USA gangsters



The Volstead Act in 1921 banned the sale and transportation of non-industrial and non-medicinal alcohol.  Twelve years later the Volstead Act or Eighteenth Amendment was repealed.  The violent excesses of gangsters were an unintended consequence of prohibition.  Gang violence is quoted as an important reason why the American public turned against prohibition.   Respectable Americans may have been dismayed by urban lawlessness but more important and relevant was the need for extra tax revenue.  The crash of the Stock Market in 1929 precipitated an economic depression.  Business opportunities and jobs became scarce.  Government investment was needed to develop the infrastructure and boost the economy.   Gangster violence did not prevent people wanting to drink, and drink the Americans did.  When a recreational drug is banned the alternative sought and chosen is usually more potent and dangerous.  Heroin emerged as an alternative to cocaine.  As cocaine was targeted by the law and restricted supplies became expensive, crack became the more potent option.   Many of the American drinkers of the 1920s shifted from beer to liquor although beer drinking remanded popular in Chicago and New York.   Al Capone regarded beer sales as his main and staple source of income.  His beer reached 20,000 speakeasies.

Prohibition alcohol, unlike crack, was not a cheap alternative.  The alcohol from bootleggers varied in price but it was always more expensive than what was available before the Volstead Act.  On occasions prohibition alcohol was six times higher.   Even moonshine was three to four times more expensive than it had been before prohibition.   Alcohol consumption did fall under prohibition.   By the end of the 1920s decade alcohol consumption had fallen by a third but this was the consequence of economic hard times and high prices for an illicit product.  The thirst remained.  

To cope with demand, bootleggers were prepared to distill and supply rough alcohol.  Added fruit juice may have disguised the harsh taste but what remained was not a drink for conossiers.   Because it was cheaper, bootleggers used tax free industrial alcohol.  Production of industrial alcohol increased from 28 million gallons in 1920 to 81 million in 1925.  Chief prohibition enforcer Lincoln Andrews estimated that 90% of all bootleg liquor contained an element of industrial alcohol.  There were casualties amongst consumers.  Some died from drinking bad booze, and others were crippled with something called jake leg.  In 1930 the streets of Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Cincinatti had fifty thousand people limping around on jake legs.   Branded booze was imported from Canada and Mexico but the consignments also included unregulated liquor distilled by amateurs.  Al Capone and Johnny Torrio, with the help of their contacts in New York, established alcohol caravans from the East Coast to Chicago.  The route from Canada included a distribution centre in Detroit.  Much of the booze, though, was stored in dozens of boats moored on the east coast and in international waters that were beyond the three mile limit.  The boats made a line from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Norfolk, Virginia.  The Mexican imports came into Chicago via Nassau in the Bahamas.  Capone at one stage thought of retiring to the Bahamas.  Or so he said.  According to a Prohibition Bureau estimate, only 5% of imported alcohol was prevented from being sold during prohibition.  The rural Carroll County in Maryland exported moonshine as far as Chicago.  Delivering the hooch from rural counties was hazardous because of rival gangs and prohibition agents.  Farmers risked losing their farms if caught driving a vehicle loaded with moonshine.   200 of the 500 licensed saloons in 1922 were cited for violations.  Prohibition agents were criticised for being violent but so were the times.  

Scenes of affluent couples having cocktails and a martini before dinner have featured in a truckload of 20th Century American novels.   Writers use these scenes to establish both intimacy and discord.   The tradition of cocktails at home began during prohibition.   The illicit nature of drinking plus an expanding economy narrowed the demarcation between the genders.   Women visited nightclubs and saloons.  Their unrestrained behaviour and the encouragement of their men were important to a party spirit that was defined as the jazz age.  African Americans were given jobs in the illegal distilleries.  Tending stills, the African Americans were the favourites to be arrested when the distilleries were raided by the police and prohibition agents.   An understaffed Prohibition Bureau that lacked the resources to succeed against middle class offenders also targeted African Americans because it boosted the number of sorely needed convictions.  The law courts were not equipped to deal with the extra hearings.  The impact on court timetables was perhaps not crucial in the fight against crime but it must have undermined the prosecution of the white gangsters that controlled bootlegging.  The Prohibition Bureau in New York City had 129 officers.   The requirement was 1500.  In 1923 the New York State repealed the state’s enforcement act.  After 1923 the only enforcement of prohibition in the most populous state in the USA came from a bureau that had less than 10% of the required staff.  28 states had abandoned prohibition enforcement by 1927. 

