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On January 16th 1920, America went dry. After two decades of campaigning by the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the United States Federal government prohibited the manufacture, storage, transportation and sale of alcohol and alcoholic beverages in the Volstead Act. In the eighteenth Amendment to the American constitution, the American government inadvertently ushered in a new era of illicit activity in the form of crime and corruption. In America’s attempt to improve the lives of its citizens by introducing a ban on all alcohol nation-wide, the introduction of the Volstead Act instead did the country ‘untold harm’. In preparation for the introduction of the Volstead act, people began to stock up on alcohol, it was illegal to drink it but not to consume in one’s own home.
The introduction of Prohibition was to be a grave mistake by the American Federal government. Instead of preventing the American people from engaging in behaviours that were frowned upon and reducing the rate of crime, they instead escalated the drinking problems and, in a round-a-bout way, encouraged the rise of crime and corruption. Before the Volstead Act came in in 1920, outlawing alcohol, street gangs in the big cities were small and insignificant collection of angry young men who specialized in illegal vices, such as gambling. But the arrival of the eighteenth Amendment fuelled the rise of aggressive and violent gangsters. Prohibition gave rise to the bootleg years and bootlegging led to organised crime. Gangsters and their accomplices were now suddenly everywhere. Prohibition was meant to herald a new era of sobriety and clean-living. Instead it was the dawn of unprecedented violence in American life. Prohibition took loosely organised neighbourhood gangs and put them into organised communication with each other. The onset of Prohibition proved to be an enormous and lucrative opportunity to the underworld. The money that was to be made by violating the eighteenth amendment’s outlawing the sale, manufacture and transport of booze and beer was awesome. It is believed that the annual sales of bootleg liquor had amassed to $3. 6 billion nationally by the time of the year of 1926. Prohibition proved to be unpopular among many Americans who saw it as a violation to their freedom, and many Americans simply did not want to stop drinking. They had suffered for four years through WW1 and now they wanted to have some fun. A strong demand for alcohol was created and the mobsters, or rather the opportunists, began their reign of some of America’s largest cities. One of America’s most infamous mob bosses of the 1920s, Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, said when he was asked if he was a bootlegger that ‘All [he} ever did was sell whiskey and beer to [their] best people. All [he] ever did was supply a demand that was pretty popular’ Making, distributing and selling beer and liquor was a natural fit for the expertise of gangs like Capone’s, as well as gangs in cities like New York, Detroit, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and St. Louis. To feed the seemingly endless thirst, the heads of the underground businesses produced and delivered a plentiful supply of beer and moonshine.
The money that cascaded through the bootlegging business also led to the expansion of rackets such as gambling and loan-sharking, new rackets were also created in the form of money laundering and an escalated arms race was also funded. In spite of the efforts of the US coastguard, gangsters became smugglers, smuggling alcohol from Britain, Europe and Canada. With America’s extensive coastline, only twenty-six inshore vessels on hand and the coastguard been severely understaffed it was extremely difficult to police, with only five percent of alcohol ever being commandeered. Gangsters organised a massive cross-border traffic n liquor from Canada, often going to ingenious lengths to conceal it all in cars. Fleets of gangster owned trucks brought this beer and whiskey to the cities. Prohibition had brought the mob to the forefront of American life, and gangsters became experts in liquor and bootlegging. Fledging gangsters in cities were quick to spot an opportunity and if that meant going to war with rival gangs for the control of profitable liquor franchises, then so bit it. From 1920 onwards the new, younger and greedier gangs behaved far more viciously, using terror as a weapon. Nowhere was this truer than in Chicago. The front-line of the bootleg wars was fought in Chicago and the names of a generation of gangsters such as Al Capone and Dion ‘Dean’ O’ Banion would go on to achieve immortality.
