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Unloading rolls of paper from a horse drawn cart. Nov 7th 1903.

[Detail] Unloading rolls of paper from a horse drawn cart. Nov 7th 1903.

Prohibition

Some of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reformers believed that most of the social ills plaguing American cities stemmed from the consumption of alcohol. They thought that if Americans would abstain from drinking, it would reduce crime and corruption, improve health, hygiene, and domestic tranquility, and empty the prisons and poorhouses, thereby relieving Americans of the tax burden of maintaining these institutions.

Such reformers formed temperance organizations to work together towards ending Americans' consumption of alcohol. Search on temperance for images pertaining to organizations such as the Dry Chicago Federation, the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, which led the campaign for a national prohibition of alcohol through a constitutional amendment.

  • In what ways did temperance organizations attempt to forward their cause?
  • How realistic do you find the idea that controlling or eliminating alcohol consumption can cure a host of societal ills?

Congress passed just such an amendment in January, 1918. The 18th Amendment took effect a year later, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Some historians contend, however, that prohibition only created a greater demand and even supply of alcohol. There was a great profit to be made in providing a forbidden product so people built their own stills and created networks of transportation and distribution through speakeasies. Chicago's most notorious gangster, Al "Scarface" Capone, built an empire from the sale of prohibited liquor despite the efforts of the Chicago police in raiding warehouses and speakeasies and destroying contraband liquor. Search on prohibition for more images.

Gangsters in Chicago, as in other large cities, not only violated prohibition laws but also hijacked one another's liquor shipments and gunned down rivals, often in bold daylight massacres. The most notorious mob confrontation occurred in Chicago in 1929 on St. Valentine's Day. Al Capone's gang, disguised as policemen, murdered members of the George "Bugs" Moran gang in a Chicago garage on North Clark Street. Search on gang and gangster for images related to the massacre and other gang-related incidents, as well as photographs of Capone, Moran, and others.

  • What kinds of events provided Chicago Daily News photographers with opportunities to photograph gangsters?
  • What do the photographs suggest about the roles and reputations of gangsters in Chicago?
  • To what extent did national prohibition stimulate gang activity?

Crime bosses like Capone, along with bootleggers, and owners of speakeasies often kept their illicit businesses going through bribery. Everyone from prominent politicians to cops on the street took cuts in the profits made from trafficking alcohol during prohibition. In Chicago, thousands of police and other officials were on the take, some of them getting over $1,000 a week. Search on bribery and corruption for images related to the graft, or bribery, cases that monopolized Chicago's courtrooms.

By 1931, Commissioner of Prohibition, Henry Anderson, was willing to admit:

"...the fruitless efforts at enforcement are creating public disregard not only for this law but for all laws. Public corruption through the purchase of official protection for this illegal traffic is widespread and notorious. The courts are cluttered with prohibition cases to an extent which seriously affects the entire administration of justice."

From Page 90, National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States.

Two years later the 18th Amendment was repealed.

  • What was prohibition intended to accomplish and how?
  • What were the actual consequences of prohibition?
  • Why do you think that prohibition failed?