The Prohibition era was probably one of the chaotic periods in the history of the United States. While the country was debating whether or not to do away with production, sale, and distribution of alcohol within its borders, those who had influence thought otherwise. Prohibition was officially enacted into law in early 1920 when the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified by the states (English 34). This paved the way for banning of any production, sale, and distribution of alcoholic drinks in the United States. While those who supported the enactment of the law thought its implementation was inexpensive and easy, those who held true influence on the American population had other thoughts. As the events before, during, and after the implementation would attest, the real power to influence the behavior and attitudes of American people was in the hands of a few individuals (Fopiano, Fopiano, and Harney 90).
Prior to the enactment of Prohibition laws, America had started falling into the hands of organized criminal organizations. The period saw the emergence of Italian, Jewish, and Irish mafias who not only had illegal operations running in the underworld, but also had engaged in massive secret recruitment of members into their organized criminal groups. These groups had well organized and systematic operations and structures that nobody dared question their illegality or operations (English 45). To acquire power and influence, individuals or organizations would seek the endorsement and support of the society in which they lived and operated. Sometimes this power is acquired through coercion and therefore would be termed illegitimate or may be through legitimate endorsement and support of the majority members of the society or state (Lupo 230). Irrespective of how the power is acquired, both parties would have a certain degree of influence on the daily lives of the members of the society. The leaders of these organizations (legitimate or not) would therefore play a big role in directing the path that the society takes (Repetto, “American Mafia” 67). However, the two groups can never share a common cause or goal on behalf of the society. It is common sense that the two parties will always seek to outdo each other in winning the hearts of the leaders, and thus will spend much time feuding and fighting each other. As the power battle between organized criminal groups and legitimately elected leaders during the Prohibition era will show, the real power may sometime lie in the hands of those we sometimes consider illegitimate ‘leaders’.
As the United States was busy considering whether to pass laws prohibiting manufacture, sale, and even distribution of alcohol within its borders in order to stop consumption of alcoholic beverages, organized criminal organizations were busy building alliances within and outside the government. The subsequent enactment of Prohibition laws was not only a godsend opportunity for the mafia organizations to make money but also provided an opportunity for these organizations to spread their tentacles in all sectors of the American society. As noted earlier, illegal organizations’ operations largely depend on the support extended by the society. The mafias led by such figures as Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, Alphonse “Al” Capone and Lucky Luciano not only mastered this practice but also perfected it and it was ultimately their profession throughout their lives (Fopiano, Fopiano, and Harney 96).
In their wisdom, these leaders thought it was wise and expedient to compromise a few individuals in the society whom they thought were upright and legitimate leaders in different sectors of American society (Repetto, “American Mafia”, 97). The main targets of these mafias were the people who worked in the police and intelligent forces, legislature, and judiciary. Through blackmail, bribery, and the development of mutually dependent relationships with other legitimate leaders and businesses, members of these powerful gangs became the true wielder of power in the American society during the Prohibition era (Repetto, “American Mafia” 89). These groups recruited more and more members who later ultimately adopted gangster lifestyles associated with all manner of ills including drug abuse. As a result, the number of people that sought help in drug treatment centers grew rapidly. Thus, these rackets were later integrated and accepted into the lawful American society while seeking protection from the corrupt legislatures, law enforcement officers, and legal counsels (Lupo 230).
The mafia groups in the United States emerged in early 1900 out of closely knit immigrant societies that had no trust in the American police and authorities. Majority of the members from these mafias consisted of individuals from Italian, Irish and Jewish descents. These individuals were new to the American culture and therefore found it convenient to cluster in certain neighborhoods of their own (Fopiano, Fopiano, and Harney 96). Most Americans were wary of the new immigrants flocking their country in the early years of 20th centuries, especially the ones who had difficulties in speaking and understanding English and thus they resorted to sidelining them (Rumbarger 109). On the other hand, the immigrants felt that the intolerant and crooked American police and authorities could not be trusted to provide their neighborhoods with protection and therefore, they resorted to grouping themselves in mafia groups (Lupo 230).
Just before the enactment of Prohibition laws, the influence of the mafia groups started becoming apparent to the rest of the Americans. Mafia leaders including Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, Al Capone and Lucky Luciano began exerting their influence in the American society by engaging in gambling, drug trafficking, extortion and prostitution business to generate income which would be used to silence the authorities and to recruit new members into their businesses (Repetto, “American Mafia” 98).
While it is true that the enactment of Prohibition law provided avenues for the expansion of mafias in the United States, it is also true that the leaders of these mafias had substantive influence even before prohibition. Through their illicit trades in gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking, and loan sharking, these gangs were able to draw a substantive profit that not only accorded them good life but was enough to buy politicians, business leaders, labor unions as well as law enforcement agencies. With their large illegally acquired incomes, the criminal leaders were able to fund individuals seeking local and national political offices with an aim of having people protect their businesses. With this kind of influence, the gangs promoted the adoption of Prohibition laws through organizations, for instance The National Temperance Council (Repetto, “Bringing Down” 256).
