Prohibition and Organised Crime

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For an overview, see BBC Bitesize here and here.
For an excellent MindMap of Prohibition see John D. Clare.

Key concepts:

  • Temperance
  • Anti-Saloon League
  • Women’s Christian Temperance Union
  • Bible belt
  • Dry Counties
  • 18th Amendment 1917 – prohibited the production, sale, and transport of “intoxicating liquors”.
  • National Prohibition Act (Volstead Act), enforced from midnight on 17th January 1920 was the legislation that defined ‘intoxicating liquor’ and the penalties for breaking the law; the legislation was voided by the 21st Amendment on December 5th 1933
  • Bootlegging
  • Moonshine
  • Speakeasies
  • Teamsters (International Brotherhood of Teamsters)
  • St Valentine’s Day Massacre (14th February 1929)
  • Bureau of Prohibition
  • 21st Amendment 1933 – ratified 5th December 1933 – ended prohibition

Key questions: PO(WER)

  • What were the causes of prohibition? (ACRIME)
  • Why didn’t Prohibition work? (DAMAGE)
  • Why did the 1920s see a rise in organised crime?
  • Was Prohibition all bad? (ALE)

What were the Causes of Prohibition? Answer: ACRIME
Walsh, pp. 206-207;
SHP, pp. 58-59;
Edexcel, pp. 168-169.

  • Anti-Saloon League
  • Christian Temperance Union
  • Rural Americans
  • Isolationists
  • Madness, and other health and social problems
  • Easy Street

Prohibition was largely the product of the growth of Christian organisations such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Many of the Christians who wanted to abolish slavery saw alcohol as another evil afflicting society. It’s roots go back to the 1830s and 1840s.

Women were strongly behind the temperance movement, for alcohol was seen as the destroyer of families and marriages. Men would often spend their money on alcohol, leaving women with no money to provide for their children.

In the 1870s, inspired by the rising indignation of Methodist and Baptist clergymen, and by distraught wives and mothers whose lives had been ruined by the excesses of the saloon, thousands of women began to protest and organize politically for the cause of temperance. Their organization, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), became a force to be reckoned with, their cause enhanced by alliance with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other women battling for the vote.

By the late 19th century the WCTU, led by the indomitable Frances Willard, could claim some significant successes – it had lobbied for local laws restricting alcohol and created an anti-alcohol educational campaign that reached into nearly every schoolroom in the nation.

Indeed, before and after the 21st Amendment which abolished prohibition, a number of smaller jurisdictions such as cities, towns, and townships existed and still exist in America which prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages. These are known as dry counties, dry cities, dry towns, or dry townships and they are mainly found in the bible belt, of the deep South. Its members viewed alcohol as the underlying source of a long list of social ills (e.g. health problems, mental illness) and found common cause with Progressives trying to ameliorate the living conditions of immigrants crowded into squalid slums, protect the rights of young children working in mills and factories, improve public education, and secure women’s rights. Their goal – of a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol, was only achieved when the ASL emerged during the war.

The Anti-Saloon League (ASL), was founded in 1893 under the leadership of Wayne Wheeler, and became the most successful single issue lobbying organization in American history, willing to form alliances with any and all constituencies that shared its sole goal: a constitutional amendment that would ban the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol. They united with Democrats and Republicans, Progressives, Populists, and suffragists, the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP, the International Workers of the World, and many of America’s most powerful industrialists including Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Andrew Carnegie – all of whom lent support.

Rural Americans – the farmers – proved to be among the strongest supporters of prohibition. The same people who felt most threatened by the economic downturn also belonged to America’s ‘bible belt’. Prohibition therefore is closely related to isolationist and conservative attitudes. Prohibition was one of the first shots in America’s culture war which saw the rise of the KKK and a general reaction to the culture of the 1920s that – arguably – prohibition did the most to promote: speakeasies, flappers, jazz music etc.

Isolationists who objected to imports, immigrants and to entanglements with Europe, saw alcohol as a foreign influence; and ASL propaganda effectively connected beer and brewers with Germans and treason in the public mind.

Madness and other health and social issues it was argued, were the direct result of alcohol consumption. Factory owners also supported temperance as well because of the new work habits that were required of industrial workers – early mornings and long nights. Progressive reformers also took to Prohibition for they saw it as a continuation of their efforts to improve society in general. Temperance societies and Progressives alike saw the need for more governmental control and involvement in citizens’ lives, to protect women, children and society in general from the evils of drink.

The temperance societies began to push to change American society and elevate morality through national legislation. In 1917, the House of Representatives wanted to make Prohibition the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

‘Easy Street’, a film by Charlie Chaplin, from 1917, which lauded the values of Christian family life and the risks posed to it by alcohol is evidence of the success of the ASL in convincing even Hollywood directors and getting its message across to the public.


