On midnight of January 16, 1920, one of the started around the turn of the century, when many people got the idea that most of what was wrong with America was caused by boozepersonal habits and customs of most Americans came to a sudden halt. It . They saw prohibition as the silver hammer that would decimate all of their alky-related woes. Instead, it turned out to be the lodestone that lead America into thirteen years of chaos. The eighteenth amendment was ineffective because it was unenforceable, it caused an explosive growth in crime, and it increased the amount of alcohol consumption.
The Eighteenth Amendment was put into effect to prohibit the manufacture, sale and transportation of all intoxicating liquors. Shortly afterward, the Volstead Act, named for author Andrew J. Volstead, was put into effect. This complimentary law determined intoxicating liquor as anything having an alcohol content of more than 0.5 percent, omitting alcohol used for medicinal and sacramental purposes; this act set up guidelines for enforcement as well (Altman 15). Prohibition was meant to reduce the consumption of alcohol, and thereby reduce crime, poverty, death rates, and improve the economy and general quality of life. This, however, was undoubtedly to no avail.
After the Volstead Act was put into place to determine precise laws and methods of enforcement, the Federal Prohibition Bureau was developed in order to see that the Volstead Act was enforced. Nevertheless, these laws were frequently violated by bootleggers and commoners alike. Bootleggers smuggled liquor from overseas and Canada, stole it from government warehouses, and produced their own. Many people hid their liquor in hip flasks, false books, hollow canes, and anything else they could find. (Bowen 159). There were also illegal speakeasies which replaced saloons soon after the start of prohibition. By 1925, there were over 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone (Bowen 160). As good as the ideal sounded, prohibition was far easier to proclaim than to enforce. With only 1,550 federal agents and over 18,700 miles of extensive coastline, it was quite impossible to prevent large quantities of liquor from entering the country (Bowen 166). Barely five percent of smuggled liquor was hindered from coming into the country through the 1920s. Additionally, the illegal liquor industry was under the control of organized gangs, which subdued most authorities. Many bootleggers shielded their business by bribing the authorities, namely federal agents and persons of high political status (Bowen 160).
As a result of the lack of enforcement of the Prohibition Act and the creation of an illegal industry, an increase in crime transpired. The Prohibitionists hoped that the Volstead Act would decrease drunkenness in America and thereby decrease the crime rate, particularly in large cities. Although towards the beginning of prohibition this purpose seemed to be satisfied, the crime rate soon skyrocketed to nearly twice what it had been previously. Serious crimes, such as homicide, assault, and battery, increased nearly 13 percent, while other crimes involving victims increased 9 percent. Many supporters of prohibition argued that the crime rate decreased. However, the only true decrease was in minor crimes like swearing, mischief, and vagrancy. High crimes, such as homicide and burglaries, increased 24 percent between 1920 and 1921. In addition, the number of federal convicts over the course of the prohibition period increased 561 percent. As a result of one bad law, public regard for all laws diminished. (Barry 77).
The contributing factor to the sudden increase of felonies was the organization of crime, especially in large cities. Because liquor was no longer legally available, the public turned to criminals who readily took on the bootlegging industry and supplied them with liquor. On account of the industry being so profitable, more gangsters became involved in the money-making business. Criminal groups readily organized around the steady source of income provided by laws against victimless crimes such as alcohol consumption. As a result of the money involved in the bootlegging industry, there was much rival between gangs. The profit motive caused over four hundred gang related murders a year in Chicago alone (Bowen 175).
Incidentally, large cities were the main location for organized gangs. Although there were over half a dozen powerful gangs in New York, Chicago was the capital of the racketeers, including Johnny Torrio, Bugs Moran, the Gennas, and the OBanions (Altman 45). The most powerful and infamous bootlegger, by far, was Al Capone, operating out of Chicago. One of the most gruesome and remembered gangland murders of all time occurred on Valentines Day, 1929. Because of business differences, Capone ordered hit man Jack McGurn plot the murder of Bugs Moran and the OBanion/Weiss gang, which Moran had recently taken control of. McGurn staged a delivery of alcohol to Morans warehouse. Four gunmen posing as police officers acted out a raid and killed seven OBanion/Weiss members. Capone had a water-tight alibi, as he was in Miami at the time, and no convictions were ever made. This event is an example of how prohibition fueled gang warfare and increased the crime rate in America (Altman 51).
The prohibitionists argued that if drinking was not allowed, then Americans would drink less. Although the consumption of alcohol fell immediately after the start of prohibition, there was a subsequent increase in less than a year. In the beginning, because manufacturing and importing alcohol were illegal, people needed to find ways to avoid being caught. Since beer had to be transported in large quantities, which became difficult, the price of beer went up, thus its popularity declined. However, hard liquor was stronger and could be easily smuggled in small amounts, and its popularity rose. Another dilemma brought on by prohibition was that illegal products had no standards. Deaths from drinking denatured and poisoned alcohol rose from 1,064 in 1920 to 4,154 in 1925.
Although one would think that prohibition would reduce the availability of alcohol, it was actually very easy to acquire. The bootlegging business was so immense, customers could easily come by alcohol on most city streets. Replacing saloons, were speakeasies. Hidden by basement and back door entrances, speakeasies operated under a members only basis. Bootleggers, having very profitable businesses, either illegally imported liquor, stole it from government warehouses, or make their own (Bowen 170). Many home products were sold to those customers who wanted small quantities of alcohol. Vine-Glo, a type of grape juice, was sold with clear-cut instructions for preventing the product from fermenting into wine. Wort, a sort of half-brewed beer, was legally produced as it contained no alcohol whatsoever; it could be fully brewed into beer when yeast was added. Alcohol could be prescribed by a doctor under the pretense that it was to be used for some legitimate medical treatment. Most doctors, however were willing to prescribe alcohol for any and all ailments; soon more than a million gallons a year were being sold for medicinal uses.( Altman 18).
By 1929, American was becoming disenchanted with prohibition. It was seldom enforced, and when it was, there was usually a massive outburst in response. However, antiprohibitionists needed something to feed the fire, to cause others to unite for the common cause and act. They found what they needed in the stock market crash in October of 29; the economy took a dive and prohibition was blamed. The government had lost vital tax dollars that had previously come from alcohol sales. Not to mention that much money was being wasted on feeble attempts at enforcement (Altman 96). Finally, it all came down to the 1932 presidential election. FDR expressed his wishes to abolish the Eighteenth Amendment throughout his campaign. He kept his word and nine months after his inaguration, Prohibition ended with the ratification of the twenty-first ammendment (Altman 98).
Clearly, prohibition did not do that which it was meant to do. It didnt solve any problems: crime didnt drop, the economy didnt rise, and alcohol consumption didnt decline. In fact, on all three counts, the exact opposite occurred. Its probably safe to say, however prohibition had to happen sooner or later. Otherwise, its likely that hostile teetotalers would be frequent guests on the Jerry Springer Show. The only ponderance though, is why it took so long before Americans realized that theyd made a mistake. Canada instated a prohibition law in 1917 and dropped it two years later. It is my personal hope that one day, America will see that we still deal with a prohibition of sorts: the prohibition of certain drugs. Perhaps, the past will show congress that the old adage about forbidden fruits is true (But I doubt it).
Altman, Linda Jacobs. The Decade that Roared. New York: Twenty-First Century Books, 1997
Barry, James P.. The Noble Experiment. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1995
Bowen, Ezra, ed. This Fabulous Century. 6 vols. New York: Time-Life Books, 1969