As soon as the United States finally adopted the Prohibition laws in order to prohibit sale of alcohol, the American mafia leaders led by the notorious Chicago Mafioso Al Capone, Johnny Torrio, Peter Licavoli, “Nucky” Johnson and Lucky Luciano moved in to seize the opportunity provided by the law. According to Fopiano, Fopiano, and Harney, prohibition not only offered the members of the mafias’ employment, good lives, new cars, and trendy suits but it also extended the overall influence of these leaders (97). In contrast to the money fetched by other racketeering business such as bookmaking, extortion, prostitution, and loan sharking, bootlegging produced too much in terms of profits. In other words, the prohibition law provided an atmosphere that could be exploited by the mafias to enrich themselves financially, fester their activities, develop new associates nationally, and expand their influence to all sectors of the society including politics (Dietche 89). It is important to note that these mafias were operating in American society which had legitimate government and authorities entrusted with power and to control all evils. This is certainly a pointer that the real power was wielded by these organized gangs at that time. Al Capone, one of the most influential leaders of the mafia groups, was born in 1899 in Brooklyn New York. After quitting school at 6th grade, Al Capone joined a street gang led by Johnny Torrio. Other members included Lucky Luciano, who later emerged to be influential and equally notorious mafia leaders (Rumbarger 103).
Al Capone first came to Chicago at the invitation of Torrio who had attained an influential position within the ranks of Colosimo mob. The group’s influence in Chicago was well known even before the Eighteenth Amendment. Apart from engaging in racketeering activities such as extortion, prostitution, gambling, and drug trafficking to get easy money, Al Capone and members of his Colosimo mob also ventured into legitimate businesses. The group particularly invested in dyeing and cleaning industry which enabled them to cultivate influence with not only the government and local leaders but also with the labor unions, law enforcement agencies, and employees’ associates. After the Eighteenth Amendment, the gang expanded their operations to illegal production, sale, and distribution of liquor and beer (Rumbarger 114). With the help of Al Capone, Torrio invested heavily in this godsend opportunity. When the leader of the gang died in violent attack by rival gang, Torrio assumed full leadership and made Capone his right hand man. However, Torrio did not last long as the leader after being wounded in a fight with other groups. He humbly handed over to Al Capone who became one of the most feared gang leaders in the entire Chicago. He ruthlessly drove away other rival gangs out of Chicago in order to own full racketeering rights in the entire area. Al Capone and his gang were known for eliminating or nullifying the influence of other rival groups not only in Chicago but across the country as they built networks and syndicates in other major cities (Fopiano, Fopiano, and Harney 98).
Lucky Luciano had substantial influence as well in New York during the early years after the Prohibition laws were enacted into law. However, he became more influential after the arrest and subsequent detention of Al Capone in mid 1930s. The arrest of Al Capone led to the disorientation of Chicago and the disappearance of the gang members. As a result, the center of focus shifted to New York where Lucky Luciano had all the power and influence akin to that of a king. He became the “boss of all bosses” as he started controlling all the mafia groups around the country .He is well known for transforming the illegal businesses operated at smoky bars and backrooms into large and more profitable businesses, thanks to his clout in business and political circles (Rumbarger 117).
The influence of Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was probably clear when he hosted a big conference in Atlantic City which resulted to the leadership of organized crimes during the Prohibition era. At the conference, were bosses of all major Italian and Jewish gangs in America whose lieutenants included such figures as Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, John Torrio, and Al Capone (Lupo 88). Old bosses in the businesses as well as organized criminal groups that had Irish connections were not invited. Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was not only powerful but also wielded a lot of influence in business and political circles. He assured the delegation hosted at his backyard Atlantic City, that there would be no interference of law enforcement authorities. Moreover, he displayed his wealth by paying for all the entertainment, accommodation, and food charges. Johnson’s promises were true since there was indeed no police interference and the delegates felt much at ease patrolling the beaches and the gardens of the luxurious Breaker Hotel (Rumbarger 109). This made the meeting an open secret as faces of a number of prominent members’ appeared on the papers the following morning. As a result, various questions emerged concerning why the police and other local authorities never reacted since they were known to be the wielders of power who never compromised (Repetto, “Bringing Down” 312).
