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Prohibition and the Rise of the American Gangster

Mug shots of the conspirators with vital statistics, 04/24/1929 (Department of Justice. Bureau of Prohibition. Seattle Office. ARC#298444)

As Prohibition commenced in 1920, progressives and temperance activists envisioned an age of moral and social reform. But over the next decade, the “noble experiment” produced crime, violence, and a flourishing illegal liquor trade.

The roots of Prohibition date back to the mid-19th century, when the American Temperance Society and the Women’s Christian Temperance League initiated the “dry” movement. In 1917, Congress passed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to implement nationwide Prohibition.

After the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919, Congress followed with the National Prohibition Act. Commonly referred to as the Volstead Act, the legislation outlawed the production, distribution, and transportation of alcohol. Prohibition officially went into effect on January 16, 1920.

But while reformers rejoiced, famous gangsters such as Al Capone capitalized and profited from the illegal alcohol market.

From Los Angeles to Chicago to  New York, organized crime syndicates supplied speakeasies and underground establishments with large quantities of beer and liquor. These complex bootlegging operations used rivers and waterways to smuggle alcohol across state lines. Eventually, other criminal enterprises expanded and diversified from the bootlegging profits.

As organized crime syndicates grew throughout the Prohibition era, territorial disputes often transformed America’s cities into violent battlegrounds. Homicides, burglaries, and assaults consequently increased significantly between 1920 and 1933.

In the face of this crime wave, law enforcement struggled to keep up. Although three Federal agencies were tasked with enforcing the Volstead Act, bootleggers and smugglers operated with relative impunity. On the state and local levels, police were similarly overwhelmed by the power and influence of organized crime syndicates.

The precipitous rise in crime, coupled with the public’s opposition to the 18th Amendment, encouraged future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to campaign on behalf of repealing Prohibition in 1932. Once in office, Roosevelt kept his promise. Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933, when specially selected state ratifying conventions ratified the 21st Amendment.

For more information about the Volstead Act, organized crime syndicates, and other Prohibition-era documents, search our records using Online Public Access.

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