“A great social experiment”: your guide to prohibition

Described by American president Herbert Hoover as 'a great social and economic experiment', prohibition – a ban which prevented alcohol from being made, transported or sold – was established across the United States in January 1920 and would remain in force for 13 years. Here, Professor Neil Wynn presents a guide to the causes, crime and considerable impact of this policy on American society

Prohibition protesters parade in a car emblazoned with signs and flags calling for the repeal of the 18th Amendment, which outlawed the production and consumption of alcohol in the United States. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)


What was prohibition?

Prohibition was the attempt to outlaw the production and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The call for prohibition began primarily as a religious movement in the early 19th century – the state of Maine passed the first state prohibition law in 1846, and the Prohibition Party was established in 1869. The movement gained support in 1880s and 1890s from social reformers who saw alcohol as the cause of poverty, industrial accidents, and the break-up of families; others associated alcohol with urban immigrant ghettos, criminality, and political corruption.


Groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), formed in 1874, and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), founded in 1893, became powerful crusading forces and by 1916, 26 of the then 48 states had already passed prohibition laws.

With America’s entry into the First World War in 1917, prohibition was linked to grain conservation. It was also aimed at brewers, many of whom were of German descent. Limits on alcohol production were enacted first as a war measure in 1918, and prohibition became fully established with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and its enforcement from January 1920 onward. Described by Herbert Hoover, US president from 1929-1933, as “a great social and economic experiment”, prohibition had a considerable impact on American society before its repeal in 1933.


When did prohibition come into force?

The 18th Amendment to the constitution prohibiting the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcohol was adopted by both houses of Congress in December 1917 and ratified by the necessary two-thirds of the states on 16 January 1919. The amendment was implemented by the National Prohibition Act (known as the Volstead Act after Andrew Volstead, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a leading prohibitionist) in October 1919. Under the terms of the act, prohibition began on 17 January 1920. The act defined ‘intoxicating liquor’ as anything that contained one half of one per cent alcohol by volume, but allowed the sale of alcohol for medicinal, sacramental, or industrial purposes.

Two men pour alcohol down a drain during prohibition in the United States, c1920.
Two men pour alcohol down a drain during prohibition in the United States, c1920. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

How was prohibition enforced, and how successful was its enforcement?

The 18th Amendment and Volstead Act were more easily passed than enforced. Doctors were allowed to prescribe alcohol for ‘medicinal’ purposes and to purchase it themselves for ‘laboratory’ use, and many interpreted these terms loosely. The sale of ‘sacramental wine’ also rose significantly in the early years of prohibition.

The private possession or consumption of alcohol itself was not itself illegal and, as many Americans continued to demand alcoholic beverages, criminals stepped in to meet the demand by illegitimate means. Where previously there had been bars and saloons, there were now illegal drinking dens known as ‘speakeasies’ or ‘blind pigs’, which by the end of the decade were numbered at an estimated 200,000. People also took to producing their own illicit booze or ‘moonshine’, ‘bath-tub gin’ or home-brewed beer.

Enforcement of the legislation thus proved enormously difficult for local police forces and the federal Bureau of Prohibition, or Prohibition Unit. The bureau numbered at around 3,000 agents, who had to police the coastal frontier and land borders with Canada and Mexico to prevent smuggling, as well as investigate the illegal internal production and transportation of alcohol in the country as a whole.

Often poorly paid federal agents and police were susceptible to corruption, as were some judges and politicians. In Chicago, it was claimed that half the police force was in the pay of gangsters and, in New York, 7,000 arrests under the prohibition laws produced only 17 convictions. A number of states and cities simply forbade local police forces from investigating breaches of the Volstead Act, and enforcers of the law were often unpopular with the public.

Some agents did, however, become famous for their pursuit of bootleggers and other criminals: Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith in New York made almost 5,000 arrests between 1920 and 1925, and were known for their use of disguises. Most famous of all was Eliot Ness who, with his hand-picked group of ‘untouchables’, pursued and eventually helped arrest leading gangster Al Capone.

