New Deal and Great Depression. Fascism, a system of government characterized by dictatorship, militarism, and racism, had taken hold in Benito Mussolini's Italy and Adolph Hitler's Germany. Fascism and Josef Stalin's brand of communism in the Soviet Union were seen as threats to America's democratic principles. As some European countries succumbed to these politically radical ideologies, the American Depression continued. Fears that these radical political ideas would take hold in America's weakened economic situation abounded. European Fascists did have their supporters in the United States and the American Communist Party saw an opportunity to advance its cause through the labor unrest of the time. Hoover vigorously pursued domestic surveillance efforts such as wire-tapping. He also kept lists of the names of "questionable" individuals. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the FBI's responsibilities concerning national security drastically escalated and the war on crime was temporarily put on hold.

Contributing Forces

Early Outlaws

The social and economic roots of crime in America are embedded in part in the stories of the Western outlaw. America's nineteenth century saga, set in the rugged, often violent frontier, revolves around famous outlaw gangs—the James brothers, the Daltons, and Billy the Kid. According to legend the James gang robbed banks and railroads but never bothered farmers. Billy the Kid stole from middle class and rich people and gave it to the poor. Like the bandits of the nineteenth century, gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s also became legends. Early Hollywood silent movies included Westerns pitting outlaws against lawmen. The gangster's world, however, was not set in the western landscape but in America's cities.


Individuals associated with highly organized street gangs of French and Italian cities and with violent political activists from Ireland were among those who immigrated to America from Europe in the late nineteenth century. These individuals oftentimes brought with them to their new country the gang associations of their old home. In 1878, the Italian government began an anti-Mafia campaign. Many of the blood loyal members of the Mafia, or mafiosi of Sicily left for North African ports and for the United States. A majority of those coming to America settled in cities, among them New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, and New Orleans. This influx laid the foundation for the brutal criminal society of the 1920s and 1930s.

In the 1890s and early 1900s ethnic groups struggled to survive in U.S. cities. They violently clashed with each other and with the law to gain economic, political, and social power within their communities. The earlier immigrants had largely come from northern and western Europe and they were not receptive to this new wave of immigrants that by the 1890s was coming primarily from Eastern and Southern Europe. Social and cultural differences proved to be too pronounced. The numerous gangs that evolved had colorful names, such as the Dead Rabbits, Blood Tubs, Bowery Boys, Whyos, and many more. Although the older Mafia was reestablished in New York City by the 1890s, it had little money and its gang activities remained localized.

Police forces swelled in response to a public outcry for control of the increasing street violence. Frequent arrests were made as the gangs faced increasing police pressure to curtail their activities. Shortly before the start of World War I one of the few major street gangs of this period still surviving under the increased police pressure was the 1,500-member Italian Five Points Gang in New York City. In 1915, a sixteen-year old named Alphonse Capone joined the Five Points Gang.

As World War I began, gangs crumbled with their members heading off to war. A few years later, however, the new and significant opportunity for the future of crime and criminals in America presented itself—Prohibition.

Labor Strife

The United States has the bloodiest labor history of any industrialized nation. The earliest deaths related to labor strikes occurred in 1850 when police killed two New York tailors while dispersing a crowd of strikers. A severe economic depression in 1873 triggered a number of violent strikes through the following years. In 1877 the first national railroad worker strike led to over one hundred deaths. As the strike spread, coal miners, farmers, and others joined railroad workers in attempting to stop rail traffic. State and federal troops were called in to forcefully end the strike.

Between 1875 and 1910 state troops were called on almost five hundred occasions of labor unrest. On May 1, 1886, workers across the United States went on strike demanding eight-hour workdays. In Chicago police attacked the strikers killing two. Three days later the workers gathered again to protest the police action. As a confrontation with police developed once again, someone threw a bomb in the crowd of police killing eight policemen. Four were eventually convicted in trial and hanged for the bombing. Violent confrontations continued six years later in 1892, when eight thousand state troops were sent to a steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania, after armed strikers turned back an attack by company security guards. The U.S. army was used in 1894 at a Pullman railroad strike and several mining strikes in the Rocky Mountain region.

One of the more famous incidents in the early twentieth century occurred in 1913. Known as the Ludlow Massacre, National Guardsmen attacked a tent city holding striking Colorado miners, killing 11 children and two women. Other bloody strikes occurred in the Northeast during the time just prior to World War I. By the 1920s as the economy was booming the number of strikes and related violence greatly decreased.


