By portraying the events leading up to and during
the US alcohol Prohibition between 1919 and 1922 this work aims to develop
lessons for the modern drug war and finally to explore whether drug legalisation
might improve on the current situation.
The Prohibition era offers a very promising
comparison as organised crime, that had already existed on small scale in Europe
and Asia, grew so tremendously during the Prohibition era that it was possible
to form a national organisation, that has been compared with a cartel of
legitimate business firms. After repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment put an end
to bootlegging, which means illegal manufacturing, selling, or transporting of
liquor, criminal overlords turned to other activities like drug dealing and
became even more highly organised.
My work mainly focuses on the social and criminal
development in the area around Chicago as this was - apart from New York -
the capital of organised crime during Prohibition.
During the last half of the 18th century, which was the most intemperate
era in American history, liquor was regarded as " God ´s gift ". Many early
settlers were hard drinkers using alcohol both as food, medicine and for
enjoyable social intercourse.They found many excuses for drinking as
hard work and wages even used to be paid in liquor.
The Puritans of that time opposed being drunk not drinking after all the
Bible often refers to the pleasures of drink.
Being invited to many people´s homes clergymen used to be the greatest
drunkards of all since they had to do up to twenty house calls a day being
offered a drink every time.
Municipal authorities even allowed the running of saloons next to churches
as they assumed " the priest and his flock would meet there between the
Since the first settlers mainly originated from pub- countries like Britain
it is no wonder saloons played an important role in their lives. Especially in
sparsely populated rural regions of America
church and saloon served as men´s only entertainment, employment agency and
meeting place therefore saloon keepers used to have an important position in
politics from Independence on.
From the 18th century onwards immigrants from different European countries
like Germany or France arrived in America taking over the saloon keeping which
led to a change of attitude towards liquor. Now Prohibition became the most
discussed topic all over America since there were no great war as in Europe to
catch the attention.
There had always been puritans in America but now their ethic developed to
a religious obsession.
People believed drinking and the decay of the society went hand in hand,
which seem to be confirmed by surgeon Rush´s theory that excessive
consumption of hard liquor caused an inclination to crime and diseases of mortal
nature.1 Against Rush´s intention,
who wanted people to switch from drinking hard liquor to a moderate consumption
of wine and beer, the puritans demonised the drinking of alcohol in general
showing "demonstrations of little scientific value but startling
impact" in public schools:
For example the teacher placed a calf´s brain in a glass jar and
poured alcohol into it. While the brain turned from the normal pink to a ugly
grey the teacher would report about the nature of the brain and liquor and at
the end conclude that what happened in the experiment would happen to the pupils
brains if they dared to drink unholy brew.
During the Civil War early state laws concerning Prohibition were loosened
or simply ignored as all attention was centred on the fighting therefore saloons
mushroomed all over the country when the population increased again after the
end of the war.
According to that, in 1873 the “Women War“ broke out all around
the country. It mainly consisted of middle class wives and mothers, who were
furious about their husbands´ getting drunk in saloons. “ Thousands
of women marched from church meetings to saloons, where with prayers and song
they demanded that the saloon keepers gave up
business“ but they had only temporary
success: After the decrease of attention the saloon keepers usually reentered
Since America slowly recovered from the wounds of
civil war things went back to normal. During the Reconstruction era there was
much less room for individual eccentrics therefore earlier heroes like became
In 1893 the business- oriented Anti- Saloon
League ( ASL ) established, that was neither dependent on political parties nor
women even though it welcomed them.
One of their most important members was Wayne
Wheeler being active as a be “behind- the- scene manipulator ... of
Wheelers turn to Prohibition was not due to a
religious origin or an alcoholic family but rather to his opportunistic
character and fancy to become a great debater.
After delivering a great speech about Negroes
being wretched by liquor instead of colonial abuse he was recruited by an ASL
leader. His main job was to gather votes for a Bill, allowing counties to become
dry if a majority of voters signed. During this campaign Wheeler first started a
tactic, which would be typical of his later lobbying: ASL would help signers
with all might but discredit the bill´s opponents strongly.
