To begin, it's useful to define some terms.

Prohibition was the period between the passing of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America and the passing of the 21st Amendment. Acts of Congress relating to the Amendments were the Volstead Act, passed 16th January 1920, and the Beer Act, passed 20th March 1933. The 21st Amendment repealed the effects of the 18th; these were to prohibit the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcoholic liquor.

Liquor was defined by the Volstead Act as liquid more than 0.5% alcohol by volume. 1 John F. Kramer, the first national Prohibition Commissioner, proclaimed that liquor would not be sold, 'nor given away, nor hauled in anything on the surface of the earth, or in the air.' 2 Despite this, arrest figures show that numbers of Americans put in the drunk tank rose from 34,175 in 1921 to 66,878 in 1929. 3 Someone must have been selling drinkers the booze.

Organised crime is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as 'Widespread criminal activities, such as prostitution, interstate theft, or illegal gambling, that occur within a centrally controlled formal structure.'

Priorities and enforcement

From the initial passage of the law, investigation of bootleggers and alcohol-related activity fell to a newly-created department of the Bureau of Inland Revenue of the Treasury Department. This immediately caused problems on the enforcement side, as the Bureau was already burdened with the fiscal and revenue problems of the government. Still, according to the national Commissioner for Inland Revenue, speaking before the Volstead Act was passed:

'The Bureau naturally expects unreserved cooperation also from those moral agencies which are so vitally interested in the proper administration of this law. Such agencies include churches, civic organizations, educational societies, charitable and philanthropic societies and other welfare bodies. The Bureau further expects cooperation and support from the law-abiding citizens of the United States who may have been opposed to the adoption of the Constitutional amendment and the law.' 4

To expect that all citizens who opposed Prohibition would cooperate in its execution was, to put it mildly, unrealistic. Even those who morally supported it did not necessarily go by the letter of the law, for example Jack London, who 'poured himself still another glass while musing over his dedicated support for Prohibition.' 5

Many of the 'moral agencies' such as the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) or the National Women's Temperance Movement - groups largely responsible for the Prohibition lobby in Washington - never drew attention to the criminal exploitation of Prohibition, and instead relied on government efforts to enforce the law. They simply did not want to imply that Prohibition was not working by letting on that it could somehow benefit criminals - 'ASL leaders did not want to suggest that Prohibition was ineffective.' 6 This approach is markedly different to the post-Prohibition attitude towards potential organised criminals, summed up in a quote from a 1952 book, 'The Mafia is history's greatest threat to morality.' 7 This evidence shows that organised crime became a much more important issue in the United States between 1919 and 1952, suggesting that something between these dates enabled organised crime to become much more prevalent. The obvious culprit would be Prohibition itself.

Alien conspiracy theory No, really ...

Against this background of widespread public indifference to the proper enforcement of the new alcohol legislation, criminals, gangs in particular, were quick to capitalise on the fairly apparent potential for enrichment that Prohibition promised. William Balsamo and George Carpozi write: 'No sooner had the last drink been served in Brooklyn on January 16th than Black Hand gang leader Frankie Yale ... led his Black Hand troops almost overnight into bootlegging.' 8 The focus of their work is on two New York gangs of predominantly immigrant origin, the Italian-American Black Hand and the Irish-American White Hand gang. The main interpretation is that criminal gangs existed within fairly distinct ethnic and geographical boundaries, with conflict over areas in shared spheres of influence, particularly dock and harbour quarters. Activity was limited to 'waterfront extortion, loan-shark and hijacking rackets', until Prohibition, which was seen as a 'lucrative new racket'. 9 The source is written as narrative and tends to dwell on shootings, beatings and bombings, suggesting an audience more concerned with dramatic events than historical analysis. In presentation, style and use of slang it almost resembles a novel; indeed, the back cover states 'The Mafia: The First Hundred Years (sic) reads like a novel. But it is frightening, deadly truth.' However, several cross-references bear out facts and events, and so it does seem to be a valid source.

The theory proposed belongs to a school of thought known as the alien conspiracy theory; that is, that organised crime in America began with criminal gangs imported by European, usually Sicilian or Italian, immigrants. The Sicilian-Italian groups then coalesced, cooperating to form a national crime syndicate popularly known as the Mafia. Tom O'Connor sums this view up concisely, writing, 'According to proponents of [the] alien conspiracy theory, sometime around 1900, a group called the Black Hand ... set up a national syndicate of 25 or so Italian-dominated crime families calling themselves La Cosa Nostra.' 10 The source used has academic credibility, as the author is Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at a reputable US university, North Carolina Wesleyan College. It is provided as background reading for their students following criminal justice courses, and provides an overview of the characteristics, history and activities of American organised crime.

