< -- Prohibition in the 1920s -- Main Part




3.Main Part




3. Main Part
A. Prohibition is enforced
On Midnight of January 16, 1920, one of the personal habits and customs of most Americans suddenly came to a halt. The Eighteenth Amendment was put into effect and all importing, exporting, transporting, selling, and manufacturing of intoxicating liquor was put to an end. Shortly following the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, the National Prohibition Act, or the Volstead Act, as it was called because of its author, Andrew J. Volstead, was put into effect.

But although drinking liquor was now prohibited by law, there was absolutely no need for abstinence. Though all the Saloons disappeared, short after the Amendment came into force new illegal drinking outlets opened throughout the whole country and the overtook the number of pre-Volstead saloons. By 1925 there were, for instance, at least 15,000 "blind pigs" in Detroit, and by the end of the 1920s at least 32,000 "speakeasies" in New York and countless stores sold liquor as a sideline to get an additional income. The people living on country-side concoct their own alcoholic beverages, so called moonshine. The rich had liquor delivered to their homes and the poor drank beer which was close to water, or spirits which were close to poison. Prohibition simply made the consumption of alcohol more of a challenge and more expensive.

Instead of solving the problems of criminality, through this amendment crime and corruption arose in America; within the first hours of the Volstead Act taking effect there were already liquor robberies and hijackings. And within the following month the first federal agents were arrested for liquor law corruption. Thousands of phoney prescriptions for liquor were issued by physicians who tried to make profit of this new law. America was facing a dark decade in which corruption became routine, and crime more profitable.

The industry was now only allowed to produce denatured, poisoned alcohol; but it could easily be put through a process which removed the poison. Bootleggers, on the other side, were not really concerned about the purity of the product they sold, so it happened that the decontaminated alcohol was still poisoned.

Direct distilling and home brewing also became a common industry of numerous ghettos. The distilleries were installed in thousands of garages, warehouses or tenements.

A distilling apparatus
Prohibition created in no time a vast new market for illegal goods and services, and a wholly new industry. Not only the production and the selling brought an immense sum of money, also the smuggling of the alcohol was a very lucrative business. Soon city-wide and state-wide networks appeared, lead by some gangsters and corrupt authorities. Those organizations connected with other nets forming nationwide ties. The reason is the large variety of different types of liquor; no distributor of illegal beverages could possibly manufacture such a variety. Therefore some organizations specialized and any large organization necessarily needed connections to other networks.

Other criminals were set to hijack the illegal ware from stocks, or from the ships or trucks. Hijacking was therefore always a big threat to the bootleggers. The locations of the warehouses with the stock were kept very secretly and to prevent the goods of getting stolen during the transportation, gunmen were hired. As a side effect of prohibition, also the illegal gun-market arose to be a profitable business.

Soon after the Volstead Act came into force, gangs appeared everywhere taking over the illegal liquor and gun business. Yet, there was a big fight for markets and territory between competitive gangs. Especially in New York and Chicago, the underground mafia gained power. Gang wars and murder became an everyday occurrence. On 11 May already, Jim Colisimo was the first of Chicago's gang bosses to be assassinated.

The tendency during Prohibition showed that bootleggers and speakeasy operators took the risks of getting caught while public officials earned the money. All over the country police and politicians were more interested in being paid off well than in trying to fight the increasing criminality. Even the agents of the Prohibition Bureau (the former Federal Prohibition Unit), which was formed to enforce the new law, were mostly corrupt. In order to earn more money, since they were really bad paid, they entered the illegal liquor business. They escorted liquor trucks, protected and helped smugglers, accepted bribes, and supported the illicit liquor traffic at any chance. Many were able to afford a luxury lifestyle and on salaries averaging less than $3,000 a year, prohibition agents bought country homes, town houses, real estate, and luxury automobiles.

The Bureau employed thousands of agents but the most of the were fired again because of venality; the majority of the convicted ones weren't even accused and those who were, normally got dismissed because the evidence was lacking.

Corruption spread to every government department with dry law responsibilities. Numerous coastguardsmen made big profit by escorting motorboats, loaded with alcohol, into port. This service was given for a price to rumrunners on the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts, on the Gulf shore and the Great Lakes. The customs man received money for 'free nights' on the border, when smugglers were permitted to run in as much liquor as they could handle. On the other hand, they also confiscated liquor shipments on which the graft toll hadn't been paid; then they usually forced the rumrunners to pay them off at a high price or sold the seized goods to other smugglers. Once in a while they even arrested bootleggers to keep a good image of not being corrupt.