Prohibition-era policemen Moe Smith (on the left in top picture, on the right on the bottom picture) and Izzy Einstein (on the right in the top picture, on the left in the bottom picture). The pair would use disguises to infiltrate speakeasies.
Prohibition-era policemen Moe Smith (on the left in top picture, on the right on the bottom picture) and Izzy Einstein (on the right in the top picture, on the left in the bottom picture). The pair would use disguises to infiltrate speakeasies. (Underwood and Underwood/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Who were the gangsters?

Gangsters tended to be immigrants, or the children of immigrants who had arrived in the United States in the late-19th or early 20th-century. They crowded into the ghettos of the rapidly expanding cities. Crime offered a quick route to success, wealth, and status, and prohibition presented them with a golden opportunity.

Rather than being a fairly small-scale, localised affair, crime became increasingly national and organised, incorporating business people and politicians in new criminal syndicates and combinations that manufactured, imported and transported illegal bootleg alcohol sold in speakeasies. Competition and rivalry between rival gangs led to widespread violence: between 1927 and 1930 alone there were reported to be more than 500 gangland murders across the US. The Chicago Crime Commission claimed that there were 729 gangland killings in the Chicago area between 1919 and 1933, but historians have suggested this was exaggerated.

The leading gangster of the prohibition era was undoubtedly Al Capone, who in 1930 was described by the head of the Chicago Crime Commission as “public enemy number one”. Capone was born in 1899 to Italian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York, but moved to Chicago around 1920 to work with John Torrio, the leader of organised crime in the city. In 1925, Capone took control of the Torrio operation and quickly rose to fame because of his ostentatious lifestyle and the acts of violence carried out under his name.

Police mug shot of Chicago mobster Al Capone, one of the leading gangsters of the prohibition era.
Police mug shot of Chicago mobster Al Capone, one of the leading gangsters of the prohibition era. (Bettman via Getty Images)

Capone helped to build up a business worth $60m based on the manufacture and transportation of alcohol, as well as gambling and prostitution. Claiming all he was doing was meeting a demand, he talked of business efficiency and the elimination of competition to justify violence. A war between Capone’s gang and that of mobster Dion O’Bannion resulted in several deaths, including that of O’Bannion himself in 1924. O’Bannion was succeeded by Hymie Weiss and George ‘Bugs’ Moran, who continued the rivalry with Capone. Weiss was shot and killed in 1926. In 1927 Capone moved to Florida from where he continued to run his Chicago operation.

There were hundreds of gangland killings in Chicago in the 1920s. The most notorious incident occurred in February 1929 when seven of Capone’s rivals were machine-gunned to death in the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Although not directly involved, it was assumed that Capone was responsible.

He also personally carried out a number of killings, and used violence to shape local politics. In 1924 his gunmen determined the election in Cicero, just west of Chicago; an assistant state attorney was assassinated in 1926, and bombings influenced the election of Mayor William Thompson’s candidates in 1928. Capone was finally found guilty of income tax fraud in 1931 and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was released in 1939 and retired to his home in Florida where he died in 1947.


Who were the other leading gangsters?

Dutch Schultz, born Arthur Flegenheimer, became one of the most powerful gangsters in New York and was often compared to Capone. Schultz’s power was based on bootlegging, gambling and a protection racket as well as a reputation for violence. Attempts to convict him of tax evasion failed in 1935, but he responded by planning to assassinate the district attorney for New York, Thomas Dewey. When Schultz’s alarmed gangland associates heard of this plot, they had him murdered.

Another major New York gangster was Arnold Rothstein, a professional gambler who ran gambling houses in New York City, Saratoga Springs, and Long Beach – as well as operating a racing stable, a real estate business and a bail bond firm. Rothstein was alleged to have been behind the fixing of the 1919 World Series, when the Chicago White Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds. Rothstein used his wealth to finance other criminal activities and was at the centre of growing organised crime, but in 1928 he was shot dead while playing cards, probably over a gambling debt.