Paul Kavieff supports this view, detailing a meeting of criminal leaders in Atlantic City initiated by New York underworld figures Charles Luciano, Meyer Lansky and John Torrio. He writes, 'The conference was the birth of organized crime. A national federation of underworld gangs was formed ... Their plan was to gain a national monopoly on the liquor trade.' 11 This supports the view that the growth of organised crime was a direct result of Prohibition, and that immigrant society fostered the first criminal gangs. He later goes on to give one reason why bootlegging operations gave increasing dominance to organised crime, saying, 'The independent operator in the rumrunning business was fair game for both the U.S. Coastguard and hijacking gangs, so by the later twenties organized crime in Detroit forced most independent rumrunners out of business.' 12 The subject of his book, Detroit's Purple Gang, was a largely Jewish organisation of Detroit bootleggers and criminals which began with Polish immigrants in Detroit's Lower East Side. Kavieff's work is well researched and, while still prone to some of the sensationalism that characterises Balsamo and Carpozi's writing style, informed on its subject. Although it does not contain footnotes, his sources include Detroit City court and Michigan Supreme Court records, Federal Bureau of Investigation files, magazine articles and a Detroit Police Department special report, as well as around fifty historical texts.

This interpretation is backed up by several official documents, including the report of the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver. Kefauver had made the initial proposal to assemble the committee on 11 May 1950. The main testimonies that informed the committee's conclusion were that of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harold Anslinger, and that of two New York tabloid journalists, Lee Mortimer and Jack Lait. At this time, organised crime's main income had graduated from alcohol to narcotics. This falls outside the scope of this essay, but qualified the FBN as the principal agency concerned with what Kefauver referred to after the hearings as 'the Mafia'. Mortimer and Lait were brought in as experts after having written a series of exposés on the American underworld. The concluding report of the committee stated:

'The various drives against the Mafia in Sicily ... had the effect of causing large numbers of Mafia members to migrate to the New World and many of them came to this country ... The Mafia became established in New Orleans and other cities. Moreover ... it grew rich and powerful during Prohibition in the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages.' 13

Racism, technology and homegrown crooks

Michael Woodiwiss disagrees with this interpretation. While he does agree with the first argument to some extent - 'Prohibition immediately made the problem of crime and corruption in the United States considerably worse' 14 - his research has led him to a different conclusion to Balsamo, Carpozi, Kavieff and Kefauver. His judgement is that organised, systematic crime was not a novelty introduced in the late 1800s by immigrants. Instead, his view is that these gangs were secondary in importance to established and wholly American illegal activity. This crime, controlled, he writes, by government officials, did not specifically deal with liquor but with rackets such as gambling and prostitution. When Prohibition was introduced, 'bootlegging suddenly presented second-generation Jews, Italians, Sicilians, Poles, Slavs and others with an opportunity to climb up the criminal hierarchy, which many eagerly accepted ... organized crime developed in the United States not because of some mysterious alien conspiracy but because it exploited easy opportunities to amass wealth for a select few in a corrupt system.' 15 He later criticises the alien conspiracy explanation further, pointing to the 'nativist xenophobia' exhibited in the United States during the Second World War against Italy. Linking the growth of speculation about Italian crime organisations to ethnic stereotyping, he ridicules the very idea of a large scale Mafia-type organisation by comparing it to early twentieth century images of 'Sicilians and Italians as "death-bound assassins"'. 16 His writing is particularly scathing about the analysis that led to the widespread adoption of the paradigm of the all-powerful Sicilian Mafia, attacking Anslinger's motivation when he testified before the Senate Committee on Organized Crime. Paraphrasing, he is sceptical about the testimony of both Anslinger and agents under him who testified, given that the main recommendation of the Committee was to significantly boost the resources of the FBN. Mortimer and Lait's work is also criticised, described as an 'amalgam of racial and political bigotry'. 17 Woodiwiss' work is well sourced and authoritative. It is thoroughly annotated, the footnotes running to twenty pages. The author is a historian and lecturer, and his audience seems to be those studying the subject of criminal justice, with his work particularly focussing on the history of organised crime. The work is well regarded; respected historian Hugh Brogan writes the forward to Crime, Crusades and Corruption. He writes sixty years after the events described, and has access to a wide range of sources. There tends to be a liberal bias, politically; with distaste palpable not only in a paragraph which quotes at length Lait and Mortimer's admittedly odious racist tracts, but also when describing their invective against 'any public official of remotely liberal persuasions'. 18 This bias is also apparent in his arguments relating to prohibition, not only of alcohol but also of other proscribed substances, which are firmly weighted towards a liberal decriminalisation and treatment approach.

His interpretation is similar to that of George Tindall and David Shi. To quote them: 'It would be too much to say that prohibition gave rise to organized crime, for organized vice, gambling, and extortion had long been practiced.' 19 They make the point common to most sources that gang activities were able to expand during Prohibition using the proceeds from alcohol sales, but offer another explanation for the widespread nature of organised crime during this period: the rapid adoption of new technologies. These enabled the gangster to go about his business with more efficiency than ever before. The telephone, the motorcar and the submachine gun allowed racketeers to communicate with each other at distances, to quickly transport liquor across those distances, and to defend (or attack) the cargoes if necessary. 20 This persuasive perspective is not dealt with by other interpretations, but is very rational. Tindall and Shi are well-regarded historians, with their narrative history of the United States recommended for many university reading lists. Their work is by nature wide-ranging, but suffers for this in its lack of specific detail on this particular subject.

