My father and another man owned a small meat packing business in Freeport, Wisconsin during the 1920s and the Great Depression. They, like so many small businesses, went bankrupt during the depression.
Freeport lies 133 miles northwest of Chicago. My father delivered meat to various stores, etc., in and around Freeport and all the way to Chicago. Some of Al Capone’s speakeasies in Chicago were among his customers. My father never met any of the bootleggers or gangsters. Probably the closest he ever came to one was when he went to see a movie on the evening of July 21, 1934 at the Biograph Theatre on the north side of Chicago. It was the following night, in front of the Biograph Theatre, that federal agents gunned down John Dillinger. Ironically, the movie playing was “Manhattan Melodrama,” a gangster movie featuring Clark Gable and William Powell.
America was at that time—1920-1933—conducting what was called a “noble experiment”—prohibition. “National prohibition of alcohol . . . was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America.” It failed in every area. In fact, many believe that all prohibition did accomplish was to make organized crime big business.
Prohibition became the law of the land with ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution on January 16, 1919. The amendment prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes . . . .” Mississippi was the first state to ratify the amendment (January 7, 1918). The necessary number of states ratifying the amendment was reached, when Nebraska became the 36th of the 48 states then in the Union to ratify it on January 16, 1919.
Prohibition divided the nation into camps. Those who supported prohibition were known as “dries.” Those who opposed it were known as “wets.” The dries were led by rural Protestants and social Progressives in both the Democratic and Republican parties. They saw it as a victory for the improvement of public health and morals. The wets opposed prohibition as an attempt to impose largely rural and Protestant values on urban centers with large immigrant and Catholic populations.
Although there was widespread support for the Eighteenth Amendment, at least initially, there was significant opposition. The amendment left it to the federal and state governments to pass the necessary legislation to enforce the ban. Congress acted by passing the National Prohibition Act, commonly referred to as the Volstead Act, over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto in October, 1919.
The Volstead Act went into effect at midnight on January 17, 1920. The first documented violation occurred just fifty-nine minutes later, when $100,000 worth of “medicinal” whiskey was hijacked from two railroad freight cars in Chicago.
It was near impossible to enforce prohibition. Most citizens simply ignored the law. Prohibition did succeed in making lawbreakers out of ordinary, law-abiding citizens, while at the same time lowering respect for law in general. Ordinary working-class people felt that they were being deprived of their occasional glass of beer or shot of whiskey by the upper classes that had easy access to as much as they wished to consume.
There was little enthusiasm among federal, state, and local law enforcement to enforce prohibition. Congress provided funds to hire a mere 1,500 agents to prevent 125 million people from having a drink of liquor or a glass of beer. A federal judge ruled that physicians could prescribe liquor for “medicinal” purposes, resulting in an average of 10 million such prescriptions per year. Some doctors sold blank prescription books.
Even if violators were arrested, it was difficult to get a conviction. Of 7,000 arrested in New York during given period, only 17 were convicted and none sentenced to jail. Juries often refused to convict violators. In San Francisco a jury drank up the evidence, thus forcing the judge to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.
Disrespect for the law reached the highest levels of government. Both Presidents Woodrow Wilson and his successor kept private stashes of liquor in the White House. One attorney general serving under Harding accepted bribes from bootleggers. An ingenious entrepreneur named George Cassidy was the unofficial bootlegger to Congressmen and Senators. He made regular daily deliveries, as many as 25 a day, to House and Senate offices. Cassidy wore a trademark green hat so that capitol police would recognize him and not interfere with his business. He operated his enterprise for five years in the House grounds before transferring to the Senate office building for another five years.
Americans made folk heroes out of gangsters who risked their freedom to quench the public’s thirst for alcoholic beverages. They weren’t gangsters so much as they were Robin Hood like defenders of the public’s right to drink what he or she pleased against a too intrusive government. “I violate the Prohibition law, sure,” Al Capone admitted. “Who doesn’t? The only difference is that I take more chances than the man who drinks a cocktail before dinner and a flock of highballs after it. But he’s just as much a violator as I am.”
It is impossible to speak of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition without mentioning Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone. “Only twenty-nine and at the height of his power,” writes journalist Nathen Miller, “Capone held a near monopoly on bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, and labor racketeering in the Chicago area.”
When Frank J. Loesch, reformer and founder of the Chicago Crime Commission, wanted to have an honest election in Chicago in November, 1928, he went to Capone and asked, “Will you help me by keeping your damned cutthroats and hoodlums from interfering with the polling booths?”
“All right,” answered Capone, “I’ll have the cops send over squad cars the night before the election and jug all the hoodlums and keep ‘em in the cooler until the polls close.”
Chicago police went through the streets the night before the election and rounded up known lawbreakers. Seventy police cars cruised city streets on the day of the election. Capone honored his word. Loesch later recalled, “It turned out to be the squarest and most successful election in forty years. There was not one complaint, not one election fraud and no threat of trouble all day.” Chicago was Capone’s city.
Capone was a successful businessman, if also a gangster. The Office of the U.S. Attorney in 1925 estimated Capone’s annual income at $105 million, or approximately $1.5 billion in 2015. He knew how to prosper in a free economy. “I am like any other man,” he once said. “All I do is supply a demand.” Adam Smith discovered the law of supply and demand; Al Capone knew how to exploit it. “Prohibition,” he said, “has made nothing but trouble.” He recognized that there was a demand for a product that could not be obtained through legitimate channels. Like a good capitalist, he became the supplier. “When I sell liquor,” said Capone, “it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality.”
Capone did not believe that competition between criminal gangs should include murder. “There was, and there is, plenty of business for all,” he said. But a smile went only so far. A smile backed up by a gun was sometimes necessary. When rivals refused Capone’s peace terms, he simply had them gunned down.
Hymie Weiss, leader of the North Side Gang, rejected Capone’s peace overtures, he and several of his associates were gunned down in broad daylight. Capone, who everyone knew ordered the hit, said that “Hymie Weiss is dead because he was bull-headed.” Always conscious of his public image, Capone paid the medical expenses of an innocent bystander injured during the raid. He also paid for damages done to shops in the area.
Capone made one fatal mistake as a business man; he failed to pay taxes on criminal income. The Supreme Court ruled 1927 that even illegally earned income was taxable. Capone was arrested and convicted of income tax evasion in 1931. In addition to being sentenced to eleven years in prison, he was fined $50,000 plus $7,692 for court costs. He also owed the IRS $215,000 plus interest in back taxes.
Capone was 33 and suffering syphilis, gonorrhea, and cocaine addiction, when he entered prison in May, 1932. He was paroled in November, 1939 after serving just over seven years of his eleven year sentence. His progressive mental decline resulting from syphilis was evident even before his release and retirement to his estate at Palm Island, Florida. He died January 25, 1947. Only months before a psychiatric examination revealed that he had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old child.
A little known aspect of Capone’s life was his love of music. He was a fan of opera and jazz. He played the banjo and mandola. While at Alcatraz he played banjo in the prison band, the Rock Islanders that gave concerts for inmates on Sundays. He even wrote a love song, Madonna Mia, which was recorded in 2009.
Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and always live under the mercy.