The United States government in 1920 introduced the prohibition of the manufacture and sale of liquor and with it a measure to restrict liquor consumption. This ban, not respected by many in the public, would prove to be the nation's single most disastrous social experiment of the entire twentieth century.

Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1918. The individual states had ratified the amendment by January 1919. On January 17, 1920, Prohibition officially became law. The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors…for beverage purposes." Congress passed the Volstead Act to enforce the amendment. The Volstead Act defined "intoxicating liquors" as any beverage containing more than one-half of one percent alcohol. Beer contained between three and seven percent and wine 12 to 15 percent. Thus, all alcoholic beverages fell under the ban.

Veterans returning home from the World War I were angered and amazed at the new law. Those Americans who planned to continue drinking stocked up on supplies. Those who planned to give it up treated January 16, 1920, like New Year's Eve, with their resolutions to stop drinking slated to begin the next morning. Saloonkeepers mainly moved their bottles of liquor under the counters and continued to serve customers. After about one year under Prohibition, people who had at first determined to follow the law became impatient with its restrictions and increasingly unwilling to follow it. Saloons continued to go underground with their liquor sales and many began to operate as "speakeasies." Speakeasies were usually disguised as more commonplace businesses such as barbershops or ice cream parlors. Patrons would "speak easy" to a doorman and tell him who sent them or give him a password to gain entrance. According to various estimates, New York's 16,000 saloons grew to between 32,000 and 100,000 "speaks." Furthermore, unlike saloons, women were welcomed at the speakeasies. Speakeasies dealt in large stocks of beer, wine, and liquor—all illegal. Supplying thousands of speakeasies required a great deal of organization and led to the development of organized crime.

The Irish had dominated criminal street gangs throughout the 1880s and 1890s. By Prohibition the Irish had largely vacated the worst ghettos, leaving the cities' criminal breeding grounds to Italians and Jews. With young men returning from the war gangs regrouped and began a new industry—bootlegging. Bootlegging involved illegally getting liquor into the hands of the thirsty public. Due to the outrageously inflated prices of alcohol, crime would pay and pay handsomely.

Organized Crime

Organized crime has been a term applied by law enforcement and the public to various kinds of criminal activity through history. By the 1860s certain kinds of gambling operations began to be increasingly coordinated in some city neighborhoods. These gambling operations became widely popular as forms of illegal lotteries would be accessible through barbershops, bars, newspaper stands, and other locations. By the 1880s horseracing became a national sport and the focus of organized illegal betting operations.

Public lawlessness and a crime spree in the 1920s was an outcome of Prohibition its supporters had never anticipated. In cities around the country criminal gangs who before 1920 limited their activities to thievery, gambling, and murders 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 with the Hollywood stars. The most prominent among them was Alphonse Capone whose brief career at the top as a crime boss, from 1925 to 1927, brought him lasting notoriety at legendary proportions. At the same time the overall prosperity of the 1920s led to a decrease in labor strikes and violence.

Only half a year before the stock market crash of 1929, as people still thought only in terms of money and success, Capone's life captivated Americans, who marveled at his wealth and power. He had reached across ethnic boundaries to form racketeering ties with Jews, Italians, Poles, and blacks. His empire, built on prostitution, gambling, and above all, bootlegging, reached from New York to Chicago. Capone maintained his base in Chicago, clearly the geographic center of the underworld; a winter retreat at Palm Island, Florida; and a summer hangout in Lansing, Michigan.

Capone's organization dominated the City of Chicago through intimidation not only in business but also in politics. The mayor feared him and the police were oftentimes corrupt and turned a blind eye to Capone's illegal doings. Newspapers estimated his income at more than $100 million a year. Capone, thanks to the much flaunted laws of Prohibition, was the grandest success story Chicago had seen in the "roaring 20s."

Although Capone seemed invincible his popularity in Chicago caught the attention of federal government forces. Only a few days after taking office in March 1929, President Herbert Hoover (1929–1933) pressured the U.S. Treasury Department to spearhead a campaign to bring down Capone. Elmer Irey of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Special Intelligence Unit was to obtain evidence of tax evasion by Capone. In case tax evasion charges were insufficient, evidence of Prohibition violations were also collected. In charge of amassing proof of Prohibition violations was a daring young Prohibition Agent, Eliot Ness. All would work together with U.S. District Attorney George E.Q. Johnson who was in charge of Capone's prosecution.

