Bootleggers, Rumrunners, and Moonshine In 1920, Prohibition started in the U. S. The 18th Amendment



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Bootleggers, Rumrunners, and Moonshine
In 1920, Prohibition started in the U.S. The 18th Amendment made the manufacture, importing, and sale of liquor illegal. The effects of this ban were huge. Creating beer had been the fifth largest industry in the country. On January 16th, these large companies were immediately put out of business. Saloons, liquor stores, and all kinds of other businesses were closed as well. The American public argued over the law. There was a lot of support for regulation of liquor. Now, with the national ban, there was no place to go where alcohol was legal. People used 50% less alcohol after Prohibition started. But the sale of alcohol didn't stop, it just went underground.

Soon, the speakeasy was born. These secret drinking places were often hidden behind drugstores, restaurants, or other real businesses. Making liquor, however, was forbidden. Where did the speakeasies get alcohol? Certain "entrepreneurs" were eager to step into the gap. Organized crime was already a factor in large cities. Local thugs were making money with saloons, dance clubs, and gambling halls. Prohibition opened up new opportunities for those willing to break the law.

The market for illegal liquor was huge. Supplying it became a big business. Neighborhood bosses hired mobs of criminals to work for them. The crime underworld grew as it brought alcohol to the cities. America's neighbors still produced alcohol. Liquor was trucked in from Canada and Mexico. Ships filled with rum from the Caribbean waited just outside U.S. waters. Boats met the rum ships to sneak liquor in to U.S. shores. The men who did this job were called "rumrunners." Other alcohol was made in hidden places in the U.S. To escape the law, the liquor was made at night; the work was lit only by the moon. Alcohol made in this way was called "moonshine."

The "bootleggers" were the middlemen. They got the liquor and transported it to places where the public could buy it. Along the way, of course, officers of the law had to be outrun or paid off. Many public officials were bribed to pretend they didn’t see anything. Corruption snuck into every level of government. Racketeering, or crime committed by a group, grew to epic proportions during the Prohibition era.

The best known bootlegger of the day was Al Capone. During the 1920s, Al Capone became lord over a dark empire. He used murder and brutality to strengthen his business. Bribery and threats helped keep public officials on his side. He controlled Chicago with an iron fist. His business was built on the profits from illegal liquor. Capone often made hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But illegal alcohol sales were only part of his industry.

During Capone's time, Chicago exploded with gang rivalries. Over the years, Capone fought a war with a rival crime boss known as “Bugs” Moran. In 1928, Capone arranged to kill Moran in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Capone tricked Moran into showing up to a factory where Moran believed he would be buying cheap alcohol. Outside of the factory, four of Capone’s men were dressed as police officers. The “officers” pretended to arrest Moran’s thugs, but, after having them raise their hands in the air, Capone’s men shot all of them. Bugs Moran survived the incident by never entering the factory himself. He drove away as soon as he saw the “police” show up.

In the end, no one was ever charged with the crime. It is likely that no conviction would ever have been won, in any case. Capone had local and state police officers "in his pocket."

Finally, an officer of the law was hired to go after Capone. Elliot Ness was a young Prohibition agent. He gathered together a group of men who refused to be bought by Capone's bribes. They became known as the "Untouchables." This task force used spies, wiretaps, and all manner of ways to find out Capone's operations. They raided alcohol factories and stopped the production of beer. They destroyed stills where whisky was made. They confiscated delivery trucks and arrested mob workers.

In the process, the officers angered Capone and his gang. Several attempts were made to kill Elliot Ness. The Untouchables put a big dent in Capone's operations, but they were never able to gather enough evidence to stop him. IRS agents finally charged Capone on failure to pay taxes. He was convicted. He served several years in prison at Alcatraz. Capone died at age 48 of syphilis.

In spite of the efforts of Ness and other crusaders, the war on illegal liquor was never highly successful. Black market alcohol suppliers weren't really put out of business until 1933. In that year, the 21st Amendment was passed. This measure repealed the 18th Amendment. Prohibition was over. Liquor could be openly made and sold again by law-abiding citizens.



  1. Why was Prohibition started?

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  1. How did owners of speakeasies get the alcohol that they sold?

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  1. ______ What was the cause of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre?

  1. Police trying to stop illegal alcohol sales.

  2. Racial violence.

  3. Citizens trying to clean up their town.

  4. Gang warfare.

  1. Who was Elliot Ness?

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  1. In 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the ban on alcohol. Why do you think the 21st Amendment was passed?

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