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Al Capone's Chicago: Prohibition During the 1920s

Let's play a game of word-association. If I say "Chicago," what immediately pops into your head?
a) Sears Towers
b) Al Capone
c) The Cubs

How about "Prohibition"? What do you think of then?
a) Carry Nation
b) Al Capone
c) Bootlegging

Lastly, what about "gangsters"? Is your first thought...?
a) The "Godfather" movies
b) Al Capone
c) The Crips and the Bloods

I tried these questions out with some friends and everyone gave me the same answer -- Al Capone! It makes sense -- he was the king of Chicago's underworld and one of last century's most notorious criminals. His name captures the imagination of young and old alike, and although most people can't tell you what he did exactly, they know he was the BADDEST bandit Chicago has ever seen.

Shifty is trying to look like a real gangster, but I don't know about that tie...
To research the life of Capone, Becky and I decided to go on an "Untouchables Tour" of Chicago. After all, what better way to find out about the gangsters of the past than by letting some present-day crooks show us the "dark side" of the city? Our guides, Louie and Shifty, seemed to fit the bill. They spent a couple of hours driving us past all of the famous sites associated with Capone and other gangsters, giving us free cigars and garlic (I'll tell you why later), and testing our gangster prowess. They even gave us invaluable advice to avoid stray bullets: "If you ever hear someone yell duck!" they warned us, "then... duck!"

At the beginning of the tour, Shifty let the cat out of the bag. He came right out and told us the reason why Al Capone managed to be so successful, why Chicago was overrun with criminals, why corruption was rampant. "Women," he said. "It was all their fault!"


Ouch! What's that pain in my back?

What?!? Why was this our fault? What was he talking about? Sensing he had a feminist uprising on his hands, he hastened to explain. "Women wanted their men out of 'the sauce' if you know what I mean. Out of the bar where they spent their days and most of their wages, and back with their families." In other words, the passage of the 18th Amendment, commonly known as Prohibition, was a result of direct political pressure by women, who, by the way, were finally being given the right to vote at about the same time.

What did you say about women...? Becky and Daphne show their guides who are in charge!
It makes sense. For decades, women had been leading the "temperance" movement, vowing to fight alcohol by making it illegal. This movement was strongest in the West, where "drunkenness and immorality became inseparably linked." To put it plainly, women were trying to stop their husbands from getting drunk all the time -- alcohol abuse back then led to spousal abuse, unemployment, poverty and illness (the same problems it causes now, actually).

So, as women were becoming important political players (being able to vote and all) and the country slid down the depths of moral degradation (or so some people thought), enough support was gathered for Prohibition to become the law of the land. Overnight, the US government declared that "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" was prohibited. It also cut off the import and export of beer, wine and hard liquor. Guess what happened next?

People kept drinking anyway. In fact, they probably drank more simply because it was illegal and thus, uncontrollable and unregulated. But the difference was that the booze was transported, traded and sold under the guise of gangsters like Al Capone, not by the law-abiding, tax-paying liquor stores of today. Before Prohibition, organized crime thrived from prostitution and gambling. But the money they made off these activities was peanuts compared to the fortunes they scored off booze. They ran speakeasies (private clubs where the rich could go drink), bought and sold moonshine and bathtub gin (homemade, and sometimes deadly, liquor), and smuggled thousands of barrels of whiskey from Canada and other places.

We drove past some of Al Capone's famous haunts on this bus
As the kingpin of Chicago, Capone made a fortune. In 1927, he pocketed $123 million, which was more than any other person had ever made in one given year! That same year, he said to reporters, "Public service is my motto. Ninety percent of the people in Chicago drink and gamble. I've tried to serve them decent liquor and square games." He based his operations out of the Lexington Hotel where he gave out orders on liquor shipment, business deals and the occasional "hit" on a rival gangster. One of these was on Dion O'Banion, a gangster with a flair for the dramatic, who crossed Capone and his allies one too many times and was eventually shot more than 35 times by some of Capone's cronies.

