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The Roaring Twenties was a time of great social change, a time when youth ruled. From the world of fashion to the world of politics, it was the most explosive decade of the century. It was the age of economic prosperity and of downfall. It was also the age of alcohol prohibition. With prohibition came many problems such as crime and corruption. The noble experiment, (Rebman 10) as prohibition was called by President Hoover, was enacted to reduce alcohol intake, and thereby reduce crime and improve the economy. From the results, we can see that is was a failure in all accounts.
On midnight of January 29, 1920, one of the personal habits and customs of most Americans was outlawed. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was put into effect; and all importing, exporting, transporting, selling, and manufacturing of intoxicating liquor was ended. The Volstead Act, which came shortly after, determined intoxicating liquor as anything having an alcohol content of more than one-half of a percent, omitting alcohol used for medical and sacramental purposes. (Bowen 154)
The purpose of prohibition was to decrease alcohol consumption; but it fell far short of eliminating it altogether. Initially, prohibition did work effectively, but not for long. By 1922 the amount of alcohol consumed annually began to rise. During the years previous to the start of prohibition, per capita alcohol consumption was around one gallon per year. In the years following, however, it rose by .2 gallons on average. (Warburton 23)
Illegal saloons called speakeasies were formed where people were free to drink. Speakeasies were private clubs that served alcohol and often used legitimate businesses as a front. Many were hidden in backrooms of stores and in basements, but others were spacious glamorous nightclubs. (Rebman 23) People who wished to visit these clubs were often asked to show a special card or to recite a code phrase such as Joe Sent Me. (Sann 191)
The Federal Prohibition Bureau was formed to see that the Volstead Act was enforced. (Bowen 154) Prohibition officers arrested costumers and speakeasy owners but this did not stop liquor at its source. The law was, nevertheless, violated by bootleggers and other citizens. Bootleggers smuggled liquor from overseas and Canada, stole it from the government, and made their own. The illegal business of smuggling alcohol fell under the control of organized gangs, who overpowered most authority. Through bribes and violence, these gangs ruled the illegal business.
The crime rate was not at all reduced by the onset of prohibition. The crime rate was soon nearly twice what it had been before. The rate of serious crime such as homicide, assault, battery, and burglary, increased nearly twenty-four percent. (Thornton 10) Because liquor was no longer legally available, people turned to gangsters, who took on the bootlegging industry and supplied the nation with liquor. The industry was very profitable; this made more gangsters want to be involved. Crime became so organized because criminal groups organize around steady, illegal income provided by victimless crimes such as consuming alcohol. (Thornton 13) There was much competition between gangs, especially in big cities, and therefore much crime.
Organized crime, however, was not at all a new phenomenon. A study showed that twenty-five years before the start of prohibition it was already present in other forms. Although after the onset of prohibition it reached epic proportions. Organized crime was often protected by city officials who received kickbacks from the gangsters. Officers received bribes and politicians received support in elections. Men such as Jim Colosimo and his nephew, John Torrio were two of the most powerful gangsters in Chicago at the time. Through violence and racketeering, (which is defined as any scheme by which human parasites graft themselves upon and live by the industry of others, maintaining their hold by intimidation, force, and terrorism ) (Rebman 44) they were both very successful. Torrio then imported Alphonse Scarface Al Capone, a young criminal, into his organization. When Colosimo was shot Torrio took over the business with Capone at his side. After a brief reign of five years, Torrio turned the business over to Capone in 1925 to save his own life. Capone was soon to become the most infamous gangster the world has ever known. By the 1927 when he was declared the FBI s Public Enemy Number One, he had already amassed a fortune of $105 million. (Rebman 51)
The enforcement of the law did nothing to save lives. In fact, by December of 1929, it was estimated that 1,360 people had been killed and at least 1,000 more were wounded because of rough law enforcement. (Rebman 71) Many of these killings were self-defense, but many others were the result of careless officers. A popular bumper sticker at the time was, Don t shoot, I m not a bootlegger.
