Alcohol Prohibition Lead to Crime? Term Paper

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[. . .] Crime was often overlooked due to this. The lack of state funding and man power contributed to the growth in crime during the Prohibition Era.

According to Kyvig, "prohibition was most assuredly a major landmark in the history of American syndicate crime." The organized crime syndicate is a byproduct of the prohibition. With loose state laws, bootlegging, and smuggling abound, crime became more 'organized'. Gangs had declared territories, with key members often in political power. Law enforcement agencies then reflected this corruption in its own enforcers. Many judges and police officers were eventually brought to justice after lending support to local crime syndicates.

Essentially, criminal syndicates are businesses that pose as legitimate organizations, but really exist solely to promote the gainfulness of the criminal underworld. This promotion usually includes profitable activities such as gambling, labor racketeering, bootlegging and smuggling.

Validation gained from the public allowed criminal syndicates to receive shelter from Law enforcement agencies. These syndicates satisfied various needs of the general public. In turn, some viewed crime syndicates as patrons providing necessary public services.

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Kyvig adds that "Henry Barrett Chamberlain, operating director of the Chicago Crime Commission, recognized as early as 1919 that 'modern crime, like modern business is tending toward centralization, organization, and commercialization. Ours is a business nation. Our criminals apply business methods.... The men and women of evil have formed trusts.'" (123)

Professional gamblers and criminals formed syndicates to escape the threat of social reform groups. Despite the good intentions of national prohibition and social activists, "the American public and its elected officials had no conception of the violence, corruption, and disrespect for the law that the so-called noble experiment would cause or encourage." (Kyvig, 124-125)

Term Paper on Alcohol Prohibition Lead to Crime? Assignment

Bootlegging was particularly appealing to criminal syndicates already in place. The profitability of prohibition attracted fierce competition from syndicates. "For all involved, violation of the liquor laws was more acceptable to the public than were the other forms of criminal enterprise. Even the murder and maiming of rival gang members in the scramble to expand markets and increase profits stirred remarkably little anger or dismay. To many Americans, the shootings resembled a modern version of the Old West shoot-out. Only when innocent bystanders, and especially children, were hurt or killed did public opinion demand action against the gangsters. The underworld recognized the importance of public relations and the need to limit violence to insiders. Those who violated the rule to 'only kill each other' were dealt with severely." (Kyvig, 125-126)

It was because of such rules that organized crime was romanticized. Films like The Godfather typify the Old West romanticism that clouded the public perception of crime syndicates. Prohibition, which took away the personal freedom to drink alcohol, also emphasized the romantic aspects of crime, leading many to feel it was a perfectly acceptable avenue to follow. This led to the brief public support of organized crime.

Despite this romanticized vision, criminal syndicates were extremely violent. The syndicates were like small businesses, but instead of using pens, businessmen used guns. Battles between gangs were waged in favor of the economic profitability proposed by the prohibition. Professional criminal relationships often ended in murder. The opposition also faced a similar fate. Hundreds of criminals were slain in New York and Chicago. The public's thirst for alcohol was quenched by the violent means of the criminal underworld. (Kyvig)

While shootings, murders, and hijackings generally did not provoke public outrage or force effective action on the part of police or courts, criminals came to realize that such behavior was undesirable from a very pragmatic business standpoint. The reason, very simply, was the element of uncertainty injected into operations. As a result, although considerable violence - by the standards of a normal business - continued to characterize bootlegging, certain individuals or groups emerged as dominant forces by the end of prohibition. From New York to Kansas City and Chicago to San Francisco, these men established their ascendancy because they encouraged, or even demanded, cooperation rather than competition." (Kyvig, 126)

While Italians were the predominant ethnic group involved in criminal syndicates across the nation, syndicate members consisted of various ethnic groups. Even the Capone syndicate, which reigned over Chicago, was predominantly Italian. Nevertheless, association was not restricted to one ethnic faction. Among the Capone syndicates' most influential members were Murray Humphreys and Hymie Levin, non-Italians who were highly respected. (Kyvig, 126)