Compared to the power Capone wielded, the federal agents seemed an insignificant presence. Capone was seen as economically successful and effective at what he did, which happened to be operating a crime syndicate. Overlooking the persistence of the federal agents, however, proved Capone's undoing. After attending an Atlantic City, New Jersey, crime organizational meeting in May 1929, Capone and his bodyguard went to a movie in Philadelphia. When the movie was over the two were arrested for carrying concealed deadly weapons. They were sentenced to jail for one year. Released on March 17, 1930—three months early—for good behavior, Capone returned to his home in Chicago. Though his popularity remained high with the public, his power was declining. The competition between different gangs for the bootlegging action continued.

A Tolerant Public

Under the restrictions of Prohibition, alcohol became a symbol of independence and sophistication. People wanted to drink and were not willing to let the Eighteenth Amendment and Volstead Act stop them. Many Americans came to feel that the Prohibition law was misguided or even wrong and, therefore, should be ignored.

Prohibition made the suppliers of alcohol—gangsters—not only well paid but also well liked. Those who didn't support Prohibition thought of bootleggers as Robin Hoods, supplying what they needed in opposition to government policy. Escapades of the bootleggers offered exciting entertainment in the newspapers and clubs. Gangs' violent behavior seemed far removed from the lives of most citizens and so caused little alarm outside of law enforcement.

Prohibition saw the rise of many crime legends. The public was aware of certain individuals who carried out their crimes with flair and style. Dwarfing them all in the public imagination was Al Capone. Capone was daring and ruthless and had systemically murdered all gang leaders who tried to rival his power. Al Capone's yearly income topped $100 million (the equivalent to $3 billion in 2000 dollars) in liquor sales alone. Capone commented that all he ever did was supply goods to meet a demand—a very popular demand. Wealthy criminals bought off politicians and police in great numbers. If bribery failed to work, the bootleggers resorted to violence to get their way.

Organized Crime

Near the end of the 1920s gangs were becoming so organized that they held a national convention on December 5, 1928, in Cleveland, Ohio. Some historians date the beginning of modern nationally organized crime to this meeting. Twenty-three mafiosi, all Sicilian, gathered from cities such as Chicago, New York, Detroit, St. Louis, Tampa, and Philadelphia. Being a non-Sicilian, Capone could not participate, but he was represented. Many of those at the meeting would eventually head Mafia crime families. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss mutual interests and problems. Capone and other leaders realized their profits depended on organization and cooperation between criminal groups. So the suggestion for a national syndicate, which is an association of individuals or groups which agree together to carry out certain activities, to coordinate criminal activity nationwide was proposed. The mutually suspicious gang and Mafia leaders rejected the plan, but the meeting did lead to cooperative projects such as an execution service later called Murder, Inc., and to a national betting service that provided major income to the gangs and the Mafia after the repeal of Prohibition.

Despite the organization and cooperation of the Cleveland meeting, another bloody, rival gang-related act would take place on February 14, 1929. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre played out in a garage on the north side of Chicago. Dressed as police officers, four men brutally gunned down seven members of the Bugs Moran gang, the last rival gang of Capone's in Chicago. Although never proven, a shocked nation widely believed the murders could only be the work of Capone.

In May 1929 another underworld "convention" was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Crime leaders from around the country divided the United States into territories. They also established a nine-member national "Commission" for consultation and conflict resolution. The roots of an organized crime syndicate were in place. Organized crime had positioned itself in a powerful way only months before the onset of the Great Depression.

Public Trust in Law Enforcement

Where were law agencies during the 1920s as gangs were advancing into organized crime syndicates? Throughout Prohibition organized crime in cities essentially had many legal authorities, including police, judges, and lawyers, on its payroll. For example, a difficult law officer could be easily murdered. The political and governmental power structure of many cities and several states came largely under mob control.

On a national level the Federal Bureau of Investigation was still developing its powers as an arm of law enforcement. When Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone selected Hoover to head the Bureau of Investigation in 1924 Hoover inherited a Bureau rampant with scandal and corruption. At that time the Bureau employed 441 Special Agents. Hoover immediately fired the agents he considered to be unqualified and set about improving the organization. To make the Bureau respectable Hoover assembled an elite group of men who were white, between the ages of 25 and 35, and college graduates. For his new agents he demanded rigid conformity with his rules and a strict moral code. In 1928 Hoover personally established a training school for new agents.

Hoover, a stickler for order and efficiency, devoted much of his energies and skills to making the Bureau a textbook example of a perfectly organized and well-controlled bureaucracy. Within two months he had directed the Bureau to take over control of fingerprint collections nationwide. By 1926 law enforcement agencies nationwide were contributing fingerprint cards to the Bureau of Investigation.