The law had become corrupt. The punishment a criminal received depended on wealth and influence. If a criminal had enough money he was unlikely to face any sentence at all. The biggest controversy of the federal government, was the denaturing of industrial alcohol. The government had ordered that deadly poison be added to deter use. (Rebman 68) The addition of this poison resulted in such health problems as paralysis, blindness, and, in some extreme cases, death. Thousands died from drinking this poison. Law enforcement did not help to save lives and was certainly not in the public s best interest.
The law enforcement, however, did serve to stop crime if only in a small way. Two famous prohibition agents, Isadore Einstein and Moe Smith (Izzy and Moe) did manage to record a total of 4,392 arrests during their career. They used unorthodox methods such as impersonating tourists and dressing as women but, nevertheless, it worked. (Rebman 30) Elliot Ness and his squad of nine untouchables were put in charge of specifically bringing down Al Capone. Capone and his many henchmen, however, were able to avoid punishment for several years even after committing 130 murders including the famous St. Valentine s Day Massacre. Finally in 1934, he was convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison for fifteen years. He died of syphilis soon after his release in his Florida home.
Another purpose of prohibition was to help the economy by emptying prisons and poorhouses. The government thought that if alcohol consumption was reduced, the number of serious crimes would decline and thus lower the number of inmates. This in turn would lower the amount of taxes paid by each citizen to house the inmates. The prisons, on the other hand, quickly became filled; and the amount of taxes paid to house the inmates rose.
Corruption was present in the nation s cities but when President Warren G. Harding was elected he brought it all the way to the White House. Harding s administration was plagued with scandal from the beginning. When he came to Washington from Marion, Ohio, he brought many friends who soon became known as the Ohio Gang. From their headquarters, unknown to Harding, they dealt in illegal liquor permits, pardons and paroles, and other illegal favors. Actual bootlegging operations were conducted in broad daylight. (Rebman 57) As president, he was showered with gifts that he was happy to share. Alice Roosevelt was present at a party and was appalled at what she found: the air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every brand of whisky stood about. (Behr 114) It is likely that Harding became aware of his friends illegal activities and that the stress contributed to his health problems and eventually his death.
When President Hoover took office in 1929 he had a different approach. Hoover more than doubled the annual budget of the Prohibition Bureau from $4.4 million to $13.4 million. (Rebman 73) He not only went after bootleggers and speakeasy owners but also the average citizen. Although he thought this would help, it only made matters worse. Soon the prisons were packed and the cost fell on the taxpayers.
The stock market crash of 1929 sent the nation into the Great Depression. Prohibition had undermined and weakened the economy. Millions were put out of work for various reasons and government spending for law enforcement depleted the nation s funds. The onset of the depression influenced the country to want a repeal of prohibition.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1933 mostly because of his support of repeal. He told the people he would increase the federal revenue by several hundred million dollars a year by placing a tax on beer. (Behr 234) Nine days after taking office, Roosevelt sent a message to Congress urging the legalization of 3.2 percent beer. (Rebman 78) Seven days later the bill was passed. As of April 7, 1933, real beer would once again be legal. (Rebman 78) The nation celebrated and the boost to the economy was immediate. The end of prohibition was on its way.
Many organizations formed to support repeal such as the Women s Organization for National Prohibition Repeal (WONPR) and the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA). These and other groups had a major impact on repeal. Four National Conferences were held where repeal was discussed in every aspect. Finally the Twenty-first Amendment, which would repeal the Eighteenth Amendment had passed both houses of congress. Once thirty-six states voted for ratification the Eighteenth Amendment would be null and void.
On December 5, 1933, the amendment was officially ratified and prohibition ended at 7:00pm. (Rebman 92) Saloons were quickly reopened as bars and taverns. Almost one century previous, Abraham Lincoln said, prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species for intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man s appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. (Rebman 67) Perhaps if America had taken the advice of this great man the whole problem could have been avoided.
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