Why did Prohibition fail?

Background Information

Prohibition was introduced in January of 1920, and banned the sale, production, and transportation of any alcohol. Until the repeal of the law in 1933, this law was ignored, broken, and irregularly enforced. In most cities it was extremely easy to find unofficial and illegal bars (speakeasies), and most of those who broke the law were not punished (even those who were caught). The government created 1500 __Federal jobs as ‘Prohibition Officers’ to enforce the law; however, this was nowhere near enough, and regular police forces were less than interested in helping – if anything, prohibition made regular policing harder. The failure of Prohibition was clear to see, when in __1919 there had been 15000 bars in New York, yet by 1930 __there were __32000 – more than double!

Organised crime benefited hugely from prohibition, as unregulated alcohol was a) untaxed, and b) required organised crime networks to coordinate it. The mafia were a huge force in coordinating the illegal sale of alcohol, including the famous Al Capone. The mafia coordinated people who imported illegal alcohol from abroad (bootleggers), and set up the speakeasies or illegal alcohol markets. These were often temporary in nature, so whilst they were easy enough to find, they could be immediately collapsed or evacuated if a Prohibition Officer was getting too close. This spread in the power and wealth of the mafia led to their increasing influence in wider society, and it became common practice that ordinary shopkeepers had to make payments to the mafia for ‘protection’ – against the mafia themselves (this was called racketeering).

How did Prohibition lead to crime?

Prohibition created an enormous public demand for illegal alcohol. Gang leaders such as Al Capone and Bugs Moran battled for control of Chicago’s illegal drinking dens known as speakeasies. Capone claimed that he was only a businessman, but between 1927 and 1930 more than 500 gangland murders took place. The most infamous incident was the St Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929 when Capone’s men killed seven members of his rival Moran’s gang while Capone lay innocently on a beach in Florida. Capone was imprisoned for income-tax evasion and died from syphilis in 1947. It has been estimated that during Prohibition, $2,000 million worth of business was transferred from the brewing industry and bars to bootleggers and gangsters.

Your answer should include: sale / movement / production / alcohol / banned / government
Your answer should include: illegal / bar / people / drink
Organised Crime
Your answer should include: import / illegal / alcohol
Your answer should include: mafia / pressure / shopkeepers / protection / payment
Al Capone
Your answer should include: leader / mafia / public / enemy
Valentine’s Day Massacre
Your answer should include: al Capone / killed / public / 1929

How did Prohibition go?

The Start (1920-23)

Prohibition has just been put into effect. Cities have their own dedicated Prohibition Agents, although not many at all, and a small budget to make sure Prohibition gets put into place. Public support is fairly high, after all the ‘Anti-Saloon League’ campaigned extremely hard for years to bring about Prohibition, and they had gathered huge support. Also, people are successful and happy at the start of the 1920s ‘Boom’. Some cities face a slightly harder challenge, as local politicians were not in favour of Prohibition, and thought it should be left up to State law to enforce, not Federal. On the whole, Prohibition seems to start off fairly well.

The Middle (1923-1929)

It became fairly clear that Prohibition did not hold for long. After a small quietening down, rather than disappearing the alcohol simply went underground. In particular, there was a rise in organised crime to fund and organise the production and sale of illegal alcohol. The Mafia got rich off the sales of this alcohol (which was now cheaper because the government was not taxing it), and this fuelled the huge growth of organised crime in America. As such, illegal bars called Speakeasies were popping up all over the United States – there were thousands in the big cities.

The power of organised crime doubled as the police stepped back – whilst the Federal Prohibition Officers were trying to enforce Prohibition, because this was a ‘Federal issue’, State police forces did not feel the need to get involved. Furthermore, police corruption started to rise as corrupt officers and policemen realised that they could get a cut of the illegal alcohol boom if they stayed quiet and looked the other way for the Mafia. Towards the end of the__ 1920s__, the Mafia were too strong to stop and the police either too distracted by the violence of organised crime to worry about Prohibition, or themselves in the pocket of the Mafia.

The End (1929-1933)

In 1929 America hit a turning point. Al Capone was one of the most famous gangsters, who ran the Mafia in Chicago and was competing with other gangs for control over the sale of illegal alcohol in the city. This reached boiling point on the 14th of January 1929 when Al Capone’s gang ambushed and shot his rival gang (along with two members of the public). This was called the ‘St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’, and was a terribly violent, public, and distressing event for Chicago and America as a whole. This epitomised how organised crime was totally out of control, and Prohibition had allowed this to happen. The FBI made Al Capone ‘Public Enemy Number One’, and Prohibition resources were effectively retasked to stopping the mafia.

In 1929 the Wickersham Commission reported that Prohibition was not working.

In particular, it reported that:

  1. There weren’t enough Prohibition agents to enforce the law - only 1,500 in 1920.
  2. The size of America’s boundaries made it hard for these agents to control smuggling by bootleggers.
  3. The low salary paid to the agents made it easy to bribe them.
  4. Many Americans never gave their support to Prohibition and were willing to drink in speakeasies - bars that claimed to sell soft drinks, but served alcohol behind the scenes.
  5. Gangsters such as Al Capone made money from organised crime.
  6. Protection rackets, organised crime and gangland murders were more common during Prohibition than when alcohol could be bought legally.

Prohibition had failed by this point; however, it was not repealed (cancelled in law) until 1933 upon the election of President Roosevelt. Public support had totally deserted Prohibition; however, with the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression the government was too preoccupied to do anything about it. Furthermore, Prohibition still had support with the more conservative and religious groups in American society, who were the Republican public base, and so Hoover (a Republican President) did not want to go against this. When Roosevelt repealed Prohibition, the government was once again able to tax the sale of alcohol and take this power out of the Mafia’s hands.