Later, World War I increased the popularity of
Prohibition as the anti- German mood
amounted into a hysteria ,in which people
interpreted beer as a symbol of German identity.
In 1916 - when 23 out the 48 states were already dry as two- thirds of the
politician elected for Congress were ASL- supporter but mainly for the reason
that Prohibition was the vote winning topic.. Therefore it is no wonder that on
December 22, 1917, the Congress added the 18th Amendment to the Constitution,
which prohibited “ the manufacture, sale, or transportation of
intoxicating liquors“. This was a
little more specified in the “Volstead Act“ written in 1919 that
defined “intoxicating liquors“ as alcohol except for medical or
industrial use. Furthermore the production of “near- beer“ was still
permitted, which should only contain 0.5 % alcohol. Penalties for violations
were $1,000 or 30 days prison for the first offence and up to $ 10,000 and a
year for further convictions.
Andrew J. Volstead Act, who the Volstead Act is named after, was only its
In fact, Wheeler was its true architect, who was also responsible for the
hopelessly inadequate as he believed in the peoples´ unwillingness to
break the law which resulted from the naive American belief that the
Americans´ moral conviction would be stronger than wish for personal
For example the act did not concern the actual consumption of liquor in
private homes therefore the New York Daily News could give its readers
its readers useful advice how to survive Prohibition.2
An other wrong decision Wheeler made was putting the Prohibition Bureau
under the authority of the Treasury Department instead of the Justice Department
and excluding Prohibition agents from the Civil Service. Very early on, this
decision proved disastrous as the Prohibition agents in every state were
recruited by the political authority, which changed every now and then. Moreover
the employers did not regard the personal qualifications or references of their
applicants and the maximum wage was only about 2,300 $, which was barely enough
to live on. Therefore it is no wonder many of them turned to corruption which
explains why this job was so wanted. “In any one year, there were 10,00
applicants for 2,000 jobs, and the average length of service was only a few
months - most agents being “let go “ for corrupt practices that
could not be satisfactorily proved or
The disaster of Prohibition could only happen
because of its weak politicians and the unscrupulous counsellors behind them.
This catastrophe could even be found on highest level : President Harding, who
was “ certainly the weakest, most indecisive president in American
was completely dependent of his friends.
Warren Harding grew up the small town Marion in
Ohio, where his father earned his living as a junk dealer after failing as a
homeopathic doctor. His son Warren preferring billiards, poker and gossip to
books was perfectly happy with his first job as an editor of a small local
At the age of 26 he married the seven years older
rich widow Florence Kling even though she was “lacking any kind of
charm“ but her fortune meant a financial and social stepping- stone for
However, he had to bare her constant grumbling, that brought about the wish to
Because of his immense personal charm and his
good position it was only a small step for Harding to enter politics. A friend
of his once noted: “ His conception of political progress was to make no
Though Harding had little interest for state
politics the Republican Party asked him to go to Washington as a senator due his
good looks and “statesmanlike ( if spurious ) “presence“
After realising that the Senate was some kind of
luxury club for poker- and sports- loving
self- protectionists he soon started to feel very
comfortable especially when his wife - he used to call her “The Duchess
“ was not around.
Usually he spend most of his time on the golf
course, in the Senate bar or poker games instead of doing his
Like most other Congressmen he only supported
Prohibition to get vote whereas he was a steady drinker in his private
Quite soon after the beginning of his political
career in Ohio two men noticed Harding´s political potential and their
chance to have great influence on the country behind his back.
The one was the lawyer and failed politician
Harry Micajah Daugherty, who had full insight into the corrupt machine of the
Republican Party. As he was completely aware that he could only make a career
as the man behind the scene therefore he had to become someone´s counsellor
The other person behind Harding was Jess Smith
being twelve years younger than Daugherty and looked after Harding´s
financial affairs in the late 1890s.