The most significant criminal network during the first five years of prohibition was the Ohio gang consisting of members of President Harding's government. Extortion was profitable sector. Criminals accused of violating the Volstead Act were able to buy pardons in order not to get convicted. For money the responsible officials would drop prosecutions, sell federal enforcement jobs and permit the illegal withdrawal of bonded liquor. This venal government was no exception; innumerable state and local officials were part of systems similar to the Ohio gang. It was commonly know that in every large city the police and politicians had good relations to bootleggers and speakeasy operators. Genuine enforcement was exceptional and temporary; the reaction to it was sabotage. Police official warned speakeasies of impending raids or let evidence, such as liquor, disappear, and judges dismissed charges. It was not unusual that policemen, on salaries less than $4,000 a year, had up to $200,000 on their bank accounts.

Overall Prohibition enable organized crime to be lucrative and easy. It also made it possible for criminal networks, such as the mafia, to appear and take over the country. The liquor-related crime was a combination of producers, distributors, politicians and law enforcement agency working together to earn a fortune. Almost anybody used their possibilities either to get liquor or to be somehow involved in the liquor business in order to make quick money.

B. The Dangers of the Prohibition Enforcement
The dream of total abstinence was an utopia. An effective prohibition of alcohol was impossible because alone of the country. It's unrealizable for the Custom Service and the Border Patrol to seal the several thousand miles long border with Mexico and Canada. The long shorelines around the United States made it easy for smugglers to run liquor into the country by taking the sea-way. To uncover all the speakeasies and the illegal liquor-traffic networks, it would have needed about a third of America's population but there were way too less not corruptible, honest dry agents doing their jobs.

Serious dry enforcement was a dangerous business, not in particular for dry agents but for bootleggers and innocent bystanders. In December 1929 the Washington Herald estimated that 1,360 people had been killed and at least a thousand more wounded because of too rough law enforcement. Many of those killings we justified self defense, but many others were as a result of the carelessness or criminal recklessness of enforcement officers. Some civilians were killed by officers who invaded their property without search warrants. Others were shot down as they tried to escape from the agents and a few were struck by stray bullets. Along the Mexican and Canadian border, there was so much inconsiderate gun shooting by the Border Patrol that people were afraid to drive their cars or even go out of their house at night. A popular car sticker by that time was, 'Don't Shoot, I'm Not a Bootlegger'. Road-blocks were especially feared; the armed squad of agents had an easy hand on the triggers.

Sometimes an officer who had killed a citizen was convicted in a local court but normally the government intervened and transferred the case to a federal court. Then the agent was generally acquitted.

During Prohibition, the United States experienced a period of law injustice; the court appeared to distinguish between rich and poor. The punishments, an accused criminal received, depended on his wealth and influence. Further the rural courts had tendency to be way stricter than the city courts.

The biggest controversy of the federal government was the denaturing of industrial alcohol. The government ordered to add deadly poison, causing paralysis, blindness and sometimes immediate or lingering death, to deter use. By the mid-1920s thousands had already died of drinking this poison.

The dry agents developed and elaborated new entrapment techniques, in order to convict bootleggers and people trying to get liquor. Phoney speakeasies were set up by officers and the distributors who tried to provide them with liquor and the people entering to get a drink were arrested. The police also bugged places, like, for example, Card Clubs, and applied the wholly new practice of tapping into private telephone conversations to gather incriminating evidence.

Although for many Americans law enforcement meant abuse, corruption, brutality and futility, dry politicians continued these politics of a 'dry America'. The American people showed they accepted this situation in the 1928 presidential elections. Herbert Hoover, the Republican candidate, declared his intention of enforce the 18th Amendment efficiently, and defeated his opponent Al Smith, who wished to repeal it.

President Hoover proceeded to do everything in his power to enforce Prohibition, strengthening enforcement and criminal justice wherever he could with some success. The Prohibition Bureau, for instance, was drastically improved in honesty and efficiency. The amounts of illegal liquor and apparatus seized and destroyed and the numbers of accused sent to prison increased.