Hoover made these advances at the Bureau against a backdrop of bootlegging, gangsters, and a public distrustful of law agencies. Although it had evolved into a finely tuned government agency, the Bureau's agents had not yet seen any action against the nation's lawless heroes. In fact Special Agents were initially not authorized to carry guns. The actual direction Hoover's men would take to restore the country's laws and morals would not be apparent until the 1930s.


The Public View on Gangsters and Outlaws

Perspectives of Americans on gangsters and outlaws changed dramatically between the early years of the Depression and the middle to late years of the 1930s. In the Prohibition years of the 1920s and early 1930s, Americans viewed bootleggers as champions. Bootleggers found ways to beat the unpopular anti-alcohol law and brought liquor to thousands of speakeasies, where the public happily consumed the illegal beverages. As the bootleggers organized their efforts and became wealthy, Hollywood began to romanticize them in the early 1930s gangster movies. In 1930 and 1931, as the Depression deepened, Americans flocked to the movie houses. The fictionalized gangsters of the films caught audiences' imagination. They were just as enthralled with the imaginary tales of gangsters based on Al Capone as they were captivated by Capone's real life. Americans related to the individual success of these characters and kept up hope that they too would succeed once again.

By the time the Midwest outlaws such as John Dillinger appeared in 1933, Americans tended to ignore the brutality of such criminals and instead turn them into folk heroes. The outlaws regularly out-smarted local police, whom Americans had for many years viewed as incapable of reining in crime.

During the same period, however, civic groups, churches, and parent associations became increasingly alarmed at what they perceived to be the growing presence of violence and its affects on society. They feared a moral decay was developing and became more out-spoken against the glamorization of crime and criminals. Their anti-gangster crusade and calls for film censorship began to have an effect in the early to mid 1930s, and fewer gangster movies were made.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933, he called for a New Deal of relief programs to assist people struggling with the Depression. A more hopeful America became caught up in a new spirit of cooperation and, with a rebirth of positive feelings towards the government, public opinion turned away from lawbreaking criminals. The gangsters and outlaws were increasingly looked upon as symbols of an undesirable moral decay. By 1935, the Special Agents of the Bureau of Investigation, under Hoover's leadership, had eliminated the most famous outlaws. Hollywood, getting into the spirit of supporting government, produced G-Men, which helped revive public opinion of the law in the eyes of many Americans. Just as federal programs were helping citizens to survive the Depression, federal lawmen were becoming the new heroes of the public.

The Public and J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover became the number one figure of law enforcement in American popular culture. He enjoyed the media attention and sought out all the publicity he could. Hoover began to speak to groups about criminals, calling them "mad dogs with guns in their hands" and "public rats." By 1936 Hoover's FBI, prompted by growing concerns over fascism and communism in Europe and rumblings of the same at home, began to keep lists of "questionable" persons, those who might turn into enemies of democracy. Hoover was able to accomplish this information gathering under the guise of investigating activities and people with connections to communism and fascism in the United States. Roosevelt had first charged Hoover with collecting and providing information to the government on fascist and communist groups in the country. Hoover took liberties with this "permission" and interpreted Roosevelt's request by beginning domestic surveillance on anyone he deemed suspicious.

Though many Americans during the early years of the Great Depression sympathized with gangsters and outlaws, by 1933 most ordinary Americans shared Hoover's beliefs about law and order. Just as the public had once admired Al Capone's flouting of the unpopular Prohibition law and his assistance of Chicago's poor when the government was not providing help, Hoover was now admired by that same public, who looked to him for direction and security against the organized gangs that remained in the wake of Prohibition. Some became concerned, however, that Hoover was crossing a line between law enforcement and forcing the law. They feared that Hoover was disregarding civil liberties in his zeal for justice. A few congressmen, along with members of the American Civil Liberties Union and some citizens, shared these apprehensions. As World War II (1939–1945) approached, however, fear of fascists and communists in the country increased, and Hoover's tactics appeared justified.


The legacy of crime resulting from the Great Depression has three fronts: (1) crowd street violence spurred by economic desperation and labor's effort to achieve union recognition by employers; (2) continued existence and expansion of organized crime; and, (3) the continued existence and expansion of federal law enforcement, most notably the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Street Violence

Violence resulting from food riots, farmer protests, and unemployment marches largely subsided as the New Deal gained momentum in 1933 and 1934. Labor violence became less pronounced with the industrial mobilization for World War II. New forms of violent protest came in the 1950s as part of the civil rights movement in which black Americans sought to end racial discrimination and segregation (keeping races apart in public places). The push for recognition of civil rights for racial minorities during the 1930s had been largely suppressed by the New Deal. Roosevelt had sought to maintain the loyal support of white Southern Democrats so as to get his economic recovery programs through Congress. Following World War II the patience of black Americans had further eroded over unjust racial segregation laws. Civil disobedience strategies inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King drew attacks from local police forces just as labor strikers had in the 1930s. The National Guard and U.S. troops were used to restore peace. These forms of confrontation gave way to race riots in the mid and late 1960s. Major clashes in inner cities across the United States left behind considerable property damage and racial tensions.

