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Prohibition and the Rise of Organized Crime in America: A Historian‘s Perspective

Introduction

In 1920, the United States embarked on a bold social experiment known as Prohibition. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1919, banned the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol nationwide. Proponents believed that eliminating alcohol would lead to a healthier, more moral society. However, the unintended consequences of Prohibition would prove far-reaching and long-lasting. This article explores how Prohibition inadvertently fueled the rise of organized crime in America, transforming the nation‘s underworld and leaving a legacy that endures to this day.

The Temperance Movement and the Push for Prohibition

The roots of Prohibition can be traced back to the early 19th century temperance movement. Reformers, often led by religious groups such as the Woman‘s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League, viewed alcohol as a destructive force that tore families apart and fostered societal ills (Cherrington, 1920). Over time, the movement gained momentum, and by the early 20th century, the push for a national ban on alcohol had reached a fever pitch.

The Anti-Saloon League, in particular, played a crucial role in lobbying for Prohibition. The organization, founded in 1893, was a powerful political force that used grassroots organizing, political pressure, and moral suasion to advance its agenda (Kerr, 1985). By 1916, the League had succeeded in securing dry laws in 26 states, setting the stage for national Prohibition (Kerr, 1985).

In 1917, Congress passed the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. The amendment was ratified by the states in 1919, and Prohibition officially went into effect on January 17, 1920, with the passage of the Volstead Act (Lerner, 2011).

The Rise of Bootlegging and Organized Crime

Despite the alcohol ban, the demand for liquor remained high. In 1914, before Prohibition, Americans consumed an average of 1.46 gallons of pure alcohol per capita (Miron & Zwiebel, 1991). During Prohibition, consumption initially fell but then rebounded to an estimated 60-70% of pre-Prohibition levels by the late 1920s (Miron & Zwiebel, 1991).

This persistent demand created a lucrative black market for illegal alcohol. Bootleggers and smugglers stepped in to meet the demand, operating clandestine stills and transporting liquor across state lines. Organized crime groups, quick to recognize the potential for profits, seized control of the illegal alcohol trade.

Notorious gangsters like Al Capone in Chicago and Lucky Luciano in New York City built vast criminal empires on the backs of bootlegging. Capone‘s Chicago Outfit reportedly raked in $100 million per year at the height of Prohibition, the equivalent of over $1.4 billion in today‘s dollars (Binder, 1999). Organized crime groups used their wealth to corrupt law enforcement, bribe politicians, and expand into other illegal activities such as gambling, prostitution, and extortion.

The rise of organized crime during Prohibition was staggering. According to one estimate, there were over 1,300 known gangland murders in Chicago alone between 1920 and 1933 (Schoenberg, 1992). In New York City, the infamous "Five Families" of the Italian-American Mafia – Luciano, Gambino, Genovese, Colombo, and Bonanno – emerged as powerful crime syndicates that would dominate the underworld for decades to come (Raab, 2005).

The Culture of Prohibition: Speakeasies and Social Change

Prohibition also had a profound impact on American social life and culture. The rise of the "speakeasy," illegal bars and nightclubs that served alcohol, transformed urban entertainment. Speakeasies became centers of jazz music, dancing, and a new kind of freewheeling nightlife that challenged traditional social norms (Lerner, 2007).

The number of speakeasies in major cities was astonishing. In New York City alone, estimates ranged from 30,000 to 100,000 illegal bars and clubs operating during Prohibition (Lerner, 2007). Chicago, Detroit, and other cities saw similar explosive growth in the speakeasy industry.

Women, traditionally excluded from public drinking spaces, flocked to speakeasies as customers and employees. The "flapper" emerged as a symbol of the new, liberated woman of the 1920s, defying convention and asserting her independence (Drowne, 2004). Prohibition, intended to promote morality and virtue, had instead sparked a cultural revolution.

The Failure of Enforcement and the Road to Repeal

As organized crime grew more powerful and the speakeasy culture flourished, the task of enforcing Prohibition became increasingly difficult. The federal government‘s Prohibition Bureau, tasked with enforcing the Volstead Act, was woefully understaffed and underfunded. In 1930, the agency had just 1,500 agents to police the entire nation (McGirr, 2015).

Corruption and bribery of law enforcement officials were rampant. Organized crime groups used their vast wealth to buy off police, judges, and politicians. In Chicago, Al Capone famously boasted, "I own the police" (Eig, 2010). The lack of public support for Prohibition also undermined enforcement efforts. A 1926 survey found that only 19% of Americans believed that Prohibition was effectively reducing alcohol consumption (Kyvig, 2000).

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 further eroded support for Prohibition. With the economy in tatters and millions out of work, the cost of enforcing the alcohol ban became increasingly burdensome. The federal government was losing an estimated $11 billion per year in tax revenue from legal alcohol sales (Lerner, 2011).

By the early 1930s, the tide had turned against Prohibition. The 1932 Democratic Party platform called for repeal, and Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s victory in the presidential election that year signaled a mandate for change. In February 1933, Congress passed the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition. The amendment was ratified by the states in December 1933, officially ending America‘s noble experiment.

Conclusion

Prohibition, born of a desire to create a better society, instead unleashed a wave of crime and corruption that transformed the American underworld. The rise of organized crime during this era was a direct result of the opportunities presented by the illegal alcohol trade, which generated vast wealth and power for those willing to operate outside the law.

The failure of Prohibition serves as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of well-intentioned but misguided policies. The attempt to legislate morality by banning alcohol created a black market that empowered criminals, corrupted institutions, and undermined public faith in the rule of law.

The legacy of Prohibition and the rise of organized crime endures to this day. While the major crime syndicates of the 1920s and 1930s have faded, the lessons of this era continue to inform debates over drug policy, law enforcement, and the limits of government power.

As we reflect on the history of Prohibition and its impact on American society, it is crucial that we learn from the past to make informed choices about the future. By understanding the complex interplay of social, economic, and political forces that shaped this period, we can work to craft policies that promote public safety and social justice while avoiding the pitfalls of unintended consequences.

References

Binder, J. J. (1999). Al Capone‘s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago during Prohibition. Prometheus Books.

Cherrington, E. H. (1920). The Evolution of Prohibition in the United States of America. American Issue Press.

Drowne, K. M. (2004). Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, 1920-1933. Ohio State University Press.

Eig, J. (2010). Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America‘s Most Wanted Gangster. Simon & Schuster.

Kerr, K. A. (1985). Organized for Prohibition: A New History of the Anti-Saloon League. Yale University Press.

Kyvig, D. E. (2000). Repealing National Prohibition (2nd ed.). Kent State University Press.

Lerner, M. A. (2007). Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Harvard University Press.

Lerner, M. A. (2011). The Unintended Consequences of Prohibition. Cato Institute.

McGirr, L. (2015). The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. W. W. Norton & Company.

Miron, J. A., & Zwiebel, J. (1991). Alcohol Consumption During Prohibition. American Economic Review, 81(2), 242-247.

Raab, S. (2005). Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America‘s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. Thomas Dunne Books.

Schoenberg, R. J. (1992). Mr. Capone: The Real – and Complete – Story of Al Capone. William Morrow and Company.