All I do is to supply a public demand … somebody had to throw some liquor on that thirst. Why not me?
-- Al Capone
On January 20th, 1920, “The Noble Experiment” officially took effect, and though authorities granted America’s imbibers one last day to knock back a cocktail or three or twelve, it would be thirteen years before we came to our senses and finally repealed the disastrous Volstead Act and brought prohibition to an end.
The social forces that brought about prohibition have been widely documented, with the infamous Carry Nation, six foot tall and wielding a hatchet to bust up saloons, as the legendary face of the temperance movement. But many chronicles neglect that it wasn’t just a band of angry women who ushered in the law. Like so much in American history and politics, the train of Prohibition would never have left the station had social and political elites not gotten behind the idea, mainly as a way to keep the working class in line. Because the problem with alcohol wasn’t the responsible consumption of fine wines, Cognac and whiskey at the Club, it was rowdy drinkers busting up tenements and gritty dives and, perhaps even more importantly, coming into work their factory jobs worse for the wear and affecting the profits of people like Henry Ford, a prominent advocate for taking the nation dry.
It was also apparent, rather quickly, that the government hadn’t really thought this whole make America stop drinking thing through. As the Volstead Act went into effect, there were only 1,500 enforcement agents assigned to combat violations for the entire country, or about 50 for each state. America, dry or not, had a powerful thirst, and 1,500 agents probably wasn’t enough to stop the sale, manufacture or importation of alcoholic beverages into New York or Detroit alone. For the entire nation, this paltry level of enforcement of a widely unpopular law led to a number of unintended consequences.
First, of course, was the very temporary destruction of America’s nightlife, restaurants and entertainment districts. Without the margins provided by the sale of booze, New York’s two biggest night clubs folded almost immediately, and Delmonico’s, for many decades considered the best restaurant in America, went under soon after. But people still wanted to go out and eat, drink and be merry. Enter the speakeasy.
Next, came the democratization of the bar. Prior to prohibition, drinkers mostly kept to their own type or social class; with the rise of speakeasies, longshoreman and lawyer alike were bellying up to the same speakeasies or buying their clandestine bottle from the same hood on the street. Women were welcomed into drinking establishments for the first time; saloons could keep the fairer sex outside, but speaks didn’t care for those sort of social niceties.
Never before or since has there been a law so widely flaunted, by so many, with comparatively so little consequence. Legal or not, America was going to get its drink on, and get it on throughout prohibition we did. New York alone was estimated to have over 100,000 illegal drinking establishments operating during Prohibition. There was so much drinking going on, that by the close of the 1920s, Henry Ford had started to advocate for repeal, to help the country limit its drinking.
But the biggest -- and longest lasting (aside from the almost complete destruction of American Cocktail Culture) -- effect of Prohibition was the rise of modern organized crime. Almost since the dawn of America, gangs in major cities had organized themselves around ethnic lines (see The Gangs of New York, etc.), but Prohibition provided a huge leg up that allowed crime syndicates, particularly but certainly not limited to, the Mafia, to evolve into sophisticated criminal enterprises, skilled at smuggling, money laundering and bribing police and other public officials.
There was serious money to be made in illegal liquor, and no one exploited that trade more than Al Capone, who made somewhere in the realm of $60-$100 million a year during prohibition from his alcohol related business alone. All that cash needed to be cleaned up, bribes needed to be paid to keep the law at bay, and enforcers were needed to not only keep people in line, but to protect the trade from others determined to take their own piece of the pie.
It was the lessons learned and contacts made during prohibition that allowed the Mob to expand its labor rackets (somebody had to move those bottles and kegs), expand its gambling operations (casinos and drinking go hand-in-hand) and prostitution (your neighborhood cathouse did better business when lubricated with liquor). And, when prohibition ended, the lessons learned about the smuggling and distribution of a prohibited, but much desired, intoxicant were invaluable for the trade in narcotics and other drugs.
Even more importantly, the profits -- and associated violence to steal and protect those profits -- led the Mafia to actually sit down and create a structure to keep the money flowing and the internal bloodshed to a minimum. Suddenly there were rules in place to keep the criminal enterprises running smoothly and methods to resolve disputes other than the business end of a Tommy Gun.
And, of course, because Prohibition shuttered 507 distilleries, 1,217 breweries and 180,000 saloons overnight, any previously legitimate business operator in the liquor realm who wished to continue plying his life’s trade had to suddenly become a gangster in his own right, paying bribes, buying product from the organized crime groups and protecting his turf from interlopers. Most legitimate operators were ill-equipped for such things, so there was protection paid to the Mob, in addition to the cost of booze, and the Mob got its hooks into the restaurant and bar trade -- an excellent place to launder cash -- for generations.
The failure of Prohibition wasn’t just about drinking. It created the model for American organized crime that flourished into the late 2oth Century and still exists in some form today. It also taught lessons that have been absorbed by the various street gangs and cartels that control the modern illegal drug trade in America. El Chapo doesn’t exist without Al Capone, and the spectacular failure of “The War on Drugs” should have been an obvious and foregone conclusion to anyone who has ever watched The Untouchables. As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum, and if there is a market for a product, legal or not, someone is always going to fill the demand. And profit handsomely.