The Dark Side of the 1920s

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The Dark Side of the 1920s

The years between 1920 and 1929 are called the Roaring Twenties, a term that calls up images of happy people dancing the Charleston (a popular dance of the period), listening to jazz in Harlem nightclubs, or piling into Model Ts (an inexpensive car made by the Ford Motor Company) for rides through the city streets. In many ways this was a decade dominated by optimism, as people enjoyed the conveniences that technology brought into their lives, advances in medicine, and an economy that was generally prosperous. Yet the 1920s were also marked by some troubling trends and events, and not everybody enjoyed the era.

Prohibition, the popular name for the constitutional ban on alcoholic beverages that went into effect in early 1920, is often cited as a source of conflict in the United States. Designed by social reformers as a "noble experiment" that would bring more order and morality to society, Prohibition seemed to have the opposite effect. The heavy traffic in illegal liquor brought about an increase in criminal activity, with organized crime figures (groups of criminals who worked together and often fought each other for control of particular areas or cities)

raking in the money and stacking up the bodies. The public was shocked and frightened by the killings and lawlessness that seemed to result from Prohibition, which would be overturned at the beginning of the 1930s.

Another trend was the nativism (favoring inhabitants already living in the country over immigrants coming to the country) that flourished during the 1920s. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were widely viewed with suspicion and faced discrimination, both in the form of laws enacted against them and in legal efforts to harass and punish them. During the Red Scare of 1920, for example, hundreds of immigrants were rounded up and some were deported (forced to leave the country). The trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants accused of murder, highlighted the prejudice against these newcomers. Other famous trials of the decade shed further light on the darker side of human nature, as well as the public's fascination with crime.

Also alarming was the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, a white terrorist group that had been active in the South during the Reconstruction Era (the period following the American Civil War; 1861–65). In its earlier days, the Klan had committed many violent acts against African Americans in order to prevent them from achieving political and social equality. In the 1920s it broadened its focus to include anyone perceived as different from the white Protestant majority, including immigrants, Catholics, and Jews.

Prohibition: noble or harmful?

It is ironic that a decade so often associated with carefree drinking is also one in which it was illegal to make or sell alcoholic beverages. On January 16, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. A ban on the manufacture and sale of liquor was now written into the U.S. Constitution. The evening before, many bars and saloons had held mock funeral services, with patrons throwing their glasses into wooden coffins and bands playing mournful music. Both private citizens and businesses had spent the previous weeks buying up bottles of liquor; for example, New York City's Yale Club had a supply that was supposed to last for fourteen years. Those who had worked hard to make the United States an alcohol-free society, however, rejoiced. As quoted in Nathan Miller's New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, the famous, conservative, and very pro-Prohibition politician William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) declared that the "nation would be saloonless forever."

The temperance movement

Prohibition was the result of nearly a century of effort that began with the temperance movement of the early nineteenth century. It was made up of those who thought people should not drink alcoholic beverages. In the years following the American Revolution (1775–83), alcohol consumption in the United States had greatly increased. Saloons appeared in every city, town, and village as the hardworking men who were settling the western part of the country took refuge from their loneliness and exhaustion in drinking. In fact, the rate of alcohol consumption between 1800 and 1830 was three times the rate it was in the early twenty-first century. Saloons also provided a setting for such illegal activities as prostitution, which led to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and gambling.

Shocked by the real and imagined results of drinking's popularity, a number of reformers began efforts to curb it. At first they encouraged people just to cut down on the amount of alcohol they consumed, but eventually most began to call for total abstinence (drinking no alcohol at all). Drinking was described as a sinful activity that led to disease, crime, and damage to family relationships. Formed in 1836, the American Temperance Union urged abstinence from both distilled liquors, such as whiskey and rum, and fermented beverages, such as beer and wine. They asked people to sign a pledge and to write a "T" next to their name to stand for total abstinence; that is the origin of the popular term "teetotalers," still used to describe people who do not drink alcohol.

