Organized crime was the most important factor behind the failure of the noble experiment, due to the actions of the gang leaders such as Al Capone, who pulled America into a state of anarchy through events such as the Valentine’s Day Massacre, and the bootleggers who broke the law and bribed officials. However, one can argue that due to prohibition, a firm stance was taken against organized crime, which is backed with the facts that thousands of speakeasies were shut down, the number of arrests increased. Prohibition had the favour of the public majority, moonshine was seized and only a small number of officials were corrupt. Also, there were many more factors behind its failure, such as the fact that it meant revenue loss of billions of dollars for the government. It can be determined that organized crime, instead of being the only factor, was the main factor behind the failure of prohibition.
“Liquor prohibition led to the rise of organised crime in America” – Drew Carey
Organised Crime became a crucial aspect in the failure of prohibition, the rum-runners who continued to supply alcohol and the stills that sprang up made prohibition evidently hard to enforce. Bootleggers, with dreams of profits and money, sold alcohol to speakeasies and broke the law deliberately. One such famous bootlegger was George Remus, who amassed 5 million dollars in fortune. However, the people of America too could be blamed till a certain extent, everyday people who made moonshine in their homes acted as a catalyst behind the fall of prohibition. With time, deaths from poisonous moonshine became evident. Normal people, without proper instructions and guidelines attempted to manufacture alcohol, ultimately poisoning themselves. Sometimes, casks of moonshine would explode in homes due to improper storage conditions.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of organized crime in the 1920s, the acceptance of bribes showed the lack of decency in the law-enforcers, with cleverly-hatched plans to coax federal agents into submission, black market dealers operated secretly, but you wouldn’t count on the prohibition bureau to not know. There was no concrete way to hide massive breweries completely, somehow, they had to be hidden from the public and government, thus, gangsters bribed government officials, prohibition agents and police in order to hide their alcohol production units. In fact, corruption became such a frustrating problem that Don Chaplin, head of the FBI once fired all the people working in his office with diamond rings as it was above their pay grade. In support, the fact that prohibition agents had to work in impossibly hard conditions and had irregularly large areas to cover, along with an unfathomably small pay backed them up. We, as moral spectators of the scene can contemplate their plight, and thus apparent pull towards taking bribes, and it is with this moral gaze that we can assess that the problem of corruption maybe didn’t rise with the lawbreakers, it rose with the law makers.
Not only prohibition agents but state officials too fell under the promise of money by gangsters. A fierce desire for more votes promoted these state officials to take bribes without end. A scheme with high public disapproval was immediately disregarded and discarded. Judges, politicians, agents, even everyday people fell like dominoes under the heavy influence of gangsters, the law became a subject of mockery, as shown in Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, with inspectors drinking away and satirically commenting and stating, “I’ll arrest you officer.” The system of government was so ‘drunk’ under the influence of gangsters that public outcry was quickly wiped away. However, police records and statistics do show that some data might’ve been on the side of the altruistics. The number of arrests did go up, and not all officials abandoned the laws they had been elected upon. One such utopian and shining example is the story of Eliot Ness, an under-qualified prohibition agent who went on a giant speakeasy hunting spree in Chicago, forming a team of prohibition agents known as the ‘Untouchables,’ taking the fight to Al Capone, becoming his biggest enemy on the other side of the law.
Notorious for the amount of anarchy they created, the gang leaders of New York and Chicago prided themselves on their ability to not get caught. Due to a combination of well known, high-ranked officers and a gruelling system of bribed officials and officers, gang leaders were able to stay free of charges, not only did these gangsters circulate illegal alcohol and make tons of money, but they damaged the social system and created a world of fear. The famous bootlegger George Remus was so rich that once, he gave cars to the women and diamond cufflinks to the men in a party. These gangsters were as dangerous as rich, they used to carry Thompson Sub-Machine guns, over 130 murders took place between 1926 and 1927 in Chicago, and guess what, not even a single arrest. On the contrary, prohibition didn’t gain social fervour at its start, which should’ve been proof enough for the government that the 18th amendment would fail, and with it would bring a whole lot of crime and killings. Not having society at your back and with your decision almost surely means they would sorely attempt to re-plenish that thirst for alcohol.
An event that went down in history as drastic and dreaded was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Apart from alarming America, the massacre led to Chicago realizing the extent to which prohibition had failed, how instead of making people sober, it was making gangsters richer. The 1920s were notorious for gangland murders and rightly so, over 500 gangland murders took place during the era of prohibition. Al Capone, a name synonymous with crime, the figure used worldwide to represent gangsters and not without reason. During Al Capone’s reign, the dark days of prohibition were experienced in Chicago, Capone’s gang made a hundred million dollars in revenue annually through illicit activities, primarily bootlegging. He escaped charges of murder and tax evasion year on year by threatening witnesses, bribing officers and officials alike and satisfying the public. In fact, his business for liquor boomed so much that he was once quoted as saying, “All I do is satisfy a public demand.” However, there were many other factors for the failure of the 18th amendment, as stated earlier, one such factor was the trade America lost through the introduction of prohibition. Before prohibition, liquor would be exported to other countries, not in substantial amounts, but enough to earn money. After prohibition was introduced, countries turned to Canada and Mexico, who were already smuggling alcohol illegally into America, and thus, their trade was bolstered further. People went into Canada and Mexico in order to buy alcohol, their trade flourished.
