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Though Prohibition was made law through the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act, support for prohibition and temperance concerning alcohol use started at least one hundred years earlier. Groups such as the American Temperance Society in 1826 and the Anti-Saloon League (18 93) were actively seeking to stop excessive alcohol use and by the early 1900s many states had already passed prohibition laws. By 1917 Congress wanted to vote for nationwide prohibition and due to the support already at state levels, the Eighteen Amendment was passed in a record breaking thirteen months ( though they had expected it to take as long as seven years). Even though it quickly passed into law and temporarily slowed the manufacture and sale of alcohol, it did not take long for illegal trafficking of liquor to begin. The Windy City was one of the centers known for crime and corruption surrounding the Prohibition Era.

Origins & History of Prohibition

  • Important People and Terms during the Prohibition – This page contains a list of terms, people, and organizations popular during the Prohibition.
  • Benjamin Rush and Jeremy Belknap: Alcohol, Temperance, and Prohibition – The foundation for nationwide prohibition began long before 1920. This essay shows the impact that a medical doctor and a minister had in influencing the call for temperance and prohibition as early as 1805. Benjamin Rush sought to educate Americans on the physical dangers of over indulging in alcohol and the minister Jeremy Belknap preach the immorality and destruction that the demon alcohol held over those foolish enough to drink.
  • The Politics of Prohibition in 1920 – This site presents a good summary of the politics shortly before and during Prohibition. This page includes an overview of the Ant-Saloon League founded in 1896 and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Due to the politics of both groups, especially the Anti-Saloon League, twenty-eight states had already passed prohibition laws before national prohibition became law.
  • Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act – This page is an excerpt from an argument in favor of the Volstead Act. It was taken from the Life and Works of Woodbridge N. Ferris (1960).
  • Volstead Act 1920This is the Volstead Act of 1920 that sought to define and enforce the eighteenth amendment which made the manufacture, transportation and selling of liquor illegal under a “War Prohibition Act”.
  • Statements on State Prohibition (1908) compiled by the North Carolina Anti-Saloon League – These statements show the support the Anti-Saloon League had for prohibition even before national prohibition laws were enacted. Even after federal prohibition, laws were appeals states and local governments retain the right to control access to alcohol within their territories
  • Volstead Act and Prohibition Documents – This great teaching resource provides access to the eighteenth amendment, the Volstead Act, A letter addressing the transportation of liquor across state lines ( California to Washington), a drawing of a still, correspondence alluding to Prohibition, and the Presidential proclamation in 1933 that repealed Prohibition.

Important Events during Prohibition

The illegal production and sale of alcohol known as bootlegging began prior to the Prohibition as a way to avoid high excise taxes on alcohol. After the Prohibition, organized crime increased the operation and organization of other illegal sources of alcohol and often bribed law enforcement and other officials for their cooperation or lack on law enforcement. The Bureau of Prohibition was set up to enforce national prohibition laws and prosecute those running illegal alcohol production, transportation, or sales. The Bureau was largely understaffed to handle the overwhelming numbers of illegal operations. Many within the Bureau were easily paid to look the other way by organized crime. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 force the government to crack down on the gangs in Chicago and special agents such as Eliot Ness and his men known as “The Untouchables” were assigned the task of bringing the mob to justice.

  • Murder on St. Valentine’s Day –Forensic scientist, Jim Fisher details events leading up to and surrounding the 1929 Valentine’s Day murder in Chicago.
  • Myths Surrounding the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – The St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, has been considered by many to be a brutal culmination of the violence in Chicago during the Prohibition. History and myths are not always easy to determine. This site shares the top ten myths surrounding the massacre that have never been backed by solid evidence.
  • Prohibition: Its Effects on Chicagoans and Organized Crime - This report on the prohibition and how it affected the city of Chicago contains excellent examples of the cartoons and political propaganda of the period. Sections of this report also go into detail on the citywide corruption, Mafia influences, and laws.
  • Prohibition and Temperance 1920-1933 – As part of an overall look into homicide in Chicago from 1870-1930; this site takes a detailed look at the timespan during the prohibition including the actions associated with organized crime in Chicago.
  • Organized Crime in Chicago (PPT) – This PowerPoint presentation summarizes organized crime in Chicago from 1920-1930. This site provides facts about the North Side Gang (Irish-American Mafia) and the Chicago Outfit (also known as the Capone gang).
  • Corruption in Chicago Law Enforcement  - Early corruption in Chicago law enforcement was well known during Prohibition. The Windy City continues to battle accusations of corruption to this day.
  • Unusual Prohibition Facts and Vintage Pictures – This page sites unusual Prohibition facts including news that a jury drank the evidence in a bootlegging case to determine if it did contain alcohol ( it did) the case was then thrown out of court due to ‘lack of evidence’. There are also a number of vintage pictures showing both sides of the Prohibition conflict.
  • Temperance & Prohibition: The Extent of the Liquor Business on Chicago – Chicago had over seven thousand licensed liquor sellers prior to prohibition. It was said at that time that the city of Chicago spent half as much on drink as on food. The influence of this huge source of income no doubt influenced the crime that flourished during prohibition.

