Was the 1920s a decade of organised crime and corruption?

The age of prohibition

On 16 January 1920 the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution came into force, making it illegal to sell alcohol in the USA.

  • The purpose of the Volstead Act of 1919 was to implement the Eighteenth Amendment and to set punishments for breaking the new law.
  • A number of organisations, for example, the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and some religious groups such as the Methodists and the Baptists put pressure on the government to prohibit the production and sale of alcohol.
  • They claimed that alcohol was the work of the devil and that it disobeyed Christianity. They said it increased crime, days off work, wife-beating and child abuse.

Life under prohibition

It was difficult to enforce the Volstead Act. Demand for alcohol remained high so gangsters sold it illegally and made significant money from doing so. Gangs fought to control this, and other trades, such as protection rackets and gambling dens. As gangsters started selling alcohol, organised crime started.

  • The people who sold alcohol were called Bootleggers, eg Al Capone.
  • Rum-runners smuggled alcohol into the USA from Canada and Mexico.
  • Moonshiners distilled their own alcohol at home.
  • Illegal drinking bars called speakeasies opened and by 1925 there were over 10,000 of these in New York alone.
  • There was more corruption as gangsters bribed police officers, judges and politicians to turn a blind eye to their illegal activities.
  • The legal system could not cope and so the government tried to solve the problem by appointing a Prohibition Commissioner, John F Kramer, in 1921. Before long he established a cohort of 3,000 agents.
  • In 1924 the Investigation Bureau (later called the FBI) was established under J Edgar Hoover. His men had tougher methods.

Attempts to try to enforce the Prohibition Act failed. There were not enough agents and they were on low salaries and easy to bribe. It was impossible to persuade drinkers to change a habit of a lifetime.