There are other historians who agree to a lesser extent with Woodiwiss' interpretation. Gary Potter, a university lecturer, uses a detailed case study of Prohibition in Philadelphia to discredit the idea of an Italian-American "Cosa Nostra". He alludes to the 'incorrect assumptions' of previous analyses, by official sources in particular. The assessment by law enforcement in the area is that a 'classic' Italian crime family structure began during Prohibition, and continued to the present day with various internal power struggles. However, 'The reality of organized crime is quite removed from the myth of the Mafia.' 21 This supports Woodiwiss where he attacks the alien conspiracy interpretation as largely an official misinterpretation seized upon by the mass media. Potter's interpretation questions whether there ever has been a single Italian-American crime boss in Philadelphia and states, if there is such a figure, that it is a 'startlingly recent' state of affairs. Again, the source referenced is a set of notes for students following his course.

Still other interpretations go further even than this, and argue that the very idea of a rise in criminal activity was solely the result of selective reporting by the media. Norman Clark writes, 'People believed the [crime] "wave" was real because of impressions left by journalists who saw a lot of crime, reported a lot and ... were irresistibly tempted to romanticize it.' 22 His argument is that there was no large-scale resultant rise, but a continuation of a gradual growth begun by urbanisation and industrialisation. Writing about the way that Al Capone in particular became much more affluent during the Prohibition years, Clark writes, 'surely he would have become so anyway, without the advent of Prohibition.' 23 His interpretation ranks Prohibition as a much less important reason for organised crime's rise than the simple ruthless, businesslike way that Capone in particular reorganised organised crime, forcing competitors to work with him and eliminating those that would not. This source disagrees with the others, all of which acknowledge not only a reported but an actual growth in organised criminal activity during Prohibition. This fits with the overall tone of the source, which questions many commonly held assumptions on Prohibition and its effects.


I hope to have shown that historical differences continue over the origins and ethnicity of organised crime, as well as the extent to which official misinterpretation coloured future debate on the subject. My own personal view tends towards the somewhat revisionist tendencies put forward by Michael Woodiwiss. While it seems obvious that there was a huge amount of organised criminal activity during and subsequent to Prohibition, the way in which both historians and popular culture have attached the stigma of criminality exclusively to groups of particular ethnic origin seems incongruous with what my reading has found. I find his argument that organised criminality was pervasive in American society and government long before the mid and late-nineteenth century influx of Europeans much more convincing than the somewhat simplistic finger-pointing that pins American wrongs on narrow groups of immigrants. In spite of these misgivings, it is clear that gangsterism alongside judges', politicians' and police officers' corruption became the principal form of organised crime as a result of Prohibition. Prohibition, and the revenues that became available to those who defied it, gave a huge boost to organised crime and was instrumental in its rise and expansion into other rackets, industries and areas of society.

  1. Figure from Doug and Susan Willoughby, The USA 1917-45, Heinemann 2000, 39

  2. Quoted in Norman Clark, Deliver Us From Evil, W.W. Norton & Company 1976, 162

  3. John Vick, Modern America, University Tutorial Press 1985, 29

  4. Quoted in History of Prohibition enforcement before the Bureau of Prohibition Act 1927,,

  5. Norman Clark, Deliver Us From Evil, W.W. Norton & Company 1976, 1

  6. Op. cit., 157

  7. Ed Reid, Mafia, Random House 1952

  8. William Balsamo and George Carpozi Jr., The Mafia: The First 100 Years, Virgin 1997, 41

  9. Ibid.

  10. Tom O'Connor, Organized Crime,, North Carolina Wesleyan College

  11. Paul Kavieff, The Purple Gang: Organized Crime in Detroit 1910-1945, Barricade Books Inc. 2000, 75

  12. Op. cit., 31

  13. Kefauver Committee, Third Interim Report, Crown, New York, pp.147-150, quoted in Michael Woodiwiss, Crime, Crusades and Corruption, Pinter 1988, 112

  14. Michael Woodiwiss, Crime, Crusades and Corruption, Pinter 1988, 11

  15. Op. cit., 26

  16. Op. cit., 106

  17. Op. cit., 110

  18. Op. cit., 111

  19. George Brown Tindall with David E. Shi, America: A Narrative History (third edition, volume two), W.W. Norton & Company 1992, 1032

  20. Ibid.

  21. Gary Potter, Historical Perspectives on Organized Crime,, Department of Criminal Justice and Police Studies, Eastern Kentucky University

  22. Norman Clark, Deliver Us From Evil, W.W. Norton & Company 1976, 149

  23. Ibid.

N.B. Many sources used are American. Original spellings are quoted.

Originally written as an A level history coursework piece entitled "To what extent was the rise of American organised crime an effect of Prohibition?". The whole piece has been somewhat rejigged for E2. Node your coursework.

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