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Lawlessness because of Prohibition

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On the 17th January 1920, the now infamous American constitutional Prohibition on alcohol began. With some reservation, the Guardian reported at the time; ‘One minute after midnight to-night America will become an entirely arid desert as far as alcoholics are concerned… Excessive fines and dungeon keeps yawn for transgressors of this drastic Federal law’. The Prohibition was the single most important event in the history of organised crime in the United States. Clearly, the introduction of the Prohibition was responsible for significant social change throughout America and, most notably, Chicago. Over the thirteen years that the Prohibition was in effect, the city of Chicago saw the dramatic rise of organised crime. The following will discuss and investigate the question “To what extent did the Prohibition contribute to the rise of Organised Crime in Chicago between 1920 and 1933?”. To answer the question, the essay will discuss the fact that enforcing Prohibition in Chicago was doomed from the start. It will also investigate both the role that corrupt politicians and law enforcement had to play in fuelling the rise of organised crime in the city, and the rise of Chicago’s gangsters, such as Al Capone, and other criminal organisations, most notably the Chicago-Outfit.


There is significant evidence to suggest that the prevailing conditions in Chicago encompassed an environment whereby resistance to Prohibition was inevitable. Indeed, the Act had only been in operation for less than one hour when six armed men stole more than $100,000 worth of whisky from a train in Chicago. Reid states that there was a flourishing culture of crime, prior to the Volstead Act. The political and social conditions of the city were no doubt favourable to the rise of organised crime. The city was plagued by corrupt politicians and run by large and powerful organised gangs, such as the Chicago Outfit, reminiscent of Italian gangs of the 19th Century. Behr asserts, pre-Prohibition Chicago was already notorious for its gangs, who ran lucrative businesses of gambling and prostitution, aided by their cosy relationships with the city’s politicians.

According to Binder, pre-Volstead Chicago was a ‘hard drinking town’ and the world centre of alcohol manufacturing. Chicago citizens drank, on average 3 and a half times more alcohol, than the rest of America. Records show by 1920, over seven-thousand saloons existed in Chicago, not considering the estimated one-thousand ‘blind pigs’ (illegal bars), run by the nations gangsters, spread throughout the city. Tellingly, when the city council had attempted to enforce Sunday lockout laws and increased the fee for saloon licenses from $50 to $300 in 1855, a riot, ending in a deadly gun battle along the Chicago river, occurred. More than 150 special deputies, plus the entire Chicago police force was needed to contain the rioters who were primarily of German descent.

A speech made by Justice James Clarke McReynolds encapsulates the sentiment in Chicago shortly after the Prohibition was introduced. He stated that “The Eighteenth Amendment required millions of men and women to abruptly give up habits and customs of life which they thought not immoral or wrong, but which, on the contrary, they believed to be necessary to their reasonable comfort and happiness”. The Guardian reported days before the Prohibition that “At other places plenty of clients were willing to pay for the privilege of whetting their thirsts at 20 to 30 dollars for a bottle of champagne, or a dollar to two dollars for a drink of whisky. At several places’ coffins were carried through the lows of diners to the accompaniment of dirges. At some restaurants the walls were hung with crepe. Several games restaurants had placards bearing the words “Exit booze. Door’s close on Saturday.” Clearly the prominent attitude of Chicago’s residents to the ban was negative. Sandbrook recalls that the new regime never received unanimous support and the federal government put little effort in the enforcement of the new law. Astonishingly, only 1,500 federal agents were tasked with enforcing the new act – only about 30 officers for each state.

According to Sandbrook, the gangsters realised, from the very beginning, that the Prohibition represented yet another grand business opportunity. The gangsters simply capitalised on the city’s residents’ negative attitude towards the change and the federal government’s inability to properly enforce the law.


Behr states “…it can be argued that some of America’s biggest villains during the Prohibition era were not the Al Capones, Johnny Torrios, Gus Morans, Dutch Schultzes or Frank Costellos but the political bosses… who used the underworld to their considerable advantage…”. Outlined in the 1928 Illinois Crime Survey, “Organised crime and organised political corruption have formed a partner-ship to exploit for profit the enormous revenues to be derived from law- breaking.” There is much evidence to suggest that widespread collusion existed between many political leaders and organised crime syndicates, during the prohibition era. This no doubt aided the rise of organised crime. For example, New York Mayor and the Tammany Hall Machine’s James Walker, who, throughout his term, “enjoyed a cosy relationship with New York’s gangland.”

