When Outlaws Became Heroes

Copyright 2002

A period of continuous celebration for the upper crust, of defiance and confusion for the rest, the 1920s contributed more than a typical decade's worth of images to our national identity. To mention the "Roaring Twenties" is to conjure up countless mental pictures of history-shaping trends and events. The 20s saw a hard-fought victory for the Suffragettes, the Red Scare, jazz and the arrival of radio, bathing beauties, Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, the first "talkie" motion picture, the Ku Klux Klan and the Scopes "Monkey" Trial.

Actor James Cagney

Actor James Cagney

And, as the curtain was drawn on that busy 10 years, a single momentous event - the stock market's collapse from exhaustion - served to seal that decade off from others, to guarantee that its uniqueness would not be blurred in our collective memory, to bind the 20s together in a sort of prolonged morality play.

Though so much occurred in the 20s, the most profound image left to us by that time is that of the gun-toting gangster - the wild-eyed, quick-tempered hood, whose caricature was incorporated into popular culture via the silver screen performances of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and the like. An odd union of hero and villain, the gangster became the main character of the 10-year drama, supplying an endless stream of the fuel that kept the Twenties roaring - illicit booze.

The hoodlum of the 1920s has been tidied up in our memories to the point that he is now widely viewed as having been a cross between a visionary businessman and a Robin Hood. But the truth is that the gangster of that era was only a businessman in the broadest sense of the term. He had a feel for only a single facet of American business - consumer demand. And the 20s' "noble experiment," Prohibition, provided him with demand on a scale never before imagined. And, while the gangsters certainly duplicated Robin Hood's tendency to "rob from the rich," they also robbed from the poor, the middle class and each other and killed indiscriminately while they were at it.

By 1920, when the Volstead Act, empowering the government to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, finally went into effect, the prohibition of the sale, purchase and manufacture of alcohol had already lost a great deal of the support that had backed the amendment during the lean, mean years of the Great War.
Many Americans decided they would drink, Volstead Act or no. As it turned out, Prohibition did little more than transform the United States into a nation of lawbreakers.
In postwar America, the noble experiment became an unwanted restriction on the nation's festive mood. Americans had willingly and conscientiously made their wartime sacrifices in order to triumph over the Kaiser. But, as soldiers came home and the new President announced a return to "normalcy," many Americans felt the irresistible urge for a good, long drink.

Prohibition was particularly unpopular in the growing ethnic neighborhoods of the nation's inner cities. The Irish, Italian, Jewish and other neighborhoods which had been swelling since the 1880s were far more comfortable with alcohol than many of the more established White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant communities which had supported the booze ban as much for ethnic reasons as for moral ones.

Many Americans decided they would drink, Volstead Act or no. As it turned out, Prohibition did little more than transform the United States into a nation of lawbreakers. Suddenly, the hip flask and the speakeasy were part of everyday life. Private stills and homemade hooch were commonplace. Rum-running was a lucrative and rarely risky venture.

It wasn't long before mainstream America was courting the shadowy figures of the underworld in an effort to quench its thirst. Urban racketeers (both domestic and imported), who earlier concentrated their efforts on such enterprises as prostitution, gambling, protection/extortion and narcotics (all financially rewarding but also morally repugnant to the average American), could now make the same or better money dealing in a commodity that most citizens found unobjectionable and many considered downright wholesome. The nation's criminals must have been filled with glee at the prospect and may have been dumbfounded when they learned they could generally count on the complicity of law enforcement and judicial bodies in their illegal but popular activities. Not only could these uneducated city toughs realize enormous monetary gains as a direct result of Prohibition, but they could instantaneously achieve the status of folk heroes as well.

The attention paid to the underworld at the time led many to believe that Prohibition marked the birth of organized crime. However, this view ignores the reality of the numerous criminal societies that developed in the crowded and impoverished inner cities as far back as pre-Civil War days and the organizations that drifted there from overseas along with the European and Asian immigrants in the later 19th Century. Due largely to the poverty, insecurity and a feeling of social irrelevance present in the American inner cities, by the turn of the 20th century, gang crime was already commonplace. Some degree of organization among the various gangs and cooperation with government agencies and political groups could also be seen, particularly in New York and Chicago where political machines relied on neighborhood roughnecks to enforce their will and in the Italian and Sicilian neighborhoods in major cities, which were often allowed to govern themselves. Communication and cooperation between gangs was developing on its own.