By 1924 the argument over prohibition had a geographical dimension.  In the cities the majority of people were wet supporters.  The rural communities favoured the dry legislation.  In the cities the more elegant restaurants and saloons were often converted to tea rooms.  In the south the Ku Klux Klan attacked and destroyed rural distilleries.   The battle cry of the Klan was ‘drive the bootleggers out.’  Some Klan members admitted, though, that membership was attractive because it gave them access to free alcohol.  The Prohibition Bureau may have been understaffed but in the years of prohibition it did manage to seize 5014 vehicles that were transporting alcohol.

Apart from organised crime the Volstead Act was compromised through behaviour that accountants, when talking about tax, like to call evasion.   Medicinal alcohol was legal.  So many prescriptions were issued for medicinal alcohol that drug stores or chemists were regarded as liquor stores.  In 1916 the pharmacies owned by Charles Windgreen numbered nine.  In 1929 he owned 525 pharmacies.  Malt extract when fermented with sugar and water becomes alcoholic beer.   The sales of malt extract throughout prohibition remained high even though home stills in working class homes had to be small and, because of the law, hidden.  Frankie Yale was the New Yorker identified as the killer of Chicago gangster Big Jim Colosimo.  Yale paid amateur brewers $15 a day to operate stills in their homes. Because the operation of a still did not require daily attention, the wages for a home brewer can be calculated on the basis of $15 a day for 365 days a year.  This provides to individual brewers an income of $5475 a year.  The average yearly income in 1920s in the USA was just over $3200.  Not every home brewer would have been able to secure payment for 365 days but the going rate was more than would have been earned by most people in legitimate employment.

The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment was formed in 1918.  The founders were business leaders, and their magazine Freedom was circulated to upmarket country clubs in the east.   Membership of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment had reached 150,000 by 1930.  In the same year a Literary Digest ballot revealed that 29% favoured modifying the Volstead Act, 40% wanted the Amendment to be repealed, and the rest supported prohibition.  Repeal was also backed by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Federation of Labour.   In 1932 the Literary Digest organised a ballot of 4.7 million.  73% of those mailed favoured the end of prohibition.

Pauline Sabin was the wife of a banker and lived in a 28 room mansion on Long Island.  Sabin was articulate, bright, imperious and had a voice that suited radio.  She was important in the movement against prohibition and in 1929 created the Women’s Organisation for National Prohibition Reform.  Within twelve months the organisation had 400,000 members.  By 1933 the number had increased to a million.  Franklin Roosevelt initially sidestepped the issue of prohibition but in 1932 the Democratic National Convention mandated for repeal.   While networking and debating the rights and wrongs of prohibition the Democrat delegates consumed 5000 bottles of liquor.  

Roosevelt was upper class but adopting the repeal of prohibition in his presidential campaign increased his appeal amongst the young and the working class.  He was inaugurated on March 4th 1933.    Nine days later Roosevelt proposed that selling beer and wine containing 3.2% alcohol should be permitted.  And nine days after that on March 22 1933 he signed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act.  The Prohibition Bureau was abolished in the summer of 1933.   In December of 1933 the Federal Alcohol Control Administration Unit was ratified by the required number of state delegates.  The passing of the 21st Amendment meant that the sale of distilled spirits could be sanctioned by states.  By early 1934 most states had adopted the new alcohol policies.  Congress incorporated most of the provisions of the Beer and Wine Revenue Act into the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935.   Brewers had to produce according to certain manufacturing standards, recognise labour unions and ban tied houses.   In 1936 the taxes on beer and distilled spirits brought in 13% of federal tax revenues.   Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi remained legally dry until after the second world war.  Mississippi was the last state to end prohibition.   This occurred in 1966 and around the time marijuana and LSD were becoming popular amongst American students.  Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935.   The attitude to alcohol abuse is now regarded as a thereapuetic issue for the individual.  The organisation Mothers Against Drunk Driving, though, was a response to the deaths of children in road accidents.  The immigration of the 1980s and 1990s has been credited with reducing subsequent alcohol per capita consumption in the USA but similar trends exist elsewhere.  

Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Long After This is now available here.



This Chicago empire builder was born on the 20th of January in 1882.  His father died two years later.  Many self-made men experience the loss of a parent.   Perhaps the premature death of his father shaped the willpower, ambition and self-belief of Johnny Torrio.  Maybe it was nothing more than Johnny being clever and having a hard knocks New York background and subsequent business opportunities.   His mother was called Maria.  The family had a comfortable existence in Irsina, Italy, but after the loss of her husband that changed.  Maria brought her infant son to America.   The teenage Johnny joined low level New York street gangs.   His financial and organisational skills enabled him to accrue enough money to open a billiard parlour.  From there he operated loan schemes and gambling.   The progress and acumen of Torrio were noted, and he was invited to join the Five Points Gang.   This organisation not only owned brothels and saloons but had connections with corrupt New York politicians.

The consensus amongst writers is that Big Jim Colosimo invited Torrio to Chicago because of the extortion threats Big Jim had been receiving from the Black Hand gangs.  It is odd that a Chicago empire that ran gambling and prostitution and had close connections with corrupt politicians would have needed to import rough house expertise.   Johnny Torrio was good at making money and managing negotiations but he had no objections to others being violent on his behalf.  Torrio had been christened Donato.  Apart from the self-adopted Johnny he acquired nicknames.  ‘The Fox’ and ‘Terrible Torrio’ reveal his authority.  If he did not carry a gun, he always knew men that did.  He also had a chilly authority that intimidated.  One can imagine Johnny Torrio as a master of the awkward supplementary question.   But Big Jim Colosimo was not without presence either, and his progress had benefited from his ability to recruit capable people.  Big Jim knew how to collect allies.  Maybe it was this skill that encouraged Big Jim to recruit from New York.  We are entitled to wonder.  Our curiosity is not confined to Big Jim and his motives.   Little has been revealed about why Torrio wanted to leave the successful criminal enterprises of New York to do more of the same in Chicago.  The move, though, was beneficial for Torrio.  

In 1920 and eleven years after Johnny Torrio arrived in Chicago the man that recruited him was no more. Prohibition had not long arrived when Big Jim Colosimo was found shot dead close to the cloakroom of his restaurant.  This is not regarded as a coincidence.   He may not have fired the bullets but Johnny Torrio is the number one suspect in the killing of Colosimo.  Neither Torrio nor anyone else was charged by the police for the murder.   A witness identified Frankie Yale as the assassin.  Later the witness retracted his statement.  Frankie Yale was from New York and was in Chicago when Big Jim was shot and murdered.  Yale knew both Torrio and Capone.  

Torrio had recruited Capone from New York.  Capone arrived in Chicago and worked in the Four Deuces, a brothel that was owned by Torrio.  Capone was working alongside Torrio and running the business left by Colosimo a mere five months after his arrival in Chicago.  Johnny Torrio seized rather than inherited the Big Jim empire.   Torrio added large scale bootlegging to the existing gambling and prostitution rackets.    In the early years of prohibition the criminals that had territorial rights in the different areas of Chicago cooperated with Torrio and created conditions for peace.  Torrio and Capone had moved quickly to take over the breweries of firms that had been legal suppliers of beer.  Torrio and Capone did not acquire a monopoly in brewing beer but the capture of the Manhattan, Stege, Pfieffer, Standard, Gambrinus and Hoffman breweries made the two New Yorkers important.  Other Chicago gangs used the beer that Torrio and Capone brewed, and Torrio and Capone needed the other gangs to buy the beer.   The meetings in 1920 that agreed how business would be divided amongst the various parties were chaired by Torrio and had Capone in attendance.   In 1923 the reformist William Emmett Dever was elected Mayor of Chicago.  Torrio and Capone transferred the headquarters to neighbouring Cicero.  Rather than restrict the activities the move facilitated business expansion by Torrio and Capone.  