America's need for liquor glamorized bootlegging. "Although bootleggers engaged in an illegal enterprise, it was of a nature which millions of otherwise honest and law-abiding citizens fully supported - in fact; it was a service they demanded. The consuming public, in effect, became willing, and even eager, accomplices in the widespread violation of the Constitution. Thus, paradoxically, bootleggers were, in the popular mind, glamorous and mysterious benefactors, and not corruptors of public and private morals." (Kyvig, 127)

The smuggling trade was also an important criminal aspect of the Prohibition Era. In 1924, the Department of Commerce estimated that $40 million in liquor was entering the United States per year. Rum runners often brought liquor into the country from Canada, Belgium, and Holland. Liquor was easily smuggled across the Canadian border and into the United States, thus becoming the preferred method.

It was obvious prohibition had failed from the very beginning of its enactment. When people choose to possibly die from alcohol poisoning rather than adhere to laws which limit their personal freedom, failure is at hand. The crime syndicates that arose from prohibition would not have been made possible without the public necessity for illegal alcohol. So many citizens consumed and distributed alcohol illegally that state law enforcement could not compete. The amount of trouble caused far out weighed the benefits of an alleged 'alcohol-free' society.

The hypocrisy of prohibition was a corrosive agent. It permitted Al Capone and other underworld figures to self-righteously maintain that their function was deliberately misunderstood or misrepresented by law enforcement authorities and the media. As Capone piously claimed, 'I make my money by supplying a public need. If I break the law, my customers, who number hundreds of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am. The only difference between us is that I sell and they buy.'" (Kyvig, 127-128)

Capone was truly in tune with the needs of the American public when it came to liquor. Unfortunately, the price of illegal liquor was more than the nation had bargained for. The cost was far greater than the millions of dollars acquired by syndicates during prohibition. The damage estimated between 1920 and the end of prohibition in 1933 was immense.

Prohibition destroyed any respect that existed for law, glamorized the criminal underworld, wasted millions of dollars on enforcement, and weighed down state court systems. Little significant effort was put forth to enforce the one of the nation's most unpopular and ineffective laws.

One of the unfortunate lessons learned from the prohibition was that crime pays. Scores of criminals profited so much from illegal activities that they were hard to squelch. The corruption of our judicial system reinforced the positive aspects of crime just the same. It set a disdainful example for many Americans in generations to come.

In conclusion, the national prohibition of alcohol in the United States did the exact opposite of what it was designed to do. Instead of producing "clean living," alcohol-free Americans as supporters had hoped, prohibition gave birth to some of the country's largest crime syndicates in the history of our nation. Syndicates were made popular by the public that they provided a necessary service for.

Prohibition destroyed any respect that existed for law, glamorized the criminal underworld, wasted millions of dollars on enforcement, and weighed down state court systems. People chose to risk death from alcohol poisoning rather than adhere to laws which limited their personal freedom. Validation gained from the public allowed criminal syndicates to receive shelter from law enforcement agencies.

Prior to the prohibition, alcohol usage was blamed for many of the nation's woes by various leagues and political groups. Before the advent of child labor laws and the eight hour work day, Americans did indeed have a love affair with alcohol. Nonetheless, the love affair was more difficult to break off than any of the pro-prohibitionists dared dream. Like a lover spurned, alcoholism returned to the nation with a vengeance. (Haynes)

Prohibition has made nothing but trouble - trouble for all of us. Worst thing that ever hit the country. Why, I tried to get into legitimate business two or three times, but they won't stand for it." - Al Capone (Blocker, 171)


Barlow, Hugh D. Crime and Public Policy: Putting Theory to Work. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.

Beman, Ian. Prohibition, Modification of the Volstead Law: A Supplement to the Volume of Same Title in the Handbook Series. New York: The W. Wilson Company, 1927.

Blocker, Jack S. Alcohol, Reform, and Society: The Liquor Issue in Social Context.… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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