How Did Prohibition, Bootlegging, and Organized Crime Influence America in the 1920s and 1930s?

Mindy Park ('08-'09)

Prior to the passage of the 18th amendment, many people joined temperance societies and the progressive movement, petitioning for prohibition. By 1917, most states put restrictions on the sale and manufacture of intoxicating beverages. At the height of World War I, many wartime concerns included conserving grain and maintaining a sober workforce. Congress later passed the 18th amendment, strictly prohibiting the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages. The 18th amendment was later supplemented by the Volstead Act in 1919. Before the Prohibition Era, many worked to eliminate alcohol. However, quickly after 1919, their positions shifted. The 1920s and 1930s proved to Americans that regulating morality was counterproductive.


At midnight, January 16, 1919, the 18th amendment went into effect, marking the start of Prohibition. At first, Prohibition was effective. Drunkenness fell, liquor consumption dropped, and the price of illegal alcohol rose higher than what the average man could afford.


Proponents of Prohibition included many women reformers who were concerned about the safety of women and children within the home. They worried about the link of alcohol to child and wife abuse. Other proponents included industrialists, such as Henry Ford who were concerned about the labor productivity. Other advocates argued that outlawing drinking could eliminate political corruption and help Americanize immigrants.

As American involvement in World War I increased, National Prohibition was defended as a war measure. Many believed that grain should be made into bread and other foods for "the boys" and not for making liquor. Nativist and Anti-German groups supported the cause by dubbing brewers "the worst of all our German enemies" and calling their products "Kaiser brew."

On December 5, 1933, the 21st amendment was ratified, repealing the 18th amendment. Many who had advocated for Prohibition agreed to the 21st amendment because of the corruption and bootlegging the Prohibition era sparked. Rev. Sam Small, an evangelist and temperance advocate, said that Prohibition had created "an orgy of lawlessness and official corruption."


Despite the lower statistics of drunkenness and liquor consumption, Prohibition gave birth to a new American society. This new society was defined by bootlegging and speakeasies. Defying the law had become fashionable, thus many continued drinking. The underground drinking business proved lucrative and many, especially big political machines, took advantage of the opportunity.

In 1927, there were about 30,000 illegal speakeasies- twice the number of legal bars before the 18th amendment.

The earliest bootleggers smuggled in alcohol from across the border, usually from Canada or Mexico. However, this was not the only source. Many forged prescriptions for "medicinal" whiskey from drugstores. A third method was for bootleggers to make their own liquor. However, faultily distilled batches caused blindness, paralysis, and/or death.

Rise of Crime

Bootlegging lead to the establishment of American organized crime which would last even longer than Prohibition itself. Distribution of alcohol turned out to be more complex than other criminal activities and many organized gangs arose. Gangs attempted to secure large territories where they could establish a monopoly of distribution. Gradually more gangs began to work together, extending their methods of other criminal activities to one another. Thus, the Mafia arose out of groups of bootleggers and gangsters in the late 1920s and early 1930s.


The height organized Crime and Corruption began with Prohibition. Two major criminal figures arose, gaining infamous reputations that would be synonymous with the corrupt age in America. Capone used the bootlegging business to start off his career as a machine and mobster. As more gangs arose, so did the purpose of each. During Prohibition, many struggled to establish a bootlegging monopoly all over major cities. As Prohibition came to an end, gang affiliation in legitimate business started. Years later, in the early 1930s, a new criminal figure arose: John Dillinger. The Depression Era gangsters, such as Dillinger focused on bank robberies, murders, etc.

AL CAPONE - the 20's

Alphonse Capone was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1899. After dropping out of school after sixth grade, he associated himself with a street gang led by Johnny Torrio. In 1917, after insulting the sister of notorious gang member, Frank Galluccio, Galluccio slashed Capone's left cheek, leaving three scars. Capone later received the infamous nickname "Scarface". A year later, Capone met an Irish girl named Mar y "Mae" Coughlin. That December, she gave birth to their son, Albert Francis Capone, who would be known as Sonny. Weeks after their son's birth, they were married.


Around 1920, Capone joined Torrio in Chicago where he had become an influential member of the Colosimo mob. Taking advantage of Prohibition, Torrio aided Capone in the bootlegging business. The same year, the leader of the Colosimo mob, Big Jim, was murdered. Subsequently, Torrio succeeded full leadership. In 1925, Capone became boss of the Southside Gang when Torrio retired to Brooklyn. Capone's fearsome reputation grew as rival gangs were eliminated and the Capone mob gained control over the suburb of Cicero.

On February 14, 1929, members of a rival Northside Gang were killed in what might be regarded as the culminating moment of violence of the Chicago Gang era. In the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, 7 members of the "Bugs" Moran mob were gunned against a garage wall by rivals posing a police, using the new and fierce Tommy gun. Although Al was in Florida at the time of the massacre, he is generally accredited for it. The St. Valentine's Day massacre achieved national fame. Capone was glamorized by the media across the country.

At the start of his term, President Hoover demanded that Capone be brought to justice. Pressured by Hoover, Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of the treasury, headed that campaign to bring Capone down. Incriminating evidence was uncovered which would bring to attention Capone's flagrant evasion of taxes.

