The Eighteenth Amendment made alcohol illegal, but that did not deter some citizens. The drinking continued, be it legal or otherwise. The cities were filled with speakeasies, bootleggers, and mobsters. Prohibition was instated to end the excessive and dangerous drinking habits many US citizens had developed. Rather than ending drinking, prohibition gave mobsters a chance to rise to the top. H.L. Mencken once wrote, “All that the Prohibitionists have accomplished by their holy crusade is to…convert the trade in alcohol, once a lawful business, into a criminal racket” (McCutcheon 43). I believe that Prohibition was a detriment to the citizens and society of the United States of America in the 1920’s because it increased lawlessness, increased crime, and increased gangster activity.
The eighteenth amendment made illegal “the manufacture, sale, transport, import, or export of alcoholic beverages” (Allen 193). This came after the country’s numerous struggles caused by alcohol. In 1830 the average American over the age of fifteen drank the equivalent of eighty-eight bottles of whiskey annually. Many citizens were drinking so heavily it caused them to lose their jobs, become abusive, and live in the streets (“A Nation of Drunkards”). This struggle gave rise to those against alcohol. There were groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League that worked to end the grasp booze had on the country’s citizens (Feinstein 9). Sometimes these groups were referred to simply as the “Drys.” They tired many different solutions before Prohibition such as teaching temperance in public schools. An example of these teaching was telling students that “One drink will burn your throat…[and]you could spontaneously combust” (“A Nation of Drunkards”). Along with solving the country’s struggles with alcohol “Drys” believed that it would solve all of the problems like poverty and prostitution (“A Nation of Drunkards”). They had hoped these horror stories would stop the excessive drinking but to no avail. The “Drys” believed that alcohol was what was the cause of all the problems in the United States.
The country’s last resort and hopefully the answer to this ever growing problem was to make alcohol illegal. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League were strongly supported by the small towns but had to get the vote before 1920. The reason behind this was the 1920 census. This new census would mean a redistributing of representatives and give the power of the vote to the rapidly growing cites (“A Nation of Drunkards”). So they had to push Prohibition and fast. The article “Co-Optimists” from 1929 discusses how in order to push the movement forward “Drys” targeted religious groups such as Protestants who quickly agreed with them to ban alcohol (“Co-Optimists”).The Eighteenth Amendment was enacted on January 16, 1920 and referred to as The National Prohibition Act (“A Nation of Drunkards”). “Drys” believed that banning alcohol would clean up the streets and solve the United States’ problems with alcohol. Little did the “Drys” know, The National Prohibition Act would create a culture of crime organized throughout the United States.
Not only did prohibition increase the activity of gangsters and mobs but it turned previously law abiding citizens into law-breakers. Noah Feldman, a legal scholar, pointed out that “To pass a law means nothing, to enforce it is everything,” (“A Nation of Scofflaws”). This was seen throughout Prohibition. Prohibition closed down thousands of bars in the United States, for a moment. These bars closed but soon turned into speakeasies. Speakeasies were underground hidden places where men and women could flirt, dance, and most importantly drink (Feinstein 10). In New York alone one police commissioner guessed that there were roughly 32,000 speakeasies, which would be one speakeasy for every 243 people (“A Nations of Hypocrites”). People had access to liquor in multiple ways. If there was not an accessible speakeasy, one could always produce it in their home.
In Chicago alone from 1921 to 1925 police detained about 696,933 homemade stills (McCutcheon 41). Only ten percent of these homemade stills that were producing alcohol were being stopped (McCutcheon 42). Another way people got their fix of alcohol was by making bathtub gin. Bathtub gin was made by mixing grain alcohol with berries from juniper trees (Marcovitz 17). The product earned its name because most people made it in their bathrooms’ and in the bathtub specifically because large bottles would fit bathtub taps. Two historians, James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, said that the most common recipe for bathtub gin was to “Mix the alcohol with 30 to 50 percent water, then add a few drops of glycerin and juniper juice to simulate the flavor of gin” (Marcovitz 18). Fiorello La Guardia, a New York congressman, said in 1926, “The Eighteenth Amendment is a disaster. It has created contempt and disregard for the law all over the country” (“A Nations of Hypocrites”). Liquor was also smuggled in from other counties. Gangs would get their liquor by bringing whiskey from Canada and rum from the Caribbean. All of this alcohol had to be smuggled past the Coast Guard and hijackers that waited to steal their score. Bootleggers were able to do this by cover of darkness and having their shipments wait outside the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard for speed boats to pick it up and get away as fast as they could (Marcovitz 20-21). Activities such as these turned some law-abiding citizens into law breakers and caused prison populations to increase rapidly.
Prohibition violators accounted for roughly one third of the prison population at the end of the 1920’s (Kyvig 3). Not only did Prohibition violators account for a large portion of the prison population but they increased its overall population. The prison population from 1928-1931 increased by 26.8 percent. That 26.8 percent were just the people that got caught and convicted; many others broke the law for years and never got caught (McCutcheon 122). With today’s prison population 26.8 percent would be roughly 56,940 people (McCutcheon 123). One source says, “Prohibition law violations accounted for 65 percent of all cases federal district courts…” (Kyvig 142). The law breaking started with drinking but soon moved to more dangerous crimes. So despite the “Dry’s” best efforts to stop the circulation of alcohol, they only turned citizens to defy the law.
Crime rates boomed during the 1920s in United States of America. The crime increase gave the Unites States of America a bad reputation. By 1926 more than 12,000 murders were taking place annually.
