The effect of the Prohibition on popular perceptions
The increase in crime
The 1920-1930 period can safely be said to be the beginning of an era that gave America a most radical and unexpected evolution in terms of cultural perceptions. It was the decade that gave birth to the prohibition of manufacture and sale of liquor. This is attributed to one Andrew Volstead, the legislator responsible for sponsoring the Prohibition Act of 1920 (Murray 13). The advocates of the law had for the previous century dreams of implementing a law that would oversee the reduction of crime and the elevation of sanity and morality crashed when they realized that the Act did the exact opposite.
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But the many Minnesotans who had been fond of drinking opted for moon shining and bootlegging (Willard 7). This led to the development of increased crime, and from this culture, famous gangsters were nurtured. One such gangster was Al Capone.
The influence of the prohibition laws on the lifestyles of these gangsters and the reception by the people of that era forms the basis of this research. This research paper discusses the historical components that constituted the Prohibition-era cultural lifestyles and attempts to link the era with the economic, political and socio-cultural consequences of the prohibition. It demonstrates the various ways in which the prohibition caused a change in the movie industry and in perceptions towards organized crime.
The popularized illegal activities
The result of the Prohibition Act was that since the production and sale of alcoholic beverages was now banned, it meant that illegal supply of the drinks could not be taxed, and the bootleggers discovered a huge market for illegal brew. The criminals who made lots of wealth from the illegal sale of alcohol were revered in films, acquiring a culture of figurative names and characterizations. For instance, A Capone was characterized as Scarface in the 1932 movie The Public Enemy (Fischer 57). To date, most film makers of gangster films prefer to depict their criminal characters in the fashion that can be said to have originated in Al Capone criminal era. To understand this culture, it is necessary to look into the lifestyle of these prohibition era gangsters, through the rather short criminal life of Al Capone (Willard 43 and Pfleger 29).
Al Capone in the film industry
A generation of notorious gangsters was born out of the loophole created through the enactment of the Prohibition Act. Since the lawful manufacture and sale of brew was banished, the adamant alcohol consumers, who formed a huge market, had to be satisfied in some way. There was, therefore, a willing market for anyone who would have the guts to supply the products, and it came at a considerably high price. Gangsters such as Al Capone and John Dillinger cropped out of this silent revolution, to take advantage of the black market and its associated crimes of extortion, murder, robberies, kidnapping and gambling (Asbury 142).
This revolution is evident in the popularity that Al Capone received for his philanthropic tendencies to the masses. The film makers brought this out in movies by representing these figurative persons as a symbol of the trying moments that the decade had brought. The decade saw the culmination of a stable economy and the slow culmination of the crisis into the Great Depression (Fischer 112). What the film makers of gangster movies such as George Raft did was to use the popular gangsters like AL Capone as the philanthropic business men who they were viewed to be by the public.
The idea in these films was that the efforts to find a solution to the combined troubles that came with the prohibition and the Depression made any such people as him welcome to the collapsing economy. Al Capone was revered in the initial period of his rise for contributing heavily to charitable programs, and was even dabbed the Robin Hood of the era, perhaps as a mockery of the federal government’s inability to handle the situation.
Thus, Scarface, The Public Enemy as well as Little Caesar all gave figures such as Al Capone a much needed perspective of using any means to get out of the thoroughly dire economic doldrums the country was going through. Though the movies ended in harsh consequences for the criminal activities to show that crime does not pay, it nevertheless imprinted upon the audience the reality that existed at that time (Fischer 36).
Al Capone made philanthropic donations to charity events and this endeared him to a considerably good section of the public. Most of his wealth was generated through the sale of illegal brew in what were called ‘speakeasy’ bootleg super clubs, as well as prostitution and gambling. The liquor was smuggled from Canada through Detroit gangs and also local production from bootlegging operators. According to Pfleger (155), the gangs that are famously mentioned as being associated with the 13-year Prohibition era with respect to individuals like Al Capone and Dillinger were merely what can be regarded as ‘national figures’ and history leaves out the many home brewers and retailers of illegal drinks in the neighborhoods of major streets across the nation (Johnson 34).
During the 13-year period of the Prohibition, Al Capone became a prosperous gangster for his supply of bootleg in Illinois (Chicago), Minnesota (Minneapolis) and other states including New York. He was famous for corrupting the law enforcement regime, which, as seen above, became powerless in terms of ensuring the adherence of the Act. Al Capone bribed the police and politicians with huge amounts of money and this ensured that he remained in business for some considerable time. Al Capone is also famous for ruthlessly murdering his rivals in the illegal alcohol industry (Time Life Books 324). His prosperity in the bootlegging business declined after his imprisonment in 1931 for eight years and subsequent decline in health in his last years in prison and also after his release in 1939 (Downey 131).