Important People and Organizations during Prohibition

The Prohibition was a time of conflict as those wanting to stop the manufacture, transportation, and consumption of alcohol continued to seek support from the government as well as local officials, clashed with those who saw no problem in making liquor for their own use or to sell through illegal means. Unfortunately, the government failed to establish an adequate law enforcement policy to enforce prohibition laws. Those who took part in illegal liquor activities ranged from families brewing a favorite recipe to be shared among relatives and friends, to organized crime including mobs and the mafia. The prohibition and temperance groups from the 1800s remained active but were quickly losing influence, as the Prohibition laws seemed to cause more crime than they prevented.

  •  The Bureau of Prohibition – The Bureau of Prohibition was established to enforce national prohibition laws from 1920-1933. Though Eliot Ness is commonly referred to as an agent of the FBI, he was actually an agent of the Bureau of Prohibition. During the time Ness and his men became known as ‘untouchables’ because they could not be ‘bought’ by those trafficking in illegal alcohol, corruption within the Bureau was widespread.
  • History of the ATF – The history of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) starts as early as 1791 when excise taxes were collected distilled liquor. During the Prohibition, what is now known as the ATF was called the Bureau of Prohibition and was responsible for enforcing the laws established by the Volstead Act. After Prohibition, the agency was renamed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms.
  • Eliot Ness (1902-1957) – Eliot Ness was a federal agent during the height of the prohibition and was in charge of an enforcement group in Chicago and the surrounding areas responsible for tracking down bootleggers and involved in the illegal liquor business. Ness is famous for not taking payoff from mobsters such as Al Capone. Ness was instrumental in bringing Capone to justice and Eliot Ness and his unit became known as ‘The Untouchables’.
  • Al Capone and Prohibition – Al Capone (1899-1947) Head of the Mafia in Chicago during the prohibition and responsible for the Valentine’s Day massacre that was a result of wars between rival bootleggers. This gallery of photos at highlights photos of Capon, his hideouts and other Prohibition related subjects.
  • Facts about Prohibition, Tommy Guns, & Al Capone (PDF) – A brief look at some interesting facts surrounding the prohibition, Al Capone and Tommy Gums (machine guns).
  • The American Mafia in Chicago – This site gives a detailed look at the Chicago Outfit (mafia) from its beginnings in the 1890s with Big Jim Colosimo, during and after the Prohibition through the present.
  • Anti- Saloon League 1893-1933 – The Anti-Saloon League began in 1893 in Ohio. With their objective being, to abolish all saloons and increase anti-alcohol beliefs and agendas including the enforcement of existing temperance laws. This site host by the Westerville Public Library is an extensive resource for material concerning the history, and activities of the Anti-Saloon League and the influence the League held in getting the Volstead Act passed.
  • Woman’s Christian Temperance Union – This is the official website for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Originally organized in 1873 in several small towns throughout New York and Ohio, the Union is the oldest continually active woman’s organization worldwide. From small groups of women fighting to close saloons in the 1800, through active involvement in supporting Prohibition and the enacting of the Volstead Act the enforced the Eighteenth Amendment that made the sale, transportation and distribution of liquor illegal. The Union continues to push for public support against alcohol and drug use today.
  • The Lincoln-Lee Legion – The Lincoln- Lee Legion recruit the support of children during the Prohibition. The Lincoln-Lee Legion asked children to sign a pledge to refrain from using alcohol for life. Each child that made a pledge received a pledge card. It is estimated that over five million children signed a pledge swearing total avoidance of alcohol for life. This is an example of a pledge card with the original signature still visible in pencil.
  • Chicago’s Mob Bosses – This is a list of know Chicago Mob bosses including Al Capone, Jonny Torrio, and other up to John DiFronzo ( 1997-present).
  • Chicago Temperance Society prior to the Prohibition –This Encyclopedia of Chicago entry shares the impact the Chicago Temperance Society and other temperance groups had in the political arena as early as 1833. The Lager Beer Riot resulted as a conflict of law enforcement and politics designed to place restraints on the sale of beer.

Illegal Operations during Prohibition

Alcohol production has always been and will always be a part of society. George Washington ran a distillery, as did many others along the American Whiskey Trail. When states and local governments enacted their own prohibition and temperance restrictions, individuals simply hid their stills and continued to provide more than enough alcohol for those who sought it. Bootleg whiskey got its name because individuals often carried a flask of whiskey tucked in their boots to avoid detection. After Prohibition became law, illegal liquor operations multiplied. One source noted that after Prohibition closed the saloons, speakeasies (illegal bars) soon exceeded the number of saloons by three hundred percent. Liquor was smuggled across the border from Canada as well as illegally shipped from Cuba and the Caribbean. Local supplies came from bootlegged whiskey, moonshine, and rum runners across the nation. Chicago was well known as a center for illegal alcohol trade.