Anti-war protests beginning in 1966 against U.S. involvement in Vietnam also led to numerous incidents of street violence. Two notable incidents were the riot between protesters and police outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and the shooting of protesters by National Guard troops on the campus of Kent State University in 1969. As food riots and unemployment unrest were largely quelled by New Deal policies, civil rights confrontations resulted in the passage of major legislation in the mid-1960s, and anti-war protests contributed to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia.

Organized Crime

Organized crime involving the rise of the American Mafia, largely unchallenged during the Great Depression, continued through the century. The FBI focused first on gangsters and outlaws and then political extremists. Local authorities dealt with street crowd violence and labor strife. However the face of organized crime changed in America between the 1930s and 2000. The Irish and Jewish gangs of the early twentieth century virtually disappeared. New criminal gangs of black Americans, Asians, Jamaicans, and Latin Americans, all dealing in drugs, besieged the traditional American Mafia.

The focus of the federal government after World War II continued to be the activities of Italian Americans. Congressional investigations in the 1950s and 1960s identified what it believed was a secret society of the Mafia that operated throughout the United States overseeing illegal activities. Twenty-four separate organizations composing the Mafia operated in twenty cities involved in gambling, drug trafficking, and loan sharking. The highly popular 1972 movie, The Godfather popularized the notion of a tightly-knit Mafia underworld.

A tool to assist law enforcement in curtailing crime, called the Organized Crime Control Act, was passed by Congress in 1970. Central to this act is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Notably, "Rico" is also the name of the gangster in the popular 1930 film Little Caesar. As part of the Organized Crime Control Act, RICO is actually a group of laws that define and set punishment for racketeering. Racketeering is very broadly defined and includes many categories of activities common to organized crime such as extortion, money laundering, bootlegging, and kidnapping. By 1975 the National Conference on Organized Crime estimated that what was considered organized crime cost the American economy over $50 billion a year. During the 1980s and 1990s many bosses and members of organized crime were convicted and sent to prison under RICO.

Biography: Alphonse "Al" Capone

1899–1947 Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1899 to a poor Italian immigrant family, the young Al Capone lived in a lively, ethnically diverse tenement neighborhood. Capone entered Public School 7 at age five. Education prospects for Italian children at that time were very poor, as the school system was highly prejudiced against them. The schools were rigid, strict institutions where physical force was used to maintain discipline and fistfights between teachers and students were commonplace. Capone did well in school until the sixth grade, but at age 14, finding school a place of unreasonable rules, he lost his temper with a teacher after she hit him, he hit her in retaliation. Capone was expelled and never went back to school.

Young people in Capone's neighborhood ran in gangs—Italian gangs, Jewish gangs, and Irish gangs—which were not violent but merely boys who hung out together. Few slum schools had playgrounds or recreation activities so the formation of gangs substituted for this lack. Capone belonged to the South Brooklyn Rippers, Forty Thieves Juniors, and the Five Point Juniors, while at the same time he worked dutifully for years to help support his family. There was no indication he would go to a life of crime until his friend Johnny Torrio, from the neighborhood, who would later become a gangland leader, got 18-year-old Al Capone a bartending and bouncer job at the Harvard Inn. It was there, in a fight, that the left side of Capone's face was scared. From this injury Capone permanently acquired the nickname of "Scarface."

Capone's father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1920, when Capone was 19. Historians believe this lack of parental authority marked the beginning of Capone's criminal life. Torrio had moved to Chicago and called Capone to join him. Torrio became an influential lieutenant in Chicago's Colosimo mob, which engaged in the Prohibition-spawned rackets of brewing and distributing beer. Torrio and Capone took full advantage of the "business opportunities," and Torrio soon gained full control of the gang.

In 1925 Torrio was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt and while he retired to Brooklyn, Capone took charge of the Colosimo gang. Capone had a fearless reputation, which grew as he eliminated rival gang after rival gang. By 1927 Capone had a bootleg monopoly across Chicago and Cook County. Capone pocketed well over $100 million a year from beer and liquor sales, gambling, dog tracks, dancehalls, and prostitution. Through bribery he kept law enforcement and politicians both in check.

