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O is for Organised Crime (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)


“I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want. All I do is satisfying a public demand.” – Al Capone

True, it has been argued that the “crime wave” of the Twenties would have happened regardless of Prohibition. It has also been argued that if Prohibition hadn’t made illegal an entire market that was previously legal, mobsters wouldn’t have had the means and maybe even the need to organize themselves the way they did. It has even been argued there was no crime wave in the Twenties at all. The perception there was one was the news hawks doing.

Gangs have been part of American urban life since the 1800s, though those earlier gangs had more the characteristics of ‘packs’, even when they did control entire neighbourhoods. There was very little structure to them and not always they had a clear focused aim. What they did share with the Twenties, more structured, clearly crime-oriented gangs was their strong ethnicity.
These were mostly ethnic gangs of youths, who were born in American to immigrant parents. These youths’ minds were already integrated into the American dream, but the actual opportunities life offered them were very slim, so a part of these young men found in gang life some kind of personal realization.
These gangs came from a specific community and – at least in the Twenties – they never really cut loose from the community they came from. Very often, gangs gave a part of their income back to the community (in the first years of the Great Depression, for example, Al Capone distributed thousands of free meals). That community was often the base of the political power some of these gangs gained.

Purple Gang – Detroid

This kind of ‘Robin Hood aura’ might be part of the charm many gangsters attracted from the public even in their days. Part of that also came from the action of the newspapers.

Because of their strong ethnic character, rivalry among gangs was particularly fierce. The rivalry between Italians and Irish in America, for example, was infamous. These were both numerous communities, and in many big cities they produced big, powerful gangs, that warred over the black market – especially the bootleg market – that they dominated. In Chicago, it turned into a war, the Beer Wars, as the newspapers called it.

But fierce as they were, these wars seldom touched outside people. Mobsters killed one another with staggering violence and frequency, but they never involved non-gang people. This allowed newspapers to create stories readers would eagerly follow without ever feeling threatened.

The Volstead Act was particularly hated in the big cities and seldom abide to, or even enforced, which strengthened the action of the gangs. Mobsters would bribe any official so that he looked the other way, and besides officials would let mobsters bribe them because they didn’t feel the Volstead Act deserved to be enforced.

New technology also helped gangs. New cars – included the Model T – were used to move around and bet it when necessary. The infamous tommygun was also a new invention. Radio allowed to communicate fast and effectively.

Crimewave or not, gangsters seemed to have it quite easy in those roaring years, don’t you think?


Prohibition – The rise of the organized crime
Alcohol and crime: the Prohibition experiment

Allen, Frederick Lewis, Only Yesterday. An Informal History of the 1920s. Harper & Brothers, New York, 1931
Kobler, John, Capone. The Life and World of Al Capone. Da Capo Press, New York, 1971

ROARING TWENTIES AtoZ - Organised Crime - It is still debated if there was truly a crime wave in the 1920s and if that was caused by Prohibition. Surely, Prohibition created a favorable environment for outlawed activity


  • Mee Magnum
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 01:27

    Why can’t we all just get along?

    –Mee (The Chinese Quest)

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 03:02

    There’s an inner part of me that romanticizes the concept of being a flapper girlfriend to a Mafia crime boss. Young, loaded and handsome of course!
    Visit me at: Life & Faith in Caneyhead
    I am Ensign B of Tremps’ Troops
    with the A to Z Challenge

    • Post Author
      Posted April 17, 2015 at 06:27

      Maybe because I’m Italian, I don’t see anything romantic in organised crime.

  • Jeri Burns
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 03:14

    I wonder if gangs in recent historical times also took/take care of their own – or if this tendency is linked more to the relative affluence of the 20’s than a general ethnic ‘protection’ impulse…

    • Post Author
      Posted April 17, 2015 at 06:32

      Can’t talk for others, but the mafia here in Italy still does things for the population. that’s part of its power. If you receive help from them, you know one day you’ll have to return the favour.