Crime lords exploited slight loopholes in the law, which stated that alcohol was permitted for religious purposes, thus, churches and religious groups did not fall under the radar of prohibition agents. In the 1920s, average church enrollment increased and attendance too, along with the number of self-proclaimed rabbis. On the contrary, unemployment levels faced a sudden increase due to the onset of prohibition as people who played small but significant roles in the alcohol industry, such as truck drivers who transported Alcohol, barrel makers who made alcohol storage,and waiters who worked in saloons. Not only this, but many physical locations such as saloons, distilleries and breweries were suddenly deemed illegal and people lost their jobs.
Despite the ban on the sale, production and transportation of alcohol, it was still available for medicinal purposes. Thus, bootleggers and gangsters saw drug stores as an ideal opportunity to expand their illegal businesses. Buyers would be given fake prescriptions which would allow them to buy tons of alcohol at pharmacies managed by gangsters themselves, a cleverly meticulated plan. Also, sometimes, speakeasies would be opened on shop fronts, with alcohol available to be bought for ‘medicinal’ purposes. Ultimately, the reluctance of authorities to regularly check medicinal clinics, stores and pharmacies meant that organised crime had a whole new sector to flourish in. On the other hand, one might argue that the failure of prohibition doesn’t lie anywhere but in its foundations, the law itself which stated that only the sale, production and transportation of alcohol was banned. As a result, people would drink freely and tell agents and officers that they weren’t breaking the law. People would come up with receipts that said that the purchase had been made before prohibition came into effect and evade arrest and detainment by police officers. In order to keep their stocks high, before the day of the start of prohibition, millions of alcohol drinkers had gone out and bought enough alcohol to last them for a long period of time. In order to sell even more alcohol, suppliers had given away free alcohol to celebrate the ‘last day of a free America.’ Prohibition agents gained prominence along with prohibition. One such agent was Isadore Einstein, who became renowned due to his method of conserving the evidence by pouring the alcohol through a funnel into a concealed flask in his coat. This way, he could take suppliers to the court and come out on top easily. Also, the economist would argue that by attempting to restrict the supply of alcohol rather than its demand, the growth of a black market for booze was guaranteed.
Bootlegging gained immediate fervour amongst gangsters and crime lords looking to supply alcohol and earn money earmarked for the government earlier. They would smuggle alcohol across borders. The Canada-US border was so vast that it was virtually impossible to catch a gangster operating at the right time and place. Smuggling of alcohol across the seas flourished too, in fact, the phrase the ‘Real McCoy’ has its origins here, it was used for the Scottish Captain McCoy who smuggled whiskey across the seas, becoming famous for his recklessness. However, another significant factor that made prohibition a failure was the fact that it meant in a massive loss of revenue for the Government. Being illegal, the revenue of the alcohol industry couldn’t be tracked but it was estimated to be more than a billion dollar industry, a whopping sum of money. It is estimated that the government lost 11 billion dollars in revenue due to prohibition. Even Al Capone made a 100 millions dollars every year. Not only would this money have been extremely helpful during the Great Depression, but would’ve heightened the resources Roosevelt pumped into the social system with his New Deal. State governments suffered too, in New York, 75% of the state revenue had been from alcohol taxation. It is important to note that the biggest gangs wrestled for control over the speakesis. America was notorious and infamous for its gangsters. However, some evidence does support the fact that the Prohibition Bureau had been up to its job, as thousands of speakesis were seized, not to mention the immense number of gangsters who were detained and arrested and put behind bars. In the 1920s, the number of speakeasies seized increased from 9,746 to 15,794, the number of arrests from 34,175 to 66,878 and the number of gallons of illegal alcohol seized from 414,000 (gallons) to 11,860,000 (gallons). Due to the vast number of illegal operations taking place, it wasn’t hard to find crime going on, Einstein once filed a report in which he stated the time taken to find alcohol in a city, he found it in 35 seconds in New Orleans, as his taxi driver offered it to him.
To conclude, it can be determined after heavy analysis that prohibition indeed failed due to organized crime. Factors such as bootlegging, the combined power of the Gangsters, magnitude of the number of stills and speakeasies, illegal moonshine, all of which resonated throughout the events that took place in the 1920s, such as the Valentine’s Day Massacre. Perhaps the most influential figure behind prohibition, Al Capone himself, who sponsored crime. However, organized crime wasn’t the only factor behind the failure of prohibition, its economic failures along with the fact that a firm stance was taken against crime reaffirms the statement implied in the beginning, organized crime was the major factor but not the only factor.