A number of issues topped the agenda at this conference that are worth noting. These issues deal with the power and influence of the organized groups. Representation at the conference was very selective and those in attendance did not represent the face of American ethnically driven gangs. According to some historians, the fact that the conference drew attendance from only Jewish and Italian mafias was a pointer that the Irish American gangs that operated in parts of the country were coming to an end (English 78). Issues which were discussed in the meeting revolved on how to move forward after prohibition finally came to an end and how to eliminate Irish gangs who dominated racketeering business and had a lot of influence on politics and business operations in American bigger cities. Other issues that were discussed included how to expand the illicit liquor venture in order to reap maximum profit as well as how to reorganize and consolidate the underworld business into a larger National Crime Syndicate .It is interesting to note that these criminals were planning all these in full glare of a functioning government and police force. This seems to denote that it is true that our legitimate leaders were either humbled by their connections to these crooks, or were simply out of control (Rumbarger 105).
Additionally, it is also important to note that the profitability of the underworld trade in liquor and beer at the national scale fostered an atmosphere of widespread corruption within the American government, legislature, and law enforcement agencies to local leaders in most of the cities. According to Fopiano, Fopiano, and Harney, the provisions of the prohibition laws were considered by most members of the public, elected leaders, and law enforcement officials to lack any substantial moral authority (99). It is believed the passage of Prohibition into law provided a perfect platform for the relationship between political figures and the organized criminal groups to stabilize .Indeed, the interconnection between these two groups was seen for a long time even after the Prohibition repealed (Repetto, “American Mafia” 99).
It is argued that the enactment of prohibition law not only facilitated the growth of all powerful criminal organizations but also helped in consolidating power in the hands of these outlaw groups (Dietche 90). Thus, the criminal organizations illegitimately controlled and directed all sectors of the American society. While the period before enactment of prohibition also recorded a remarkable growth of racketeer activities that were equally profitable, the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment gave more power and influence to the organized crime groups in a manner that even the elected and law enforcement officials could not understand (Repetto , “American Mafia” 105). The law enforcement agencies and members of the Congress found themselves fighting allegations of colluding with criminal organizations to turning a blind eye on their operations in exchange of kickbacks. According to the estimates of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the dreaded Chicago criminal leader made about $105 million in annual income (Fopiano, Fopiano, and Harney 102). With this amount it is believed that more than half of the Chicago police forces were on their payroll in order to protect the businesses and members of his gang. In addition, the huge profits generated by the illegal liquor business across the country found its way into American legitimate businesses owned by politician and morally upright individuals .In essence, the criminal organizations spread their influence to sectors that the society considers legitimate as their activities integrated into mainstream social and economic activities of the society (Davis 89).
This discussion cannot leave out the role of politics in legitimizing criminal activities and subsequently, giving them power to control all sectors of our lives. Politicians who are legitimately authorized to exercise power have proven time and again that they can simply operate as stooges of criminal gangs and groups. The Prohibition era was no exception. As English notes, politicians and members of the Congress were at a loss on how to deal with the organized crime groups (56). It is interesting to note that while the criminal organizations of the Prohibition era were growing and engaging in illegal businesses and criminal activities, a few notable figures stood up to question the operations of these criminal gangs. Having entered into mutual relationships with these criminals to provide protection in exchange for election cash or votes, the leaders were compromised and thus, could only watch as the gangs terrorized member of the public (Davis 78).
Members of the congress and other political leaders could have also been bribed and therefore sworn to silence for fear of being blackmailed. It was not until the Wickersham Commission of 1930 that the political class started suppressing the urge to be compromised by easy money, which generated from illicit business operations (English 56). However, Congress’s reluctance to deal with the menace of criminal organizations continued throughout the Prohibition and even after the abolition of the prohibition laws (Repetto, “American Mafia” 78). Even after the prohibition laws came to an end in 1933, the criminal leaders of 1930s understood the rule of the game that, to wield power and influence, strong political connection was important and that inter-gang wars were a waste of time. Like in the previous decade, the elected leaders and law enforcement officials provided a free zone for the organized criminal groups of 1930s to manifest and diverse their businesses which now included gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking as well as labor racketeering (Fopiano, Fopiano, and Harney 102).
It can be argued that the true owners of power and influence are not those in authority or power. It can rightly be put that majority of those who are in position of power are sometimes compromised to do against the wishes and expectation of the majority. This is caused by one major factor which is greed. As the events of the Prohibition era have indicated, even in democratic societies, power and influence can be exercised by illegitimate bodies and organizations which tend to control and dictate the events and activities in the society. Legitimately elected and appointed leaders and bodies may sometimes fail to provide leadership by simply abdicating their powers to other illegal bodies that control and dictate how they work. Therefore, in the eyes of the public the real wielder of power and influence are those in position of power and authority; however, this is not always the case as illegal groups may equally wield power and influence by simply controlling the pockets of the elected leaders. It therefore asks the question, is money a key determinant of where true power rests?