As Harding´s two ambitious helpers were
always very close to him, he could not keep any secret to himself. They knew for
example about Harding´s relationship with the 20- year old shop- girl Nan
Britton that started in 1917 and went on for years. Of course, Harding was well
aware that the liaison would spoil his political future if it became known
publicly therefore knowledge gave Daugherty and Smith the power to put him under
pressure if he did not agree with their wheelings and
During Prohibition the two men accepted among
others huge sums of hush money from influential criminal overlords, that wanted
to buy immunity from prosecution that way.
After the first World War Harding became the
presidential candidate of the Republicans due to the backing of his two advisers
and the lack of more convincing opponents.
Now it was Jess Smith ´s turn to play an
important role as Harding´s campaign manager.
As people were tired of “heady
interventionist days of Woodrow Wilson, the trauma of the Great War, and the
of the previous year the people very positively responded to Smith´s
election campaign picturing Harding as the kind small- towner he was. Slogans
used by Smith were for example “ With Harding back to normal.“ or
“ Think of America first.“.
Harding´s election victory very clearly
shows how strongly the American wished to withdraw from the troubled scene of
world politics and explains why Prohibition, that promised a return to small
town virtues such as a family- and church- orientated life, had a great force of
Very soon after his election Harding realised
that he was not able to cope with the duties of a President even though he could
fool the public.
After his death during his third year in office
Jess Smith and Daugherty were questioned in series of investigations that
exposed the huge depths of Harding´s administration.
Of course, even during Prohibition there were
some law- abiding officers as for example
Eliot Ness, the head of an incorruptible nine-man
team of law officers called the "Untouchables," who opposed Al Capone`s
underworld network in Chicago.
Behind New York, Chicago was the most
populated city of the United States with scarcely two millions inhabitants.
Due to its location on the south- western tip of Lake
Michigan, Chicago became the main trading centre for the grain and livestock of
the growing Midwest in the 19th century.
Later heavy industry, warehouses and rail yards crowded the banks of the
The poet Car Sandburg once described Chicago as the “ stormy, husky,
brawling city of the big
shoulder“1, which is very
correct as violence and corruption had always been a normal part of the
Chicagoans life due to its hasty growth when the second European immigrant wave
flooded America from 1880 to 1900 causing a very high population density and
social tension: the differences between the new and the old lifestyle often
As the newcomers outnumbered the old Anglo- Saxon establishment by about
75 % they hardly adjusted to their value system. Furthermore many of them had
great difficulties with the language and hardly any knowledge of democratic
principles therefore many politician consolidated their power by sending out
fellow member, who got special privileges if they collected many
Chicago´s Mayor during the Prohibition era
- “Big Bill“ Thompson - was very similar to Harding. He only
entered politics because of a lost poker game and owed his election to his great
charm and popularity among the gangland. It is true that Thompson promised to
reform the corrupt police department but after his election victory nothing
Usually bribed officers warned the owners of
illegal bars or brothels before the search so the police work was very
If an underground figure was arrested by accident
because the raid was led by an idealistic newcomer, who had not yet adjusted to
the rules of the organised crime, he usually came free very soon as the
gangsters also owned the greatest part of the administration of
Till the beginning of Prohibition most gangland
leaders earned their fortune by owning several of the numerous brothels and
casinos of Chicago´s red light district, which was greater and freer than
any other one in the world.
Al Capone was born in Brooklyn on January 17, 1899. His parents had
immigrated from the slums of Naples to the ghetto of Brooklyn´s shipyard
area at the peak of the Great Depression in 1893.4
As children of Italian immigrants Capone and his eight
brothers and sisters grew up in the worst part of Little Italy. At the age of
fourteen Al Capone left school without having any qualifications and joined a
youth gang called “Five Pointer“.
Members of those gangs did not necessarily have to
become criminals for the rest of their adult lives, as membership in such a gang
was the only way to survive in the ghetto.
Capone, however, strived to emulate his boss
Franky Yale, who earned his living as a blackmailer with a reputation for his
cruel treatment of his victims and his generosity towards his companions.
