CHICAGO AND PROHIBITION ERA AMERICA The roots of the prohibition era in America began almost a hundred years earlier. From the 1820s on, a social reform movement involving individuals and religious groups began to promote the idea of abstinence from alcohol.These ‘temperance’ societies claimed that drunkenness and alcohol abuse was on the rise in America and was causing great social harm. The American Temperance Society was founded in 1826 and claimed to have over 1.
2 million members a decade later. As the nineteenth century continued, more of these groups began calling for a constitutional ban on all production, importation and sale of alcohol in America. This became known as ‘prohibition’.Supporters of prohibition were known as ‘drys’, and they believed that a ban on all sale of alcohol would improve public morals and the nation’s health. They claimed that workers’ productivity would also increase and this would lead to economic prosperity for America.The Chicago Temperance Society, which attracted 120 members within a year, started in 1933. They succeeding in introducing new Illinois laws in 1851 which banned the sale of alcohol in quantities less than one quart, forbade consumption where sold, and banned the sale to minors under 18.
However, all three laws were repealed in 1853. These temperance forces also pushed Chicago mayor Levi D. Boone to prosecute unlicensed saloonkeepers.
A civil protest known as the Lager Beer Riot stopped Boone’s efforts to close saloons on Sundays, the only free day for working class people. Boone tried to introduce prohibition across the state of Illinois in a referendum in 1855 but and the voters rejected it. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in Ohio in 1873 and grew to become a powerful lobby group within Chicago as well. They claimed that prohibition would protect women and children from the effects of alcohol abuse. The Prohibition Party was founded in 1869 and was the first political party to accept women as full members even though they didn’t have the right to vote until 1920.
It remains the third oldest political party in America after the Democrats and Republicans.Kansas was the first American state to outlaw drinking alcohol in its constitution in 1881, but the laws were not widely enforced. A woman called Carry Nation became famous for smashing up saloon bars and bottles of the ‘devil’s drink’ with a hatchet. The Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893 by Protestant clergy and laypeople, and though they didn’t encourage smashing bars, activists often invaded the premises in large numbers to hold prayer vigils. In 1898 the Anti-Saloon League opened in IllinoisBy the turn of the century, the temperance movement had grown enormously in power and influence in American political circles. Before the national alcohol ban came about, many states had already passed local bans. 26 of the 48 states had banned alcohol by 1916. In 1919, their members pushed the Volstead Act through Congress and ensured that the 18th amendment, a prohibition on alcohol, was ratified by 36 states.
National Prohibition began one year later, on January 16, 1920. A total of 1,520 Federal Prohibition agents were given the job of enforcing the 18th Amendment across America. The ‘drys’ were jubilant as they believed alcohol was at the root of most of society’s ills and believed prohibition would bring peace and piety to American society. Their joy was short-lived as the law of unintended consequences soon kicked in. Prohibition caused widespread civil disobedience and disrespect for the law. The ban particularly badly hit Chicago which became one of the most notorious and violent cities in America within a few years. Private possession or consumption of alcohol was never made illegal, and the huge nationwide demand for alcohol did not decrease because of prohibition.
This led to the emergence of organised crime syndicates who moved in quickly to fill the gap in the market. The practice of illegally manufacturing, transporting and selling alcohol became known as ‘bootlegging’. The word may have come from a smugglers’ practice of concealing bottles in their boots. Alcohol wasn’t illegal in Canada, and Chicago gangsters took advantage of their proximity to the country. They smuggled alcohol across the Great Lakes and along the roads from Canada and sold it all over the country.
Bootlegging was hugely profitable, and the Chicago gangsters soon had massive wealth and influence.Led by infamous Chicago bootleggers such as Bugs Moran, and Johnny Torrio and his protégé, Al Capone, the mobsters caused a crime wave of shootings, murders and corruption, in every major city across America. The mobs bribed law enforcement, blackmailed politicians and corrupted the court system in America. It was claimed that gangsters in Chicago were paying half the police force.When they couldn’t buy or threaten politicians or police, they murdered them. The Chicago Crime Commission claimed that there were 729 gangland killings in the Chicago area between 1919 and 1933, but some historians claim the numbers were exaggerated.
The gangsters quickly expanded their illegal activities from bootlegging into gambling, loansharking and brothels. As manufacturing and the sale of alcohol became illegal, former tax-paying businesses including distilleries and bars closed overnight. The government lost millions in tax revenues, and hundreds of thousands of respectable working people became unemployed or joined the criminals by continuing to manufacture or sell alcohol.