As time went on, the temperance groups turned increasingly to political action and government intervention. In 1851 the state of Maine banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks, and by 1855 twelve more states had done the same. These efforts resulted in a reduction in average consumption from 5 to 2 gallons (18.9 to 7.6 liters) to per year. Most of these laws were repealed soon after the end of the Civil War, but by the end of the nineteenth century, six states were still dry (meaning that alcohol was banned); hotels and bars, however, were allowed to sell liquor by the bottle.

The Prohibition movement gathers strength

In the early 1900s, there were still a large number of saloons in the United States, especially in the cities. At the same time, medical research was providing clear evidence of the toll alcohol took on people's health. There was also a concern about the power that the liquor interests, such as large beer breweries and distilling companies, many of which owned saloons, wielded as they pursued high profits. More groups now sprang into action, including the Methodist Church, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (1874), the Anti-Saloon League (1895), and the Prohibition Party (formed in 1872, this party sponsored anti-alcohol presidential candidates). Women played a particularly important role in this movement, both as leaders (because they were seen as the moral guardians of society) and as inspiration (because they were thought to suffer most from men's drinking habits).

Immigrants from countries in which alcoholic drinks had a cherished cultural role, such as Ireland and Germany, caused further concern and contributed to the nativism sentiments of the period. As the twentieth century dawned, industry was growing, with factories being built across the nation, but especially in the Northeast. Manufacturers needed a sober, reliable workforce to keep their factories going. Drinking became a leading issue of the Progressive Era (a period that lasted from about 1900 to 1914, during which reformers worked hard to improve society in a variety of ways), as Prohibition came to be seen as a way to help the poor and protect young people. During World War I (1914–18), Prohibition even became a patriotic issue: a number of the leading breweries were owned by people who had immigrated from Germany, the country against whom the United States and its allies fought.

All of these forces came together to propel the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, followed closely by the Volstead Act, which laid out the terms of the new law. Many people were surprised to learn that the Volstead Act defined "intoxicating" beverages as containing as little as 0.5 percent alcohol, which meant that drinks like beer and wine were included. It is thought that the widespread public support for Prohibition before it took effect may have been based on a belief that it would ban only the so-called "hard" liquors, like whiskey. Over the next decade, the reforming mood that had dominated the Progressive Era would shift, and Prohibition would become increasingly unpopular.

Prohibition brings division

One argument against Prohibition was that it caused a deep division between the people of the United States, who identified themselves either as Wets (those who urged an end to Prohibition) or Drys (those who supported the law). Prohibition was particularly disliked in urban areas with large numbers of immigrants. They resented not only the ban on practices that were acceptable within their own cultures but also the loss of the saloons themselves. Saloons had previously served as neighborhood gathering places, where residents could go to find out about jobs, hold meetings, and even host dances and wedding receptions.

Meanwhile, despite the law, people continued to drink. Those with enough money could buy fairly high-quality liquor from sellers called bootleggers (the name refers to the practice of hiding liquor flasks inside boots). But the poor often resorted to home brews—sometimes made in bathtubs, leading to the term "bathtub gin"—some of which were poisonous enough to cause blindness or even death.

A rise in organized crime

Organized crime existed even before Prohibition took effect. Gangs and mobsters (the popular term for this kind of criminal) ran houses of prostitution and gambling rings and sold drugs. But in the 1920s the big crime syndicates, or organizations, realized that there were huge profits to be made through making and selling alcoholic beverages to thirsty people willing to break the law. As the various gangs competed with one another, the rate of violence increased.

Chicago, Illinois, gained a reputation as one of the toughest towns, with almost four hundred gang-related deaths yearly toward the end of the decade. It was home to the most famous gangster of them all, Al Capone (1899–1947), the man whose name would become permanently linked with Prohibition and the darker side of the 1920s.