Prohibition headline

Prohibition headline

Prohibition did not spawn organized crime, but accelerated the pace of evolution for an emerging criminal society and it elevated the Italian and Sicilian gangster to the top of that society. In the days of Prohibition, the axiom "crime doesn't pay" became downright ridiculous. Crime paid and paid well. And the hoodlums with any degree of sense at all realized that there was plenty of cash to go around. Gangsters no longer needed to compete for protection rackets or other sources of income. In fact, it was in their best interest to cooperate, as the public could fund their activities without feeling remorse over involvement in murder and chaos.

So the gangs did cooperate. Certainly there was bloodshed and competition during Prohibition. But there was also a strategic combination of gang resources that had never been seen before. In many areas of the country, crime units informally cooperated in the production, import and distribution of alcohol. Along the east coast in the mid-1920s, a formal arrangement called the Seven Group, a forerunner of the post-1931 Syndicate, was arranged among bootlegging groups of differing ethnic backgrounds.

Jewish and Irish crime groups were most commonly linked with the Italian-Sicilian organizations. But Chinese, Polish, African-American and other ethnic units - and even a good number of WASP gangs - began joining forces with a growing underworld system. The Italian-Sicilian gangsters rose to lead the conglomeration.

There were several reasons for the success of the Italian-Sicilian Mafiosi as gangs combined in the 1920s. First of all, Mafiosi could generally count on a core of support from within their isolated communities. In Sicily, the Mafia dated back at least generations and possibly centuries. Particularly in the west of that island, dealing with Mafiosi was part of daily life. Sicilians moving to America were not surprised when they discovered Mafiosi still in their midst. Many mainland Italians also had experiences with criminal societies. The Camorra was well-known around Naples and southern Italy. Camorrists sailed for the new world alongside the Italians who were their subjects and their prey. Italian-Sicilian immigrants, though often fearful of the criminal societies, generally felt more comfortable with them than they did with law enforcement, which in the old country was often oppressive and violent.

The Mafia also benefited from fairly strict adherence to the code of omerta. This has typically been interpreted as a vow of silence with regard to the organization, but it is actually a deeper and wider and more closely held code of personal honor.
The axiom "crime doesn't pay" became downright ridiculous. Crime paid and paid well.
Mafiosi who were apprehended for crimes typically told little or nothing about their organization, protecting the secret society from government scrutiny.

In the early days of Prohibition, the Italian-Sicilian organizations also benefited from a vast reservoir of booze. Italian homes often made their own wine and many tended to process that further into harder liquors. The Unione Siciliana, started in the late 1800s as a benevolent brotherhood offering housing, employment and insurance help to Sicilian immigrants, proved to be in an ideal position to organize the home wineries and distilleries. And the Mafia quickly penetrated and took over the Unione, converting it to that purpose.

An often overlooked consideration is the strength of the Mafia hierarchy. While the leadership of other gangs was often in doubt or up-for-grabs, the leadership of the Mafia organizations was typically assembled by or imported from the mother country, where the hierarchy was as complex and firmly established as any government. There are a great many examples of Mafiosi stepping onto American soil for the first time and immediately being welcomed as underworld czars. It is said that during Prohibition, the end of which coincided with the establishment of the anti-Mafia Fascist regime in the old country, Sicilian boss of bosses Vito Cascio Ferro sent a great many of his men into the U.S. to set up a crime network that he planned eventually to take over. Cascio Ferro never made his final trip to the promised land, but his Mafiosi were successful in assembling the criminal network and using it to dominate the American criminal scene for generations.

The American public knew little or nothing of all that was going on behind the scenes - wanted it that way - and never dreamed how much it would pay or how long it would pay for its ignorance of the developing crime syndicate. Americans turned away from the gang violence and insisted that their own personal suppliers of alcohol must be more civilized than the thugs depicted in the newspapers. Gangsters became Robin Hoods in the American conscience, because the American conscience could not live with the truth. Society's quiet complicity with organized crime, begun during the Prohibition days, might have continued indefinitely if not for the economic collapse that caused - forced - individuals to reassess themselves and their institutions. By then, of course, the roots of organized crime had already grown strong and deep.

The author relied on the sources cited in the Bibliography web page for information contained in this article.