“I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want. All I do is satisfying a public demand.” – Al Capone
True, it has been argued that the “crime wave” of the Twenties would have happened regardless of Prohibition. It has also been argued that if Prohibition hadn’t made illegal an entire market that was previously legal, mobsters wouldn’t have had the means and maybe even the need to organize themselves the way they did. It has even been argued there was no crime wave in the Twenties at all. The perception there was one was the news hawks doing.
Gangs have been part of American urban life since the 1800s, though those earlier gangs had more the characteristics of ‘packs’, even when they did control entire neighbourhoods. There was very little structure to them and not always they had a clear focused aim. What they did share with the Twenties, more structured, clearly crime-oriented gangs was their strong ethnicity.
These were mostly ethnic gangs of youths, who were born in American to immigrant parents. These youths’ minds were already integrated into the American dream, but the actual opportunities life offered them were very slim, so a part of these young men found in gang life some kind of personal realization.
These gangs came from a specific community and – at least in the Twenties – they never really cut loose from the community they came from. Very often, gangs gave a part of their income back to the community (in the first years of the Great Depression, for example, Al Capone distributed thousands of free meals). That community was often the base of the political power some of these gangs gained.
This kind of ‘Robin Hood aura’ might be part of the charm many gangsters attracted from the public even in their days. Part of that also came from the action of the newspapers.
Because of their strong ethnic character, rivalry among gangs was particularly fierce. The rivalry between Italians and Irish in America, for example, was infamous. These were both numerous communities, and in many big cities they produced big, powerful gangs, that warred over the black market – especially the bootleg market – that they dominated. In Chicago, it turned into a war, the Beer Wars, as the newspapers called it.
But fierce as they were, these wars seldom touched outside people. Mobsters killed one another with staggering violence and frequency, but they never involved non-gang people. This allowed newspapers to create stories readers would eagerly follow without ever feeling threatened.
The Volstead Act was particularly hated in the big cities and seldom abide to, or even enforced, which strengthened the action of the gangs. Mobsters would bribe any official so that he looked the other way, and besides officials would let mobsters bribe them because they didn’t feel the Volstead Act deserved to be enforced.
New technology also helped gangs. New cars – included the Model T – were used to move around and bet it when necessary. The infamous tommygun was also a new invention. Radio allowed to communicate fast and effectively.
Crimewave or not, gangsters seemed to have it quite easy in those roaring years, don’t you think?
Allen, Frederick Lewis, Only Yesterday. An Informal History of the 1920s. Harper & Brothers, New York, 1931
Kobler, John, Capone. The Life and World of Al Capone. Da Capo Press, New York, 1971