“Prohibition did not achieve its goals. Instead, it added to the problems it was intended to solve”. Mark Thornton

On Midnight of January 16, 1920, one of the personal habits and customs of most Americans suddenly came to a halt. The Eighteenth Amendment was put into effect and all importing, exporting, transporting, selling, and manufacturing of intoxicating liquor was put to an end. 


Shortly following the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, the National Prohibition Act, or the Volstead Act, as it was called because of its author, Andrew J. Volstead, was put into effect. 


This determined intoxicating liquor as anything having an alcoholic content of anything more than 0.5 percent, omitting alcohol used for medicinal and sacramental purposes. This act also set up guidelines for enforcement.

Prohibition was meant to reduce the consumption of alcohol, and thereby reduce crime, poverty, death rates, and improve the economy and the quality of life.


The Prohibition amendment of the 1920s was ineffective because it was unenforceable, it caused the explosive growth of crime, and it increased the amount of alcohol consumption.


The Federal Prohibition Bureau was formulated in order to see that the Volstead Act was enforced. Nevertheless, these laws were flagrantly violated by bootleggers and commoners alike.


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  vast and virtually unpoliceable coastline. It was clearly impossible to prevent immense quantities of liquor from entering the country. 


Barely five percent of smuggled liquor was hindered from coming into the country in the 1920s. Furthermore, the illegal liquor business fell under the control of organized gangs, which overpowered most of the authorities.

Bootleggers smuggled liquor from oversees and Canada, stole it from government warehouses, and produced their own. Many bootleggers secured their business by bribing the authorities, namely federal agents and persons of high political status.


Replacing saloons, which were all shut down at the start of prohibition, were illegal speak-easies. These businesses, hidden in basements, office buildings, and anywhere that could be found, admitted only those with membership cards, and had the most modern alarm systems to avoid being shut down.


By 1925, there were over 100,000 speak-easies in New York City alone.

The major crimes, such as homicides, 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.


The crime rate increased because prohibition destroyed legal jobs, created black-market violence, diverted resources from enforcement of other laws, and increased prices people had to pay for prohibited goods.  

Because liquor was no longer legally available, the public turned to gangsters 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. 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.


Large cities were the main location for organized gangs. Although there were over a half dozen powerful gangs in New York, Chicago was the capital of racketeers, including Johnny Torrio, “Bugs Moran”, the Gennas, and the O’Banions. The most powerful and infamous bootlegger however, was Al Capone, operating out of Chicago.

One of the most gruesome and remembered gangster shoot-outs of all time occurred on Valentine’s Day, 1929. Because of business differences, Capone had his henchman, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn plot the murder of the O’Banions, led by Bugs Moran. McGurn staged a delivery of alcohol to Moran at a warehouse and had his gang members impersonate police officers and pretend to raid the transaction. With a sweep of machine gun fire, McGurn killed all that were inside. Capone had a solid alibi, being 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.


The results of the experiment [prohibition] are clear: ...organized crime grew into an empire; ...disrespect for the law grew; and the per capita consumption of the prohibited substance -- alcohol -- increased dramatically. It is obvious that this “noble experiment” was not so noble but rather a miserable failure on all accounts.

Porrello family in Cleveland felt secure and powerful enough to try and expand their bootlegging operations outside of Ohio and into Pennsylvania and Western New York, but they quickly met strong opposition from various mafia groups based in Northeastern Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York who allegedly drove the Porrellos back to the safety of their Cleveland base of operations, but this is only speculation as many killings attributed to bootleg wars were sometimes more likely old world vendettas or internal conflicts within a mafia faction.


To read more about The Porrello family based out of Cleveland, Ohio The Cleveland Family

Note: Crime Scene Images are not authentic.

Works Cited

Buffalo Evening News

1. Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996.
2. Bowen, Ezra, ed. This Fabulous Century. 6 vols. New York: Time Life Books, 1969.
3. LaGuardia, Fiorella H. “American Prohibition in the 1920s.” 1926. Online. Netscape. 23 April 1998.
4. McWilliams, Peter. “Prohibition: A Lesson in the Futility (and Danger) of Prohibiting.” Online. Netscape. 23 April 1998.
5. Thorton, Mark. “Policy Analysis: Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure.” July 17, 1991. Online. Netscape. 23 April 1998.
6. Wenburn, Neil. The USA: A Chronicle of Pictures. New York: Smithmark Publishers Inc., 1991.

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