10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked

10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked

Patrick Lynch - January 28, 2018

The so-called Roaring Twenties was a pivotal decade in the history of the United States. It marked significant and political upheaval as the nation recovered well in the aftermath of World War I. From 1920 to 1929, America’s wealth doubled as the country marched forward on its path to becoming a superpower.

The 19th Amendment in 1920 enabled women to vote while the 18th Amendment, a ban on the sale of ‘intoxicating liquors,’ heralded the beginning of the Prohibition Era. On January 16, 1920, the Volstead Act closed every saloon, bar, and tavern in the U.S. However, this act didn’t turn America into a ‘dry’ nation; quite the opposite. For a start, the Volstead Act didn’t make alcohol consumption illegal; only the manufacture and sale were classified as crimes. As a result, a lot of clubs and bars stockpiled booze before the ban began. New York’s Yale Club apparently had more than a decade’s worth in its basement.

For all the excitement about America’s economic growth as consumer culture took hold, a number of pretty awful things happened during the Roaring Twenties. This included shocking murders, a backward step in education, the rise of organized crime, and finally, the Wall Street Crash that brought the United States to its knees.

10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked
Enjoy illicit booze during prohibition – NY Daily News

1 – Prohibition Was a Disastrous Law

Herbert Hoover referred to prohibition as a ‘noble experiment’ when it became clear that it had failed. In reality, it was an utter catastrophe as it only caused people to drink more. Other consequences include the growth of organized crime, which is on page three, and a descent into a moral abyss. The last fact is rather ironic when you consider the reason prohibition was introduced was to eliminate the ‘great evil’ that alcohol was purported to be.

To be fair, members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), one of the leading voices calling for prohibition, had a point. Americans were drinking too much alcohol, and it was a long-standing problem. By the end of the 18th century, it was normal for someone to have a dram of whiskey at breakfast, more alcohol in the afternoon, ale with supper and a nightcap before bed. In 1790, average annual consumption of alcohol stood at 5.9 gallons, a figure that increased to its peak of 7.1 gallons (compared to 1.7 gallons today).

In the 19th century, women had few rights and were dependent on their husband for financial support. They blamed alcohol for the abuse they received and began a campaign to ban it. The WCTU was founded in Ohio in 1874, and it soon became the largest and most influential women’s group in the 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, the group’s main focus was on the prohibition of alcohol.

The Anti-Saloon League was founded in 1893 and gave even more strength to the prohibition movement. With the aid of the WCTU in 1916, the League helped oversee the election of the two-thirds majority required in both Houses to initiate the passing of the 18th Amendment. Although they finally got what they had campaigned for, these groups soon came to regret their actions. Within minutes of the Volstead Act coming into law, violence and the theft of alcohol began. These actions would set the scene for the rest of the decade.

10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked
Pinterest – Enjoying a Beer during Prohibition

2 – Drunk & Disorderly Behavior Was Rife

One could argue that prohibition was a success on some level. For a start, it led to a reduction in the number of alcohol-related deaths during the 1920s. From 1910 to 1917, the number of deaths related to booze was 5 per 100,000 members of the population. The rate started falling in 1918, before prohibition, but the first year of the full ban, 1920, saw a rate of just 1 death per 100,000. The rate remained below 4.0 until 1927.

However, research suggests that beyond the first couple of years, prohibition did nothing to stem the flow of drink. By 1925, arrests for public drunkenness and other criminal activity related to alcohol went above pre-prohibition levels. It is impossible to say how much people drank because illegal sellers such as Al Capone didn’t pay taxes. Illegal alcohol was expensive, so a large number of people started making it in their bathtubs at home.

In 1926, the President of the International Seamen’s Union of America, Andrew Furuseth, testified in front of Congress about the level of drunken behavior he witnessed in Portland. Before prohibition, he used to see drunken, hopeless men littering the streets. Months after the passing of the Volstead Act, the same area was filled with sober, earnest men looking for work. This state of affairs didn’t last long, however. Two years later, he returned to the same part of Portland, and it was worse than before prohibition.

