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Drinks, Crime & Prohibition

Prohibition looms large in the American imagination. It is an era of profound contradictions — a period of incredible government oppression into the lives of citizens, and yet a time of exuberance, decadence, and of casting off restraints. Criminals terrorize America's streets yet capture the imagination of the public. With nearly a hundred years of hindsight, it seems like an era of madness.

But the roots of Prohibition are as old as America itself. Since the beginning of the American experiment, predominantly women's religious groups preach temperance. The axe-wielding Carrie Nation, who terrorizes saloons at the turn of the century, is the emblematic temperance advocate: profoundly religious and fiercely righteous. She is a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the most prominent temperance organization in the country.

With the outbreak of World War I, drinking beer becomes synonymous with treason, and the Anti-Saloon League, under the leadership of Wayne Wheeler, eclipses the role of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and brings prohibition to the national stage. Wheeler forms an unlikely coalition of suffragettes, wealthy industrialists and nativist hate groups, and achieves what seemed impossible: a constitutional amendment against alcohol.

But instead of creating a more sober America, the 1920s roar. The national ban on alcohol creates unexpected opportunities for people of different genders, races and sexualities to meet and mingle in speakeasies. But institutions selling illicit alcohol are heavily segregated in one respect: class. The rich and the poor drink different drinks in different places — and face different threats from law enforcement.

Prohibition advocates thought eliminating alcohol would improve America’s moral character; instead, it creates an enormous opportunity for a new kind of criminal. The icon of what came to be known as "organized crime" is Al Capone — a Chicago gangster whose media savvy helps him rise to ultimate power in Chicago ... and makes him famous across the nation. He and other criminals capitalize on loopholes in Prohibition laws and utilize corruption & graft to amass enormous fortunes.

Despite the best efforts of law enforcement to combat corruption and develop new investigative tools — tools like code-breaking and wiretapping that are used to this day — they were outspent and outgunned. Mobsters can afford weapons the cops cannot: weapons like the infamous Tommy gun. Capable of firing 100 rounds in under 2 minutes, it’s one of the deadliest weapons money can buy.

Prohibition backfires horribly. Instead of making America stronger, Prohibition turn city streets into battlefields. The ever-escalating conflict would come to a head on February 14, 1929 in one of the most shocking mass murders in American history.