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Al Capone's Chicago: Prohibition During the 1920s



Ouch! What's that pain in my back?

When people hear the words "Chicago", "Prohibition", or "gangster," Al Capone is probably the first person that comes to mind. After all, he was the king of Chicago's underworld and one of America's most notorious criminals.

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 went on an "Untouchables Tour" of Chicago. Our guides, Louie and Shifty, seemed to fit the bill. At the beginning of the tour, Shifty told us why Chicago was overrun with criminals, why corruption was rampant. "Women," he said. "It was all their fault!"

Sensing he had a feminist uprising on his hands, he explained quickly. "Women wanted their men out of 'the sauce'. Out of the bar where they spent their days and most of their wages, and back with their families." The passage of the 18th Amendment, known as Prohibition, was a result of political pressure by women, who were finally being given the right to vote at about the same time.

Overnight, the government declared that "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" was prohibited. Guess what happened next?

What did you say about women...? Becky and Daphne show their guides who are in charge!
People kept drinking anyway. But now, gangsters like Al Capone sold the liquor instead of stores. They ran speakeasies (private clubs where the rich could go drink), bought and sold homemade, and sometimes deadly, liquor, and smuggled thousands of barrels of whiskey from other countries.

We drove past some of Al Capone's famous haunts on this bus
Capone made a fortune, pocketing $123 million in 1927. He told 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 and the occasional "hit" on a rival gangster.

Becky and Baubie -- living history!
Capone ordered a lot of these hits, but the St. Valentine's Day Massacre was by far the most infamous. For years, he'd been trying to get rid of his rival, "Bugs" Moran. On February 14, 1929, Capone got one of his closest allies to lure Moran and his comrades to a garage. His hit men, dressed up like policemen, lined the men up against the wall and opened fire, killing all seven men present.

Perfect, right? Except thatůMoran wasn't there! He'd been late getting ready that morning, and by the time he got to the garage, the "policemen" were already there, so he left. But Moran knew he was the target, and everyone in Chicago knew Al Capone was behind it.

Shifty and Louie try out their 'gangster look'
Seventy years later, people still remember the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and Prohibition. Becky's Baubie (grandma) told us that 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.

It was an impossible law to enforce because, like Baubie said, everyone broke it. Police officers, judges, senators - they all kept drinking. By 1933, the pretense was over, and after 13 years, the 20th Amendment was passed, repealing Prohibition.

Becky shows off her 'Untouchables' mug.  But...is she really drinking tea?
Chicago during Prohibition was a mean city indeed! After our tour, Becky and I left our gangster guides and discussed the life of Al Capone, whom we found out was sentenced to prison on tax evasion charges and died of syphilis.

Then 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.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Hooverized dresses? WWI in the first person
Daphne - Women voters: You've come a long way, baby!