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Sarah Touhey
Professor Harvey
GRW 101-32
December 10, 2014

The Rise of Organized Crime in the Prohibition Era


The Age of Prohibition was infamous because of its association with anarchy; there was a
flood of alcohol production and skyrocketing crime rates which was only heightened by a
dwindling sense of police control. When examining the Prohibition and its aftermath, most
scholars simply see the general failure of the whole ordeal. However, many dont seem to realize
the prosperity that some enterprising, and often unlawful, individuals were able to produce
during that time period. These people took advantage of the ripple-like effect created by
Prohibition. This ripple effect, surged by the people and the police, gave low-level criminals the
opportunity to build a relationship with the American public. This caused law enforcement to
lose control of general criminal activity in many American cities. Eventually, in 1933, the
United States government ratified the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed Prohibition,
after they recognized the incompetence associated with attempting to enforce it. The gangsters
of the Prohibition era used their influence, dominance, and affluence to monopolize not only the
liquor trade, but many of the local law enforcement agencies.
The root of this crusade was the Temperance Movement, which was started by the
American Temperance Society (ATS) in 1826. The advocates of this organization were usually
women who regarded alcohol as a sinful vice and the source of vulgar behavior in men. Because
of this, they pushed for two things: a significant reduction in drinking and, eventually, a total

refrain from alcohol. This movement did not catch on right away but, abstaining from alcohol
gained popularity during World War I. In order to save grain for the war effort, alcohol
consumption was limited by the Wartime Prohibition Act (1918.) The restrictions put into place
seemed to be such a success that the government decided to pass alcohol-related legislation in
1919 and 1920; the Eighteenth Amendment and the National Prohibition Act, respectively.
The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified to the Constitution on January 16, 1919 with the
purpose of prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors (amend.
XVIII, sec. I). This created quite a few problems as the law did not specify which intoxicating
liquors were illegal. To rectify this dilemma, the National Prohibition Act, more commonly
known as the Volstead Act, was enacted only one year later in 1920. Its intent was to clarify
which alcoholic drinks were illegal any beverage with greater than .5% alcohol and, any
intoxant not used for medicine. The responsibility of enforcing this new and unpopular
legislation was dumped on the Bureau of Internal Revenue. A subdivision of the bureau, called
the Federal Bureau of Prohibition or the Prohibition Bureau, was organized to manage and
regulate the alcohol market.
Due to the new laws, the public was forced to find loopholes in the new legislation to
continue their alcohol consumption. For example, although the Eighteenth Amendment said that
manufacturing and purchasing alcohol was illegal, it never stated anything about actually
drinking alcohol. As far as the people were concerned, they could still legally ingest the liquor
they already possessed. Naturally, the public bought alcohol in bulk before the market became
illegal. Other, less law-abiding citizens, took it upon themselves to manufacture their own liquor
by fermenting fruit juice in bathtubs and diluting it with water; giving it the name bathtub gin.

The production of homemade gin gave the people the opportunity to form illicit liquor
store or nightclubs known as speakeasies. David Witwer describes how people gained entry into
speakeasies in his article, The Rise of Gangsters:
A customer would knock on the door, and when asked, would quietly (thus the
term "speakeasy") say the password to the doorman. Customers learned the
password from either the saloon operator or other customers. Those who knew the
password were allowed to enter and buy drinks at the illegal bar.
There was obviously a need for secrecy when dealing with speakeasies. Potential patrons were
required to know a particular password in order to protect the owner and regular customers from
any persecution from the Prohibition Bureau. As speakeasies became increasingly popular, more
and more people became involved with them. Bootleggers began cashing in on the speakeasy
business and in 1925, the number of those establishments grew to over 100,000 in New York
alone (Fitzgerald, 2014).
Bootleggers dominating the speakeasies in cities like New York, Chicago, and Atlantic
City is a perfect example of their rising influence. Essentially, bootleggers became the first
gangsters during Prohibition. Initially, they started out as suppliers to the speakeasies. Then, to
gain more money and power, some individuals started to smuggle liquor into America through
Canada, Mexico, and unregulated islands off the Atlantic coast. Bootleggers-turned-gangsters,
such as Al Capone, Charles Lucky Luciano, and Enoch Nucky Johnson, started to resort to
violent crimes that accompanied the growth of the organized gangs that were engaged in the
large-scale smuggling of alcohol (Nash, 2014).