"Scarface" makes his mark

Alphonse Capone was born in New York City, and he was familiar with the life of the streets from an early age. During his younger years, he earned the nickname "Scarface" after a bar fight left him with a prominent scar down one cheek. Involved with a notorious New York gang, he moved to Chicago in 1919, both to join the thriving crime scene there and to avoid a murder charge. Capone gradually gained prominence among the underworld figures in Chicago, and by 1925 he had taken control of the city's illegal liquor operations. Although other gangsters were also active, Capone was the most successful: by 1929 he had amassed a fortune of fifty million dollars, had more than seven hundred men working for him, and controlled more than ten thousand speakeasies (places where illegal liquor was sold).

Capone was also known as the most ruthless and brutal of organized crime figures. He is suspected of involvement in the deaths of as many as two hundred members of rival gangs. In fact, it is widely believed that he masterminded one of the bloodiest and most dramatic events of the 1920s: the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, seven members of the gang headed by Capone's leading rival, George "Bugs" Moran, were lured into a Chicago garage. They were then lined up against a wall and shot to death by men dressed in police uniforms, who were thought to be Capone gang members. The identities of the killers were never discovered, however, and it was never proved that Capone was involved.

It was not until 1931 that prosecutors were able to press charges against Capone that would actually hold up in court. Prosecuted for income-tax evasion (failing to pay income taxes on the many millions of dollars he had gained from his illegal activities), Capone was sentenced to eleven years in prison. Capone was surprised by this sentence since he expected a much shorter prison term. After his release, his criminal career was over. Suffering from the effects of syphilis (a serious sexually transmitted disease that may result, as in Capone's case, in brain damage), he lived in Florida until his death in 1947.

Drinkers ignore the law

The most popular setting for illegal drinking in the 1920s was the speakeasy, an unofficial drinking establishment that could be either glamorous or seedy, depending on its location and customers. (The New York City police commissioner claimed that there were about thirty thousand speakeasies in the city.) There were also places called "blind pigs," which were disguised to look like legal businesses but featured bars in back rooms. To gain access to either a speakeasy or a blind pig, a visitor usually had to provide a special password, which was meant to prove that the person was not a law enforcement official planning to raid the establishment and put it out of business.

The liquor sold in these places was provided by bootleggers. They got their supplies from smugglers called rumrunners, who brought the liquor into the United States either by ship or across the Canadian border. The states of New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Washington, California, and Florida were particularly active hubs for the illegal alcohol trade. One of the most famous rumrunners was Bill McCoy, who had been a Florida boat builder before the 1920s. He bought a boat that could hold three thousand cases of liquor, and he became famous for bringing high-quality Scotch whisky to the East Coast. This story possibly lead to the use of the term "the real McCoy" to refer to something authentic.

Local police forces were underfunded, understaffed, and underpaid, all of which made them ineffective in enforcing the Prohibition laws. The federal government provided only fifteen hundred agents to implement Prohibition across the entire United States. And even when violators were brought to trial, judges seemed reluctant to convict them. People were still quite able to make, sell, and buy alcoholic beverages, and some maintained that the number of drinkers and the rate of public intoxication had even increased since the beginning of Prohibition. Even a special new force created by the U.S. Justice Department, known as the Untouchables because they were said to be incorruptible, and led by agent Eliot Ness (1902–1957), who had a flawless reputation for honesty and integrity, was only marginally effective.

Resistance grows

The atmosphere of lawlessness, violence, and suspicion that Prohibition created made people more and more uncomfortable. In her book The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s, historian Lynn Dumenil states that Prohibition "had created a nation of spies, of nosy busybodies, empowered by the state to infringe on personal liberties." Increasingly, people were finding the cost of Prohibition too high, and the fact was that most did not see drinking, moderate drinking, at least, as sinful.