Although his beginnings were modest, he began by stealing a liquor truck, Dean O’Banion was able to develop a substantial bootlegging business.  He was in control of an area covered by seven police districts.  Within this area was the affluent north eastern surburbs of Chicago.   Capone and Torrio had busy downtown and some suburbs of south and west chicago.   The Genna gang operated in an area covered by two police districts.   This territory existed alongside the western border of the area managed by Dean O’Banion.   The Genna gang encroached into the area covered by O’Banion.  Sometimes they tried to market their liquor and on others they would steal O’Banion alcohol    Movies often portray the battle between the O’Bannion/Moran and Torrio/Capone gangs as a struggle for total control of the liquor business.   Twelve separate gangs had demarcated bootlegging territories in Chicago in 1924.  In 1920 the intention of Johnny Torrio had been to establish a cartel in order to avoid violence and destructive conflict.  That intention informed all subsequent discussions, disputes and conferences between Chicago gangsters.   The violence happened because the cartel was dysfunctional and too many treacherous hotheads were prone to take offence and create borderland disputes.

O’Banion was the son of Irish immigrants.  He believed that the disciplinary responsibilities of Torrio included controlling the behaviour of other Italian gangs.   Torrio either did nothing to restrain the Genna gang or was ineffectual.  The resentment in O’Banion festered, and cartel partners became rivals.   The partners in the cartel still had shared business interests.   They worked together to control the mayoral election of Cicero in 1924 although even this led to bitter disputes about which speakeasy and brothel belonged to whom.  O’Banion was soft spoken but he provoked Torrio twice.   He attempted to frame Torrio and Capone with the killing of John Duffy, a man that had murdered his wife and had been attempting to flee from Chicago.  When this ruse failed O’Banion pretended later that he was retiring.  He offered to sell Torrio a brewery and invited Torrio to inspect the premises.  O’Banion knew, though, that the brewery would be raided by the police when they were present.  Torrio was arrested and taken to the cells.  The stay in prison for Torrio was short but money was lost and pride hurt.  

The behaviour of the Genna gang remained a sensitive issue.  Torrio, as the coordinator of all Chicago bootlegging, or as head of the cartel, received a percentage of all receipts from bootlegging sales.  The receipts from the Genna gang one week were exceptional and either Torrio or Capone decided that the marker on a previous debt incurred by the Genna gang could be ignored.  O’Banion insisted that the debt had to be repaid.   The Gennas took offence at the behaviour of O’Banion.  This detail reveals how business intimacy and not just rivalry existed between the alternative gangs.   O’Banion was assassinated.  Hymie Weiss was the partner of O’Banion.  He decided that the assassination was organised by Torrio and the Gennas.   Weiss retaliated by seeking vengeance against both Capone and Torrio.   Bugsy Moran and Vincent ‘Schemer’ Drucci were present at the attack on Torrio.  Drucci is famous for an escapade when he jumped his car over a jackknifed bridge.  The attack on Torrio and his wife occurred on January 25th 1925, two weeks after the killing of O’Banion.  Torrio was left with five bullets in his face and chest.  His wife escaped unhurt.  Torrio recovered from the shooting but, like the Russian generals in War And Peace that Tolstoy admired, he decided to retreat.  Torrio took his wife on a European vacation.   His intention was to settle in Italy and perhaps he would have done if Mussolini had not pledged to confront organised crime.  

The extent to which Torrio remained involved in the bootlegging business is not clear.  He visited Capone in prison and there were periods when he made weekly trips to Palm Island in Miami where Capone lived.  The St Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929 triggered a need for a conference to broker a fresh peace.  This happened in Atlantic City.  Torrio chaired that conference.   He had respect from previous colleagues and has subsequently been described as an elder statesman.  That term does not preclude Torrio having investments in criminal enterprises that yielded income or him even operating as a remote manager and benefiting from the high profiles of Capone and other egotists.   He is rumoured to have overseen the establishment of the New York criminal cartel called the Big Seven.  Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky were two of the seven.  Johnny Torrio died in 1957 and while being shaved in the chair of his barber.  Gangsters were frequent visitors to barbers.  Most had a weekly ritual of a shave, a hair trim and gossip.  A barber shop would have been a pleasant place to die.  Johnny Torrio was seventy-five years old when he died.   He outlived Al Capone by a decade.   Subpoenas were issued for Torrio to be a witness in the trial of Capone.   Torrio attended court but he was not used as a witness.  The prosecution team against Capone must have decided that cross examining a man known as The Fox was not without risks.   Apart from his criminal activities Johnny Torrio led a quiet life and was a faithful husband.  The comforts that were enjoyed by Torrio and his wife were paid for by men and woman who had other needs.  

Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Long After This is now available here.