One of Rothstein’s associates was Salvatore Luciana, ‘Lucky Luciano’, who was born in Sicily. His family settled in New York’s Lower East Side where Luciano rose to become a leading figure in bootlegging, narcotics and prostitution. He was arrested 25 times between 1916 and 1936, but never convicted.

Luciano eventually became a target of Thomas Dewey, and in 1936 was convicted of multiple charges of involvement in prostitution and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. His sentence was commuted in 1946, possibly as a result of deal with the federal government to provide Mafia links in Sicily during the war, and he was deported to his home country.

Other New York gangsters included Frank Costello and Vito Genovese, and Irish gangsters such as Bill Dwyer and Owney Madden. Crime covered many nationalities and many cities.

Detroit became the ‘liquor capital’ of the US because of its proximity to Canada, which made it a centre for illegal imports. The city was said to have 15,000 speakeasies and was dominated by the ‘Purple Gang’ run by the four Bernstein brothers: Abe, Joseph, Ray and Isadore. They were responsible for the Milaflores Apartment Massacre in 1927, in which three rival gangsters were shot and killed. In 1931 an internal conflict that resulted in three further murders led to the conviction and jailing of Ray Bernstein and the gang gradually declined in influence.

A potential customer examines an advertisement for an illegal drinking den or speakeasy during US prohibition in the 1920s.
A potential customer examines an advertisement for an illegal drinking den or speakeasy during US prohibition in the 1920s. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

The German-born George Remus was a successful lawyer before he became the so-called ‘king of the bootleggers’, responsible for much of the whisky production in the Cincinnati, Ohio, region. His fabulous wealth (about $40 million) and lavish lifestyle may have been the basis for F Scott Fitzgerald’s main character in his novel The Great Gatsby.

In 1925 Remus was jailed for two years for violations of the Volstead Act. In 1927 he shot and killed his wife who had squandered his wealth during his absence, but he was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity and lived until 1952, when he died of natural causes.


What were the overall effects of prohibition and why did it fail?

During prohibition, the consumption of hard liquor (spirits) probably dropped by as much as 50 per cent and other alcoholic beverages by about one third. As a result, it did have some positive effects: the number of deaths due to cirrhosis of the liver fell considerably, but was offset to some extent by deaths caused by drinking adulterated alcohol.

However, in 1929 Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the former Assistant US Attorney General who had headed prohibition prosecutions, conceded that alcohol could be purchased “at almost any hour of the day or night, either in rural districts, the smaller towns, or the cities.” At the same time prohibition almost completely destroyed the brewing industry, causing a huge loss in jobs. It also resulted in a loss of $11bn in tax revenues, and cost $300m to enforce.

The reasons for the failure of prohibition seemed clear. The report of the Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement in 1931 pointed to the widespread police and political corruption, combined with a lack of public will as primary causes. While the number of arrests for drunkenness had initially fallen, they soon rose again and the increase in crime associated with prohibition only strengthened the demands for repeal.

Yet the issue left the nation divided. Expressing his opposition to prohibition was one of the factors that prevented Al Smith, democratic governor of New York, from being elected ot the presidency in 1928. Opposition to prohibition was strongest in the urban areas and north, weakest in rural areas and the south and west. However, the onset of the Great Depression following the Wall Street Crash in 1929 further weakened the case for prohibition – as newly-elected President Franklin D Roosevelt said in 1932: “What America needs now is a drink.”


When did prohibition end?

Passed in February 1933 and ratified on 5 December 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th and so ended prohibition in the United States. Control of alcohol after 1933 became a state rather than a federal issue. A small number of states remained ‘dry’ for some years – Mississippi was the last until 1966, but there are still local areas where the ban on alcohol remains.


Neil Wynn is a professor emeritus of 20th-century American history at the University of Gloucester, and the author of several books, including The African American Experience during World War II (2010), Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt Truman Era (2008) and Historical Dictionary From Great War to Great Depression (2003).