The efforts of the new President caused arrests and convictions even of major bootleggers and mafia bosses. The probably most notable big boss getting caught was Alphonse Capone.
C. Al Capone
Al Capone is one of the most recognized names in American history. He was the most notable of all the gangsters in the bootlegging business.
Alphonse Capone was born Neapolitan immigrants Gabriel and Teresa. in the slums of Brooklyn on 17 January, 1899. His surname, originally Caponi, had been Americanized to "Capone". Capone was proud to be an American "I'm no Italian. I was born in Brooklyn", he often said.

Al went to school with Salvatore Lucania, later known as Lucky Luciano. At about the age of ten he began to follow up-and-coming gangster Johnny Torrio, also a Neapolitan. At fourteen he quit school after striking a teacher. Capone and Lucky Luciano joined a gang known as the Five Pointers, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Capone worked for Frank Yale, president of the Unione Siciliane, as a bouncer and bartender. One night he made a remark about the sister of Frank Galluciano, and Galluciano slashed Capone's face with a pocket knife, leaving three large scars on the left side of his face. For much of his criminal career, newspapers would call Capone by the hated name "Scarface". Incredibly, Capone choose to forgive Galluciano and, years later, hired him as a bodyguard.

Alphonse "Scarface" Capone
In 1918, Capone met an Irish girl named Mary "Mae" Coughlin at a dance. On December 4, 1918, Mae gave birth to their son, Albert "Sonny" Francis. Capone and Mae married that year on December 30.

Johnny Torrio had moved to Chicago to work for his uncle, Big Jim Colosimo. Torrio sent for his trusted lieutenant, Capone. Suspected of two murders, Capone was eager to leave New York. Capone worked under Torrio as a bouncer and thug. On May 11, 1920, Big Jim Colosimo was assassinated in his own cafe by an unknown killer, becoming the first big boss dying in a gang war. Johnny Torrio was now the leader of the most powerful gang in Chicago, and Capone his right-hand man.

Torrio imposed a peace treaty on the other gangs, which lasted until the O'Banion-Genna war. Torrio was shot by O'Banion men in reprisal for O'Banion's slaying. He survived, barely. Before retiring to Italy, Torrio turned over leadership of his gang to Capone. From this moment, Capone slowly raised to become Chicago's most powerful man.

The Capone home at 7244 SouthPrarie Avenue,
far from Capone's business headquarters.
His big profits of bootlegging enabled him to expand and diversify his empire; he built up a major liquor network run through his semi-legal and legal enterprises. He quickly proved that he was even better at organization than Torrio, expanding the city's vice industry between 1925 and 1930. Breweries, distilleries, speakeasies, warehouses, fleets of boats and trucks, nightclubs, gambling houses, horse and dog racetracks, brothels, and numerous small but effective businesses together produced a yearly income of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Capone also took over the army of gangsters and assassins; altogether he was supported by a squad of more than a thousand men, including allied gangs. Capone was mighty and strong enough to withstand the Nation's bloodiest gang warfare. Among hundreds who died were Capone's most dangerous competitors. On 10 November 1924, Capone gangsters walked into the flower shop of the leading North Side gangster, Dion O'Banion, and while one shook hands with him, the others shot him and took revenge for shooting on Torrio. Less than two years later the gang's new boss, Hymie Weiss, was shot down by at least ten bullets in front of the Holy Name Cathedral, which still shows signs of the shooting today. A few weeks before Weiss's assassination, Capone survived a spectacular attempt on his own life when men were pouring machine-gun fire out of eight cars.

The answer to his success though was not his fire power and his big gang supporting him, it was more his connection with the City Hall, involving officials at all levels. Capone paid almost everyone with a high position or with influence. This determined that not only were Capone and his partners immune from arrests but that the police interfered the operations of rival gangs.

He had an extensive spy network in Chicago, from newspaper boys to policemen, so that any plots were quickly discovered. Capone, on the other hand, was skillful at isolating and killing his enemies when they became too powerful. A typical Capone murder consisted of men renting an apartment across the street from the victim's residence and gunning him down when he stepped outside. The operations were quick and complete and Capone always had an alibi.

Capone became the world's most famous criminal because he attracted the Press and not because of his criminal success. Capone openly stated his opinions about his illegal business in the public papers. Bootlegging, the sector he was active in, had an obviously great demand and people agreed with him when he said: "Somebody had to throw some liquor on that thirst. Why not me?" He know he was violating the dry law but, as he said, "Who doesn't?"

Capone was a multimillionaire before he turned 30. In many ways he represented the American dream of the immigrants; he raised from the poorest to the richest by taking business risks and expanding his operations.