One of the reasons for worsening conditions was the standard of alcohol drank. Millions of gallons of rotgut moonshine and bathtub gin were produced in the 1920s. It had a famously awful taste and offered the possibility of blindness or being poisoned. Some of the illegal liquor contained industrial alcohol. The government had ordered it to be denatured in 1906 to prevent consumption and also ordered companies to include other toxic chemicals as further deterrents during prohibition. It didn’t work, and this tainted drink possibly led to the deaths of 10,000 people during the prohibition era.

Read More: Fascinating Speakeasies that Helped the 1920s Roar.

10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked
Al Capone – History.com

3 – The Growth of Organized Crime

It is completely false to suggest that prohibition caused the birth of organized crime because it was already a problem in the United States before the 1920s. What it did was to give mobsters a golden opportunity to generate vast sums of money, establish a list of criminal contacts and expand their operations beyond the confines of their local area. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, a large wave of Italian immigrants came to America. By 1910, 10% of New York’s population was first-generation Italian.

Before prohibition, criminal gangs mainly focused on their ‘turf’ and engaged in racketeering and other illegal activity. The ban on alcohol gave them a golden opportunity to expand, and they wasted no time. Within an hour of the passing of the Volstead Act, six armed men tried to steal $100,000 worth of medicinal whiskey from a train in Chicago. The Windy City became one of the hotbeds of organized crime in America as the likes of Al Capone and Dean O’Banion trafficked illegal booze and killed countless people in the process.

The lack of employment available ensured that an increasing number of men were willing to risk it all and become part of a criminal gang. The rate of violence in Chicago increased significantly from 1925 onwards when Al Capone took over the Chicago Outfit from Johnny Torrio. The ex-leader had a close shave as he avoided an assassination attempt, so he decided to leave the world of crime and returned to Italy.

Al Capone looked to wipe out his enemies and blood soon spilled into the streets of Chicago. This resulted in the infamous Saint Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, details of which are on the next page. New York City wasn’t spared from power struggles amongst rival factions of organized crime. The infamous Castellammarese War pitted Joe Masseria against Salvatore Maranzano, and it lasted from 1929 to 1931. It finally ended when Lucky Luciano killed Masseria and Maranzano was assassinated in Manhattan. The 1920s allowed these criminal gangs to grow and flourish and elements of them still exist today.

10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked
Scene of the Massacre – CBS News

4 – The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre

The date was February 14, 1929, and it involved an action that shocked Chicago’s criminal underground to its core. As I mentioned on the previous page, Capone had taken over the Chicago Outfit and was intent on eliminating his enemies. His main rival at the time was George ‘Bugs’ Moran, the leader of the North Side Gang. While Capone controlled the South Side of the city, it wasn’t enough for him, and so the gangs swapped assassination attempts although Capone and Moran survived the initial sorties.

Capone was not one for half measures, and he was determined to send a very clear message to his rival. On February 14, 1929, he did exactly that as four of his men dressed up as police officers and entered a garage in Chicago’s North Side. It was where Moran and his gang ran their bootlegging operations in the city. Capone’s men impersonated cops and ordered seven of Moran’s men to line up against the wall. They proceeded to open fire, and 70 rounds of ammunition were fired as six of the men died instantly.

The only survivor, Frank Gusenberg, refused to reveal who had shot them and he died a few hours later. Had the attack happened a few minutes later, Moran would also have died as he was en-route to the garage. While he survived the gang wars of the era, Moran eventually spent most of the last few years of his life in prison where he died in 1957. At the time, Moran was convinced that Capone carried out the massacre, but it was never proven.

Although he succeeded in getting his message across, the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre turned out to be the downfall of Capone. He quickly became the nation’s best-known and notorious gangster and was dubbed ‘Public Enemy No. 1′ by the media. After spending some time in prison for lesser crimes, Capone’s finally got his comeuppance and was sentenced to 11 years in prison for federal tax evasion. The 1920s was very much an era of violence, and it wasn’t confined to organized crime.