In a free-for-all, every-man-for-himself enterprise, every gangster wanted a bigger share of the trade. Gang leaders competed for geographic stake in brothels and speakeasies. A Speakeasy was a place where the illegal sale and distribution of alcohol took place. As individual gangsters became more demanding and territorial, few stooped to settle their differences with discussion. A revolver worked better. And even more effective was the Thompson submachine gun, better known as the Tommy gun. Not long after the gangland wars broke out O’ Banion began to challenge the Torrio-Capone gang’s territory. O’ Banion’s thugs tried to bully saloon owners to buy their beer from him and O’ Banion began to pay police more for protection than Capone paid. In one incident, three men entered O’ Banion’s flower shop, he was a florist by day, and one man shook his hand and held on, while another man fired five bullets into his body at close range, and a sixth into O’ Banion’s head. In revenge Capone’s car was riddled with bullets, but Capone wasn’t inside. Throughout the 1920s the killings continued and intensified. Police would show up and investigate, and occasionally make and arrest. But gang members kept a code of silence and no one ever seemed to be tried and convicted. Over the first five years of prohibition there was 136 gangland murders that took place in Chicago alone, with these murders only six got brought to trail, with all but one ending in acquittals. The sixth having involved a gang member who had blown the head off of a rival inside a police precinct. One of the main reasons that organised crime emerged as prominently as it did during the Prohibition years was due to the corruption within the system. Everyone was on the take. Without a doubt the slackness of those who were supposed to enforce the law during the years of Prohibition encouraged the belief among the underworld crime bosses that everyone had a price. Many police officers and public officials were corrupt, as well as those who were employed specifically as prohibition agents. The most visible of these offenders were in Chicago. The mayor at the time, Big Bill Thompson, was bought and bluffed by gangsters who kept him in office and subsequently, in liquor. It seemed that if it was acceptable for the mayor to be corrupt, it was acceptable for everyone else who was on the city’s payroll. Police corruption in Chicago was rampant.
Only a very small number of policemen could be trusted to abide by and uphold the law. Gangsters controlled the city’s politics and law-men as if it was another racket. In one south side ward in Chicago, Al Capone’s allies effectively bought off the entire police force. Because Capone was notorious for the laundering of money for Chicago’s mayor, he gained immunity for all the illegal activities he wished to carry out in the city. It is estimated that Capone and his men spent $15 million a year to line the pockets of and win favours from the police, prohibition agents, and politicians who were supposed to shut him down. In New York the speakeasies were generally run by the five families of the New York crime circuit. The owners of these speakeasies were typically left alone by the police as long as they paid a monthly protection payment to any one of the five Mafia bosses. The mob used a wide array in network of bribery to ensure that the police were on their side. Because of this corruption in the major US cities, organised crime and the Mafia were allowed to flourish and the lifestyle became to be seen as glamourous and one that people wanted to attain, due to the extensive coverage of Al Capone and others in newspapers in America. Before the year 1929 was out, mob related crime would turn the public opinion against organised crime. America’s thirst for beer and booze may have made Al Capone and his associates incredibly rich and powerful, but ordinary citizens could no longer all the violence and the slaughter that had become part of everyday life in some cities.
After the Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, where seven men of Bugs Moran’s criminal gang were shot in the back by men who were dressed as police officers, people began to call for an end to the non-stop gangland violence. The Federal US government decided it could no longer stand idly by while the mobs ran the American cities. The FBI were given the task of managing and preventing organised crime. With the Federal intervention in the bootlegging, gambling and racketeering industries, mob bosses were now likely to be apprehended and jailed. Not even Al Capone could bribe the Feds. Prohibition was never supposed to lead to the devastating crime wave that rippled throughout America. Prohibition was supposed to be a grand social revolution that was to forever end drunkenness, reduce the crime rate and make life better for America’s families. However just nine years later, the results were vastly different to those that were predicted. People who had always followed the law, now openly ignored the highest law in the land. As alcohol was sold all around them, police officers, public officials, judges and politicians took bribes or looked the other way. Gangsters like Bugs Moran and Al Capone divided and controlled some of the nation’s biggest cities and they seemed to murder each other at will and without a second thought. Rather than becoming moral and upright, America had become what it set out to avoid, a lawless society. America’s citizens had tasted hypocrisy, drunk bad liquor, witnessed the senseless violence that had taken place and watched as their children ignored the highest law of the land. As Chicago attorney Terrence McCarthy said; Prohibition was ‘one of the worst things to ever happen to America’. After thirteen years the Volstead Act was eventually reversed in 1933.
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