Although he was in Florida at the time of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre on February 14, 1929, Capone was very likely behind the event. Several associates of the rival gang headed by "Bugs" Moran were murdered. Although Capone did not realize it at the time, the massacre and the publicity stemming from it, much of which glamorized Capone to the public, caught the attention of federal government law enforcers.

In 1928 26-year old Ness, a Prohibition federal agent, was put in charge of gathering information on Al Capone's illegal activities. Assembling an incorruptible and fearless squad of nine agents, Ness and his men wreaked havoc on Capone's bootlegging activities. They raided and destroyed equipment in his breweries and distribution centers. Ness' men were nicknamed the "untouchables," and were later immortalized in the popular 1950s television series "The Untouchables," as well as in a 1987 Kevin Costner movie of the same name.

In 1931 a federal jury convicted Capone of income tax evasion and the judge sentenced him to eleven years in prison. Released from Alcatraz after eight years, Capone, now suffering from complications of syphilis, retired to his Palm Island, Florida, home where he died in 1947.

By 2000 organized crime became more associated with the "war on drugs," a massive law enforcement effort to stop international drug trafficking. What was now considered organized crime was associated with no particular ethnic group but with drug cartels. Its definition included not only organized groups but any collection of individuals engaging in continuing criminal activities, including street gangs.

Organized crime was difficult to eliminate because it is actually comprised of complex and loosely coordinated activities by diverse groups. It was made up of a variety of enterprises that are not necessarily centrally controlled by any particular group or organization and alliances may constantly shift. In addition organized crime had gone global. According to Louis J. Freeh, a former director of the FBI, worldwide alliances in 2001 were being forged in every criminal field, from trafficking in drugs and money laundering, to counterfeiting, to the illicit sale of nuclear materials. The challenge of containing or eradicating organized crime remained a problem, just as it was during the Great Depression.

Further Growth of the FBI

During the Great Depression the FBI gained greatly in public respect. Federal law enforcement grew along with other parts of the federal government dealing with economic recovery. Following World War II in 1945, the FBI began undergoing further change. Both its size and jurisdiction (range of authority) greatly expanded. The FBI began conducting background security investigations for the White House and other government agencies. Headed by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, a committee of congressmen traveled the country in the early 1950s investigating all levels of corruption, including the organized crime syndicate. Organized crime, however, did not receive full attention of the FBI until 1972 following J. Edgar Hoover's death. At the time of his death Hoover had been with the Bureau for almost 55 years, 48 of those years serving as its director. He believed to the end that he and his Special Agents had been the guardians of the country's moral values.

In 2000 the FBI, adhering to its motto of Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity, served as the U.S. Department of Justice's principle investigative arm. Compared to its lack of federal jurisdiction in 1930, the Bureau in 2000 had investigative jurisdiction over violations in more than 200 categories of federal crimes. The FBI also investigated violations under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also continued its background investigations for the Executive Branch and government agencies. As of 2001 the FBI had five top priority areas: domestic terrorism; national foreign intelligence; organized crime/drug cases; violent crimes; and white-collar crimes.

Notable People

James Cagney (1904–1986). Among the films actor James "Jimmy" Cagney starred in are Public Enemy (1931), G-Men (1935), and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), which reflected Depression America's social thinking. First he was the gangster hero, next the lawman hero, and lastly a hoodlum produced by a harsh Depression-era childhood. All of the films were well received by audiences.

Homer Stillé Cummings (1870–1956). Cummings served as attorney general under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1939 and was Roosevelt's chief architect for the federal government's war on crime. It was his anti-crime package, passed by Congress in 1934, that allowed major expansion of federal law enforcement jurisdiction which resulted in the dramatic expansion of FBI power.

During the first few years of the New Deal from 1933 to 1935 Cummings was the undisputed head of American law enforcement. In fact the American public was more interested in Cummings than in J. Edgar Hoover until Hollywood premiered G-Men in 1935, which popularized federal agents.

John Herbert Dillinger (1903–1934). Dillinger was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and raised by an older sister after his mother died when he was three years of age. After dropping out of school he joined the navy but got in trouble and was given a dishonorable discharge. Soon he was arrested for armed robbery and sent to a state prison.

After being released in May 1933, however, he went on a crime spree in Indiana and Ohio robbing banks. For the next 14 months Dillinger would become one of the Midwest outlaws that gained great public notoriety during the darkest period of the Great Depression. Arrested in September 1933 he broke out of jail the following month. Dillinger was extremely daring, even raiding two police stations to obtain guns and bulletproof vests.