In a fight in a brothel, a young bruiser slashed
Capone’s left cheek with a knife, leaving a the scar that gave Capone his
later nickname "Scarface“. Nevertheless Capone asked that man to become
one of his bodyguards at the height of his power.
Due to his lack of experience, young Capone got arrested three times, of
which twice he was suspected of manslaughter.
Later Capone came under the influence of Neapolitan gangster John Torrio,
who strongly influenced the criminal development and tactics of his younger
friend and protégée.
After marring the Irish girl Mae Coughlin on December 19, 1917, who gave
birth to their son Sonny the following year, Capone had to flee to Chicago
because of a triple murder suspicion.
In his new home town Capone joined the gang of the powerful brothel and
John Torrio and helped him to broaden his influence by bribing and
blackmailing police officers and businessmen.In 1920
Capone´s share of Torrios’ illegal business amounted to $ 25.000,
which equates to an approximate 25 % of their total profit.
Capone and Torrio immediately realised the
opportunity of building a new revenue stream out of bootlegging that presented
itself with the introduction of Prohibition. By co-operating with Joseph
Stenson, the leading brewery owner in the Chicago area, Capone and Torrio could
extend their influence to four more breweries and a few small
The power of the Torrio- Capone- gang was so
great, that the highest local politicians and authorities protected them against
police raids. Especially the influence on the mayor, the chief of the police
department and on other important local figures was the main source of
Capone´s organisational success.
In Cicero, one of Chicago’s neighbouring
cities, Capone’s wishes held more sway
the law. At times the gang went as far as to
store their liquor in the cellar of the town hall.
His personal power, which Capone had gained by
undermining the administration, gave him the ability to built up a huge but very
disciplined criminal organisation, that was characterised by great team
cohesion. Capone himself behaved like a generous father figure very much
resembling a Mafia Godfather as portrayed in the three episodes of “The
Furthermore Capone always regarded himself as a business man rather than a
“ I make my money by supplying a public demand.
If I break the law, my customers, who number hundreds
of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am. The
only difference between us is that I sell and they buy.
Everybody calls me a racketeer. I call myself a business
Unfortunately Capone´s great success as a businessman finally led into
his ruin: Even though he was arrested many times he only went to prison once:
for tax evasion. This fact impressively demonstrates, that his influence on the
police, judges and lawyers was so immense, that could even save him from going
to prison for the numerous murders he ordered during the gang warfare between
1924 and 1931:
Like all other business man the bootleggers were depended on competition as
the base of their price and quality level therefore each of them was interested
in being the only one to sell liquor in a specific area.
In 1920 Torrio had already negotiated a contract
with the other important gangs , that regulated the territorial inviolability
of their area of influence.
In case of violation the offender should be
punished by the criminal alliance.
Thanks to their contract the different gangs were
able prosper without disturbances till
the O´Donnell gang started to raid other
gangster’s beer transports and to sell them in Torrio’s influential
area. After many men lost their lives in the following gang warfare the
O´Donnells finally surrendered. Unfortunately, this was not the end of the
trouble as the Irish O´Banion gang was even more dangerous for
Torrio´s and Capone´s illegal business: By underselling O´Donnell
succeeded to take market share from Capone.
Therefore more fighting followed, amounting into
the infamous St. Valentin´s massacre :
Members of Capone´s gang brutally gunned down
workers of the O´Donnell gang, who had been lured into a remote
On the order of the American President Hoover tax officers finally
succeeded to set an end to Capone´s criminal career. After many fruitless
raids the police got hold of evidence, that proofed, that Capone had not paid
any taxes on his huge profits.
In October 1931 he was found guilty, and
sentenced to 11 years in prison and $80,000 in fines and court costs. He entered
the penal institution of Atlanta in May 1932 but was transferred to the new
Alcatraz prison in August 1934. In November 1939, suffering from a late stage of
syphilis, he was released and entered a Baltimore hospital. Later he retired to
his Florida estate, where he died as a powerless hermit in 1974.
