Prohibition and the Mob

In 1920 the 18th Amendment went into effect outlawing the production and sale of intoxicating alcohol; however, what most Americans did not realize was that prohibition would also promote a major increase in crime. Those promoting prohibition claimed families would be saved, health would improve and workers would perform better on the job, but the increase in organized crime and rise of gangster culture brought on by prohibition brought about more crime, corruption and immorality than members of the prohibition movement could have imagined.

The origins of organized crime are in Sicily. Sicily faced numerous invading armies, in the middle ages, and a secret organization made up of many small groups was organized to unite Sicilians against them. These groups were collectively called the Mafia and later on Cosa Nostra. Each of these groups or families had their own territory to serve, inform and protect. At some point the Mafia spread in Italy and began selling protection. The Mafia also engaged in other criminal acts but the individual groups still took care of their own.

When Sicilians started immigrating to the United States in large numbers during the late 1800’s members of the Mafia came too. The Sicilian Mafia was way ahead of other ethnic groups in organization. In Italy the Mafia was well organized, experienced and had already taken over politics in some areas of the country. They had rules: You had to have Sicilian blood, there was a code of silence, and there were levels of loyalty depending upon family affiliations. Because they were highly organized and experienced the Sicilian and Italian groups were the first to have more business-like operations.

Since most immigrants were discriminated against, ethnic unity was necessary. Jewish and Irish immigrant groups also banded together into gangs for survival and to take care of their own. There were tensions between the different ethnic groups, which promoted more organization. Since other nationalities were generally not trusted and most were opposed to the idea of interracial marriage they worked to keep each other out of their neighborhoods

The American Mafia includes the Sicilians as well as other ethnic groups and gangs. Even before prohibition these ethnic groups engaged in organized criminal activity usually in the form of theft, extortion, gambling or prostitution. However, when prohibition started, many Americans still had a desire to drink alcohol and these groups stepped in to supply the demand.

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Prohibition came about for many reasons. The Anti Saloon League felt alcohol was the downfall of the American Family. America had also just experienced a large increase in revenue from income tax, which made liquor taxes less important than they had been. Big businesses like Standard Oil also had their own reasons to promote prohibition. At the time most cars would run on alcohol as well as gasoline. Making it illegal to distill alcohol benefited them greatly.

During prohibition the demand for alcohol was at an all time high. There were more than twice the number of speakeasies than there had been saloons prior to prohibition. Underworld criminals were supplying Americans with whatever alcohol they desired. The fact that the average American tolerated organized criminal activity because it fulfilled their desire to drink benefited gangsters greatly. After all any American who was consuming or transporting alcohol was breaking the law also.

Prohibition coincided with a leadership change in one Chicago area gang. The Torrio gang. (Sullivan, 182). Alfonse Capone took over the operations and saw a great opportunity to earn wealth through supplying Chicago and the nation with alcohol. This brought about significant change in organized crime. Up until prohibition organized crime had been mostly a local business, Capone’s operations during prohibition turned organized crime into an international industry. In addition to smuggling alcohol from other countries and his illegal brewery and distillery operations in Chicago, Capone organized the illegal production, distribution and sale of alcohol nationally and internationally. He organized his bootlegging business like a legitimate company would to distribute its product, complete with salesmen, truck drivers and security.

In order to build his empire Capone had to pay off a lot of people, including police officers, judges and politicians; because a lot of these people visited speakeasies Capone’s organization sold to getting them to take bribes to look the other way was not very hard. Capone also had no shortage of money for bribes; he was earning more than $100 million a year bootlegging, and paid up to $250 thousand to bribe individual officials (Sullivan, 149). The money Capone was making from bootlegging allowed him to increase production in other areas of organized crime as well. More whorehouses, speakeasies and gambling parlors sprang up.

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It didn’t take long for other gangs and crime organizations to catch on. Everyone wanted a piece of the action. Old neighborhood boundaries were ignored. Some like the Purple Gang in Detroit even reverted to stealing alcohol from other bootleggers to make things easier and increase profits. This lead to retaliation and the Purple gang was known for their gruesome violent acts. Some purple gang members even hired themselves out as assassins to gangs they were friendly with. Purple gang members acted on behalf of Capone’s gang in the St. Valentines Day Massacre. There were alliances and betrayals between rival gangs but everyone had the same purpose: increase the area they supplied to make more money.

Even though rival gangs hated each other as enemies most held to the code of silence originally initiated by the Sicilians. In general they did not turn on their own members or on one another.

With law enforcement and politicians in their pockets gangsters started new ventures, easier ways to make a buck, like labor racketeering. Gangsters infiltrated unions brought in different workers paid them less and kept the difference for themselves. Because it was difficult to know who was who and who was in whose pocket it was tolerated; was the politician a gangster, the businessman a politician or the gangster a businessman? No one could be sure. (Demaris, 3)

Gangster on gangster rivalry and violence escalated up to and even slightly after the repeal of prohibition in 1932. What many hoped would take the profit out of bootlegging, and cause the demise of the gangster organizations, also backfired. At the urging of the Sicilian crime organization’s all leaders in organized crime decided to sit down and reorganize into syndicates, La Cosa Nostra, and divide the country up into territories.

The syndicates still had a healthy rivalry among them however leaders usually got together and worked out problems and murders eventually decreased as each syndicate found its niche. Most syndicates diversified their business with extortion, prostitution, and illegal gambling being the most widespread operations in their territories. The more defined areas of business became drug trafficking, racketeering, money laundering and counterfeiting. The organization put in place for bootlegging worked for these industries and made it easier for gangsters to quietly transition into these crimes. The legalization of gambling in Atlantic City and Las Vegas provided organized crime with an enormous capacity to launder money made in illegal business, especially drug trafficking, and gangsters became heavily involved in the industry. During the 1970’s the majority of the Federal government’s racketeering investigations involved legal casinos that had involvement with members of organized crime.

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Prohibition continues today on non-licensed gambling, prostitution and illicit drugs. Where there is a demand for illegal products and services there will be organized crime and the associated crime that comes with it. The ultimate effect of prohibition on organized crime, is that it allows those who have little education or skill and who aren’t afraid of breaking the law, to prosper in supplying the public with what they demand.


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Demaris, Ovid. Captive City. New York: Lyle Stuart, Inc., 1969.

Friedman, Lawrence Meir. Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: Basic Books, 1994

Girard, Sonny. Rosa, Theresa. “The Rise & Fall of Organized Crime
in America” American Mafia June 2008. May 13, 2009

“Organized Crime” Travel and History May 13, 2009

Mannion, James. 101 Things You Didn’t Know About the Mafia. Cincinnati:

Adams Media, 2005

“Speakeasies of the Prohibition Era” Legends of America January 2009.

May 13, 2009

Sullivan, Edward D. Rattling the Cup on Chicago Crime. New York: The Vangaurd Press, 1929.

Thornton, Mark. “Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure” Cato Institute 17 July 1991

May 12, 2009;=1>

Zendzian, Craig A.. Who pays?: Casino Gambling, Hidden Interests and Organized Crime, New York: Harrow and Heston, 1993