Bootleggers became involved in violent gang wars such as the St. Valentines Day
Massacre. On Valentines Day in 1927, seven men were shot by individuals dressed as police
officers in Chicago, Illinois. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that the victims were
associated with local gangster George Bugs Moran. Many say this massacre was orchestrated
by Al Capone, a long-time rival of Bugs Moran. However, no evidence could be found that
Capone coordinated the execution and the case was never closed. The violence caused by gang
disputes essentially turned Americas cities into violent battlegrounds (Marose, 2012) and the
countrys police forces began to lose control.
Despite the rise in gang violence associated with the bootlegging, the majority of the
public actually sympathized with the gangsters. This empathy can be traced back to the period
when the bootleggers began supplying liquor to the speakeasies. When the gangsters started
overtaking the illegal booze trade, the public started to view these men as businessmen.
Essentially, the gangsters were businessmen. They supplied a product to fit a high growing
demand from the people. The bootleggers eventually embraced this persona by changing the
way they dressed. For them, their business-like garb reflected their aim to legitimize their
status as businessmen (Beshears, 2010). Having a professional look gave the American citizens
the belief that the bootleggers were trustworthy and reliable.
Their growing relationship with the public gave the gangsters more of an advantage over
the already overwhelmed local law enforcement. Even though the Prohibition Bureau created
legislation like the Increased Penalty Act which increased penalties for a simple violation of
the Volstead Act to five years imprisonment and/or a fine of $ 10,000 (Demleitner, 1994) nonalcohol related crimes were only becoming more and more prevalent. In fact, during Prohibition
the number of thefts, assault and battery charges, and homicides increased more steadily than

crimes in which either the victim or the perpetrator had been drinking liquor (Asbridge and
Weerasinghe, 2009).
Why were the police so incompetent when enforcing everyday laws? With the whole
country focused on sanctioning alcohol consumption, local police forces were not prepared for
the sudden spike of crime. Mark Asbridge and Swarna Weerasinghe believe this unforeseen
increase was due to a differential enforcement of criminal law. In their article Homicide in
Chicago from 1890 to 1930 they explain:
The emergence of Prohibition led to a redirection of existing local police
resources and efforts [and] towards the enforcement of regulations on alcohol
consumption, production, distribution . . . and simultaneously away from the
regulation of other criminal acts.
Plainly, the focus of Prohibition was putting a stop to everything related to alcohol. Agencies
like the Prohibition Bureau forgot to take into account the fact that the more regulated the liquor
market became, the more influence the bootleggers gained in other aspects of crime. Therefore,
when the underground market of crime became less monitored, the gangsters overtook the cities;
gaining even more money and power.
Due to the public influence, power, and control the gangsters had accumulated, the
Temperance Movement began its downfall; liquor consumption, alcohol related deaths, and
Prohibition violations increased over 150% (Meredith, 2005). These compelling statistics
illuminated the issue that the Prohibition had caused more crime and consumption due to the
poor enforcement of alcohol regulations. Viewing Prohibition as a total failure, Congress
enacted the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment and reversed

all of the laws with which it was associated. On December 5, 1933, the Prohibition era had
officially ended in America.
Unfortunately, the effects of this epoch persisted. Although the bootlegging activities the
gangsters engaged in for over a decade became obsolete, the large amounts of money that had
come into the hands of successful bootleggers turned gangs into empires with the opportunity to
participate in further illicit operations (Demleitner, 1994). The gangsters that recovered from
the sudden drop in their businesses were able to go on to other high-paying activities. They saw
the end of Prohibition and fully prepared by running gambling circuits, prostitution rings, and
narcotics distribution services. These street-smart gangsters became the most powerful people of
their time. For example, infamous gangsters like Lucky Luciano who eventually became one
of the most influential people in the Mafia and Al Capone who essentially dominated
Chicago and its surrounding cities gained immense power and popularity because of
Prohibition. The power they gained in the 1920s lasted decades after Prohibition until their
deaths. Scholars still study the gangsters of Americas Prohibition, making their names known
throughout the world.
It goes without saying that many people who study the Prohibition era regard it as a
complete failure and without Prohibition organized crime might never have become as powerful
as it is today. Every ripple of the Prohibition only contributed to the development of organized
crime. If the American public did not demand liquor, bootleggers would not have developed
such a strong relationship with them. This relationship caused the police to lose control of
general criminal activity and consequently ended the era. Prohibition redefined the structure of
organized crime and transitioned America into the next infamous, influential era; the gangster
era.

Works Cited

Asbridge, Mark, and Swarna Weerasinghe. Homicide in Chicago from 1890 to 1930.
Addiction. 104.3 (2009): 355-364. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Beshears, Laura. Honorable Style in Dishonorable Times: American Gangsters of the 1920s and
1930s. Journal of American Culture. 33.3 (2010): 197-206. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Burton, William L. Murder, Booze, and Sex: Three Perspectives on the Roaring Twenties.
Midwest Quarterly. 31.3 (1990): 374-395. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Demleitner, Nora V. Organized Crime and Prohibition: What Difference Does Legislation
Make? 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Fitzgerald, Peter. Prohibition in the 1920s. The Finer Times. The Finer Times, 2014. Web. 13
Oct. 2014.
History Channel. St. Valentines Day Massacre. History Channel. 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Marose, Gregory. Prohibition and the Rise of the American Gangster. The National Archives.
The National Archives, 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
McDonough, Daniel. Chicago Press Treatment of the Gangster. Illinois Historical Journal.
82.1 (1989): 17-32. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Meredith, William A. The Great Experiment. The University at Albany, 2005. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Nash, Tim. Organized Crime in the 1920s and Prohibition. The Finer Times. The Finer Times,
2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

Witwer, David. The Rise of Gangsters. Cobblestone. 27.4 (2006): 8-10. Web, 13 Oct. 2014.