After numerous bank robberies and other crimes, Chicago law authorities assigned 40 men to his case in December 1933. After holding up a bank and killing a guard in East Chicago, Indiana, Dillinger was once again arrested, this time in a Tucson, Arizona hotel. Again Dillinger escaped with a handmade toy gun, taking hostages and leaving in a sheriff's car. Crossing state lines in a stolen car, he became the target of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Dillinger continued a crime spree from Minnesota to South Dakota, shooting his way out of two FBI traps in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

By May 1934 substantial rewards were issued for his capture and, to elude authorities, Dillinger had plastic surgery to permanently disguise himself. After robbing a bank in South Bend, Indiana, and killing a police officer during the robbery, Dillinger returned to Chicago. On July 23, 1934, a girlfriend of Dillinger's tipped off the FBI of his whereabouts. While leaving a movie theater Dillinger was gunned down by a force of FBI agents and local police led by FBI Agent Melvin Purvis.

J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972). Hoover was born in 1895 into a primarily white, Protestant, middle class neighborhood in Washington DC known as Seward Square, located just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol building. His family had been government civil service workers for years. Hoover was closest to his mother, Anne, who was his moral guide and disciplinarian and whom he lived with until her death in 1938.

Hoover was a competitive student and desired to enter politics. He had a stuttering problem that he overcame by acquiring the habit of talking very fast. "Speed" became his nickname. As the United States entered World War I in 1917, Hoover went to work at the Department of Justice as a clerk, where he was recognized as extremely efficient and politically conservative.

In 1919 the Red Scare, or Communist scare, swept America as people got caught up in the fear of Communist supporters inside the United States. Communism was a new political belief system, recently initiated in Russia after a violent overthrow. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer placed Hoover in charge of investigating radical groups. Hoover planned raids, later called the "Palmer raids," in three cities, which led to mass arrests and deportations of suspected Communists.

In 1924 after the war, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone appointed Hoover as head of the Department of Justice's Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation). Hoover had long coveted the position and set about improving the Bureau's power and capabilities during the bootlegging Prohibition era of the 1920s. He immediately fired all Special Agents he considered unworthy and built an elite corps of young, white, college-educated men. Hoover demanded total conformity and a strict moral code, which resulted in the entire Bureau being reorganized with engineer-like efficiency and the beginnings of a crime laboratory.

In 1933 and 1934 Attorney General Homer S. Cummings decided Hoover's men would investigate, pursue, and arrest or gun down the infamous Midwest outlaws, who were in the midst of a bank robbery spree throughout the Midwest. Hoover's Special Agents, popularly referred to as "G-Men," helped restore the American public's faith in law enforcement.

By 1936, with the next world war looming, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instructed Hoover to keep him informed on fascist and communist activities within the United States. This became Hoover's main focus as he increased domestic surveillance and developed his list of "questionable" individuals.

To the generations coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s Hoover's tactics of widespread surveillance and wiretapping and his maintenance of detailed files on numerous innocent citizens seemed a threat to every American's personal freedom. As a result he lost popularity. He remained, however, in office until his death in 1972, after almost 55 years with the Bureau, serving 48 as the director of the FBI.

Meyer Lansky (1902–1983). Meyer Lansky, born Meyer Suchowljansky in Grodno, Poland, came to the U.S. in 1911 when he was ten years old. After a brief stint at a tool and die factory, Lansky linked up with Bugsy Siegel and with him began a minor criminal enterprise—the Bugs and Meyer mob—at the age of 16. He gradually expanded his exploits into gambling and bootlegging. Lansky, operating his criminal gang out of New York City, was known as the Jewish Godfather of the Mafia. He helped "Lucky" Luciano develop organized crime in the 1930s and was thought of as the "brains" of the two. He was very influential in his advice and guidance to many other Mafia leaders. After an attempt to avoid U.S. law enforcement by moving to Israel in 1970, he was successfully returned to the U.S. Lansky was put on trial three times for everything from tax evasion to contempt of court for failure to appear before a grand jury. The contempt charge was the only charge for which he was actually convicted. The other two charges were dropped, and the contempt conviction was overturned. Lansky passed away at home in January of 1983.

Charles "Lucky" Luciano (1897–1962). Luciano, based in New York City, was regarded as the most important Italian American gangster in the history of organized crime. Between 1930 and 1931, in New York City, Luciano cleaned the Italian underworld of old line leaders and established the American Mafia. Along with Meyer Lansky he invigorated "the Commission," the Mafia ruling body. U.S. attorney Thomas E. Dewey sent Luciano to prison in 1936. Luciano aided the World War II effort while in prison by instructing his gangsters to protect the U.S. eastern seaboard waterfront. He also had his Old World Mafia contacts help the Allies during the invasion of Sicily. Dewey had Luciano's sentence suspended in 1946 and deported him to Italy.