Resistance to the Eighteenth Amendment became an issue in the presidential elections of the last half of the 1920s, particularly in 1928. The Democratic candidate in that election was New York governor Al Smith (1873–1944), who happened to represent everything that Prohibition's supporters distrusted. In addition to being a Wet, he was Catholic and the child of Irish immigrants. He was also closely associated with

The original "G-Man": J. Edgar Hoover

Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for almost fifty years, J. Edgar Hoover rose to prominence in the 1920s. Under his leadership, the FBI grew from a young, inexperienced agency to a large, highly trained law enforcement organization.

Hoover was born in 1895 in Washington, D.C. He was forced to delay his university education because of his father's illness, but by 1916 had received a bachelor's degree in law, and the next year a master's degree, from George Washington University.

During World War I, Hoover worked for the Justice Department, determining how to handle those suspected of disloyalty to the United States. The war and the rise of the Communist Party in Russia had created an atmosphere of suspicion and fear about radical or unfamiliar political views.

When, in 1919, the U.S. attorney general conducted raids on those suspected of ties to the Communist Party or of holding anti-American views, Hoover was asked to prepare legal cases against twenty-five-hundred arrested suspects. Through his work, he acquired a reputation as an expert on radical groups and as a capable administrator.

In 1921 Hoover became assistant director of the FBI, at a time when the fairly young agency was riddled with corruption. One of his first investigative efforts was against the Ku Klux Klan. Hoover worked with the governor of Louisiana on a case that resulted in the arrest and conviction of several Klan members.

By 1924 he was appointed director of the FBI. In this position he was able to root out corrupt agents and appoint better-qualified men. He opened the first centralized fingerprinting division in the United States and created an advanced crime laboratory and an academy to train FBI agents. Hoover also developed detailed files on people, including U.S. government officials and popular leaders.

Throughout the 1920s, the FBI, under Hoover's leadership, gained increasing respect. FBI agents, popularly referred to as "G-Men" (the G stands for government) during the 1930s, captured or killed notorious gangsters such as Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and John Dillinger.

Hoover continued to lead the FBI into the 1960s. The documentation he had begun keeping on people in the 1920s had grown, and fear arose that this secret information gave Hoover too much power. The FBI began to focus its attentions on those involved in the civil rights movement and those opposed to the Vietnam War. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and President John F. Kennedy were among those Hoover investigated. As word of such investigations got out, some worried that the FBI was less focused on crime and more intent on discrediting people for political purposes.

By the time of Hoover's death in 1972, it was widely agreed that the FBI had infringed on individual rights. Reforms and standards were developed to limit the FBI's power and ability to carry out certain tasks, but the debate about the FBI's role in U.S. government continues into the twenty-first century.

Tammany Hall, the political organization that was said to wield total power over New York City. Although Smith was defeated in the election (Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover [1874–1964] was elected), the support he attracted highlighted a shift in the nation's mood. Prohibition was finally over-turned with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933.

The effects of nativism

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrants had been welcomed into the United States, as the country was growing and industrializing rapidly and laborers were needed. In addition, the United States had always prided itself on being a refuge for people fleeing from hardship or mistreatment in their own countries, or seeking expanded opportunities for themselves and their children. Before 1890, most of these newcomers had arrived from the countries of northern and western Europe, just like the people who had first settled the United States. Generally, they shared the same social, political, and religious values of the original settlers, and most of them had spread out to the western parts of the nation.

A new kind of immigrant

By contrast, most of the immigrants who arrived in the first few decades of the twentieth century came from such southern and eastern European countries as Italy, Greece, Armenia, Slovakia, Russia, and Poland; in addition, some arrived from Puerto Rico, the West Indies, and Mexico. Unlike the Protestant majority, these people were often Catholics or Jews, and their cultural habits and beliefs were different. They tended to stay in the cities, settling in neighborhoods with others from the same backgrounds, and they usually had little experience with life in a democratic society. By World War I, immigrants were arriving at the rate of nearly one million per year, and about 80 percent of these were of the new variety.

