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Prohibition Era and Organized Crime in America

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The 1920s up to the early 1930s came with one of the most bizarre of prohibitions that the country has ever experienced. Referred to as the prohibition era, this was a time that alcohol was banned in the United States. This was a time when the society was suffering from alcoholism, political corruption and even family violence. As a result, there was a rise in religious revivalism, which geared much of their efforts towards abolitionism, temperance and perfectionism in the human beings. This is a movement that had been brewing since the early 1820s and only came to be in the early 1920s. Some of the traces of temperance could be traced back to the 1800s where the church played a significant role in popularizing the developments and the ideologies. The prohibition era came into effect with the ratification of the 18th amendment of the US constitution. The amendment led to the ban on manufacture, transportation and sale of any intoxicating liquors. Later on there came the Volstead Act to assist with the enforcement of the temperance (Stelzer). However, the irony of the efforts brought in the society an even more complex problem and social nightmare that the church had not anticipated, the rise of organized crime.


The prohibition era is a time between the 1920s and the 1930s, when alcohol production, transportation, importation and even sales were prohibited. Lasting approximately 13 years, this marked one of the infamous histories that have shaped America to what it is today. Temperance, stated in the early 1800s and had been building momentum over the years. Much of the support came from the church where religious revivalism was intense, pushing for human perfectionism and abolitionist ideals. At the time, much of the campaigns cited that alcoholism was a real problem and family violence was on the rise. At the same there was some element of political corruption with most of the people driving opposition agendas. By the year 1833 there were more than 6000 local societies across the United States. The move to get the legal backing for the temperance started in parts of Massachusetts, where the prohibition of spirits started with banning of sales less than 15 gallons. It was in Maine that the first prohibition laws was passed in 1846. This ushered a wave of legislations before the American civil war came into play. Later on came the eighteenth amendment of the US constitution. This took place in December of 1917 where both chambers of the US congress passed the law banning the production, transportation, importation and sale of alcohol. Ratification would then come in 1919, when the three fourths of the states in America came on board. Much of the conception of the amendment was associated with the Anti-Saloon League leader Wayne Wheeler. However, with the slow enforcement, there was a need for an enforcement law and this came in the form of the Volstead Act. This is referred to as the National Prohibition Act. The law was enacted in the year 1919 and took effect in the following year. This worked in tandem with the Eighteenth Amendment as a part of the enforcing legislations. Andrew Volstead the then chairman of the House of Judiciary Committee, had been the key element behind the bill and finally behind the prohibition. The president, Woodrow Wilson, however, vetoed the bill only for it to be vetoed back into law by congress.

The fall of the Prohibition

There was a lot of support from the church for the prohibition of alcohol. Most of the church leaders pushing for the prohibition cited the idea that, the society was a better pace without intoxication. People were able to live a better and even healthier life if they avoided the use of alcohol in their lives. They were able to live healthier family lives, champion their dreams and work diligently towards the nation’s growth and social stardom. However, what the church and most of the politicians that were pushing for the abolition, is the proliferation of illegal alcohol. There had been a preconceived misconception that the money that was earlier going to alcohol would now be the fuel of a new prosperous economy. Most of the people were now buying alcohol illegally. There were people who were still brewing homemade liquor, while for the better part of the decade that followed, there were those that took the business to the next level, bootlegging, private distillation operations and speakeasies. The people were not going to stay without their occasional drink, so they sought out to get their liquor from the illegal channels that were now more common (Carlan, Lisa, and Ragan). The proliferation of the illegal channels is not attributed to people wanting to drink alcohol, rather it is associated with the economy around alcohol. When the prohibition period started, it affected the customers least, it was the breweries that employed thousands of people and the distilleries (Ray). The business that was involved in the supply chains were hit hard. The hop farmers who had invested millions in the industry. The truck driver that was doing the deliveries along the supply chain, was now without a job (Hauckand Sven). This was the same case for the barrel makers and other support service providers along the supply chain. For all the people that had lost their jobs, it was time to hit back at the system. The people were now more ruthless in making sure that their business were operations and delivering liquor to their customers without fail. In the midst of the uprising of the illegal sales of alcohol came more polished business operations. Speakeasies were now the new establishments selling the illegal liquor now that the bars were no longer legal. Generally, people would open businesses that were legitimate and use a few of the rooms as hidden bars. One was likely to find an ice cream parlor that was a speakeasy (Carlan, Lisa, and Ragan). They were literally nightclubs with jazz players and singers. However, one had to know the password to get in. Even the drinks were not referred to by their real names. They were given pseudonyms which the users had to know before they were served. There was a code for the operation of the illegal liquor distillation, production, transportation and distribution for sale. The secret nature of the speakeasies also allowed women to drink. Previously, women partaking of any alcoholic drinks would be frowned upon, however the secret nature of the illegal buys allowed them to enjoy their drinks without much of a worry. However, the operators most of the time needed to bribe the local officials, police and local politicians to operate. It is here that the prohibition era took the turn for the worst, in came the organized crime and gangsters.