Congress sent the amendment to the states for ratification, where it needed three-fourths approval. The amendment stipulated a time limit of seven years for the states to pass this amendment. In just 13 months enough states said yes to the amendment that would prohibit the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic liquors.

While the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the production, sale, and transport of “intoxicating liquors”, it did not define “intoxicating liquors” or provide penalties. It granted both the federal government and the states the power to enforce the ban by “appropriate legislation.” That legislation was the Volstead Act (National Prohibition Act) which came into effect from the 17th January 1920.


Why didn’t Prohibition work? ANSWER: DAMAGE
Walsh, pp. 207-208
SHP, pp. 60-63;
Edexcel, pp. 170-71

Despite the laws and the enforcement bureau, there was still a very high demand for it from the public. This created an atmosphere that tolerated crime as a means to provide liquor to the public, even among the police and city politicians.

Many citizens were sympathetic to bootleggers, and respectable citizens were lured by the romance of illegal speakeasies, also called “blind tigers”. The loosening of social morals during the 1920s included popularizing the cocktail and the cocktail party among higher socio-economic groups.

Ultimately, prohibition caused DAMAGE than it was worth:

  • Drinking continued
  • There was not enough police to enforce the law (only 4000 agents, many of whom ended up being sacked for taking bribes);

  • Access to alcohol was easy
  • The liquor trade merely went ‘underground’ in secret ‘tea’ rooms and clubs known as Speakeasies (illegal bars – 200,000 in operation by 1933), which sold moonshine (illegally manufactured liquor) or ‘bootlegged’ alcohol (illegally transported from Canada or South America).

  • It made criminals of ordinary people
  • People who saw nothing wrong with alcohol before prohibition were often inclined to keep drinking in spite of the laws. This meant that they colluded with others to commit crimes.

  • The alcohol sold had Adverse effects
  • – ‘Jackass brandy’ (you had to be a jackass to drink it), caused internal bleeding.

  • Gangsters flourished
  • by running the illegal trade and brought the rule of law into disrepute (it was a felt to be a ridiculous law, and people were aware that he police themselves ‘turned a blind eye’)

  • It Ended
  • – because it was unworkable and the fact that America had to amend the constitution again (the 21st amendment, in 1933) was ‘proof’ of its failure.

Why did the 1920s see a rise in organised crime?
Walsh, pp. 209-210;
SHP, pp. 64-66;
Edexcel, pp. 168-169.

The Volstead Act came into affect on at 1 minute past midnight on January 17th 1920. Within minutes six masked bandits with pistols emptied two freight cars full of whiskey from a rail yard in Chicago, another gang stole four casks of grain alcohol from a government bonded warehouse, and still another hijacked a truck carrying whiskey. Americans were about to discover that making Prohibition the law of the land had been one thing; enforcing it would be another. Mabel Walker Willerbrandt was the unlikely Assistant Attorney General put in charge of its enforcement. She was the most famous woman in America who was not in the movies, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.

It can be argued that the biggest impact of prohibition was to criminalise millions of Americans and thereby spread corruption into US public life. The production, importation, and distribution of alcoholic beverages — once the province of legitimate business — were taken over by criminal gangs, which fought each other for market control in violent confrontations, including murder. Major gangsters, such as Omaha’s Tom Dennison and Chicago’s Al Capone, became rich and were admired locally and nationally. Enforcement was difficult because the gangs became so rich they were often able to bribe underpaid and understaffed law enforcement personnel and pay for expensive lawyers. Those inclined to help authorities were often intimidated, even murdered. In several major cities — notably those that served as major points of liquor importation (including Chicago and Detroit) — gangs wielded significant political power. A Michigan State Police raid on Detroit’s Deutsches Haus once netted the mayor, the sheriff, and the local congressman. Al Capone (1899-1947), is said to have had the Mayor Chicago in his pocket as well as the Trucking union known as the Teamsters or ‘International Brotherhood of Teamsters’.

The profits that could be made from selling and distributing alcohol were worth the risk of punishment from the government, which had a difficult time enforcing prohibition. The majority of the alcohol was imported (by bootlegging from Canada, the Caribbean, and the American Midwest where stills manufactured illegal alcohol (moonshine)). The American Trucking Union known as the Teamsters or ‘International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ was heavily infiltrated by the mob and were responsible for much of this transportation.

Organised crime did nothing to help the reputation of minority immigrants from Europe. In the early 1920s, fascist Benito Mussolini took control of Italy and waves of Italian immigrants fled to the United States. Sicilian Mafia members also fled to the United States, as Mussolini cracked down on Mafia activities in Italy. Most Italian immigrants resided in tenement buildings. As a way to escape the poor lifestyle, some Italian immigrants chose to join the American Mafia.