10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked
News of anarchist arrests – Creed’s Thoughts

5 – The First Red Scare

For the sake of accuracy, the First Red Scare actually began in 1917, but it reached its peak, and its climax, in 1920. It marked a period of widespread panic against the perceived threat of Bolshevism and anarchism. Although it was based on some real fears such as the rise of anarchist bombings and the Russian Revolution, there was also an unhealthy dose of hysteria. The First Red Scare really began with the overthrow of the Russian Royal Family in 1917 and their subsequent murder.

The Red Scare reached its height in 1919 and 1920 as the end of World War I had brought about strong anti-immigrant feelings along with heightened nationalism. Those who returned from the war often found unemployment hard to come by while those who were employed joined labor unions. The resultant labor strikes, as workers tried to gain better pay and employment conditions, only heightened the fear that radicals were in the process of starting a revolution.

There were several high-profile bombings in 1919 as anarchists tried to cause havoc. The U.S. Government responded by launching mass raids on the headquarters of radical organizations. On January 2, 1920, an estimated 4,000-6,000 radicals were arrested around the country. In reality, the legality of these arrests is open for debate, but such was the fear of communism that hardly anyone outside of the Communists complained. Attorney General Palmer warned the government that there was a plot against up to 20 state and federal officials on May Day 1920 as part of a plan to overthrow the government.

With the backing of Palmer, J. Edgar Hoover ordered the mobilization of the police forces in the country as they expected the worst on May 1. The police in New York City worked for 32 straight hours in preparation. In the end, nothing happened, and Palmer became a national joke. It didn’t take long for the anti-Communist hysteria to die down but it wasn’t quite the end of the anarchist movement in the United States.

10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked
Sacco and Vanzetti – Travel Channel

6 – The Last Gasps of Anarchism in the United States

By the 1880s, anarchists promoted the idea of ‘propaganda by the deed.’ It was a term used to describe acts of murder in the name of anarchism. One of the most infamous anarchist deeds took place on September 6, 1901, when Leon Gzolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in Buffalo. One of the most significant voices of the movement was Luigi Galleani who was active in America from 1901 to 1919. Even after his deportation, he left behind a number of fanatical followers.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were committed anarchists and were the subject of a sensational trial in 1920. On April 15, 1920, security guard, Alessandro Berardelli and payroll clerk, Frederick Parmenter, were shot dead and $15,000 was stolen from the Slater and Morrill shoe factory in Massachusetts. Eyewitnesses claimed that two men carried out the crime and escaped in a car with two or three other men. Vanzetti and Sacco were arrested, and both men were carrying guns.

They were tried and convicted of the murders although there is sufficient doubt as to their guilt. While both men were avowed anarchists, the evidence against them was purely circumstantial. Nonetheless, they were sentenced to die, and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed via the electric chair on August 23, 1927. Their deaths were marked by protests in London and Paris while bombs were set off in Philadelphia and New York. To make matters worse, a man had confessed to the crime in 1925 (claiming he did it with his gang) but the Supreme Court would not overrule the verdict.

One of the last acts of anarchism at the time was the Wall Street Bombing on September 16, 1920. It resulted in the deaths of 38 people and was probably carried out by supporters of Galleani, known as ‘Galleanists.’ One of the prime suspects was an anarchist called Mario Buda, who was an associate of Sacco and Vanzetti. Although he was in the city at the time of the bombing, Buda was never questioned, and he used the opportunity to flee to Naples. While anarchists were known to be violent, murder was also committed by less likely culprits.

10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked
Leopold and Loeb – Chicago Tribune

7 – Leopold & Loeb Killing for Kicks

Being high intelligent and benefiting from wealthy backgrounds didn’t prevent Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from committing one of the most heinous murders of the 1920s. On the face of it, both men should have been destined for a comfortable life, possibly even a great one. Loeb’s father was vice president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, while Leopold’s father was a shipping magnate. They were geniuses who went to the University of Chicago at an astonishingly young age. In college, they had a sexual relationship.