Underground saloons and bars, which were known as ‘speakeasies’, sprung up all over Chicago and across America. The name for these illegal drinking haunts comes from being told to “speak easy” or quietly about such a place in public to avoid alerting police or neighbours. Beer and wine became scarce. ‘Hard liquor’ or spirits like whiskey and gin became more popular because they were concentrated drinks and easier and cheaper to smuggle. Smoking and drinking became popular among young single women for the first time and spirits were made more appealing to women by creating cocktails. Many young men and women rejected what they saw as the puritanical repression of some of their elders. As a result, prohibition heralded a new era of the Charleston, jazz, a breed of trendy, free-spirited young women called ‘flappers’ and reckless partying. It became cool for young people, both men and women, to gather in these illegal dens and the era became known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’.
The numbers of illegal speakeasies soon exceeded the number of restaurants and bars that existed before prohibition. An estimated 30,000 illegal speakeasies had sprung up by 1927 which was double the number of legal bars in 1920.Ordinary people found lots of ways to get around prohibition apart from going the speakeasies.
There was a massive offshore business in cruising as ships outside the three-mile limit were deemed exempt from prohibition. Other people resorted to their family doctor for their alcohol supplies. Whiskey could be bought in pharmacy stores once the customer presented a prescription.
This whiskey was labelled ‘strictly for medicinal purposes’, but nearly 4 million litres were drunk each year through prescriptions.Illegal home brewing and creating ‘bathtub gin’ also became a popular hobby during prohibition.Unfortunately, with production of alcohol no longer regulated, thousands died from alcohol poisoning. Some were poisoned by their own home brews. More than 10,000 people also died from unscrupulous bootleggers selling poisonous wood alcohol. Many hundreds of thousands more were rendered blind or suffered organ damage.
Yet people continued to flout the prohibition laws. Even President Warren Harding who presided over the early years of the alcohol ban, and who voted for prohibition, kept a stock of bootleg alcohol in the White House. The gangsters of the era tended to be immigrants, or children of immigrants, who had crowded into ghettos of the rapidly growing cities like New York and Chicago. Crime offered a quick escape from poverty to riches and success. Al Capone, the most infamous gangster of the prohibition era, was described by the head of the Chicago Crime Commission as “public enemy number one”.He was born to Italian immigrant parents in Brooklyn in New York.
He moved to the Windy City to work with John Torrio in 1920 just as organised crime was rising to new levels. Al Capone’s reign of terror in Chicago began as soon as he arrived in the city and continued through the 1920s. He ruled the south side of the city while his rival, Bugs Moran owned the north side. Capone and Moran’s gangs constantly engaged in gun battles and murder feuds.They and their fellow mobsters and Italian-American mafia operated with impunity until 1929.
However, the tide turned for the gangsters after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre which took place on February 14, 1929. People were horrified when seven men from Bugs Moran’s North Side gang were lined up in the SMC Cartage Company garage on North Clark Street in the city and executed.The U.S.
Justice Department responded by creating a special unit to tackle organised crime in Chicago and to bring down Capone. Famous American Prohibition agent Elliot Ness led a team of incorruptible law enforcement agents known as The Untouchables. Ness eventually succeeded in arresting Al Capone for tax evasion, and he was sentenced to eleven years in federal prison in 1931. While Ness got to work on rooting out organised crime in Chicago, the so-called Roaring Twenties came to a dramatic halt with the stock market crash in 1929.
However, by then, many people saw prohibition as a massive failure. They believed it had led to disastrous consequences including widespread lawlessness, growing criminal activity and a decline in social morals. With each passing year, public demand for reversing the 18th Amendment increased. In 1932, the Democratic Party’s Franklin D Roosevelt ran for President on a promise to repeal prohibition.The mood in America had changed after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and an estimated three-quarters of American voters were in favour of repealThe newly-elected President FD Roosevelt said in 1932: “What America needs now is a drink.
“The states ratified the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933, which repealed the 18th Amendment. Some states, however, chose to remain ‘dry’ for years after. Mississippi was the last to repeal their anti-alcohol laws in 1966. More than 50 of Chicago’s 4,000 precincts also remained dry until the 1970s.
When it came to promoting the health and wellbeing of a nation, prohibition had some successes. It was claimed that alcohol use decreased and cirrhosis of the liver was down 66% in men, and public drunkenness was halved.However, prohibition also caused massive amounts of deaths through poisonings. Rivalry between hoodlums and gangs led to widespread violence and a huge increase in the murder rates.Prohibition had also created a new and wealthy criminal class in Chicago and in other American cities which were rich, powerful and permanently ensconced.The government lost out on an estimated 11 billion dollars of tax revenues while the criminal lined their pockets instead.
Americans also discovered that enforcement of prohibition was also very expensive costing an estimated $300 million. The country’s jails were filled with people arrested for minor alcohol-related incidents. Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote in 1925 that after five years of prohibition: “None of the great boons … has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more.
There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.
“The prohibition era was described by U.S. President Herbert Hoover as “a great social and economic experiment”. It lasted 13 years and for Chicago, at least, it was widely regarded as a disastrous experiment and a dismal failure.