Primary Sources

Hoover Defends Attack on Bonus Army

In the spring of 1932 thousands of unemployed World War I veterans and their families began gathering in Washington, DC, in hastily built shantytowns. Known as the Bonus Army, their goal was to lobby Congress into providing bonus pay to them immediately rather than waiting until 1945 as Congress had originally scheduled their bonus pay for serving in the war. At first President Herbert Hoover had provided some food and supplies while waiting for Congress to act on a proposed bill that would have met their demands. When the bill was defeated, however, Hoover asked the veterans to leave and go home. Most did, but two thousand stayed to continue their protest. After violent clashes with local police, Hoover sent in the U.S. army to remove those Bonus Army members remaining. After a bloody confrontation leading to their removal Hoover held a news conference on July 29, 1932, to justify the heavy-handed approach of the U.S. Army that led to many injured and the death of a child from tear gas exposure. At the news conference with reporters the president made the following comments. (quoted in Herbert Hoover. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Herbert Hoover, 1932–1933. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1977, pp. 347–348).

A challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly.

After months of patient indulgence, the Government met overt lawlessness as it always must be met if the cherished processes of self-government are to be preserved. We cannot tolerate the abuse of constitutional rights by those who would destroy all government, no matter who they may be. Government cannot be coerced by mob rule.

The Department of Justice is pressing its investigation into the violence which forced the call for Army detachments, and it is my sincere hope that those agitators who inspired yesterday's attack upon the Federal authority may be brought speedily to trial in the civil courts. There can be no safe harbor in the Untied States of America for violence.

Order and civil tranquility are the first requisites in the great task of economic reconstruction to which our whole people now are devoting their heroic and noble energies. This national effort must not be retarded in even the slightest degree by organized lawlessness in the country. The first obligation of my office is to uphold and defend the Constitution and the authority of the law.

Suggested Research Topics

  1. Research what it takes to become an FBI Special Agent in the early twenty-first century. What are the requirements for employment and what kind of lifestyle is demanded of the candidate? Find out what subjects are taught at the training school located in Quantico, Virginia.
  2. What type of environment did Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow grow up in? Might their lives have turned out differently if they had come of age in a more prosperous time, or do you think a life of crime was inevitable?
  3. Counterfeiting is big business for organized crime in the twenty-first century. Describe up to seven ways counterfeited money can be recognized.



Bergman, Andrew. We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. New York: New York University Press, 1971.

Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: The Man and the Era. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Clarens, Carlos. Crime Movies: An Illustrated History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980.

Fox, Stephen. Blood and Power: Organized Crime in Twentieth-Century America. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989.

Hoover, Herbert. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Herbert Hoover, 1932–1933. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1977.

Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1971.

McCarty, John. Hollywood Gangland: The Movies' Love Affair with the Mob. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. New York: Times Books, 1993.

McWilliams, Peter. Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society. Los Angeles: Prelude Press, 1993.

Milner, E. R. The Lives and Times of Bonnie and Clyde. Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Powers, Richard Gid. G-Men: Hoover's FBI in American Popular Culture. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

——. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: The Free Press, 1987.

Raine, Linnea P., and Frank J. Cilluffo, eds. Global Organized Crime: The New Empire of Evil. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1994.

Rosow, Eugene. Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Ruth, David E. Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture, 1918–1934. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Volkman, Ernest. Gangbusters: The Destruction of America's Last Mafia Dynasty. Boston: Fabor and Fabor, 1998.

Further Readinng

Baxter, John. Gangster Film. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1970.

Bondi, Victor, ed. American Decades: 1930–1939. Detroit: Gale Research In., 1995.

"Crime Library Website." [cited February 19, 2001] available from the World Wide Web at

"Federal Bureau of Investigation." [cited on February 19, 2001] available from the World Wide Web at

Hall, Angus. Crimes and Punishment, Volume 2. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1986.

Kelly, Robert J. Encyclopedia of Organized Crime in the United States: From Capone's Chicago to the New Urban Underworld. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Kennedy, Ludovic. The Airman and the Carpenter: The Lindbergh Kidnapping and the Framing of Richard Hauptmann. New York: Viking, 1985.

Nash, Jay R. Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals From the Pilgrims to the Present. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1973.

Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1982.

——. The Mafia Encyclopedia. 2nd Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1999.

Toland, John. The Dillinger Days. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

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Crime 1920-1940

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