The new federal administration was forced to show an effective liquor law enforcement and someone had to take a fall. The wealth of the famous gangster Capone showed off too well that crime paid good and his violent and ruthless methods in fulfilling the American Dream and his national notoriety made him a very suitable victim for the liquor law enforcement agencies.

Capone's most notorious killing was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, four Capone men entered a garage at 2122 N. Clark Street. The building was the main liquor headquarters of bootlegger George "Bugs" Moran's North Side gang. Because two of Capone's men were dressed as police, the seven men in the garage thought it was a police raid. As a result, they dropped their guns and put their hands against the wall. Using two shotguns and two machine guns, the Capone men fired more than 150 bullets into the victims. Six of the seven killed were members of Moran's gang; the seventh was an unlucky friend. Moran, probably the real target, was across the street when Capone's men arrived and stayed away when he saw the police uniforms. As usual, Capone had an alibi; he was in Florida during the massacre.

The victims of the St. Valentine's massacre of 1929
Although Capone ordered dozens of deaths and even killed with his own hands, he often treated people fairly and generously. He was equally known for his violent temper and for his strong sense of loyalty and honor. He was the first to open soup kitchens after the 1929 stock market crash and he ordered merchants to give clothes and food to the needy at his expense.

The police, the newspapers and Moran himself had no doubts that the Capone gang was responsible for the massacre. The gang warfare in Chicago killed by that time already 703 persons, and this was the ultimate warning to Capone's dangerous competitors.

The St. Valentine's Day massacre made it politically necessary to get Capone. But because of gangland's traditional refusal to prosecute, Capone was never tried for most of his crimes. He was arrested in 1926 for killing three people, but spent only one night in jail because there was insufficient evidence to connect him with the murders. When Capone finally served his first prison time in May of 1929, it was simply for carrying a gun. That was why nobody trusted in the local police anymore when they announced to begin to strike against the gangs in Chicago.

As in 1930, at the peak of his power, Capone headed Chicago's new list of the twenty-eight worst criminals and became the city's "Public Enemy Number One", a delegation of Chicago business leaders therefore preferred to go to Washington and ask the President to intervene.

The attack against Capone was launched; under the leadership of Eliot Ness, the Prohibition Bureau made unexpected strikes on Capone's operations and destroyed valuable merchandise and equipment with the intention to ruin the gangster financially. Ness liked to be popular and therefore he usually took cameramen with him to film and document his raids. (They were also used for the successful television series The Untouchables.) All the efforts and strikes against the gangs did not, as Ness claimed, dry up Chicago, with its 20,000 speakeasies, nor do any harmful damage to the rackets.
In 1931 the federal government finally had enough; they indicted Capone for income tax evasion for the years 1925-29. He was also charged with the misdemeanor of failing to file tax returns for the years 1928 and 1929. The government charged that Capone owed $215,080.48 in taxes from his gambling profits. A third indictment was added, charging Capone with conspiracy to violate Prohibition laws from 1922-31. Capone pleaded guilty to all three charges in the belief that he would be able to plea bargain. However, the judge who presided over the case, Judge James H. Wilkerson, would not make any deals. Capone changed his pleas to not guilty. Unable to bargain, he tried to bribe the jury but Wilkerson changed the jury panel at the last minute.

The jury found Capone not guilty on eighteen of the twenty-three counts. Judge Wilkerson sentenced him to a total of ten years in federal prison and one year in the county jail. In addition, Capone had to serve an earlier six-month contempt of court sentence for failing to appear in court. The fines were a cumulative $50,000 and Capone had to pay the prosecution costs of $7,692.29.

The imprisoning of the world's most notorious criminal was the headline number one all over the world; Capone was gone but his syndicate operations were left intact. There were a whole lot of other big bosses to replace Scarface.

The imprisoning of the world's most notorious criminal was the headline number one all over the world; Capone was gone but his syndicate operations were left intact. There were a whole lot of other big bosses to replace Scarface.

Al Capone leaving the court

Al Capone leaving the court
After spending one year in Atlanta federal prison, Capone was moved to Alcatraz where he exhibited signs of syphilitic dementia. Capone spent the rest of his felony sentence in the hospital. On January 6, 1939, his prison term expired and he was transferred to a Federal Correctional Institution in California, to serve his one-year misdemeanor sentence. He was finally released on November 16, 1939.

