Prohibition and the Origins of Organized Crime in America | History Hit

Prohibition and the Origins of Organized Crime in America

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition
Image Credit: Public Domain

After decades of attempts, America finally went ‘dry’ in 1920 with the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the production, transportation and sale of alcohol – although notably not its consumption.

Prohibition, as this period became known, only lasted 13 years: it was repealed in 1933 by the passing of the Twenty First Amendment. This period has become one of the most notorious in American history as alcohol consumption was driven underground to speakeasies and bars, whilst the sale of alcohol was effectively passed straight into the hands of anyone willing to take risks and make easy money.

These 13 years fuelled the rise of organised crime in America dramatically as it became clear there were big profits to be made. Rather than reduce crime, prohibition fuelled it. To understand what drove the introduction of prohibition and how it then fuelled the rise of organised crime, we’ve put together a handy explainer.

Where did Prohibition come from?

Since the very beginnings of European settlement in America, alcohol had been a topic of contention: many of those who had arrived early were Puritans who frowned upon consumption of alcohol.

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The temperance movement took off in the early 19th century, as a mixture of Methodists and women took up the anti-alcohol mantle: by the mid 1850s, 12 states had fully prohibited alcohol. Many advocated it as a means of reducing domestic abuse and wider social ills.

The American Civil War severely set back the temperance movement in America, as post-war society saw neighbourhood saloons boom, and with them, alcohol sales. Economists like Irving Fisher and Simon Patten joined in the prohibition fray, arguing that productivity would increase hugely with an alcohol ban.

Prohibition remained a divisive issue across American politics, with both Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the debate. The First World War helped spark the idea of wartime prohibition, which advocates believed would be good both morally and economically, as it would allow increased resources and production capacity.

Prohibition becomes law

Prohibition officially became law in January 1920: 1,520 Federal Prohibition agents were tasked with the job of enforcing prohibition across America. It quickly became clear that this would not be a simple task.

Front page headlines, and map representing states ratifying Prohibition Amendment (Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution), as reported in The New York Times on January 17, 1919.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Firstly, prohibition legislation did not forbid the consumption of alcohol. Those who had spent the previous year stockpiling their own private supplies were still very much at liberty to drink them at their leisure. There were also clauses which allowed wine to be made at home using fruit.

Distilleries over the border, particularly in Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean began to do a booming business as smuggling and run-running quickly became an extremely prosperous business for those willing to undertake it. Over 7,000 cases of bootlegging were reported to the federal government within 6 months of the amendment passing.

Industrial alcohol was poisoned (denatured) to prevent bootleggers selling it for consumption, although this did little to deter them and thousands died from drinking these lethal concoctions.

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Bootlegging and organized crime

Prior to Prohibition, organized criminal gangs had tended to be involved in prostitution, racketeering and gambling primarily: the new law allowed them to branch out, using their skills and penchant for violence to secure profitable routes into rum-running and earn themselves a corner of the flourishing black market.

Crimes actually rose in the first few years of Prohibition as gang-fuelled violence, combined with a lack of resources, led to an increase in theft, burglary and homicide, as well as drug addiction.

The lack of statistics and records kept by contemporary police departments make it difficult to tell the precise rise in crime in this period, but some sources suggest that organized crime in Chicago tripled during Prohibition.

Some states like New York never really accepted prohibition legislation: with large immigrant communities they had few ties to the moralistic temperance movements which tended to be dominated by WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants), and despite an increased number of federal agents on patrol, the city’s alcohol consumption remained virtually the same as pre-Prohibition.

It was during Prohibition that Al Capone and the Chicago Outfit cemented their power in Chicago, whilst Lucky Luciano established the Commission in New York City, which saw New York’s major organized crime families create a kind of crime syndicate where they could air their views and establish basic principles.

Mugshot of Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, 1936.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / New York Police Department.

The Great Depression

The situation was worsened by the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929. As America’s economy crashed and burned, it seemed to many that the only ones making money were bootleggers.

With no alcohol being legally sold and much of the big money being made illegally, the government was unable to benefit from the profits of these enterprises through taxation, losing a major revenue source. Combined with an increased spend on policing and law enforcement, the situation seemed untenable.

By the early 1930s, there was a growing, vocal section of society who openly acknowledged the failure of prohibition legislation to significantly decrease alcohol consumption despite intentions otherwise.

In the 1932 election, the Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, ran on a platform which promised the repeal of federal prohibition laws and following his election, Prohibition came to an end formally in December 1933. Unsurprisingly, it did not automatically transform American society, nor did it destroy organized crime. Far from it in fact.

The networks built up in the Prohibition years, from corrupt officials in law enforcement agencies to huge financial reserves and international contacts, meant the rise of organized crime in America was only just beginning.

Sarah Roller