Nothing, however, did more to seal his reputation as a ruthless criminal than the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. For years, he'd been trying to get rid of another rival, "Bugs" Moran, without success. Then, on February 14, 1929, Capone got one of his closest allies, Jack McGurn, to plan what he thought would be the perfect hit on Moran and his gang. McGurn lured them all to a garage on the pretense that Moran would be able to buy some good whiskey at a great price. He then dressed up his "hit men" in police uniforms as though they would raid the deal. After the "policemen" got the men to line up against the wall, they opened fire with two machine guns, a sawed-off shotgun and a .45, killing all seven men present.

Perfect, right? Except that... Moran wasn't among the men who got shot! He'd been late getting ready that morning, and by the time he got to the garage, the "policemen" were already there. Thinking that a real raid was going on, he left. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Moran had been the target of the entire plan, and that the only person who would have benefited from his death would have been Capone. Although no one was ever brought to justice for the assassination of seven men, the people of Chicago knew Al Capone was behind it.

Seventy years later, people still remember the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Becky's Baubie (grandma), who is 95 years old, told us, "They showed photos of the dead people in the papers and it was publicized a lot." We visited her after taking our tour, while stories of the gangsters were still fresh in our minds. "Prohibition was a terrible thing," she said. "Imagine trying to tell adults not to drink! In the end, all it did was encourage more drinking than not!" It seemed as though everyone found a way to get around it. "The Jewish people, for instance, hid their kosher wine in the baby buggy," Baubie explained.

Becky and her Baubie talk about Prohibition and kosher wine
It was an impossible law to enforce because everyone broke it. Police officers, judges, senators -- they all kept drinking even as they paid lip service to Prohibition. By 1933, the pretense was over. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, repealing Prohibition, was passed. After 13 years, alcohol was once again legal in the United States.

Kenneth Davis, author of "Don't Know Much About History," wrote: "America has always had a love affair with simple solutions to complex problems... [They] always seem so simple when politicians proclaim them, masses take up the cry and laws are passed with an outpouring of irresistible popular support. The problem is that these broad solutions rarely work the way they are supposed to." By trying to legislate personal habits and private morality, the 18th Amendment instead gave rise to organized crime and, ironically, contributed to a decline in moral standards because people were much more willing to break the law (to have a drink).

Dhifty and Louie try out their 'gangster look'
Hmm... but try telling Louie and Shifty that. They weren't too interested in the hypocrisy of Prohibition or its effects on the moral fabric of the country. They wanted to tell us about the gangsters of Chicago; about the contract killings they authorized; and about the garlic-in-the-bullet trick some of them used. In other words, the gory stuff! "It's simple," Shifty explained. If you were going to kill someone, you carved out a cross on the tip of the bullet you were going to use. Then, you rubbed in some garlic. Once that bullet hit flesh, it exploded inside the body, and if the person didn't die immediately, he would surely die of lead poisoning or infections. "It was a sure hit," according to Louie.

Becky shows off her
Wow. Chicago during Prohibition was a mean city indeed! After our tour was over, Becky and I left our gangster guides and wandered to a restaurant for lunch. We talked about Prohibition and the crime and corruption it caused. We discussed the life of Al Capone, whom we found out was sentenced to prison on tax evasion charges and died of syphilis. And we debated the kinds of simple solutions the US government adopts nowadays for complex problems, such as building more prisons to solve crime.

But all that talking left us pretty thirsty. So guess what we did? We ordered a beer (because we're old enough!) and made a toast to the 20th Amendment. America had many social problems back in the 1900s (as it does today), but Prohibition, we found out, certainly wasn't the solution. Cheers!


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Hooverized dresses? WWI in the first person
Stephen - Those crazy-sexy-cool sufferin' Suffragettes
Daphne - Women voters: You've come a long way, baby!
Steph - Celebrate the cycle of life!
Nick - Margaret Sanger: The stork's got nothin' to do with it!
MAD - Domestic violence: Not behind closed doors anymore