Al Capone -- The Villain of Prohibition?

Dan Bryan, June 5 2012

Al CaponeNo man gained the notoriety of Al Capone during Prohibition

"I am like any other man. All I do is supply a demand." - Al Capone

More than any person, Al Capone was the face of lawlessness during the era of Prohibition. Perhaps nothing shows this better than the list of "Public Enemies" released by the Chicago Crime Commission in 1930. In this list, Al Capone was Public Enemy #1.

But was Al Capone really the villain responsible for the violence and lawlessness of Prohibition? Or was the disorder an inevitable consequence of the law itself?

Why were alcohol sales so profitable?

Before the start of Prohibition, alcohol was widely available in the United States. While drinking was common across the social spectrum of America, it was particularly concentrated in the working classes. Many saloons drew lunchtime patrons by offering free food with their liquor. Prices were generally low at such places -- the goal was simply to move quantity.

Once enforcement began, the overall supply of liquor dropped. The old saloons closed and new, secluded establishments emerged that catered to a wealthier crowd. At the same time, young women came to drink much more during Prohibition in comparison to previous era. Alcohol became a mark of glamor, and this combined with its scarcity made the prices skyrocket.

For those who were able to provide alcohol, of any kind, the potential for profits was immense.

How did Al Capone become the central figure?

Al Capone became the most notorious bootlegger because he built the best criminal organization. As with any market -- legitimate or not -- there are a huge number of business factors that go into the success or failure of any concern. His location in Chicago allowed Capone to build a centralized network, and gave him an advantage in relation to bootleggers in other cities.

Capone had a great distribution network and was able to supply a huge number of "speakeasies", or underground bars, during the 1920s. He used the profits from this venture to raise an army of foot-soldiers, perform other racketeering operations, and to co-opt the local police forces and politicians.

Capone was also very adept at killing and eliminating rivals. This was the source of much of his infamy. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is the most famous incident -- 7 rival gangsters were machine gunned dead in a Chicago garage on February 14, 1929.

St. Valentine's Day Massacre, 1929Aftermath of Capone's massacre of Bugs Moran's associates, on February 14, 1929

There were plenty of other gangsters who were wildly successful in the liquor business. For example, Bugs Moran thrived as a rival to Capone in Chicago, and was able to keep his organization intact for the duration of Prohibition. The only difference was the size of the organizations. Capone's was the largest and it wielded the most influence.

How violent were the 1920s?

Compared to the preceding decades, the 1920s were an extremely violent era. The murder rate increased steadily throughout the decade as conflict between the bootlegging gangs intensified.

U.S. Murder Rate, 1900-2000Annual U.S. murders per 100,000 people

The Thompson Machine Gun (i.e. the "Tommy-Gun") became a symbol of the era. Gangsters driving in cars made use of this weapon to devastating effect against rivals and the police. Efforts to stop the flow of the Tommy-Gun to the criminal classes were largely unsuccessful, though they did raise the prices.

How was this not Capone's doing?

In many ways, the policy of Prohibition made these results inevitable.

Far too many Americans disagreed with the policy to make enforcement viable. Obviously, a large number of them formed Capone's market. Others turned a blind eye to the charade. When bootleggers were caught with evidence and taken to trial, there were some juries that wouldn't vote to convict.

Even the lawmakers who brought Prohibition into effect were often drinkers themselves. Presidents Wilson and Harding both had a private supply of liquor and drank in the White House.

"No rumor could have exceeded the truth. . . . Trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey stood about," said one Harding associate of his time on the Oval Office, and the evidence supports her.

Many Congressmen continued to drink as well. A bootlegger named George Cassiday published an expose on his connections with politicians in 1930. It was widely understood that enforcement fell more heavily on the working class than the wealthy.

In this environment, with high prices and inconsistent enforcement, it was almost guaranteed that a thriving bootlegging business would begin. Only the names of the leading men were ever in doubt. If Al Capone had never been born, we'd be talking today about some other infamous bootlegger -- Dean O'Banion perhaps or Bugs Moran himself.

Did Al Capone have redeeming qualities?

One of Chicago's first Depression era soup kitchens was established by Al Capone. Some of the people who ate at his kitchen remarked that Capone had done more for them than any other relief effort in existence.

While his motives may have been as much related to public sympathy as personal empathy, Capone financed a number of other charities and organizations with his proceeds. He did not revel in his image as a gangster -- he saw himself as a public servant and was outraged to be named as "Public Enemy #1". And it must be said that in an environment in which the President drank and the overall demand for liquor was enormous, Al Capone really was serving a widespread public demand, as he frequently claimed.

Does Al Capone deserve the infamy that has attached itself to his name?

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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