Organized Crime

The illegal establishments were now growing and most of the operators were now fighting over turfs. The establishments were now common with more than liquor, the customers were also treated to gambling rings and prostitution.With a shocking level of sophistication the gangs organized the manufacture, transportation, storage and distribution to the restaurants, nightclubs, brothels, speakeasies and other retail outlets (Stelzer). The gangs were able to keep the distribution channels alive. They could easily get the products to the customers without the authorities interfering. Much of this ease possible through bribing high level officials and the local police to make sure they could operate. With the money that came with the illegal sale of alcohol, the criminal gangs diversified to even hard drugs, where they could easily bring contraband and distribute through their networks (Fahey and Jon). They worked the illegal chains much like the legitimate one but with more precision and principle. This meant that those that stepped out of line would as easily lose their lives (Stelzer). Other than the bootlegging channels, the gangsters were able to establish prostitution channels, gambling rackets, labor racketeering, extortion, loan sharking and the narcotics. These were powerful organizations that were headed by crime lords, who were ruthless. They were the law in the areas that they operated (Ray).

Some of the examples of the ruthless gangs that came to power during and even after the prohibition era are the American mafia crime lords. These was a gang that came with the organized activities of crime in the 1920s and was largely formed of the Italian bootleggers. They ruled over the New York City streets with impunity. This gave rise to some of the most acclaimed crime bosses of all time such as Johnny Torrio who lead the operations in Brooklyn in New York. He would later relocate to Chicago, where he found ground to expand his empire. The establishment would then be taken over by Al Capone in 1925, one of the most famous of the time. Different gangs now ruled over territories across the United States. Most of them having racial or political affiliation. The rivalry between the gangs were lethal, leaving bodies on the streets of anyone that came against them (Stelzer). This was a billion dollar industry and the gangs were willing to do anything to stay ahead and maintain their status. By the year 1927, Al Capone had wealth estimated at $100, 000. This was one crime boss in a string of organized crime syndicate. The Great Depression did not help much as the crime syndicates became even more brazen offer the public services that the government was struggling with. Aspects such as protection and even in some of the cases building social amenities, the crime bosses were hailed as leaders in their own rights. The government had to come up with a solution. It was the then president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt that signed into Law the Culen Harrison Act. This amended the Volstead Act and allowed the manufacture and sale of low alcohol beers as well as wines. There was a repeal in 1933 with the ratification of the Twenty First Amendment that further corrected the mistake that cost Americans.

While the church was busy trying to create a society that was godly as it had been in the first, it led to a more sinister society. Now there were gangs and violence, murders, extortion rackets, labor rackets, prostitution and drugs flooding the streets (Stelzer). The prohibition era will be remembered as one of the most significant parts of the American history that largely shaped the society as we know it.

Works Cited

  • Hauck, Pierre, and Sven Peterke. International Law and Transnational Organised Crime. , 2016. Print.
  • Blocker, Jack S, David M. Fahey, and Ian R. Tyrrell. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2003. Print.
  • Fahey, David M, and Jon Miller. Alcohol and Drugs in North America: A Historical Encyclopedia. , 2013. Print.
  • Carlan, Philip E, Lisa S. Nored, and Ragan A. Downey. An Introduction to Criminal Law. Sudbury, Mass: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2011. Print.
  • Stelzer, Patricia J. Prohibition and Organized Crime: A Case Study : an Examination of the Life of John Torrio. , 1997. Print.
  • Ray, Hoyt E. ‘Crime And Prohibition’. Journal Of Criminal Law And Criminology, vol 38, no. 2, 1947, Accessed 13 Mar 2018. 

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