But perhaps the most obvious example of political corruption was in Chicago, under the administration of Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson. Dobyns writes, “Thompson made Chicago the most corrupt and lawless city in the world.” Sailer argues that Thompson played a crucial role in the rise organised crime in Chicago – helping gang leader Al Capone to illegally provide alcohol to the residents of Chicago. Thompson, alongside state governor Len Small, pardoned more than 1000 convicted bootleggers, most memorably infamous Chicagoan bootlegger Edward “Spike” O’Donnell. The actions of political bosses such as Thompson, as both Behr and Woodiwiss argue, consequently developed the impression between the residents of Chicago and law enforcement agencies that criminal action’s “were unlikely to result in any form of penalty.” There is no doubt that without such widespread corruption from political leaders, such rampant organised crime in Chicago would have existed. This was proven in the term of Democrat Mayor William Dever, who successfully enforced Prohibition within Chicago, causing criminal figures, for example Al Capone, too relocate in order to continue their bootlegging operations.

There is also much evidence to suggest that the judiciary and law enforcement agencies were also corrupt. Undeniably, this played a large role in the rise of organised crime in Chicago. For example, notorious Chicago bootlegger and leader of the Northside Gang Dan O’Banion, was responsible for more than 25 murders, but was not convicted nor brought to trail for a single case. O’Banion was also charged with the robbing a labor safe in 1921, but was convicted by a “bribed and otherwise terrified jury”. Behr states that there were 136 gangland murders in just the first five years of the prohibition. Of these only six were brought before the courts and all, but one, ended in acquittal.

However, no where was police collusion more evident than in the case of the Genna crime family. Headed by six Genna brothers, during the early years of the Prohibition they were Chicago’s most well-known and successful bootleggers. Despite a lengthy criminal record, they obtained a licence to produce large amounts of industrial alcohol, only a few blocks away from the Maxwell Police Station. According to Behr, no attempt was made at concealment. A former manager later told police:

“The warehouse was run openly and in full view of everybody, unmolested by the state authorities other than an occasional raid. But notification of 24 hours was always given to the Genna’s. Sometimes the very letters sent out to police ordering the raid were shown to them. There would be a clean up, then a raid, then a re-opening…. During all the period that I worked there the enter Genna enterprise was done with full knowledge, consent and approval of the Chicago police…”

The introduction of the prohibition was the catalyst for such failures of law enforcement and political leaders in enforcing the law – inadvertently encouraging criminality. ****

Evidently, the prohibition encouraged a culture of lawlessness in the city of Chicago.

One of the most prominent Chicago gangsters of the Prohibition era, was Chicago Outfit co-founder Al “Scarface” Capone. According to Sandbrook, Capone controlled much of the Chicago underworld in the mid-1920s. Prior to the Prohibition, Capone partnered with gangster Johnny Torrio, who presided over a thriving business in prostitution and gambling. But Capone saw the enforcement of the 18th Amendment as yet another business venture. At the height of his power, newspaper estimates from the time put Capone’s yearly earnings from his bootlegging business at one-hundred million dollars. At the same time, Binder states, that he had at least 500 “gorillas” in his employ – running one of the largest organised crime syndicates in the city’s history. In contrast to Torrio, Capone refused to keep a low profile. Sandbrook states he ‘had a taste for the good-life’. He lived in the luxurious Lexington Hotel and wore expensive suits and drank the top whisky. Initially, he was likened by the press to that of Robin Hood. He opened soup kitchens for the unemployed and gave large sums of his ‘dirty’ earnings to charity. 

But, as stated by the Chicago Tribune, it was the control of such profit that launched a war between the Outfit’s main rival the North Side gang, which saw public support for Capone fade. An article from the McAllen Daily Press writes that two carloads of Capone’s gangsters, armed “with every fiendish device known to gang warfare”, destroyed a stronghold of the north side liquor gang, headed by “Bugs Moran”. The article states they: 

“Smashed through heavy doors, herded eight men into an alley at the rear of the building, lined them in a single file against a brick wall and as a final parting gesture swept seven men to their death as they stood on quavering feet. A volley of hand machine gun fire was poured into the octet, two of whom were fatally wounded by the rain of lead.”

Capone had absolute power over Chicago’s underworld. However, due to the brutality of the attack, the public soon realised the ferocity of gang violence. As displayed in articles by the Chicago Tribune, Capone was now “public enemy number one”. Michael Hugh’s, Chicago’s chief of police at the time stated: 

“I don’t care for George Moran or Al [Capone]…. There’ll be machine guns on the cars that go after them. We’ll meet the gangsters on equal terms and the rats will scatter when they see we’re on the jump after them.”

Hugh’s determination to bring down Capone and the public’s change in attitude, display***. Chicago, at least, had finally come to realise the side-effects of the Prohibition.       

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Lawlessness Because Of Prohibition. (2022, July 07). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from
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