The Mafia took advantage of prohibition and began selling illegal alcohol. The profits from bootlegging far exceeded the traditional crimes of protection, extortion, gambling, and prostitution. Prohibition allowed Mafia families to make fortunes.

As prohibition continued, factions competed to dominate organized crime in their respective cities, setting up the family structure of each city. Gangs hijacked each other’s alcohol shipments, forcing rivals to pay them for “protection” to leave their operations alone, and armed guards almost invariably accompanied the caravans that delivered the liquor.

The murder rate during the Prohibition Era rose from 6.8 per 100,000 individuals to 9.7 and within the first three months proceeding the Eighteenth Amendment, a half of million dollars in bonded whiskey was stolen from government warehouses.

In the 1920s, Italian Mafia families began waging wars for absolute control over lucrative bootlegging rackets. As the violence erupted, Italians fought Irish and Jewish ethnic gangs for control of bootlegging in their respective territories. Gang wars occurred in New York city and in Chicago. In Chicago, for example, Al Capone and his family massacred the North Side Gang, an Irish American group, on St Valentine’s Day, 1929 during their struggle to take control of organized crime in Chicago.



The victims included five members of George “Bugs” Moran’s North Side Gang. Moran’s second-in-command, Albert Kachellek (alias James Clark), was killed along with Adam Heyer, the gang’s bookkeeper and business manager, Albert Weinshank, who managed several cleaning and dyeing operations for Moran, and gang enforcers Frank Gusenberg and Peter Gusenberg. Two collaborators were also shot: Reinhardt H. Schwimmer, a former optician turned gambler and gang associate, and John May, an occasional mechanic for the Moran gang.



When real Chicago police officers arrived at the scene, one of the victims, Frank Gusenberg was still alive. He was taken to the hospital, where doctors stabilized him for a short time. Police tried to question Gusenberg. Asked who shot him, Gusenberg, who sustained fourteen bullet wounds, replied “No one shot me.” He died three hours later. The Irish gangster, like the Italian, saw it as a matter of honour to uphold the value of ‘omarta’ or silence, by telling the authorities nothing.


Was prohibition all bad? ANSWER: ALE

The Volstead Act established the Federal Bureau of Prohibition. There appears to have been some successes – ALE – for this organisation, which merged with the FBI after prohibition was repealed.

  • Alcohol consumption was reduced:
  • In 1929 50 million litres of illegal alcohol was discovered and destroyed; drinking did not regain its pre 1919 levels until the early 1970s.

  • Law-Enforcement:
  • Not all law enforcers were corrupt. Elliot Ness was an American Prohibition agent who became famous for his efforts to enforce Prohibition in Chicago, Illinois, and the leader of a famous team of law enforcement agents nicknamed ‘The Untouchables’.

    Following the election of President Herbert Hoover, U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was specifically charged with bringing down gangster Al Capone. The federal government pursued his illegal activities in two areas: income tax evasion and violations of prohibition. Eliot Ness was chosen to head the operations under the National Prohibition Act (informally known as the Volstead Act), targeting the illegal breweries and supply routes of Capone.

    Corruption among Chicago’s law-enforcement agents was endemic. In 1929 Ness went through the records of all Prohibition agents to create a reliable team, initially of 50, later reduced to 15 and finally to just 11 men called “The Untouchables”. Raids against illegal stills and breweries began immediately; within six months Ness claimed to have seized breweries worth over one million dollars. The main source of information for the raids was an extensive wire-tapping operation. An attempt by Capone to bribe Ness’ agents was seized on by Ness for publicity, leading to the media nickname, “The Untouchables.” There were a number of assassination attempts on Ness, and one of his close friends was killed.

    The efforts of Ness and his team brought major damage to Capone’s operations. Although Eliot Ness contributed to Capone’s prosecution, it was in fact the efforts of the IRS that led to his prosecution for income tax evasion, In a number of federal grand jury cases in 1931, Capone was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion and also 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act. On October 17, 1931, Capone was convicted on five of the tax evasion charges, after the Volstead Act violations were dropped. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison, and following a failed appeal, he began his sentence in 1932.


    Prohibition was a reaction to foreign influence, change in the city and what rural Americans saw as the lapse of traditional morals. Yet, by criminalising ordinary people, and by glamorising alcohol and the secrecy of speakeasies, Prohibition did more to promote the very culture that it sought to restrain than it did to restrain it. The most extreme expression of the culture war was represented by the KKK who, inspired by the film ‘Birth of a Nation’ not only reacted to the rise of black American culture through jazz music, but also felt threatened by the rise of feminism and the moral freedom represented by the flappers. Members of the ASL joined the KKK too, in reaction to what they felt was the failure of the state to enforce Prohibition.

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