This trend caused alarm among "old stock" citizens of the United States, those whose ancestors had come long ago from northern and western Europe. They felt that their way of life was threatened by the different ways and ideas of the newcomers. Some used a new pseudoscience (not a genuine science) called eugenics to warn of the dangers of what they called "mongrelization" (the mixing of superior white blood with that of the inferior immigrants). Whereas the people of the United States had once proudly called their society a "melting pot," in which people of many different backgrounds were welcomed and blended together, many of them now feared that such a blending would destroy the world they knew.

It was not just that immigrants were economic competitors (since they were generally willing to work for very low wages) or that their strange cultural practices (particularly the consumption of alcohol) threatened traditional values, although these were both significant factors. It was also that the newcomers were thought to hold dangerous, radical ideas about politics and social order. They believed, it was said, in ideologies like socialism (the theory that the means of production, distribution, and exchange of goods should be owned or run by the community as a whole) and anarchy (having no government at all). These suspicions had been inflamed by the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, when Communists (followers of a system in which all property is jointly owned by the community, rather than by individuals) took control of the country from the czar, its traditional ruler. In fact, though, most immigrants were too preoccupied with basic survival to worry about politics. They faced poverty, mistreatment, and prejudice and struggled daily with the challenges of learning a new language and fitting into an unfamiliar society.

A "scare" and a trial

In early 1920 nativism sentiment sparked a series of events known as the Red Scare (red was a color closely associated with Communism). The year before, several well-known government leaders and political figures had been the victims of bomb attacks, and printed materials calling for a worker revolution had been found at the attack sites. One of the leaders was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936), who had previously been a strong defender of individual rights. Mitchell now became the leading figure in a movement promoting what its members called "100 percent Americanism." Palmer organized a campaign against not only admitted Communists and other radicals but also people who were only suspected of having the wrong ideas about America.

On January 2, 1920, federal agents raided homes and businesses in thirty-three cities, arresting more than 4,000 suspects. Those who did not have the proper citizenship papers were threatened with deportation, and 249 were eventually sent to the Soviet Union. By the end of the year, however, the Red Scare was over, as the majority of U.S. citizens realized that the threat posed by suspected radicals was overblown. Perhaps many also recognized that the cherished, and constitutionally protected, right of freedom of speech had been in more danger from the federal government itself than from any outsiders.

Another event that highlighted the suspicion that native inhabitants felt toward the foreign-born was the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Italian immigrants who had been trying to organize workers into labor unions, Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with the murder of two men during a 1920 robbery at a shoe factory in Braintree, Massachusetts. Despite flimsy evidence and obvious prejudice shown toward the defendants during the trial, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted and sentenced to death.

Their lawyers managed to delay their execution for several years, and during this period a number of activists worked to have the sentence overturned. More and more voices were raised in their defense, and demonstrations of support were held at locations around the world. Nevertheless, the two men were executed on August 23, 1927. The case is still cited as an example of a miscarriage of justice resulting from public paranoia.

Anti-immigration laws

For several years, the United States government had put restrictions on the number of people who were allowed to immigrate from Asia, but an open-door policy on European immigrants had always prevailed. That changed in the 1920s, when new anti-immigration legislation was introduced.

It started with an emergency act, passed by Congress in 1921, that set a 355,000-per-year limit on European immigrants. Each nation was allowed a quota (a fixed number allowed to immigrate) of 3 percent of the number of foreign-born residents from that country who had been in the United States at the time of the 1910 Census (the official population count, taken every ten years). Even more restrictive was the National Origins Act of 1924, which set the yearly limit at 150,000 and made the quota 2 percent of those present at the time of the 1890 Census (this part was aimed directly at immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, not many of whom had lived in the United States at that time). No Asian immigrants were allowed at all.