  • The American Whiskey Trail – The American Whiskey Trail preserves the heritage of whiskey throughout America. The earliest distillery was in Boston in 1665. Whiskey has continued to be produced and distributed throughout American history, even during the Prohibition. George Washington’s Distillery continues to demonstrate the distilling process as it was done during the 18th century.
  • Video Tour of the American Whiskey Trail – This video presents an overview of the importance of the American Whiskey Trail throughout American history.
  • Rum Running (1920-1933) – This page looks at the effects of Prohibition in spurring illegal manufacture and transportation of liquor during the Prohibition.
  • Rum Running between Canada and the US - Though both Canada and the US were embarked on a battle to impose prohibition since the 1800’s, neither made it official on a national level until much later. It was illegal to sell liquor in both the US and Canada during the Prohibition. However, the Canadian laws did not ban the manufacture of liquor. This liquor was then sold illegally across the US border.
  • Rum Runners During Prohibition – This CBS digital archive has good information recalling the battle between rum runners and law enforcement agents during the prohibition. In this video, four individuals who took part in illegally transporting liquor share their stories. Be sure to check the tab, Did You Know? To read more facts about rum running.
  • Alcohol Smuggling from Cuba during the Prohibition (PDF) -  During the Prohibition many US citizen were involved in smuggling liquor from Canada and Cuba. Breweries and distributors legally changed their base of business from the US to Cuba. Smuggling liquor across the borders of both Canada and Cuba became a pastime that involved families, businessmen, and the expected hard-core criminals involved in the Mob or Mafia.
  • Moonshine During the Prohibition – Prohibition and temperance efforts began long before national prohibition in 1920. Prior to the establishment of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act, many states and local governments established their own bans on alcohol. Moonshiners produced distilled liquor in hidden locations making enforcement of the laws harder to carry out. This page has a picture of a typical still used to produce moonshine during that period.
  • Bootlegging – During the Prohibition, bootlegging involved the illegal smuggling of liquor. Much of the illegal transportation of liquor came from Canada or the Bahamas. Smugglers often hid flasks of liquor in their boots or “boot legs.” This entry in the New World Encyclopedia also contains information on rum runners and “Rum Row.”
  • The Rise of Speakeasies – This gives a clear account of the rise of speakeasies during the prohibition and the reasons they were so numerous. It is interesting that the prohibition the sale of alcohol was greater than before it became illegal. This is only one section of a report that covers organized crime and the prohibition. Background information on many of the Mafia leaders can also be found within this report.
  • Chicago Speakeasies –   This page is a list of popular bars that have been in operation since the Prohibition. During Prohibition some speakeasies operated out stores, backrooms, family basements, and even soda shops and candy stores. They got the name speakeasies because you often needed a password to gain access to the illegal bars. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, many speakeasies applied for legal liquor licenses.

Growing Unpopularity and Repeal of Prohibition in 1933

Prior to the implementation of personal income tax in 1914, the greatest source of revenue came from government taxes on liquor and custom duties. Even though there had been pressure earlier to enact a nationwide prohibition on alcohol, the government could not afford the loss of that revenue. As personal income taxes increased, income from personal taxes far exceeded those collected from liquor taxes. The War Revenue Act of 1917 raised more than 2 billion in personal income taxes in 1918. The Eighteenth Amendment was passed in 1920 and was promoted as a way to show support for the war effort by using income and supplies from liquor production to feed and supply the troops. During the Great Depression of the 30s, personal income fell and so did government revenue from income taxes. Coupled with growing support to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment because it was proving to be almost impossible to enforce, the advantage of regaining revenue from liquor taxes poses a logical argument for the repeal of Prohibition at a time the government needed to increase revenue lost to the Depression.

  • The Failure of Prohibition – This page gives reason for the failure of Prohibition linked largely to it being unenforceable. It is estimated that making the sale of liquor illegal caused an increase in illegal speakeasies. One source reports the number of illegal stills and speakeasies more than doubled the number of legal bars before Prohibition.
  • Did Prohibition Work as a Health Innovation? – This document looks at the Prohibition as a successful health innovation that decreased the real risks excessive alcohol consumption may lead to. While conventional thinking is that Prohibition was repealed because it ‘failed’, this document supports the belief that the repeal of Prohibition was due in large part by the economics of the Depression Era.
  • 1920’s Prohibition – This site gives a brief overview of the shortcomings of Prohibition. Attention is drawn to the effect prohibition had on increased crime, illegal liquor production and transportation, and inconsistencies in legal means of buying and selling alcohol. One inconsistency was a little known loophole that made it legal for alcohol to be consumed on ships outside the three-mile limit.
  • Personal Income Tax Paves the Way for Prohibition Repeal – This essay shows a relationship between the Prohibition becoming a national law after person income tax was implemented and then being repealed during the Great Depression. A time when federal revenue dropped due to lost personal tax income.