Prohibition in the 1920s
“Prohibition did not achieve its goals. Instead, it added to the problems it was intended to solve” (Thorton, 15). On Midnight of January 16, 1920, one of the personal habits and customs of most Americans suddenly came to a halt. The Eighteenth Amendment was put into effect and all importing, exporting, transporting, selling, and manufacturing of intoxicating liquor was put to an end. Shortly following the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, the National Prohibition Act, or the Volstead Act, as it was called because of its author, Andrew J. Volstead, was put into effect. This determined intoxicating liquor as anything having an alcoholic content of anything more than 0.5 percent, omitting alcohol used for medicinal and sacramental purposes. This act also set up guidelines for enforcement (Bowen, 154). Prohibition was meant to reduce the consumption of alcohol, seen by some as the devil’s advocate, and thereby reduce crime, poverty, death rates, and improve the economy and the quality of life. “National prohibition of alcohol -- the ‘noble experiment’ -- was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America” (Thorton, 1). This, however, was undoubtedly to no avail. The Prohibition amendment of the 1920s was ineffective because it was unenforceable, it caused the explosive growth of crime, and it increased the amount of alcohol consumption.
“It is impossible to tell whether prohibition is a good thing or a bad thing. It has never been enforced in this country” (LaGuardia). After the Volstead Act was put into place to determine specific laws and methods of enforcement, the Federal Prohibition Bureau was formulated in order to see that the Volstead Act was enforced. Nevertheless, these laws were flagrantly violated by bootleggers and commoners alike. Bootleggers smuggled liquor from oversees and Canada, stole it from government warehouses, and produced their own. Many people hid their liquor in hip flasks, false books, hollow canes, and anything else they could find (Bowen, 159). There were also illegal speak-easies which replaced saloons after the start of prohibition. By 1925, there were over 100,000 speak-easies in New York City alone (Bowen, 160). As good as the ideal sounded, “...prohibition was far easier to proclaim than to enforce” (Wenburn, 234). With only 1,550 federal agents and over 18,700 miles of (Bowen, 166) “vast and virtually unpoliceable coastline” (Wenburn, 234), “it was clearly impossible to prevent immense quantities of liquor from entering the country” (Behr, 162). Barely five percent of smuggled liquor was hindered from coming into the country in the 1920s. Furthermore, the illegal liquor business fell under the control of organized gangs, which overpowered most of the authorities (Wenburn, 234). Many bootleggers secured their business by bribing the authorities, namely federal agents and persons of high political status (Bowen, 160). “No one who is intellectually honest will deny that there has not yet been effective nationwide enforcement” (Behr, 161).
As a result of the lack of enforcement of the Prohibition Act and the creation of an illegal industry an increase in crime transpired. The Prohibitionists hoped that the Volstead Act would decrease drunkenness in America and thereby decrease the crime rate, especially in large cities. Although towards the beginning of Prohibition this purpose seemed to be fulfilled, the crime rate soon skyrocketed to nearly twice that of the pre-prohibition period. In large cities the homicide went from 5.6 (per 100,000 population) in the pre-prohibition period, to nearly 10 (per 100,000 population) during prohibition, nearly a 78 percent increase. Serious crimes, such as homicides, assault, and battery, increased nearly 13 percent, while other crimes involving victims increased 9 percent. Many supporters of prohibition argued that the crime rate decreased. This is true if one is examining only minor crimes, such as swearing, mischief, and vagrancy, which did in fact decrease due to prohibition. The major crimes, however, such as homicides, and burglaries, increased 24 percent between 1920 and 1921. In addition, the number of federal convicts over the course of the prohibition period increased 561 percent. The crime rate increased because “prohibition destroyed legal jobs, created black-market violence, diverted resources from enforcement of other laws, and increased prices people had to pay for prohibited goods” (Thorton, 10).
The contributing factor to the sudden increase of felonies was the organization of crime, especially in large cities. Because liquor was no longer legally available, the public turned to gangsters who readily took on the bootlegging industry and supplied them with liquor. On account of the industry being so profitable, more gangsters became involved in the money-making business. Crime became so organized because “criminal groups organize around the steady source of income provided by laws against victimless crimes such as consuming alcohol” (Thorton, 13). As a result of the money involved in the bootlegging industry, there was much rival between gangs. The profit motive caused over four hundred gang related murders a year in Chicago alone (Bowen, 175).
