To supply these many illegal establishments with beer, wine, and liquor, organization was required, hence the birth of organized crime. Into this crime-ripe environment walked such characters as Al “Scarface” Capone in Chicago, the Purple Gang of Detroit, Lucky Luciano in New York, and hundreds of others. The largest majority of speakeasies were established and controlled by organized crime, which opened everything from plush nightclubs to dark and smoky basement taverns.
When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging.
When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lakeshore Drive, it’s hospitality.
— Al Capone
Though raids became a daily federal past time, law enforcement couldn’t keep up. When the enforcers were successful in targeting a “gin joint,” the anticipating club owners, were often able to disguise the true intent of their businesses as elaborate alarms were installed, and their illegal contraband hidden in drop-shelves and secret cabinets. Other establishments didn’t even bother with hiding or disguising the liquor, as they paid out part of their profits to Prohibition agents and police officers, leading to a monumental amount of political corruption.
Increasingly, organized crime groups controlled the liquor industry, which led to turf wars and gang murders, the worst of which was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 in Chicago. Blamed on Al Capone, seven men were killed in the increasingly violent war over liquor control. Though gaining the most attention, this was just one violent event of the era, as, by the late 1920s, Chicago authorities reported as many as 400 gangland murders each year. Chicago was not alone in its high crime rate, as virtually every city across the nation was rife with illegal liquor trafficking, speakeasies, and the violence that they bred.
Bootleggers were crafty, finding all sorts of ways to transport and hide liquor as boats laden with hooch from Mexico and Canada lined up along the coasts. Hidden under produce, in crates labeled with other products, in coconut shells, and garden hoses, the liquor moved inland. While most of the breweries shut down operations, others continued to produce what was nick-named “near beer,” which held an alcohol content of less than one-half-of-one-percent, which was still legal. Amazingly, a monumental amount of “real beer” seemed to come from these very same breweries.
California grape growers were even more creative, as many stopped making wine and began to produce a grape juice product called Vine-Glo. The literature that was provided with the juice carefully warned its buyers of what they shouldn’t do with the juice, because if they did, it would turn into wine within a couple of months. Within a period of seven years between 1919 and 1926, land utilized for growing grapes expanded in California nearly seven times.
On a smaller scale, individuals also found creative ways to hide their liquor in hip flasks, hot water bottles, hollowed out canes, and false books. At the same time, medicinal alcohol was still legal and the sale of patent medicines, elixirs, and tonics dramatically increased. Overnight, thousands of otherwise “decent law-abiding” citizens became criminals.
Another setback for prohibitionists was their loss of control over the location of drinking establishments. Where before, ordinances and licensing laws were utilized to limit alcohol sales on Sundays, election days, and in certain neighborhoods, illegal speakeasies sprouted up everywhere without limitation on their hours. Serious crime rates, which had been falling during the first part of the century gradually reversed itself during Prohibition, as homicides, burglary, and assault increased, and the prisons became overcrowded due to those incarcerated for alcohol-related crimes. In no time, American prisons were suffering from extreme overcrowding.
As the newspaper headlines across the country screamed violent headlines, the public increasingly blamed Prohibition for the violence, as well as the political corruption that had become rampant across the country. Placing the matter within the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department for enforcement, its untrained Prohibition officers faced huge challenges in budget constraints and little support from the public. Before long, groups began to organize to repeal Prohibition, especially after the Great Depression, when people were looking for jobs, ones that would be created if breweries, distilleries, and taverns could reopen. Even Herbert Hoover was forced to admit that the 18th Amendment was offering more harm than good.
By 1932, both presidential candidates, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover favored repeal. When elected, Roosevelt backed the repeal and on December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution officially repealed the 18th Amendment and the “Noble Experiment” came to an end.
When Prohibition finally ended, the word “saloon” had virtually disappeared from American vocabulary and legal establishments once again opened in abundance, referring to themselves as “cocktail lounges” and “taverns.”
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated March 2019.