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American Organized Crime of the 1920s

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  • 0:07 Prohibition
  • 2:45 Al Capone
  • 6:05 The Repeal of…
  • 6:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about American organized crime during the 1920s. We will explore what brought about increased organized crime during this time, and we will identify the key figures and events associated with this theme.

Prohibition

The roots of organized crime during the 1920s are tied directly to national Prohibition. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, a wave of anti-alcohol sentiment swept the United States. During this time, many states went 'dry,' meaning they passed laws either prohibiting completely or strongly curbing the use of alcohol. For example, Kansas went 'dry' in 1881.

In 1919, Congress passed the 18th Amendment, also known as the National Prohibition Act and the Volstead Act. This law went into effect on January 16, 1920. The law prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States, but despite the common misconception, did not outlaw the actual consumption or possession of alcoholic beverages.

Prohibition was intended to reform society: to turn drunkards into honorable citizens. Upon the passage of the 18th Amendment, one popular minister proclaimed, 'The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.' Unfortunately, it did not work out quite like that.

Many people simply ignored the law. Throughout the 1920s, illegal bars called speakeasies became commonplace. These bars got this name because one typically had to recite a password, or in other words, 'speak easy,' in order to enter the establishment. Producing homemade 'spirits' also became a common practice, leading to widespread 'bootlegging.' Crime organizations, like the American Mafia, moved quickly to profit from the conditions created by the 18th Amendment.

Recognizing that a fortune could be made in providing illegal alcohol to the public, many criminal gangs began to specialize in importing alcohol from places like Canada or the Caribbean. Some also produced distilled liquors in rural stills. To avoid being arrested, many gangs bribed or made deals with local police. In many locations, gangsters had virtually a free hand to engage in the illegal booze business. Automobiles were also modified in order to outrun police cars and to carry large amounts of alcohol in hidden compartments.

Al Capone

No discussion of organized crime in the 1920s would be complete without addressing 'Scarface' Al Capone. Alphonse Capone is undoubtedly the most recognizable gangster of the era. Born to Italian immigrants in New York City, Capone was drawn to a life of crime at a young age. On the streets of Brooklyn, gang boss Johnny Torrio introduced young Capone to the underground world of organized crime. In a bar brawl, Capone's left face was slashed, leaving scars that would cause him to be nicknamed 'Scarface.'

At Torrio's urging, Capone relocated to Chicago were he learned the art of racketeering, running a brothel and bootlegging. The sharp-minded Capone rose quickly through the ranks of the Chicago Outfit, a name used to refer to Torrio's criminal network. In 1925, Torrio decided to retire after being seriously injured in an assassination attempt. Leadership of the Chicago Outfit was passed to Capone.

Unlike other gangland bosses, Capone was a highly visible figure. He courted the press, attended public events, such as the opera, and even opened up a soup kitchen for the unemployed. Careful to always appear respectable, Capone tried to present himself as a modern-day Robin Hood. Capone could certainly be charming, despite his capacity for ruthlessness.

Through bribes, rigging elections and other means, Capone wielded tremendous political power in the city of Chicago. Incidentally, Capone always tried, as much as possible, to ensure that he was photographed from the right side, so as to hide the left, scarred side of his face.

On February 14, 1929, members of the Chicago Outfit massacred seven members of Bugs Moran's rival North Side gang in an event that is commonly called the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. Capone arranged for bootleggers to lure North Side gang members into picking up a shipment of whiskey at a warehouse. Capone's men, dressed as police officers and agents, then staged a 'raid.' Believing that this was nothing but a standard police raid, the North Side gang members lined up against a wall, only to be gunned down. The massacre caused national outrage as Americans began to realize just how much of a problem organized crime had become.

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