Prohibition Leads to the Rise of Organized Crime
Until the 20th century, America had next to no history of organized crime as the term is understood today. American cities had plenty of gangs, but they were local affairs, comprised of street thugs whose reach and influence seldom extended beyond a radius of a few city blocks. Irish immigrants in particular had dominated the street gang scene in the 19th century, as dramatized in the 2002 Hollywood epic, Gangs of New York.
As new waves of immigration reached America’s shores, the Irish gangs found themselves rubbing shoulders with, then gradually getting shouldered out of the way, by other ethnic street gangs. By the early 20th century, Italian gangs had been established in numerous American cities, particularly in the northeast, and most notably in New York City. Like their Irish predecessors, the Italian gangs were small scale operations of no particular distinction to set them apart from other ethnic gangs. Their operations were confined to Italian neighborhoods, where they preyed upon Italian immigrants in a variety of ways, such as protection rackets, prostitution, theft, and robbery.
That changed dramatically in 1920, with the commencement of Prohibition, banning the manufacture, transport, or sale of alcohol. Unfortunately, the mere act of declaring alcohol illegal did not reduce the high public demand for booze. What it did was skew societal attitudes, and create an environment of widespread public tolerance of crime in order to provide the masses with the alcohol they craved.
Essentially, Prohibition took the alcohol industry – a major American industry that had operated legally until then – and gifted it, along with its enormous and now untaxed revenue, to the criminal world. Legal and relatively well regulated (and taxed) enterprises that had operated the American alcohol industry were driven out of business. Their place was taken by organized crime, whose profits from alcohol enabled them to increase their other illegal activities such as racketeering, prostitution, the growing field of illegal narcotics, gun running, etc. The profits also enabled organized crime to corrupt the American political and criminal justice system to failed state levels, by showering bribes upon politicians, officials, cops, and judges.
Similar to illegal narcotics today, the profits that could be made from illegal alcohol were astronomical, and seemingly overnight, bootlegging became irresistible to criminal organizations across America. Their task was made easier by much of the public, as well as many cops and politicians, who did not see the sale or consumption of alcohol as particularly venal or morally blameworthy.
The end result was a boost to organized crime in general, and to Italian organized crime in particular. In this new environment, Italians gangsters found themselves particularly well positioned to take advantage of the situation and prosper beyond their wildest dreams. What set Italian gangsters apart from other ethnic criminal was the mafia in the Old Country. Thanks to the mafia, ethnic Italian criminals in the US could draw upon a tradition of sophisticated, organized, hierarchical, and disciplined criminal organizations.
Unlike their ethnic criminal competitors, Italian gangsters not only had an effective model to replicate, but also experienced personnel who could readily duplicate the Old Country’s system in the US. Prohibition was eventually repealed in 1933, and the American alcohol industry was restored to well-regulated legality. By then, however, modern organized crime, and the Italian-American mafia, had become well established and well nigh ineradicable. They remain with us to this day.