rimeProhibition Led to the Rapid Growth of Organized Crime
Prohibition was a period in which the sale, manufacture, or transport of alcoholic beverages became illegal. It started January 16, 1919 and continued to December 5, 1933. Although it was designed to stop drinking completely, it did not even come close. It simply created a large number of bootleggers who were able to supply the public with illegal alcohol. Many of these bootleggers became very rich and influential through selling alcohol and also through other methods. They pioneered the practices of organized crime that are still used today. Thus, Prohibition led to the rapid growth of organized crime.
The introduction of prohibition in 1919 created numerous opinions and issues in American society. Prohibition had been a long standing issue in America, with temperance organizations promoting it since the late eighteenth century. The movement grew tremendously during the nineteenth century. The Independent Order of Good Templars, one of the major temperance societies, increased it’s membership by 350,000 between 1859 and 1869 (Behr 31). Other societies followed a similar trend, and millions of Americans belonged to temperance societies by the end of the nineteenth century. When the United States entered World War I in 1914, there was a shortage of grain due to the large demands to feed the soldiers. Since grain is one of the major components in alcohol, the temperance movement now had the war to fuel their fight. “The need to conserve grain, the importance of maintaining some semblance of discipline and devotion …. to demonstrate the nation’s sober determination to protect its interests.” (Repeal .. 1933) Thus, the war played a large part in the introduction of Prohibition. During the next five years many states enacted their own prohibition laws, and finally, at midnight on December 16, 1919, Amendment 18 went into effect. It states that, “…the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors … for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” (Constitution)
The public reaction to the introduction of Prohibition was largely mixed. The temperance organizations rejoiced at their victory. Over a century of work had finally paid off for them. The rest of the country, however, was less than pleased. Many saw it as a violation of their freedom, and others simply wanted to keep drinking. It did not take long for people to begin their protest. Less than one hour after prohibition took effect six gunmen hijacked a train in Chicago and stole over $100,000 worth of whiskey that was marked for medicinal use (Gingold 28). In New York, although there were no violent protests recorded that night, people all over the city mourned the loss of alcohol at their favorite saloon or restaurant, and drank a final toast at midnight (John … Toll of 12).
The huge public demand for alcohol led to a soaring business for bootleggers. When prohibition began, people immediately wanted a way to drink. Hence, the extremely profitable bootlegging business was born. Before Prohibition gangs existed, but had little influence. Now, they had gained tremendous power almost overnight. Bootlegging was easy – New York City gangs paid hundreds of poor immigrants to maintain stills in their apartments. Common citizens, once law abiding, now became criminals by making their own alcohol. However, this posed risks for those who made their own. “The rich managed to continue drinking good liquor while less-affluent Americans often consumed homemade alcoholic beverages, which were sometimes made with poisonous wood alcohol.” (Eighteenth … Prohibition) Thus, many died due to alcohol poisoning. There was very little enforcement to the law, since the government employed few prohibition agents, most of whom could be bribed by the bootleggers. Those in favor of prohibition “became increasingly dismayed with the efforts of the government to enforce the law.” (Repeal … 1933) “In 1920, the government had fewer than 1,600 low-paid, ill-trained Prohibition agents for the entire country.” (Gingold 37) Speakeasies, which got their name because a password had to be spoken through the door to get in, popped up all over the country. “The number of speakeasies in New York was somewhere in the hundreds or even thousands. It was easy enough for police to close and padlock individual speakeasies, but there were so many it was impossible to keep them shut down.” (Gingold 36) Even with prohibition in effect, the demand for alcohol never gave it a chance to work.
Al Capone used prohibition to build a crime empire unparalleled in United States history. He started as a member of John Torrio’s gang in Chicago. Torrio was a notorious gangster and bootlegger, and after he was shot in 1922 Capone became the leader of his gang. He quickly expanded the business, and by 1930 “controlled speakeasies, bookie joints, gambling houses, brothels, horse and race tracks, nightclubs, distilleries and breweries at a reported income of $100,000,000 a year.” (History Files 1) By bribing police and prohibition agents, he was able to get away with almost anything he did. Capone was the first and last gangster to openly flaunt his crimes. He was somewhat of a celebrity in Chicago and admitted what he did with quotes suck as: “All I’ve ever done is to supply a public demand – you can’t cure a thirst by a law … It’s bootleg when it’s on the trucks, but when your host hands it to you on a silver tray, it’s hospitality … They say I violate Prohibition. Who doesn’t?”(Michell 39) Capone also believed in killing anyone who got in his way. Throughout his career, Capone was said to have killed over 200 people, but he was never convicted of any related charge. In addition to bootlegging and his other establishments, Capone began the widespread use of racketeering. Racketeering is when Capone would force businesses to pay him money in exchange for protection by his gang. Really, though, they were paying for protection from Capone’s gang (Letts 88). However, what goes up must come down. Capone became too famous for his own good. The American public began to hate him for being able to defy the law, and the government hated him for continuously breaking their laws and embarrassing them. After the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, in which seven rival gang members were executed by gunmen dressed as police, Capone was seen as a truly evil and bad man by the public. (Alphonse Capone 2) In 1931, Capone was indicted for tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in prison along with substantial fines. At first he went to Atlanta prison, but after being able to buy better treatment there he was transferred to Alcatraz, where his money meant nothing. He was soon diagnosed with syphilis and spent the rest of his term in a hospital. After he was released Capone returned to his Florida estate and slowly succumbed to his disease until his death on January 25, 1947 (History Files 6).
After the downfall of Al Capone and the repeal of prohibition, organized crime remained largely based on the methods of Capone and the gangsters like him. Prohibition was repealed with the 21st Amendment in 1933, much to the joy of many Americans. It was repealed for two reasons – one, people had decided that the negative aspects out weighed the positive, and two, the country was entering the Great Depression, so it was thought that producing and selling alcohol would create more jobs and help boost the economy (Asbury 227). “Even some proponents admitted that the Eighteenth Amendment resulted in ‘evil consequences’.” (McGuire 1) One of the major negative aspects of Prohibition, organized crime, failed to be eliminated by the repeal. Although bootlegging became a thing of the past, other methods such as extortion, money laundering, and racketeering continued and became more prominent. “The bootleg wars ended with the relegalization of liquor, but the mobs did not fade away … In one form or another, these mobs are still with us today.” (Gingold 39)
Prohibition led to organized crime as we know it today. Men like Al Capone got their start during Prohibition and were able to develop a system whose methods led into the Mafia and other forms of modern day crime. “Prohibition produced the like of Al Capone and organized crime, speak-easies, bootleggers, bathtub gin, and a national wildness called the “roaring twenties.” (McGuire 1) Prohibition turned the small gangs that existed in the early twentieth century into the powerful Mafia that exists today.