All of these measures reflected the desire for racial and cultural homogeneity, or sameness, that now dominated U.S. society. Their immediate result was to prevent about two million Greeks, Italians, and others who were waiting to come to the United States from immigrating. The number of Italian immigrants, for example, dropped from forty thousand per year to less than four thousand, while the number of people arriving from Poland dropped from thirty thousand to about six thousand. Further steps were taken by individual states, where, for example, foreign-born people were sometimes banned from owning land. California's Alien Land Law was targeted at the large number of Japanese immigrants in that state, many of whom had become successful farmers.

The return of the Klan

Nativism also led to the resurgence of an organization that had wreaked havoc within the borders of the United States in the previous century. During the Reconstruction Era, a period stretching from the end of the Civil War to 1877, representatives of the U.S. government and military joined with white and black southerners to reorganize the political and social structure of the South,

which had emerged defeated and devastated from the bloody conflict that had just ended. Resistance to these efforts by white southerners, who mourned the loss of a system and way of life they had cherished, took many forms. One of the most troubling was the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, a group of white terrorists who committed many violent, brutal acts against African Americans in an attempt to keep whites in control in the South.

New suspicions and hatreds

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Jim Crow laws were firmly in place in the South, trapping black southerners in a system that made discrimination and inequality legal. The idea that blacks might someday enjoy the rights that the Constitution supposedly guaranteed to all citizens of the United States seemed remote. Blacks were prevented from voting, for example, by obstructions like property and literacy tests (which whites were not required to pass), poll taxes, and grandfather clauses that allowed only those who had voted before 1865 and their descendants to cast votes (which disqualified virtually all blacks, who had not been allowed to vote at that time). In this repressive environment, there was not much need for the Ku Klux Klan, and they faded away. But in the 1920s, the increasing suspicion and hatred of anyone different from the white Protestant majority resurrected the Klan.

Society had undergone an important and, for some people, unsettling shift. In addition to the immigrants who had crowded into the cities, about four million people had moved from rural to urban areas. A significant portion of these were African Americans, who had migrated to the northern cities in search of greater opportunity and to escape from the political and social inequality they faced in the South. Of course, even in the North they would be allowed to hold only the lowest-paid jobs, and they would continue to struggle with discrimination and prejudice. Living as they did in their own communities, on the south side of Chicago, for example, and in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, and willing to work for low wages, African Americans seemed to pose both a social and an economic threat.

The Klan broadens its focus

In 1915 a white, thirty-five-year-old former minister named William J. Simmons (1880–1945) reorganized the Ku Klux Klan, beginning with a meeting held on top of Stone Mountain, just outside Atlanta, Georgia. Although the new Klan would employ many of the same violent tactics and intimidation (use of the threat or fear of attack or harassment) as the old, it was different in one significant way. The old Klan had targeted the newly freed African Americans of the South, as well as a few people who supported them. The new Klan broadened its scope to focus on anyone who was not white or Protestant, especially Catholics and Jews, and on every region of the nation, not just the southeastern states. That meant, for example, that in Texas they attacked people of Mexican heritage, while in California they focused on Japanese people and in New York on Jews.

The Klan referred to itself as the "Invisible Empire" and employed an elaborate system of secret rituals and costumes (with ordinary members wearing the traditional white robe and hood and leaders donning more colorful clothing) and fancy titles like "Imperial Wizard" and "Grand Goblin." It seems that many followers were attracted as much by these frills as by the chance to impose white supremacy (the view that people of northern and western European descent are superior to all others) on society. In his 1931 book Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, Frederick Lewis Allen noted that the Klan allowed those who lived in "drab places" an escape from boredom and from their feelings of insignificance, "a chance to dress up the village bigot [someone who is prejudiced against and intolerant of others] and let him be a Knight of the Invisible Empire."

According to its constitution, as quoted in Erica Hanson's The 1920s, the Klan's objectives were to

"unite white male persons, native-born Gentile [Christian] citizens of the United States of America, … to shield the sanctity of the home and the chastity [purity] of womanhood; to maintain forever white supremacy, … and maintain the distinctive institutions, rights, privileges, principles, traditions and ideals of a pure Americanism."

