Rise of Organized Crime in the 1920s: Case Study of Al Capone

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In 1920s America, a rise of consumerism had emerged, as well as many new rebellious sentiments. As a younger generation began to rebel against societal norms, different aspects of society would also experience changes that would eventually transform American into a modern society. In an attempt to uphold the morality of society, the government passed the Prohibition Act in 1920 to ban alcohol altogether. Although the concept of Prohibition was initially meant to eliminate crimes or even society’s downfall, it ultimately created even more crime (Parkinson). Due to the greed surrounding new ways to make money, individuals and families began to create organized crime organizations that essentially led to the rise of mobsters, speakeasies, and more.

While Prohibition left people with high hopes of a more traditional society with less crime, it unintentionally led to a rise in organized crime and a culture of rebellion in urban areas. With alcohol now in high demand, more people began to get involved in the business of bootlegging, the illegal distribution of products such as alcohol. Much of the desire to be in industries such as this, or industries of organized crime, came from the selfish desire of people to gain wealth and luxury. Early bootleggers obtained alcohol from other countries, such as Cuba and Canada. They found and utilized places along the coast that lacked government security. When the United States Coast Guard began more closely regulating and searching ships, smuggling became much more difficult and expensive. Therefore, many bootleggers turned to sources of supply within the United States. These sources included “medicinal” whiskey, filtering alcohol that was unfit to drink and even producing their own, which is commonly referred to as moonshining. With the new business of illegal alcohol distribution, places like underground speakeasies became popular, where people who supported new rebellious sentiments of the Jazz Age went to party and drink (“Prohibition”). Throughout the 1920s, people and groups involved in organized crime became prominent, and are still discussed today.

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The profit that was now obtainable from organized crime led to large organizations and powerful people running bootlegging operations and other crimes to gain profit. This led to growing violence in relation to crime. These crime organizations often were called gangs and had leaders called gangsters. Some of the most influential gangsters include Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly. Pretty Boy Floyd became a robber due to his dissatisfaction with lower-class living, and he was eventually gunned down in a corn field by local officers and FBI agents. Machine Gun Kelly, a famous bootlegger, owes his rise in crime to the encouragement of his wife. She eventually even convinced him to kidnap a millionaire, but he was caught for this and sentenced to life in prison, and died behind bars (Blair). These two gangsters are only a couple of examples of how the desire for luxuries and success in the 1920s led to rising crime.

All very influential and prominent gangsters, similar to that of Floyd and Kelly, Legs Diamond and Dutch Schultz, John Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde were famous criminals of the 1920s and 1930s. Legs Diamond and Dutch Schultz became powerful figures of the underworld in 1927, causing a conflict between them that led to the shooting down of Legs in 1929. Schultz was accused of organizing this and was gunned down in New Jersey only a few years later. John Dillinger spent the majority of his life in prison and was killed by FBI agents after escaping Crown Point Jail. Bonnie and Clyde were known as public enemies and were highly wanted. They had killed many civilians, but when they killed police officers, other officers fought back and killed the pair (Blair). As shown by these different criminals, people became more violent and less concerned with authority figures. Many, like Floyd, often got into crime with their financial gain in mind and/or wanting to create a better life for themselves.

Although many different criminals rose during the 1920s, possibly the most infamous of these would have to be Al Capone. Growing up in New York, he was surrounded by crime and showed signs of violence as a child. He quit school at 14 after hitting a teacher, and was a part of two different “kid gangs”. He joined a third gang, called the James Street Boys gang, run by Johnny Torrio, who just so happened to become his mentor throughout life. He also served Frankie Yale in the Five Points gang. Before the age of 21, Capone had already been involved in several violent incidents, including when Frank Galluccio slashed his left cheek after Capone made a crude comment to his sister, thus giving him the nickname “Scarface” (“Al Capone”). Capone, already surrounded by crime at a young age, was a prime example of the mass increase of criminals and the desire to bring yourself success through illegal activity.

Capone arrived in Chicago in 1919 but did not waste time in getting in the city’s crime scene. Soon after his arrival, crime boss Big Jim Colosimo was assassinated, likely by Capone himself or Frankie Yale, making way for the rise of Johnny Torrio in Colosimo’s giant brothel business. As Prohibition was rising, these bootlegging operations were gaining wealth and power. Since leaders like Torrio and Capone held so much influence and power, many people feared them, and many others gangsters were also out to get them, as gang leader Dion O’Bannion’s associates unsuccessfully attempted to kill Torrio in 1925 after he and Capone had O’Bannion killed. After Torrio’s retirement to Italy, Capone took over his place as the crime leader in Chicago. Being involved in multiple violent incidents and seemingly larger-than-life scenarios, he gained the attention of many Americans, even influencing a movie, which is an early representation of pop culture’s normalization of crime (“Al Capone”). Capone was involved in some form of organized crime throughout almost his entire life, leading to his influence of those in the crime scene and the fascination of many other American citizens.

In October of 1931, Capone was finally found guilty of 3 of 23 accounts of federal income-tax evasion and conspiracy to violate Prohibition laws. In 1932, he entered the Atlanta penitentiary but was later moved to the new Alcatraz prison in 1934. His eleven-year sentence was ended early, as he became ill with a late stage of syphilis and was admitted to a Baltimore hospital. Eventually, in 1947, he died of cardiac arrest on his Florida estate (“Al Capone”). Although he lived a fairly short life, the impact he left on the American crime scene is not one to be overlooked.

While many individual gangsters held influence in the rising crime, many crime families emerged during the 1920s as part of Mafia groups. Often, these generally Italian crime families worked together to illegally produce and distribute alcohol. Even so, families also had violent disputes with each other, hoping to emerge as a leader in this alcohol trade. One of the most infamous of these incidents was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, where members of Al Capone’s family gunned down rivals from the Moran crime family while undercover as police officers (“Origins of Organized Crime”). With the rising crime and family involvement in organized crime, safety in big cities declined, and general morality became of less importance.

Due to the low morality and chaos brought into cities by the rise of crime in the 1920s, there were many attempts made to lower and/or stop the crime, some even successful. In 1929, after the stock market crash, Elliot Ness was hired to head the Prohibition bureau in Chicago as a special agent of the United States Department of Justice. His sole purpose in Chicago was to investigate and take down Capone, again showing how much power and influence Capone held. The men he hired to assist him were called the Untouchables, due to their extreme dedication and loyalty. After big raids of places of illegal activity, like speakeasies, they became known to the public and feared. Because of their success in infiltrating the underworld, they helped send Capone to prison with evidence of income-tax evasion (“Prohibition”). Since the government was beginning to really crack down on crime and had even caught one of the biggest crime bosses in America, people likely began to fear authority more and began to move away from committing large amounts of crime.

As much influence as gangsters like Capone and Torrio had in society during their time, the rise of crime that they influenced has also influenced crime scenes today. As the illegal distribution of alcohol was probably the largest source of crime in the 1920s, similarly, illegal drugs are widely distributed and very popular in modern America. Drug use in America leads to similar issues as alcohol did during the Jazz Age, such as gang violence, illegal ways to gain immense wealth, and many crime organizations with the sole purpose of distributing drugs. While authorities took down many gangsters, and gangs and the mafia are less prevalent today, organized crime still holds a role in modern society.

With the influence of prohibition leading to gangs, violence, and bootlegging, organized crime surfaced in the 1920s and still continues to be seen today. The rise of crime during the time of prohibition was so powerful that its influence still holds today, as organized crime is still present in modern society. While the outlaw of alcohol was hoped to bring better society and less crime, it did exactly the opposite and added to the rebellious sentiment of the Jazz Age.

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