Murder rates were not the only ones that saw a significant increase but bank robbery, kidnapping, auto theft, gambling, and drug trafficking did as well (“The FBI…”). Theft and burglaries increased by 9 percent, assaults and battery increase by 13 percent, and drug addiction was estimated to increase by 44.6 percent (Marcovitz 16). In Chicago drunk driving increased by 476 percent (McCutcheon 42). The homicide rate from 1911-1921 in the United States of America was 7.20 homicides per 100,000 people. During prohibition the murder rate reached unthinkable highs. Robberies rose at an alarming pace. In 1927, Cleveland alone had over 2,327 cars stolen. In London, England, a city with a much larger population there were only 290 (McCutcheon 121). There was crime and gang activity before Prohibition but it caused a noticeable spike in these activities. The original intention of Prohibition, to clean up the streets, was turning out to have the opposite effect.
The crime in the United States spiraled out of control. People were being gunned down and robbed blind, Prohibition was the main cause. It created an opportunity for people who did not follow the law to make a fortune (“A Nations of Scofflaws”). There were gangs present far before the 1920’s but Prohibition gave them their big break. Before Prohibition gangs specialized in illegal gambling, narcotics, extortion, and stealing. Writer Pete Hamil said,
“Never underestimate the need for young dopes to defy the conventional laws. Want them to brush their teeth? Make it illegal. Make toothpaste illegal, and they will be standing up on the roof brushing away. It’s a natural human thing to do. I think it’s a healthy thing” (“A Nations of Hypocrites”).
When alcohol became illegal it was a no brainer that gangs expanded into the liquor business. Al Capone was one of the people that seized the opportunity. Capone ran a bootlegging empire and with the influence and money he gained he spread into other markets. When he was asked about the empire he built up by bootlegging he said, “I make money by satisfying a public demand. If I break the law, my customers who number hundreds the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am…Everybody calls me a racketeer. I call myself a business man…” (Pietrusza 30). He diversified his income by investing money in the dairy industry and telephone companies to ensure that if or when Prohibition ended he would still make money (Feinstein 10-11). In one year alone Al Capone made $105 million, and in today’s economy equates to one billion dollars (McCutcheon 121). Mobsters gained this power with brutality and ruthlessness.
Mobsters were cold-blooded killers. In Chicago there were over seven hundred murders tied back to the liquor business (McCutcheon 42). Those who stood in the way of mobsters were killed. Al Capone and Johnny Torrio ordered the killing of Dion O’Banion, a rival mobster after a bad deal between their rival gangs. O’Banion was gunned down by four men in the floral shop he ran as a front (Pietrusza 32). Earl “Little Hymie” Weiss and George “Bugs” Moran battled back by attacking Torrio with shotguns, severely wounding him. The two also carried out a drive by at the home of Al Capone, but no one was killed. As retribution for injuring his mentor, Torrio, Capone called for Weiss to be killed. He was shot with Thompson sub-machine guns in front of the Holy Name Cathedral (Pietrusza 32-33). Al Capone commented on these events and said, “I told them [his rivals] we’re making a shooting gallery out of a great business and nobody’s profiting from it…There’s plenty of beer business for everybody—why kill over it?” (Moore 41). The violence did not end there; gangs continued to plague cities across the United States with gruesome, horrific, and shocking murders.
The quintessence of gangland-style crime was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, on February 14, 1929. This was the gang style killing of seven men, ordered by infamous mobster Al Capone. According to the Chicago Tribune “seven men were lined up against a whitewashed wall and pumped with 90 bullets from submachine guns, shotguns and a revolver” (O'Brien). The victims of this crime were members of a rival gang, and with their deaths Al Capone seized control of Chicago. Prohibition was put in place to try to stop crime, but it resulted in an undeniable and horrifying increase. Men like Al Capone and “Bugs” Moran started making their money selling alcohol to club owners but moved on to use that money to fund their empires (Feinstein 10). The business of booze gave these men money, followers, power, and “friends.”
By purchasing booze many people funneled money towards mobsters. These mobsters in turn paid off police. There were many police officers and judges that wanted the pay raise that came with being “friends” with mobsters. This friendship meant keeping the mobsters that employed them for being convicted and they would keep getting paid. Corruption ran rampant through police stations and courtrooms, after all why convict their source of income?
“An investigation in Philadelphia in 1928 reveled that after eight years of Prohibition many police officers there had savings of tens of
thousands of dollars, and several of them hundreds of thousands—on average annual salaries of just over $3,000” (Moore 27).
At Prohibition’s height the Police Chief of Chicago, Charles Fitzmorris, admitted that “Sixty percent of my police are in the bootlegging business” (McCutcheon 42). Police forces were forced to hire more officers to enforce Prohibition, but they were untrained and easily bribed. After their first year of duty half of the officers had to be fired for accepting bribes (“A Nation of Scofflaws”). Mobsters had goons to kill their enemies and “friends” to keep them out of jail.
The Prohibition era in United States of America ultimately hurt its citizens and society. It damaged its citizens by allowing gangsters to rise to power, allowing them to kill, and allowing them to extort. It also harmed them by making a habit of choice illegal causing some people to break the law so they could enjoy a drink. Prohibition soiled the reputation United States and thus negatively impacted the society. I believe that Prohibition was incredibly damaging. Prohibition fostered an environment of lawlessness and law-breaking. Prohibition caused an undeniable spike in crime rates. Prohibition also contributed to the rapid rise of gangs power. The 18th amendment made alcohol illegal, but had more of an effect than just that. It influenced many aspects of daily life in the roaring twenties in the United States and changed its citizens in a negative way.
“A Nation of Drunkards.”Prohibition.PBS. Oct. 2011. Television.
“A Nation of Scofflaws.”Prohibition.PBS. Oct. 2011. Television.
“A Nation of Hypocrites.”Prohibition.PBS. Oct. 2011. Television.
Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's. New York: Wiley, 1997. Print.