Incidentally, large cities were the main location for organized gangs. Although there were over a half dozen powerful gangs in New York, Chicago was the capital of racketeers, including Johnny Torrio, “Bugs Moran”, the Gennas, and the O’Banions (Behr, 192). The most powerful and infamous bootlegger however, was Al Capone, operating out of Chicago. One of the most gruesome and remembered gangster shoot-outs of all time occurred on Valentine’s Day, 1929. Because of business differences, Capone had his henchman, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn plot the murder of the O’Banions, led by Bugs Moran. McGurn staged a delivery of alcohol to Moran at a warehouse and had his gang members impersonate police officers and pretend to raid the transaction. With a sweep of machine gun fire, McGurn killed all that were inside. Capone had a solid alibi, being in Miami at the time, and no convictions were ever made. This event is an example of how prohibition fueled gang warfare and increased the crime rate in America (Bowen, 175).
“Seldom has law been more flagrantly violated. Not only did Americans continue to manufacture, barter, and possess alcohol; they drank more of it” (Bowen, 154). The Americans that supported the law of prohibition argued that if drinking was not allowed, then Americans would drink less. Although the consumption of alcohol fell immediately after the beginning of prohibition, there was a subsequent increase after less than a year (see appendix i). After the start of prohibition, because manufacturing and importing alcohol were illegal, people needed to find ways to avoid being caught. Because beer had to be transported in large quantities, which became difficult, the price of beer went up and thus Americans began to drink less of it. Instead, they began to drink more hard liquor, which was more concentrated and easier to transport and thus less expensive. Because of prohibition, Americans began to drink more potent drinks and so became more drunk by drinking less. Another downfall of prohibition was that the illegally made products had no standards. Deaths from poisoned liquor rose from 1,064 in 1920 to 4,154 in 1925.
Although one would think that prohibition would enhance the difficulty of obtaining alcohol, liquor was actually very easy to acquire. The bootlegging business was so immense that customers could easily obtain alcohol by simply walking down almost any street. Replacing saloons, which were all shut down at the start of prohibition, were illegal speak-easies. These businesses, hidden in basements, office buildings, and anywhere that could be found, admitted only those with membership cards, and had the most modern alarm systems to avoid being shut down. “There were twice as many speak-easies in Rochester, New York, as saloons closed by Prohibition” (Thorton, 6). Bootleggers, having very profitable businesses (one bootlegger was worth more than five million dollars), either illegally imported liquor, stole it from government warehouses, or made their own, making it readily available to customers (Bowen 170). Many home products were sold to those customers who wanted small quantities of alcohol. Vine-Glo, a type of grape juice, turned into wine (15 percent alcohol) after sixty days of fermentation. Wort, or near beer, was legally produced because it had less than 0.5 percent alcohol. When added to yeast, this product quickly turned into beer. Alcohol used for medicinal purposes, prescribed by a doctor, was also technically legal. There were restrictions, such as only one pint was allowed per person in a ten day period, but these rules were blatantly ignored (Bowen, 164). The sales of medicinal alcohol, which was 95 percent pure alcohol, increased 400 percent between 1923 and 1931. Another factor that proves the increase of alcohol consumption is the increase in deaths and drunkenness. The drop in alcohol related deaths before prohibition quickly rose during prohibition. Arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct increased 41 percent, while arrests for drunk driving increased 81 percent during prohibition (Thorton, 7).
“The results of the experiment [prohibition] are clear: ...organized crime grew into an empire; ...disrespect for the law grew; and the per capita consumption of the prohibited substance -- alcohol -- increased dramatically” (McWilliams). It is obvious that this “noble experiment” was not so noble but rather a miserable failure on all accounts. Reasonable measures were not taken to enforce the laws and so they were practically ignored. People flagrantly violated the law, drinking more of the substance that was originally prohibited. The problems prohibition intended to solve, such as crime, grew worse and they never returned to their pre-prohibition levels. Not only was prohibition ineffective, it was also damaging to the people and society it was meant to help. Prohibition should not have gone on for the thirteen years it was allowed to damage society.
Written by: Catherine H. Poholek
May 6, 1998
1. Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996.
2. Bowen, Ezra, ed. This Fabulous Century. 6 vols. New York: Time Life Books, 1969.
3. LaGuardia, Fiorella H. “American Prohibition in the 1920s.” 1926. Online. Netscape. 23 April 1998.
4. McWilliams, Peter. “Prohibition: A Lesson in the Futility (and Danger) of Prohibiting.” Online. Netscape. 23 April 1998.
5. Thorton, Mark. “Policy Analysis: Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure.” July 17, 1991. Online. Netscape. 23 April 1998.
6. Wenburn, Neil. The USA: A Chronicle of Pictures. New York: Smithmark Publishers Inc., 1991.
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