Monday, June 3, 2013

Prohibition and the consolidation of the mafia in the USA


The Prohibition era was a period in which producing, transporting and selling alcoholic beverages was forbidden in the USA. This period extended from January 1920 to December 1933. Two amendments to the Constitution of the USA were necessary to approve prohibition first (18th Amendment) and  to repeal it later (21st Amendment). The alcohol prohibition was related to the campaigns launched by temperance leagues across the USA. These associations were related with religious groups in many cases and their main argument was that alcoholic drinks contributed to the depravation of the consumers and were linked to prostitution, criminality and other morale sins. Those who supported prohibition were called "dries" and were linked to pietistic Protestant groups, such as Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists, Quakers and Scandinavian Lutherans. Those who opposed prohibition were the "wets", identified with Roman Catholics and liturgical Protestants (Episcopalians and German Lutherans). These two opposed factions also represented the division of the country into two different areas: the rural and the urban places. And it also showed different opinions about the limits of the power of the government. The question was: can the government legislate on morale matters? Anyway, the Prohibition came into force when 36 of the 48 states of the Union  (75% of the states) ratified the 18th Amendment in January 1920. 

Although consuming alcohol was officially forbidden, people were not persecuted for consuming or possessing alcohol. The population easiliy found ways of producing and consuming alcohol: fermenting grape juice or making their own drinks with home stills they could easiliy buy in shops. In fact, alcohol consumption increased a lot during the Prohibition. People also took advantage of some exceptions to the law. For example, pharmacists could sell whiskey by prescription, because it was recommended to treat some illnesses. Pharmacies became the perfect cover for bootleggers. The number of pharmacies tripled in New Yourk City during Prohibition. Another exception to the law was wine consumption for religious purposes. Churches and synagogues could buy wine to use it in ceremonies. This led to the growth of the number of people who pretended to be rabbis or priests to get wine for their "congregation". 

The Prohibition had an important impact in the industries related with alcohol. Many people lost their jobs. There was also a decline in amusement and entertainment businesses (reataurants, saloons, theaters...). The worst effect of Prohibition was the development of the mafia. Gangsters found a new source of incomes with production and contraband of alcoholic beverages. Big mafia gangsters like Al Capone (also known as Scarface), Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano started becoming legend during Prohibition. The HBO  TV series Boardwalk Empire tells the story of the origins of the mafia in Atlantic City during the Prohibition years. 

Link to Boardwalk Empire´s website:

If you want to learn more about Prohibition, visit this PBS link:

You probably heard about the Prohibition for the first time in your life on The Simpsons.  Here you have the episode called Homer versus the 18th Amendment:

And these are some good films about Prohibition and the rise of the mafia: 

The Public Enemy 1931 Poster.jpg

Based on the book Beer and Blood, this 1931 film tells the story of a small criminal who joins a gang during the Prohibition and works as bootlegger until things become complicated. This was the first film with James Cagney in a leading role. 


This comedy is one of my favourite films. It tells the story of two musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis), members of a jazz band, who witness the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago, the killing of seven gangsters during the war between Al Capone's gang and Bugs Moran's gang. The musicians have to flee from Chicago and they decide to dress as women and join a women's band. The band is going to Florida and the musicians think that it would be the perfect cover for them.One of the girls of the band (Marilyn Monroe) and a millionaire interfere their plans and everything becomes more complicated. The name of this film in Spanish is Con faldas y a lo loco


This 1987 film tells the story of Al Capone's persecution by a group of FBI agents headed by Eliot Ness, the Untouchables. Capone was finally caught and sentenced to 11 years prison by tax evasion. Eliot Ness was performed by Kevin Costner and Robert de Niro performed Capone's role. 

This film includes a very famous scene at Chicago Union Station, inspired on Sergei Eisenstein's masterpiece Battleship Potemkin.

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