After his release, Capone spent a short time in the hospital. He returned to his home in Palm Island where the rest of his life was relaxed and quiet. On January 21, 1947, he had an apoplectic stoke that was probably

The headline of the Chicago Tribune
unrelated to his syphilis. He regained consciousness and began to improve until pneumonia set in on January 24. He died the next day from cardiac arrest. Capone was first buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chicago's far South Side between the graves of his father, Gabriele, and brother, Frank, but in March of 1950 the remains of all three were moved to Mount Carmel Cemetery on the far West Side.

The tombstone of Al Capone, Mount Carmel Cemetery, Chicago
One criminal had gone but countless others still remained in the illegal liquor business. The Capone syndicate represented an old American phenomenon but to an extent, the USA had never seen before, and which was only made possible through the Prohibition enforcement laws - organized crime. Since colonial days there were ruthless entrepreneurs who made illegal fortunes by combining themselves with thugs and government officials. Capone and his equivalents in other cities imitated American models; they didn't take their cues from ancient criminal conspiracies in Europe, such as the mafia on Sicily.

Enterprises which produced and distributed illegal goods and services, such as gambling and prostitution, often run by politicians, already existed way before the 18th Amendment. But they were usually controlled by native-born or Irish-Americans and the more recent arrivals from Europe were strictly kept in lower positions. Bootlegging suddenly opened a new opportunity to the immigrants to get rich and to climb up the criminal hierarchy. However, the development of organized crime can't be blamed on some mysterious aliens, it is more due to the easy opportunities and the failure of the American government.

D. The End of Prohibition

In spite of the federal triumphs against major bootleggers, the pressure for repeal of the 18th Amendment grew stronger in the late twenties. Not even President Hoover saw an advantage in keeping by this law. By the end of his administration more than 40,000 liquor law offenders were stuffed in the federal prisons of the country, wasting a lot of tax income of the government. To keep the law, it would have been necessary to enforce it stricter and therefore more agents would be needed. But the effects would have been more arrests, convictions and incarcerations; that would all cause even more expenses for the government. On the other hand the country lost a huge tax income by prohibiting the legal sell of alcohol. According to the New York Representative Fiorella H. LaGuardia, at least $1,000,000,000 a year was lost to the National Government, the several States and counties in excise taxes. But the liquor traffic was going on just the same with the only difference that this amount went into the pockets of bootleggers and in the pockets of the public officials in the shape of graft.

The Volstead Act was made even more severe in 1929 by the passing of the Jones Law Amendment. Under this new addition to the law anyone who was seen with a bottle or a drink or had seen somebody violating the liquor law without informing the authorities could be charged with a felony. The numerous felonies that followed this law caused big protests from the public, the Press and many politicians.

At this point the role changed; the 'wets' who favored the repeal of the liquor law gained a lot of power. They were supported by most businessmen and other people with influence who first supported the 18th Amendment, and by the pre-Volstead brewers and distillers. Almost all the wealthy and the company-owners favored the repeal since the deficiency in government revenue from losing the liquor tax had been made up by a tax on the wealthy and the corporations. Even the generous backer of the Anti-Saloon League, John D. Rockefeller withdrew his support and searched for more effective ways of liquor control than Prohibition. Henry Ford was one of the few big businessmen who remained a loyal supported of the liquor law. He was convinced that "production would drop if men were slowed down by a return of alcohol" as explained in the Anti-Saloon League Year Book of 1928.

By the early 1930s most Americans could see that there was no logic left in Prohibition. Wet pressure finally reached their goals: the 18th Amendment was finally repealed on 5 December 1933. The legalization provided sudden employment for over one million people in brewing, distilling and related jobs. Federal, state and local tax and license receipts exceeded a billion dollars yearly by 1940. There was no noticeable increase in drunkenness and alcohol related problems. Most people regarded the dry experiment as a ridiculous and costly mistake of the US government.

Bootlegging continued to be a lucrative but localized business in the few Southern states that preserved anti-liquor laws. In most states though, bootleggers could not successfully compete with the legal liquor trade and soon disappeared or changed into new businesses.

Prohibition was gone but the Anti-Saloon League had accomplished one of its primary goals; the old type of saloon did not reappear in most American cities. One of the reasons was a license regulation in order to prevent the Saloons from gambling and other vices. After repeal, they were called bars or taverns and their only function was to offer alcoholic beverages.