Scarface the movie
George Raft’s rise in the film industry due to his popular crime film Scarface evidences the critically acclaimed nature of the 1920s and early 1930s depiction of criminal elements in the movie industry. The economic and socio-cultural decline in the state of the American economy was largely the direct reason why the movie got so much attention from both the critics and its fans. It was released in the year of the worst effects of the Great Depression.
But what made the film so revered and reviled was that it portrayed a side of crime which many had come to accept as not so bad since it showed the criminal as being sort of a heroic character who worked hard to get to where he was (Murray 59).
The Prohibition and popular perceptions about criminal elements
The fact that the economy was in a crisis and the presence of the prohibition laws both contributed heavily to the acceptance of the practice of flourishing businesses and the fruits of any form of investment that saved one from the crisis. Gambling, commercial sex, violent robberies, illegal supply of drugs, racketeering and murder were among the many forms of crime that sprung out of the prohibition. The notorious gangsters such as Al Capone, John Dillinger, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and others, who became popular to the extent of being termed as ‘legendary’, all became known for organized crime in Minnesota and other cities.
They were responsible for infamous bank robberies, kidnappings, murder, bribing law enforcement officers and politicians as well as extorting residents (Willard 67). With the organized crime being too difficult to control, the 1920-1933 period saw the police system turn into a puppetry of the gangs and falling deep into corruption deals. The police and the politicians, as explained below, were by the end of the 1920-1930 decade left with no choice but, to bow to the ruthless gangsters since they could not make them adhere to the provisions of the Act.
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Brewing and bootlegging
But the revolt against the banning of liquor production slowly evolved into an enormous problem, the control of which the federal and state governments found daunting. Bootlegging multiplied over the decade, with the rampant formation of private business areas and ‘super clubs’ which promoted illegal activities such as gambling and supply of alcoholic beverages. Brewers of the new illegal drinks proliferated urban areas to fill gaps left after the criminalization of brewery and distillery industry, for both the lower and upper income groups (Pietrusaz 201).
The number of prisoners increased to a level that the states could not cope with. Even an attempt in 1929 by Congress to increase the penalty for the illegal activities associated with alcohol manufacture and supply did not help reduce the incidents of crime. It had, as a way of deterring the activities, increased the period of imprisonment to five years and the fine to $10,000. In fact, the number of criminal offences increased after this stern measures were implemented. It was during this 13-year period that notorious criminal gangsters such as Al Capone and John Dillinger thrived in organized crime by taking advantage of the legislation to enter into multi-million dollar trade of illegal brew (Asbury 111).
At the end of the decade, it was finally acknowledged by legislators that the Act had done more harm than good. Towards the entrance of the Great Depression, the Prohibition Act had virtually become impossible to enforce (Pietrusaz 201). When the Democratic Party which gained overwhelming support in the 1932 elections got into the control of the country, it successfully pushed for the ratification of the 21st Amendment of the Constitution to completely do away with the Prohibition Act. The Roosevelt government had first reduced the 0.5% to a 3.2% concentration rule.
Corruption of the law enforcement officers
Al Capone has been immortalized in books and films for corrupting police officers even for the most heinous acts. One such incident was linked with him and his fellow Italian gangster, Jack McGurn. McGurn had received a death threat from the rival Irish gangster known as George ‘Bugs’ Moran. On 14th February, 1929, a gang of five members, two of them dressed in police uniform, shot seven members of the rival gang and left them to die (Volstead (Light Wine) 57).
The police uniform is evidence of a possibility of the fact that some police officers may have been bribed into surrendering their uniform to help the gang disguise themselves as law enforcement officers. The uniform was used to arrest the seven men, before lining them up on the wall of a garage and shooting them. This Valentine’s Day Massacre was the final straw that led to an investigation by the Prohibition Bureau, the arrest and conviction of Al Capone and his eventual eleven-year imprisonment in the Alcatraz for tax evasion (Pietrusaz 212).
