Bootleggers & Speakeasies: The Underworld of the Prohibition Era

Perhaps the last gasp of the Progressive Era, Prohibition resulted from the Temperance Movement and was the nationwide ban on alcohol production between 1920 and 1933.

Feb 11, 2023By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

prohibition era bootleggers speakeasies


Beginning in the 1800s, a Temperance Movement that sought a ban on alcohol–at least hard liquor–periodically gained and lost power. This movement finally achieved its long-sought goal in 1919 with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution. This Amendment, which was enforced by the Volstead Act beginning in 1920, banned the production and sale of alcohol in the United States. Thus began a dozen years of Prohibition, which was the common term for America’s “dry” era. The result was highly controversial, as many Americans quickly resisted having to give up their alcohol! Many citizens quickly found ways around Prohibition, ranging from secret bars known as speakeasies to buying illegal booze from bootleggers.


Setting the Stage: The Temperance Movement

An illustration depicting a drunken man assaulting his family, via Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)


Life was hard for most people during America’s early generations. By 1830, Americans consumed an average of 7.1 gallons of alcohol per year! Compared to today’s average of about 2.3 gallons per year, that is more than three times our modern consumption. Not surprisingly, many were displeased with this frequent imbibing, especially since religious conservatism was more prominent during the 19th century. A growing temperance movement blamed alcohol for many societal ills, such as violence, disease, and inability to hold a job.


The temperance movement grew and shrank throughout the 1800s, occasionally succeeding in reducing Americans’ consumption of alcohol. However, heavier drinking always returned. During the Gilded Age, beginning in the 1870s, opponents of alcohol became better organized and joined with the reformers trying to improve the lives of America’s urban poor and immigrant populations. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League became two prominent political forces by the 1890s.


Setting the Stage: Wayne Wheeler & the Anti-Saloon League

A poster distributed by the Anti-Saloon League, via the Indiana State Library


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In 1893, the Anti-Saloon League was formed by Rev. Howard Hyde Russell and Wayne Wheeler, who quickly became a tremendous political force. Wheeler completed his law degree in 1898 and became an aggressive litigant for the League. Politically, the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) came to essentially control the state legislature of Ohio, and in 1905 even ousted anti-temperance governor Myron Herrick from office. During the 1910s, the ASL grew even more powerful on a national scale, continuing its efforts at turning states dry in the South.


The ASL benefited from the 16th Amendment in 1913, which allowed for the creation of a federal income tax. Prior to this, the taxation of alcohol had been a major source of federal government revenue. Now, the ASL could directly lobby for a nationwide ban on alcohol, as Congress could not simply dismiss it as detrimental to funding the federal government. Between 1913 and 1919, Wheeler pushed hard for a “national Prohibition” on alcohol. He shrewdly linked Prohibition, which had lots of support among women, to women’s ongoing push for the right to vote. In December 1914, the US House of Representatives approved a Prohibition amendment by a simple majority…momentum was growing!


1919: The 18th Amendment 

A World War I criticism of alcohol and bars, via the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement


Wheeler’s Prohibition efforts were quickly aided by America’s entry into World War I a few years later. During the mobilization effort to ready the nation for war with Germany, drunkenness and alcohol-related frivolity were considered unpatriotic and wasteful. As a result, few political leaders were willing to defend the right to consume alcohol. Beer, which was heavily linked to German culture, fell out of favor as soon as war was declared in April 1917. Many openly criticized German-sounding brands of beer as harmful to Americans.


It was during the War that the 18th Amendment was approved by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress in December 1917. The Amendment was then sent to the states for ratification by a three-quarters majority (36 of 48 states), which was achieved on January 16, 1919, shortly after the cease-fire ended fighting in Europe. That autumn, Congress passed the Volstead Act–named after US Representative Andrew Volstead of Minnesota–that enforced Prohibition. The law prevented the manufacture, distribution, or sale of any beverage with more than 0.5 percent alcohol, which surprised many Americans who thought Prohibition would only apply to hard liquor!


1920s: Quick Resistance to Prohibition

A New York City protest to allow beer during Prohibition, which could be taxed to help balance the federal budget, via PBS


There was a delay between the ratification of the 18th Amendment and the implementation of the Volstead Act in January 1920. This gave Americans almost a year to stock up on alcohol, as consumption of alcohol in private was not banned. As alcohol was prescribable as medicine, many secured prescriptions that would be legal during Prohibition. However, tensions erupted as soon as Prohibition began, especially since many had not anticipated both beer and wine being banned along with the expected hard liquor.


Although alcohol-related health problems rapidly decreased, especially cirrhosis of the liver, resentment built as many expected benefits of Prohibition did not occur. An expected economic boom from increased consumer spending, thanks to the money being diverted from alcohol to other consumer goods, did not materialize. Supporters of Prohibition had included lobbies for other entertainment goods and services, such as candy, chewing gum, and venues like movie theaters and amusement parks, but they did not see the expected increase in sales. Ironically, chewing gum did gain some additional popularity during the 1920s as a way to hide the scent of alcohol on one’s breath.


Resistance to Prohibition: Speakeasies

A photograph of an unidentified bartender at an illegal speakeasy bar during Prohibition, via PBS & GBH Educational Foundation


While many Americans may have supported the concept of Prohibition and its improvement on health and behavior, lots of them also came to resent the inability to continue social traditions like going to a bar with friends. Swiftly arose the speakeasy, an illegal bar where patrons had to use a password to gain entry. Secret locations like basements, warehouses, and even private homes were converted into speakeasies. Ironically, because speakeasies were small, some claimed that the number of bars actually increased during Prohibition.