Even though people knew about the weaknesses of
Prohibition by the mid- 1920s even Americans like the civil libertarian Clarence
Darrow believed that “Even to modify the Volstead Act would require a
Therefore it is quite surprising why Prohibition was finally abolished with such
One reason might be the change of that many
Americans, who had demanded the suppression of saloons, were now shocked by the
violence of the organised, the corruption and the governmental incompetence.
Furthermore the Victorian values of the ASL as
for example the protection of family and faith in God and progress became more
and more unpopular. That is mainly due to the fact, that especially young
members of the middle- class started to be attracted by the rising consumer
culture. Now the old values were replaced by the wish for self- fulfilment and
entertainment. Consumerism flourished as the new
religion of the middle class.
In contrary to the old saloons, that were mainly
used for working- class recreation, the flourishing “speak- easies“
offered more sensibility and a faint touch of illegal
An other difference to the past saloon- times
was, that women were welcomed in the new
Before Prohibition time drinking had been a strictly gender- segregated
activity: men drank in saloons, women, if they did, at home.
Therefore illegal bars offered completely new
possibilities of interaction being much more experimental and
Nevertheless it is only a legend, that people
drank more during Prohibition, as it was only the middle- class exposure to
drinking, that grew. Even the old people adjusted to the new values and preached
for moderation not abstinence.
However, the strongest arguments against
Prohibition was the shocking power of organized crime and the need for tax money
to finance the interaction into World War II.
Therefore, the Democratic Party adopted a
platform calling for repeal in 1932 and their victory in the presidential
election in the same year meant the beginning of the end of the Eighteenth
In February 1933 Congress adopted a resolution
adding the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution to repeal the Eighteenth.
On Dec. 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, and repeal
Probably the greatest difficulties for enforcing
Prohibition were caused by the corrupt Prohibition agents. An easy remedy could
have been to take a closer look at the references of the applicants and to pay
them more adequate wages.
After all, it is not the most sensible idea
to fight crime with ex- criminal.
Furthermore, the moral in the team of Prohibition
agents would certainly have been much stronger if there had been a powerful
politician at the top of the state.
Of course, it is impossible for the average voter
to rate the abilities of candidates for election. Therefore I believe, that
politicians, who aim for high posts should make an aptitude test to show they
are able to cope with their future duties. This way it is less likely that the
power is abused by people like Daugherty and Smith, who only work for their own
In addition to that such a test would be very
likely to improve the reputation of politician in general.
An other mistake that should not be repeated was
the inexactness of the Volstead act:
For example it only prohibited the trading of
alcohol but not the drinking itself. It is very important to make sure, that new
bills do not leave such gaps for criminal activity.
Furthermore brewers and winegrowers should have
got higher compensation and maybe the permission to export their products on a
small scale to save them from financial ruin.
Many alcohol producers turned to crime as they
feared to lose their social position.
However, I suppose the original aim, stopping
people to become alcohol addicts, would have been much easier achieved if the
government had made a scientific study on the dangers of drinking. In contrary
to the shocking methods of the early Prohibition activists its outcome would
have lasted much longer. Ever though it would probably not been able to change
the drinking habits of the working- class, either.
In my opinion the alcohol Prohibition could have
been more effective if it had only accorded to strong liquors, which people
might have accepted as they would not have had to do without their favourite
drug..People would not have felt so
bootlegging would have been less profitable and
legal enforcement would have been
Exactly theses high profits were the reason for
Prohibition becoming a failure:
As alcohol trading was pushed into illegality,
there no longer existed any kind of free marked. By gunning down their
concurrent Chicagoan gangsters like Al Capone were able to get a monopoly in
some part of the city. There, the overlord could fix his prices as high as he
wished since the businessmen in his area were unable to buy someone else´s
liquor. Furthermore, he could use parts of the huge profits for bribing
politician, with again made it possible to extend his criminal influence.
This process, that had simply been caused by the
wish to make the world a better place,
enabled criminals like Al Capone to take control
of whole cities.
