Prohibition and the Rise of the American Gangster

Today’s post comes from Gregory Marose, an intern in the National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications.

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 Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933, when specially selected state ratifying conventions ratified the 21st Amendment.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 the National Archives Catalog.

3 thoughts on “Prohibition and the Rise of the American Gangster

  1. Prohibition was a byproduct of stupid progressive Neanderthal thinking that is still staining the nation today with the consequences of its failures.
    The war on drugs, gun control, and the patriot act were all fathered from the same vein of progressive Neanderthal thinking.
    So much so that the entire country has been thoroughly buried under such laws of ignorances
    Such laws of ignorances do nothing but retard the rights and liberties of all forced to abide by them.
    America’s classic hypocritical false choice has led to the over criminalization of American society.
    The US has long been the absolute king of hypocrisy ruled by the finest one-sided laws of ignorances greediocy and delusion can buy.
    An entire nation progressively collapsing underneath the weight of its own bureaucratic $hit and ignorance.
    Progressivism is a disease upon citizen, country, and constitution since the day such stupid delusions began staining reality.
    A disease that needs to eradicated once and for all before destroys the entire country.

    1. It’s unbelievable that you grouped together gun control and Prohibition. Alcohol and guns are COMPLETELY different! Alcohol was already a well-established, regular, almost essential part of American life for centuries. Guns are nowhere near that common or essential! If you really think it wouldn’t work, just look at other countries. America is right up there with all the undeveloped Latin American countries with the gun violence statistics. Developed countries with much tighter gun laws are doing fine, without any Prohibition-like, gun-related crime waves!

  2. instead of banning and constricting the ability to own certain guns based on the actions of evil people, we should instead stop these aforementioned evil actors from acquiring these weapons. The original purpose of a prohibition was exactly this, to stop malicious actors from using x in amoral ways; for example domestic abuse. Disallowing ownership of anything, assault weapons or alcohol nationally, will absolutely result eventually in a Cobra effect in which those who acquire weapons will have even less stopping them, since no illegal gun salesman would have mental checks in place to prevent crime or amoral actions.

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