Klan membership grows … then declines

With help from two clever but some what shady promoters, Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, Simmons mounted what proved to be a very successful campaign to recruit members. Although it is difficult to gauge exact numbers, most historians agree that at the height of its popularity the Klan had as many as five million members, who included not only the group's traditional base of southerners but also midwestern farmers and factory workers in places like Detroit, Michigan, and Cleveland, Ohio. They used many of the same tactics the group had employed in the nineteenth century, including beatings, lynchings (unofficial, brutal, mob executions of people who may or may not have been charged with any crime), and a pattern of intimidation that included vandalizing homes and burning crosses on lawns.

In 1921 an article in New York World magazine about the violent acts committed by Klan members spurred an investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives. Witnesses spoke out both against and in defense of the Klan. Simmons himself testified, distancing himself from the violence and claiming that the Klan was actually a public service organization. Rather than exposing the Klan for the terrorist organization it was, the investigation served as free publicity for the group, which actually gained more members as a result.

The next year, Hiram Evans (1881–1940) took over leadership of the Klan. He set about giving the group a more political focus, and gradually the Klan gained more influence as politicians sought its endorsement. It is known that the Klan helped to elect seventy-five members of the House of Representatives, as well as governors in Georgia, Alabama, California, and Oregon; Klansman Earl Mayfield became a U.S. senator from Texas. Those who opposed the Klan were, of course, alarmed at the progress the group was making in the political realm. At the Democratic Party's 1924 convention, some wanted to include a condemnation of the Klan in the party's platform (a statement of positions on various issues), but the majority overruled this for fear that it would hurt the Democrats' popularity. However, both the Democratic presidential candidate, John Davis (1873–1955), and the nominee of the Progressive Party, Robert LaFollette (1855–1925), did speak out against the Klan.

By 1924 the Klan's membership and influence were in decline. It is probable that some supporters felt that, with Prohibition firmly in place, immigrants posed less of a threat. In addition, a few states had taken very aggressive measures to curb Klan violence. For example, in Oklahoma, a three-week period of martial law (when military or law enforcement officers take charge of society) resulted in a roundup of four thousand Klan suspects. Also contributing to the Klan's loss of popularity was the exposure of some of its leaders as being corrupt. In 1925, for instance, Grand Dragon David Stephenson (1891–1966) was found guilty of second-degree murder. Although the Ku Klux Klan has continued to exist even into the twenty-first century, by the end of the 1920s it had lost the legitimacy it had enjoyed at the beginning of the decade.

Crimes of the century

The Roaring Twenties was a decade of sensational crimes, dramatic trials, and executions, all of which were reported in colorful detail in the new tabloid press (newspapers that were half the size of ordinary newspapers and targeted to a mass audience). The public's attention seemed riveted to murder, rape, and other violent crimes. Some people were convinced that these cases provided evidence of social disorder caused by modern developments and influences.

Several of these famous crimes were labeled "the crime of the century." Among the most prominent was the 1924 murder trial of Nathan Leopold (1904–1971) and Richard Loeb (1905–1936), two nineteen-year-olds from wealthy Chicago families. These young men had shocked their families and the rest of the nation by confessing to the killing of Bobby Franks, a fourteen-year-old acquaintance. Leopold and Loeb revealed that they had planned for weeks to commit "the perfect crime," and they expressed no remorse for what they had done. Fearing that their children would receive the death penalty, their parents hired Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), a famous Chicago defense lawyer who had saved many clients from execution.

Darrow quickly determined that the boys, though very intelligent, had never developed a sense of right and wrong. Instead of trying to win their acquittal (a judgment of innocence) on the basis of insanity (in other words, they were not guilty because they had not been aware of what they were doing), Darrow directed his clients to enter a guilty plea. That meant that a judge, not a jury, would decide their fate, which Darrow believed was the young men's only chance to avoid execution. At the trial Darrow emphasized his clients' mental instability and lack of any moral compass. In his lengthy closing statement (see Closing Argument in the Leopold and Loeb Trial Primary Sources entry), he appealed to the judge to look toward the future, when the death penalty would certainly be viewed as a brutal relic of the past. The judge ruled in favor of a life sentence in prison rather than execution.