  • Celine Jeanjean
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 07:01

    The Model T car and the tommy gun really are the symbol for organised crime in that era aren’t they?!

  • Crispian Thurlborn
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 09:25

    Very interesting, as have been the other articles you’ve written this month. I must say though, I was waiting for this one when it didn’t come up under ‘M’ for Mafia.

    Considering your background I was particularly interested in your thoughts. I knew a few people who would tell me about growing up in East London during the 1950-60’s and the Krays. Fascinating and yet I’ve never been interested in writing crime fiction.

    Anyway, great piece. Well done, Sarah.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 17, 2015 at 13:50

      Well, I didn’t address the mafia in particular because in Twenties America, Italian gangesters weren’t in a particular position. They were is the same position as other ethnic gangs, so I address (or tried to address) that phenomenon as a whole.

      As I read about the Outfit in Chicago and the Sindicate in New York, it was interesting to note as they were similar to the Italian mafia (I mean here ‘at home’), and still subtly different.

  • Tasha
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 12:30

    It’s a very interesting question did Prohibition fuel organised crime or would it just have been fuelled by something else if alcohol hadn’t been there to exploit. Your point about the gangs and the American dream without the ability to fulfil that dream through legal avenues is one I had not heard before.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 17, 2015 at 14:01

      Well, the question is subtly but significantly different. Not what did immigrant people do when they found all kinds of difficulties in creating a new life in the New World? But why is it that so many gangs had such a strongly ethnich character?

      Only a little part of immigrants chose that path, but those who did went down that path, among other reasons, also because of their limited possibilities as immigrants or children of immigrants.

      I’m sorry to answer this squestion in such a simplistic and fast way. As all things involving society, it’s a very complex and faceted matter.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 13:00

    There is also a contemporary nostalgia about “classic” gangsters these days I think. I see all of these posts on the Internet about how smooth and well-dressed gangsters used to be. They were probably not better people, though…

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 17, 2015 at 14:10

      Well, there were many people who dressed smooth and fine. I don’t see why gangsters should be more fascinating ;-)
      I think this has more to do with our modern fascination with the anti-hero or the dark-hero than with real people. And also, I think there is a good deal of stereotyping about the Twenties.

  • S. L. Hennessy
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 15:40

    I wrote an entire story based on this time period. It so fascinates me.

    Good luck with the A to Z Challenge!
    A to Z Co-Host S. L. Hennessy

    • Post Author
      Posted April 17, 2015 at 16:01

      Cool! I am writing a story, this is why I’m into this research. What is yours about? :-)

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 16:10

    In the Prohibition-focused chapter of my first Russian historical, there’s a Russian gang who comes by to try to intimidate their rivals. Things end happily when the clandestine liquor store’s owner’s three cop friends are called in the morning, and arrest the mobsters.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 17, 2015 at 19:25

      Hey, I didn’t know you wrote a Prohibition novel. Tell me about it :-)

  • Sandy
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 00:13

    Proabition was such a bad deal for the country, I can’t figure out why it lasted as long as it did.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2015 at 07:17

      Well, it was embeded in the Constitution, wasn’ t it? It’s the only Amendment ever repealed, and it took that long.
      Personal opinion ;-)

  • Lanise Brown
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 10:26

    Yes, organized crime was really out there in the 1920s. Model-Ts, mobsters and tommy guns were pretty common icons. By the way, have you read the webcomic Lackadaisy? It’s based on 1927 prohibition and bootlegging in St. Louis. And all the characters in the comic are cats, lol. It’s one of my favorites and features some organized crime from the era. There’s also a lot of really gorgeous artwork based on the 20s. :)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2015 at 11:16

      I haven’t actually read it, but I know it, because I came upon it in my first stages of research.
      It really is a nice-looking comic :-)

  • Sabina
    Posted April 19, 2015 at 16:02

    Even modern gangs are often ethnically oriented and most of their violence doesn’t touch anyone but their rivals. Some things never change.

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