Rather than using his gifts for good, Loeb dreamed of becoming a master criminal and enjoyed committing arson, robberies and other crimes. Leopold was very much the submissive partner in all of the above and Loeb used to entice him to go on these expeditions with the promise of sexual favors. Eventually, Loeb wanted to commit the ultimate crime: The kidnap and murder of a child.

As such, 14-year old Bobby Franks was merely a victim of circumstance. He was Loeb’s cousin, so he had no qualms about jumping into Loeb’s car on May 21, 1924. The criminal duo used a chisel covered with tape as a club to beat Franks to death. They put a rag down his throat and covered Franks’ mouth in tape. They dumped his body and mailed a ransom note to Frank’s parents demanding $10,000 for the return of their son.

Far from being the ‘perfect crime’ that Leopold and Loeb dreamt of, Leopold made an idiotic mistake that led to their swift capture. He dropped a pair of glasses near the body. These glasses had an unusual hinge which meant they were traced to a Chicago optometrist who confirmed they were Leopold’s. Both men quickly fell apart under questioning and were convicted of murder in a trial that captivated the nation. Famed attorney Clarence Darrow saved them from execution, but they both received 99 plus years in prison. Loeb was murdered in prison in 1936 while Leopold was released in 1958.

10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked
Darrow (left) and Jennings Bryan (right) at the Scopes Trial – New York Times

8 – The Scopes Monkey Trial – A Backward Step

24-year old John Scopes was a teacher in a public high school in Dayton, Tennessee, and he couldn’t have imagined the furor he would cause when he decided to teach evolution. In 1925, the state of Tennessee had passed a law that banned the teaching of evolution because it conflicted with the teachings of the Bible relating to creation. There was no reason to think that the law would ever need to be applied until the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) got involved.

The organization was worried that other states would try to copy Tennessee’s law so it offered financial and legal assistance to any teacher that would test the law. John Scopes had only recently started his job at Rhea County Central High School and was a staunch proponent of the theory of evolution. Initially, however, he was reluctant to be the ACLU’s guinea pig until his neighbors persuaded him to follow through to cause some excitement in the town of Dayton.

Scopes was arrested for violating the anti-evolution law on May 7, 1925, and within a few days, the famous former presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, agreed to prosecute Scopes at the behest of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. The ACLU made good on its promise to defend Scopes as it drafted in the legendary Clarence Darrow to act as Scopes’ defense counsel. The gravity of the case, coupled with the presence of two well-known attorneys, meant that the Scopes Monkey Trial, as it became known, generated national and international attention.

Darrow and Bryan each stated their case with trademark eloquence. Bryan dismissed evolutionary theory as “millions of guesses strung together.” Darrow responded by saying the Genesis story was filled with “fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.” In the end, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. Although it was a landmark case, it has not changed opinions in America. The anti-evolution law remained in Tennessee legislature for over 40 years. A Gallup poll in May 2017 showed that 38% of Americans believed that God created mankind in its present form less than 10,000 years ago. Admittedly, it is the first Gallup poll since 1982 where creationism was not the majority response.

10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked
KKK march on Washington DC in 1925 – NPR

9 – The KKK’s Popularity Surged

The original KKK was formed as a social club in Pulaski in 1866. Former Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was named as the first ‘grand wizard.’ It wasn’t well organized, and in 1870, it was classified as a terrorist organization. Although racism was prevalent in the Southern states during and after the Reconstruction era, the Klan faded from view.

The KKK was revived by William Joseph Simmons in 1915. Unlike the original version, which remained shrouded in secrecy, the second Klan was out in the open, and it used to advertise in the newspapers. It sponsored sports teams and college fraternities, and even hosted beauty pageants. Aided by a smooth marketing machine, along with hostility against Jews, African-Americans, and a skepticism of science, the new KKK tried to come across as a bastion of morality bent on healing society’s ills.

Of course, they were little more than thugs for hire who enjoyed committing violent acts without risk of censure. The Klan reached its peak in the 1920s when it had an estimated four million members. The prevailing idea is that the KKK was filled with backward rural types. In reality, about half of the Klan’s membership lived in cities. Chicago alone had 50,000 members. As well as continuing the reign of terror against African-Americans, the Klan added Jews, Catholics, and non-Nordic immigrants to its list of targets.