In 1929, Capone was arrested for carrying deadly weapons. He was sent to the Eastern State Penitentiary and was released 9 months later. As years passed, the U.S. Treasury Department continued collecting evidence on tax evasion charges. On October 18, 1931, Capone was convicted after trial was sentenced to 11 years in Federal prison and fined nearly $300,000. In 1934, Capone was transferred to Alcatraz.

About 4 years later, Capone became symptomatic from Syphilis, something he had been carrying for years. He was transferred to another prison in California until 1939.

Capone died in 1947 due to health complications.


John Herbert Dillinger was born in 1903 in Indianapolis. His father raised him in a strict atmosphere. As a child, he became troubled and eventually quit school and got a job. He soon became bored and often wandered out at nights. His father worried that the city corrupted hi son and moved the family to a more rural area. In 1924, Dillinger married Beryl Hovius and the pair fled to Indianapolis. Unable to secure a job, Dillinger entered corruption in search for money under Ed Singleton. The two attempted to rob a grocer but were arrested. Dillinger confessed and was convicted and received 10 to 20 years in jail.

After being released from the Indiana State Prison, Dillinger robbed a bank in Ohio. He was then arrested and placed in the county jail in Lima, Ohio. Days after, eight of Dillinger's friends from the Indiana State Prison escaped, using smuggled weapons. Weeks after the escape, a few of the escapees freed Dillinger after killing the sheriff.

Dillinger continued robbing banks as well as plundering police arsenals. Using the stolen weapons, the Dillinger gang became fearsome and formidable. During their reign of terror, the Dillinger gang robbed countless number of banks and killed several police officers. In 1934, after a hotel fire, members of the gang were apprehended, along with Dillinger. He was sent to the county jail in Crown Point, Indiana to await trial. However, in March, he escaped and fled. While doing so, he stole a police car and drove interstate. This violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. A federal complaint was issued and the FBI began its involvement in the quest to bring Dillinger to justice.

The same year, in 1934, on June 2, U.S. Attorney General Homer S. Cummings named Dillinger America's Public Enemy Number One.

In July, a madame of a brothel, named Anna Cumpanas, contacted a police with information regarding John Dillinger. Because she worked at a brothel and was an immigrant, the government considered her undesirable and prepared to deport her. In exchange for the prevention of of her deportation, she was willing to sell the FBI information on Dillinger. She revealed that her friend, Polly Hamilton (also Dililnger's girlfriend) and Dillinger had visited Cumpanas. She also revealed that the trio would be watching a movie at either the Marbro or Biograph theater the next night. FBI agents and Cumpanas then devised a plan.

The next night, as Cumpanas, Hamilton, and Dillinger emerged from the theater, FBI agents moved on Dillinger. Three shots were fired, each hitting Dillinger. On July 22, 1934, 20 minutes after the theater shooting, John Dillinger died.


The 20s was either coined The Jazz Age or The Roaring 20s. This era was defined by the glamorous life of the wealthy as portrayed by The Great Gatsby, the Harlem Renaissance, loose morals as portrayed by Flapper girls, and insurmountable prosperity. However, a different side of the 20s and 30s was hardly mentioned. Prohibition led to bootlegging, leading to corruption, then leading to organized crime.

Car Racing


During Prohibition, moonshine runners had to find ways to avoid the law while delivering their products. During the 20s, the stock car was developed. This car was small and very fast allowing moonshiners to deliver each product without getting caught by police. As more stock cars were produced, groups of moonshiners gathered together to race the cars. Into the 1930's, stock car racing was formally established. Because car-racing was illegal, racers could not race on tracks. In 1948, Bill France formed NASCAR to regulate stock car racing.

Movies and Books

The Prohibition Era created a new American Society. In the early 20's, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, which exhibited bootlegging and its role in wealthy American lives.

This era also provided for a juicy topic Hollywood would embrace movies such as Little Caesar and Scarface. These movies would portray the rise and life of mobsters.

Below is a movie trailer of the upcoming film Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger.

Works Cited:

"The Volstead Act." The National Archives. 28 May 2009 <>.
"Man Moment Machine Al Capone." The History Channel. The History Channel. 28 May 2009 <>.
"Digital History: The Jazz Age." Digital History. 28 May 2009 <>.
"Famous Cases: John Dillinger." Federal Bureau of Investigation. Federal Bureau of Investigation. 28 May 2009 <>.
"Federal Bureau of Investigation - FBI History - Famous Cases." FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation Homepage. 28 May 2009 <>.
"Bootlegging (American history) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia." Encyclopedia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 28 May 2009 <>.
Al Capone Museum. Al Capone Museum. 28 May 2009 <>.
"Al Capone at U.S.P. Alcatraz." 28 May 2009 <>.
"American Experience | Public Enemy #1 | Timeline." PBS. 29 May 2009 <>.
L., Miller, Donald. City of the century the epic of Chicago and the making of America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Newman, John J. United States History Preparing for the Advanced Placement Examination. Boston: Amsco School Pubns Inc, 2003.

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