How did prohibition lead to the rise in gangsterism?
People soon found ways of getting round the new law. Speakeasies were soon set up in all of the big cities. these were illegal bars, which sold alcohol behind closed doors. It was almost impossible to close these down because they were opened in basements or the back rooms of restaurants and cafes. If bar owners could not get their hands on genuine alcoholic drinks, they could always buy moonshine or hooch, which was illegally made alcohol. Unfortunately this could be very dangerous. Several hundred people a year died from alcohol poisoning during the 1920s, mostly from the effects of moonshine which could be lethal.
The most common way of getting hold of illicit drink was by bootlegging, which was smuggling alcohol into the USA from Canada, Mexico or the West Indies. An enormous amount of alcohol was smuggled into the USA from Canada. Some of it by people who simply rowed across to fetch it. none of these countries had prohibition so it was a relatively easy matter to bring alcohol across the long borders that the USA had with Canada and Mexico and the thousands of miles of coastline. William McCoy is said to have made $70,000,000 in four years smuggling whisky from Canada and the West Indies.
But the most important result of prohibition was that it made ordinary people into criminals. Most people liked a drink from time to time and this made the police very reluctant to enforce the law. They also became more open to bribes from otherwise law-abiding citizens. So began the system of bribery and corruption that spread all over the USA and reached the highest levels of society. Worse still, the supply of illegal alcohol fell into the hands of gangsters, who then bribed the police and justice system to allow them to carry on their business.
In Chicago the mayor, Big Bill Thompson, was known to be an associate of the gangsters, who stepped in to supply the demand. The gangsters were able to make a fortune.
"It is estimated that by 1929, Capone's income from the various aspects of his business was $60,000,000 (illegal alcohol), $25,000,000 (gambling establishments), $10,000,000 (vice) and $10,000,000 from various other rackets. It is claimed that Capone was employing over 600 gangsters to protect this business from rival gangs." Spartacus
With such large amounts of money tied up in bootlegging and bribes, gangsters fought to control the business and it encouraged an atmosphere of lawlessness and disrespect for the law. There were 200 gang murders in Chicago between 1927 and 1931. the most famous case was the St Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929 when Al Capone's men eliminated Bug's Moran North Side gang. Capone's men arrived at Moran's headquarters disguised as policemen and lined up their victims against a wall before killing them with sub-machine guns.
Prohibition, therefore, also led to a big increase in organised crime, just at the time when many Italian immigrants were arriving, having been driven out of Sicily by Mussolini. The Mafia was able to extend its operations into prostitution, drugs, protection rackets and gambling.
Prohibition was finally repealed in December 1933. Franklin Roosevelt had promised to abolish the Volstead Act during the election campaign, while President Hoover had opposed repeal. The most obvious reason for change was that the Act was clearly not working. Some states had already repealed the act through their own legislation, which meant that the local police would take no action. Federal agents could still take action in those states if they wished, but this was virtually impossible. The onset of the Depression also meant that there was less money to spare to catch smugglers, and other more important priorities. With 13,000,000 people out of work, spending money on stopping an activity that most people did not even consider to be a crime seemed to be a complete waste of time and effort. In addition it was possible to argue that legalising alcohol would lead to the creation of thousands of jobs.
Roosevelt, who became president in 1933, personally disapproved of prohibition and was only too pleased to see it brought to an end. On 5 December 1933, when the Volstead Act was repealed, he is supposed to have said, 'I think that this would be a good time to have a beer'.
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