He was also known to bribe William Hale, by then the Mayor of the city of Chicago, so that his gang easily operated in the city and got away with acts of crime. This is how he managed to do business without the interference of the police. He even afforded to have his Cadillac fitted with police siren after one of the failed attempts at his life. In Minnesota, his hideout was Minneapolis/Saint Paul. The following are the brewing activities that took place in the state of Minnesota, some of which are attributable to him (Downey 131).
Home brewers in Minnesota
The activities of gangsters such as Al Capone were widespread, beyond their areas of command. For instance, while Al Capone’s official city of crime was Chicago, he also had several other cities and townships which he fled to when in trouble with rival gangs or with the law (Murray 79). One of these cities was Minneapolis/Saint Paul. Therefore, it was inevitable that the illegal activities were not concentrated only in the major cities. Minneapolis/ Saint Paul was in this sense notorious for harboring home brewers of distilled products to satisfy the market of resistant residents against the Volstead Act (Time Life Books 233).
The decline in the popular culture
The acceptance of the gangster mode of film making that idolized them did not go without criticism. Moralists put pressure on the film makers and novelists not to depict the criminals as the gross characters who could be seen as gaining from their illegal activities instead of portraying the law enforcement officers as trying to deal with the increased state of crime in the decade. In the later stages of the 1930s thus, a progressive shift of the culture of criminals thriving was to one that depicted them a vice to be eliminated is evident (Downey, 172).
For instance, in G-Men, the main character was a police officer whose role was to fight the violent crimes that were being committed by notorious gangsters (Fischer 123). The element of flourishing criminals had been deleted from the scenes. Thus, the culture took a shift from thriving crime as a result of the economic situation and the prohibition to a simple acceptance of crime films as long as they did not show crime as a fruitful resort.
The repeal of the Prohibition Act and stabilization of the economy
The 1933 deletion of the Prohibition Act was a major factor in the decline of criminal activities that had caused the flourishing of the criminals. While the rise in crimes related to the sale of illegal liquor had been the crux of a culture of increased illegal activities and increased convictions for violations against the law, its removal brought about a change in the cultural behavior towards the related criminal activities. The idolized criminals in Al Capone had died after his story in the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day murder of seven rival gangsters and a public outcry against a high murder and corruption rate in the country (Fischer 74).
The reflection of public interest in the film and writing industry in the political and socio-economic agenda in the 1930s showed how much the prevailing cultural trends had changed at that time. The crime films of this era are therefore a direct reflection of what constituted the criminal perception of the two decades. There was an evident contrast between the two periods, and the film industry showed just how much the populace was for or against the prevailing laws and economic conditions of these periods.
Also, there was a gradual but rather slight shift from city crime to other less urban criminal activities such as John Dillinger-type of gangsters. The feeling that the government of the day was not doing enough to curb the effects of the prolonged economic crisis was perhaps the causal factor of the continued acceptance of films showing criminal adherence. Rural criminals such as ‘Baby Face’ Nelson as well as ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd came to the scenes, obviously characterizing them as such to depict a furtherance of the stylish lives that they lived and to describe their public outlook to the audience. This gave some identity to these criminals. The essence was to show that the criminal activities going on around the country could be identified with a particular class or ethnic group in the country during the 1930s.
The idea behind the films and other literature in this period seems to have been the isolation of prevailing cultural trends. In other words, there was a general acceptance that the majority of crimes were prolific among the poor immigrant neighborhoods. The characters all came from the low-income classes, and hence it is likely that this situation brought a feeling of sympathy from the film watchers and acceptance of their means to come of poverty. In this way, people perceived the criminals as a product of the rise in the gap between the rich and the poor.
While the Prohibition Act had every intention to foresee a moral society, the 1920-1930 films portrayed a cultural that was inclined to accept apathy in the face of economic doldrums (Krout, 64). The public perception of crime was one that tended to sympathize with the poor who had no means of sustaining themselves and hence criminals such as Al Capone who used part of their wealth to make charitable donations to the desperate lower income class. However, this culture died down in the 1930 after concerns were consistently raised by moralists and politicians who were concerned that the extent to which idolizing criminals was heading (Asbury 91).
All in all, there is an undisputable expression of the concept of crime and this era where the period is seen to have been filled with a combination of political, economic and social events that together defined the people at that time. In fact, the culture of thriving criminals later on spilled over again and most of the crime films today are a reflection of the 1920s/1930s popular perceptions of the same (Asbury 93). Therefore, in a nutshell, it may be safe to state that the Prohibition era and the dire economic situation in the country may have heavily contributed to the popular notion of accepting a few of the characterizations of the criminal minds of the time.
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