BOOTLEGGING. In January 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment became law, banning the manufacture, transportation, importation, and sale of intoxicating liquors in the United States. Known as Prohibition, the amendment was the culmination of more than a century of attempts to remove alcohol from society by various temperance organizations. Many large cities and states actually went dry in 1918. Americans could no longer legally drink or buy alcohol. The people who illegally made, imported, or sold alcohol during this time were called bootleggers.
In contrast to its original intent, Prohibition, a tenet of the "Jazz Age" of the 1920s, caused a permanent change in the way the nation viewed authority, the court system, and wealth and class. Particularly damning was the lack of enforcement, which led to the rise of the mob and notorious criminals such as Al Capone. As a result, bootlegging became big business in the era, often as immigrants took hold of power in urban centers.
Despite enforcement efforts by federal, state, and local officers, Prohibition actually instigated a national drinking spree that persisted until Americans repealed the law thirteen years later. The effects on the American national psyche, however, were long lasting, ushering in a general cynicism and distrust. Many cities proudly proclaimed that they were the nation's wettest. In the early 1920s, Chicago had more than 7,000 drinking parlors, or speak-easies, so named because patrons had to whisper code-words to enter. Physicians nationwide dispensed prescriptions for medicinal alcohol, while pharmacies applied for liquor licenses. Alcohol was available for a price and delivered with a wink and wry smile.
Given the pervasive lawlessness during Prohibition, bootlegging was omnipresent. The operations varied in size, from an intricate network of bootlegging middlemen and local suppliers, right up to America's bootlegging king, George Remus, who operated from Cincinnati, lived a lavish lifestyle, and amassed a $5 million fortune. To escape prosecution, men like Remus used bribery, heavily armed guards, and medicinal licenses to circumvent the law. More ruthless gangsters, such as Capone, did not stop at crime, intimidation, and murder.
Under those conditions, the nation's cities were ripe for crime. In cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, numerous ethnic gangs fought to control the local bootlegging activities. In Chicago, 800 gangsters were killed in gang warfare during Prohibition, primarily due to the fight over alcohol sales.
Bootleggers counterfeited prescriptions and liquor licenses to gain access to alcohol. The most common practice was to import liquor from other countries aboard ships. The river between Detroit and Canada was a thriving entry point, as was the overland method on the long border between the two countries. Bootleggers also evaded authorities by building secret breweries with intricate security systems and lookouts. In addition to eluding the police, bootleggers had to fend off other bootleggers who would steal the precious cargo for their own sale. Bootleggers began a national controversy by selling adulterated liquor, which resulted in countless fatalities and poisonings.
Bootlegging grew into a vast illegal empire, in part, because of widespread bribery. Many enforcement agents received monthly retainers (some receiving$300,000 a month) to look the other way. Critics said that Prohibition Bureau agents had a license to make money through bribes from bootleggers. The corruption among agents was so prevalent that President Warren G. Harding commented on it in his State of the Union address in 1922.
Countless books and movies, including F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the hit film The Untouchables, have chronicled the period. As a result of Prohibition and the illegal bootlegging culture, popular culture examines both the Roaring 1920s and the darker aspects of the period, which play an important role in creating the American mythos.
Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America. New York: Arcade, 1996.
Coffey, Thomas M. The Long Thirst: Prohibition in America, 1920–1933. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975.
Kobler, John. Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Putnam, 1973.
Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.
See alsoCrime, Organized ; Prohibition ; Speakeasy .