The organization was flowing as new members had to pay fees. At one point, the Klan was earning $25 million a year, equivalent to over $340 million. Eventually, the general public and the government saw the danger and President Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge spoke out against the Klan while. The group’s membership dwindled markedly towards the end of the 1920s and returned to the shadows from whence it came. Today, the Klan is active in up to 22 states amidst fears that white supremacist movements may return to the fore.

Related: Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan.

10 Reasons Why the Roaring Twenties Sucked
Panic during Wall Street Crash – NY Daily News

10 – Economic Disaster

On October 24, 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Average began to plummet in an event known as Black Thursday. The stock market continued to collapse, and by October 29, the Dow Jones lost 30% of its value, $30 billion or almost $400 billion in today’s money. It was a sum of money greater than what was lost during World War I and utterly eroded confidence in the stock market. On Black Tuesday, investors panicked en masse and sold over 16 million shares. The ensuing economic crisis became known as the Great Depression.

For every boom, there is a bust, or so it seems, and the stock market fared spectacularly well during the Roaring Twenties. From 1922 until 1929, the market had increased by almost 20% a year on average, and this growth encouraged investors to risk their life savings in what amounted to one of the biggest failed gambles in history. The practice of buying on margin became very popular as it enabled investors to borrow money from their broker to purchase stocks and they only had to pay a 10-20% down payment.

Companies began investing in stocks and banks were using customer money without permission. There were warnings signs in the weeks before the crash that were ignored by all but the savviest investors. The Dow Jones had reached a record high on September 3, 1929, but had fallen by 20% by October 22. It was on this day that the New York Times published articles about short selling, foreign investors leaving the market and margin sellers. The Times and the Washington Post fanned the flames on Wednesday and panic began to set in on Black Thursday.

The Wall Street Crash destroyed countless lives as many people lost their life savings. The Dow Jones continued to plummet. Its record high was 381.2, but by July 8, 1930, just 10 months later, it closed at 41.22, a fall of 90%. The Dow Jones did not exceed its 1929 record high for 25 years, and during the Great Depression, unemployment fell 25%, wages fell over 40%, and global trade fell 65%. The Roaring Twenties was replaced by the Terrible Thirties.


Where’d we get this stuff from? Here are our sources:

History.com – The Roaring Twenties

History.com – Women’s Christian Temperance Union

Ohio State University – Temperance and Prohibition

Drug Library – Did Alcohol Use Decrease During Alcohol Prohibition?

History Collection – Epic Parties you Wish You Went To: The Roaring 20s in Photos

History Collection – Doctors Wrote Prescriptions For Liquor During Prohibition

History.com – 10 Things You Should Know About Prohibition

Legends of America – Giovanni “Johnny” Torrio – Presiding Over the Chicago Outfit

Chicago Tribune – 10 Things You Might Now Know About The Outfit

National Crimes Syndicate – The Castellammarese War

Buffalo News – On This Date In 1901: Mckinley Assassin Leon Czolgosz Was Executed At Auburn Prison

Massachusetts Court System – The Red Scare of 1919-1920

Mass – Sacco & Vanzetti: Investigation And Arrest

Massachusetts Court System – Sacco and Vanzetti: Justice on Trial

The Atlantic – The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti

Famous Trials – Leopold and Loeb by Professor Douglas O. Linder

Chicago Sun Times – Robert Franks Found Murdered, Launching Leopold And Loeb Trial

Gallup News – Belief in Creationist View of Humans at New Low

History Net – Scopes Trial

PBS.org – Scopes Trial

The Atlantic – When Bigotry Paraded Through the Streets

The Washington Post – Conspiracy Theories, fake news, racism fueling KKK’s rise – in the 1920s

The Pendergast Years – The Second Ku Klux Klan In Kansas City: Rise And Fall Of A White Nationalist Movement

The Balance – Stock Market Crash of 1929 Facts, Causes, and Impact

Marketplace – Why Didn’t Any Wall Street CEOs Go To Jail After The Financial Crisis?