The underground nature of speakeasies may have actually increased the alcohol consumption of women during the 1920s, as there was a stigma around women drinking in public prior to Prohibition. Since any man going to a speakeasy was engaging in illicit activity, he was unlikely to criticize women for doing the same thing. Simultaneously, women were becoming bolder and more independent, as epitomized by the flapper movement of the decade. More women were wearing shorter skirts, driving their own cars, smoking cigarettes, and even voting (thanks to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920), so frequenting a speakeasy was not as radical as it would have otherwise been.


Resistance to Prohibition: Bootleggers

A photograph of bootleg whiskey captured by border agents at the US-Canadian border in 1923, via the Vermont Historical Society


To get alcohol to speakeasies and individual drinkers, it had to be smuggled in. Bootleggers were those who smuggled alcohol during Prohibition, often in vehicles with hidden compartments. Rumrunners were the term for bootleggers who snuck in alcohol by ship, often rum from the Caribbean. The Prohibition era coincided with the mass production of the automobile, meaning bootleggers were quick to make adjustments to cars that were now more easily affordable. Bootleggers “souped up” their vehicles and adjusted the axles, shocks, and tires to make the cars faster and more capable of dirt-road evasion. Thus, bootlegging is often considered the birth of auto racing as a pursuit in the United States.


Bootleggers sometimes became popular, glamorous figures thanks to their daring activities and ingenuity. George Cassidy was a famous bootlegger who sold alcohol to members of Congress, even working out of the Senate Office Building itself from 1925 to 1930. William “Bill” McCoy was a rumrunner whose quality of smuggled liquor was so good that people began using the term “the real McCoy” as a euphemism for a high-quality item. Bootleggers and flappers together created a highly glamorized image of the 1920s, with many average citizens longing to live a more action-packed, risk-taking lifestyle.


Resistance to Prohibition: Moonshiners

A photograph of an illegal moonshine still to make alcohol during Prohibition, via the University of Georgia Press


Not all alcohol was smuggled in from Canada, Mexico, or the coastline. Lots of alcohol was made domestically, often in illegal stills. Moonshiners were those who made alcohol in illegal stills, often by the light of the moon (hence the name). Moonshiners then smuggled the alcohol to customers or sold it to bootleggers who did the same. Farmers were frequently moonshiners due to convenience: they already owned rural land, had corn that could be made into whiskey, and were often far away from law enforcement. However, moonshine was usually not as high quality as traditional liquor and could cause health problems if one consumed a bad batch.


While some became moonshiners voluntarily, others were coerced into it by bootleggers. Sometimes, bootleggers set up the stills and forced local farmers to run them. Just like urban bootleggers, moonshiners also engaged in high-speed car chases with law enforcement. Other times, however, county sheriffs were in cahoots with moonshiners and would tip them off before a raid, allowing much of the equipment to be moved to a new location. The need to hide and move equipment often resulted in it not being cleaned properly, leading to the dubious reputation of moonshine alcohol.


The Downfall of Prohibition: Increase in Crime

A photograph of Chicago gangster Al Capone, perhaps America’s most famous organized crime figure during the 1920s and early 1930s, via WBUR


Prohibition made the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol illegal, which opened up a huge opportunity for organized crime. To run speakeasies, one needed a ready supply of high-quality alcohol and protection from criminal gangs and law enforcement raids.  The Mafia, colloquially known as the Mob, had the manpower and resources to handle these challenges. They had the money, and intimidation factor, to bribe local police into ignoring popular speakeasies.


The most famous Mob figure during Prohibition was Chicago gangster Al Capone, famous for his public boldness and daring actions. However, he was also violent, choosing to compete for territory with other criminal gangs. This resulted in turf wars that featured deadly new weapons like submachine guns, invented during World War I as “trench sweepers.” Over time, the citizens of Chicago began to disdain Al Capone as his violence hurt the city’s reputation.


1933: Repeal of Prohibition

A graphic depicting a Prohibition-era mobster holding a Thompson submachine gun, known as a “Tommy gun,” via Alcohol Problems and Solutions


As Prohibition dragged on, the glamor of speakeasies, bootleggers, and mobsters began to fade. The increasing market price of illegal liquor meant higher profits for organized crime, which resulted in increasing violence through turf wars. Eventually, people began blaming Prohibition for an unacceptable increase in crime. The infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929 shocked the country: a group of mobsters working for Al Capone, dressed as police officers, gunned down seven men working for the Irish mob during a turf war.


In addition to the increase in crime, the onset of the Great Depression also reduced support for continuing Prohibition. As the economy crashed between 1930 and 1932, the law enforcement costs of Prohibition were criticized. When a new US president was elected in 1932, America was eager for a change. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, repealing Prohibition. It remains the first time in history that a Constitution amendment repealed a previous Amendment.


Legacy of Prohibition: Speakeasies and Flappers

A photograph of a speakeasy-themed party, via The Zimmermann Automobile Driving Museum


Despite the public disdain for Prohibition by its end in 1933, the glamorized elements of the Roaring Twenties have remained popular as entertainment. Today, speakeasy- and flapper-themed parties are common, as are movies and TV shows about Prohibition-era gangsters and bootlegging. The “voluntary” criminality of breaking Prohibition laws, without the violence, is often seen as exciting and socially acceptable. Thus, the 1920s and early Prohibition are considered an irreverent and rebellious era rather than dark and violent.


The ongoing drive to legalize marijuana across the United States can take analogies from the Prohibition era. Many have questioned the costs of continuing to criminalize marijuana and argue that decriminalizing and even legalizing the substance would benefit the economy and reduce violence. Similar to Prohibition, proponents of legalized marijuana have argued that allowing the substance to be grown and sold would open up opportunities to tax it, helping raise government revenue and reduce deficits.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.