Unfortunately, that is not just a problem of the
past: According to the United Nations drug trafficking is a 400 billon per year
industry. That equals eight per cent of the wold trade, which is even greater
than the export of the automobile industry worldwide.
Therefore the attraction to engage into illegal
business like the distribution of drugs is greater than ever.
At the beginning of my discussion of the
legalisation question I want to present some facts on the American Drug War,
that can be looked up on the web site of the White House:
- Despite the fact, that the federal spending on
the drug war increased from $ 1. 65 billion in 1982 to $ 13.25 in 1995, about
half of the students in the United Stated in 1995 tried illegal drugs before
high school graduation.
- Every year from 1975 to 1995 at least 82 % of
high school seniors asked, answered marijuana was even easier to
obtain than beer.
- Although many people believe that the Drug War
targets drug smugglers, 75 % of the 1, 506, 200 arrests for drug
violations in 1996 were for possession of controlled substances.
These facts clearly show the police´s
inability to cope with the wheelings and dealings of the criminal overlords even
though there is probably almost no corruption in today´s administration
In contrary to the bloody Drug War legalisation
would ruin the drug overlord quite soon
as they had to adjust to the
An other advantage of legalisation is that great
parts of the police, that have to fight against the drug law violations now even
though their success is very doubt able, would be able turn their attention to
more serious delicts.
Moreover legalisation would save tax money as the
efforts to interdict the drug traffic alone cost $ 13.25 billion in 1995. If we
add the cost of trying and imprisoning users, traffickers, and those who
committed crime to pay for their drugs, the cost go up to $ 20
One should also not forget that the state could
impose taxes on drugs after legalisation, which would probably be quite a lot as
Prohibition was mainly abolished because the money of the alcohol tax was
needed. This money could be used for drug education or any other kind of
Furthermore the governmental control, made
possible by legalisation, would also protect the customers:
Because it is illegal, the drug trade of today
lacks many of the consumer safety regulations, which are common to other
markets: instruction sheets, warning labels and quality controls.
Driven in the underground any product would get
more dangerous than it has to be. That could also be seen for example during
Prohibition: home- made liquor, that was sold in speak- easies was often mixed
with toxic substances to give it a more natural taste and
It is exactly the same with today´s drug
user, who does not know at all what he is buying.
Since purity varies greatly, consumers can never
be really sure how much to take to produce the desired effects, which creates
the danger of overdosing.
A common argument against the legalisation of
drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin is, that they are - in contrary to
alcohol or tobacco - no cultural drugs therefore people accept their
prohibition more easily.
But this is simply not true: Opium and marijuana
were already used as religious stimulants and for private consumption in
antiquity. Their use can be found though out all centuries even though alcohol
consumption was far more common, which is probably due to its lower
On one hand drug use might rise after
legalisation as consumers would not have to fear imprisonment anymore. On the
other hand the Netherlands has 20 years of experience with the semi-legal sale
of soft drugs without ending up in an invasion of drug
or more problematic drug use than
Furthermore legalisation would give the state the
opportunity to control drug by introducing age restrictions.
Along side the model of the American Prohibition
it is possible to study how far it is possible to enforce legislation, that is
based on moral ideals. a
If law does not match reality even normal
citizen get used to braking it.
But this also leads to an adaption to co-
operating with gangsters, as these are the only people to get them access to
the illegal thing they fancy.
Therefore criminals, who provide alcohol, drugs
or whatever else is wanted by their customers, are able to gain more and more
All in all, I believe that legalisation is the
only way to the control drug use as the Drug War against the unknown criminal
overlords cannot be won.
However, their supremacy has to be broken in
order to prevent a repetition of the lawless situation of the Prohibition era,
which would probably be much more disastrous nowadays as it would occur on an
even greater scale.
Nevertheless I only approve of the legalisation
of soft drugs as marijuana since it could find social acceptation and would not
have such a disastrous result in case of failure.
Probably it would also be a good thing to extend
the Methadon program as it helps addicts to leave their criminal milieu.