Darrow defends Sweet

Darrow also won a victory in his defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African American physician charged with murder. After moving into a white neighborhood in Detroit, Sweet used

bodyguards to defend his family from the hostile whites who had been vandalizing his home. After a confrontation, a white mob surrounded Sweet's house and broke several windows. Shots were fired from inside (Sweet claimed that a warning had been shouted first), resulting in the death of one man in the crowd and the wounding of another. Sweet and eleven others who had been in the house were arrested and charged with murder.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) paid Darrow to defend Sweet. Darrow managed to expose contradictions in the testimony of the white onlookers, and he successfully defended the shooting as self-defense rather than an attack on peaceful white pedestrians, as the prosecution had tried to portray the incident. The case resulted in a mistrial due to a hung jury (the jury was unable to reach a verdict, so the trial came to an end), and the charges against Sweet were dropped. The Sweet case was viewed as a happy exception to the usual kind of justice that African Americans could expect from the court system.

Other sensational trials

Other famous court cases of the 1920s included the Halls-Mill murder trial, involving the wife of a minister accused of killing her husband and a married female member of the church choir with whom 'he had been having an affair. Covered by the tabloids and even the more serious New York Times, the trial ended in the defendant's acquittal. Not so lucky was Ruth Snyder, a Long Island, New York, homemaker who was convicted of killing her husband. Snyder's married lover, Henry Judd Gray, was also found guilty, and both went to the electric chair. A particularly sensational element of this case was the wide circulation of a photograph taken at the moment of Snyder's death, in defiance of prison rules, by a reporter with a camera strapped to his leg.

The young, lively motion picture industry centered in Hollywood, California, also had its share of scandalous crimes and dramatic trials. In 1921 the popular comic actor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1887–1933) was accused of raping and murdering a young actress named Virginia Rappe (1895–1921). Arbuckle was eventually cleared (Rappe's death was due to a botched abortion), but his reputation was ruined, and he was never able to work in movies again. A case that was never solved involved the murder of director William Desmond Taylor (1872–1922), who reputedly had links to a drug ring.

For More Information


Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. New York: Perennial, 1964.

Allsop, Kenneth. The Bootleggers and Their Era. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.

Altman, Linda Jacobs. The Decade That Roared: America During Prohibition. New York: Twenty-First Century Books, 1997.

Andryszewski, Tricia. Immigration: Newcomers and Their Impact on the United States. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.

Barry, James P. The Noble Experiment: 1919–33. New York: Franklin Watts, 1972.

Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: The Man and the Era. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Chalmers, David. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.

Clark, Norman H. Deliver Us from Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1976.

Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. New York: Random House, 2002.

Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

Feuerlicht, Roberta Strauss. America's Reign of Terror: World War I, the Red Scare, and the Palmer Raids. New York: Random House, 1971.

Hanson, Erica. The 1920s. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.

Higdon, Hal. Crime of the Century: The Leopold & Loeb Case. New York: Putnam, 1975.

Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism. New York: Atheneum, 1965.

Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. New York: Putnam, 1971.

Lucas, Eileen. The Eighteenth and Twenty-First Amendments: Alcohol-Prohibition and Repeal. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2000.

Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.

Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition: The Era of Excess. New York: Harper Colophon, 1964.

Web Sites

"Al Capone." Chicago Historical Society. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

"American Cultural History, Decade 1920–1929." Kingwood College Library. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Best of History Websites. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Clash of Cultures in the 1910s and 1920s. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Interpreting Primary Sources. Digital History. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Linder, Douglas. "Tennessee vs. John Scopes, The Monkey Trial, 1925." Famous Trials in American History. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

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