February 14 is celebrated as Valentine's Day throughout the world where people shower gifts on their loved ones. Me being me I could not care less about about all the hearts, roses and cards but in 1929 Valentine's Day was painted red. In Chicago gang wars led to a brutal shooting of several gang members of one of the biggest gangs in the city. The murderers were never identified or caught and the person who ordered the killings was never tried for their deaths. 1920s Chicago had been a hot bed for gang activity. Gang leaders had become so powerful that they could openly flaunt the law and publicly bribe the mayor with no serious repercussions. How though did they get so powerful to do this?
For many years the temperance movement had called for the prohibition of alcohol. As early as 1846 Maine had passed a prohibition law and several other states did the same up to the Civil War. Groups such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League virulently campaigned for the abolition of liquor by lobbying politicians, picketing saloons and smashing the windows of bars. Many leading women such as Susan B Anthony got behind the temperance movement adding more credibility to their claims. During the First World War the Anti-Saloon League managed to get widespread support by playing on patriotism and xenophobia. They argued that grain which could be used to feed soldiers and as many brewers were of German origin they used xenophobia against Germans to discredit the manufacturers. In 1920 Congress took notice of their calls and passed the Eighteenth Amendment which banned the production, transport and sale (although not consumption or private ownership) of alcohol. The Volstead Act was simultaneously passed (despite a presidential veto) which enforced the law. Thus in the words of Herbert Hoover started 'the great social and economic experiment'.
However, Prohibition failed. Despite the initial reduction of alcohol consumption by 30% it was being constantly undermined. People started to illegally manufacture alcohol, moonshine, in their homes, they started to illegally sell alcohol, bootlegging, and 'speakeasies' were opened. Speakeasies were illegal saloons where people could turn up to drink illegal alcohol and when law enforcement arrived they would be quickly converted to look like cafes, non-alcoholic bars etc. Numerous people smuggled alcohol over the Canadian border and even many enforcers of prohibition chose not to do anything with many being more than happy to go to a speakeasy. Out of 6,902 cases in New Year for people breaking the Volstead Act 6,074 were dismissed. With the high demand for alcohol the criminal underworld managed to prosper. $2,000,000,000 worth of business going from brewers to the criminal underworld they managed to make millions. As they grew richer throughout the 1920s they expanded into new fields: racketeering, extortion, money laundering, gun running, prostitution, illegal gambling, arson and murder just to name a few things. They became virtual kings and with them bribing the police and politicians they developed an immunity. In Chicago Mayor William 'Big Bill' Thompson was known to openly collude with the most famous gangster of them all: Al Capone
Capone and the Massacre
Chicago had become a battle ground between two powerful gangs: Al Capone's Chicago Outfit and Bugs Moran's North Side Gang. Both men were powerful (Capone's net worth in 1927 was around $127 million) and were battling for dominance in Chicago. Moran was organizing a bootlegging operation from a garage in the North Side of Chicago. Four men dressed as police officers on Valentine's Day arrived at the garage and seemingly went to arrest the bootleggers. When the seven bootleggers were against a wall thinking they were going to be arrested the police officers pulled out machine guns and murdered them. Only one man survived, Frank Gusenburg, but he refused to talk to police before he died. Moran instantly blamed Capone only for Capone to claim that he was at his home in Florida at the time. The murderers were never caught and to this day the identity of the person who ordered the murders is unknown. Most place the blame on Capone although evidence from a criminal who supposedly knew the killers stated that the murders were ordered by several gang leaders working in collusion including Capone and Frank Nitti. We may never know who the murderers were and who told them to shoot the Moran gang members.
The Downfall of Capone, Moran and Prohbition
With Capone's blame for the Massacre he became 'Public Enemy No. 1'. Although other gangs now refused to touch him the government became determined to take him down. He would be taken down by the government but it would not be due to his murders, extortion, bootlegging or other gangster activities but he would be taken done via tax evasion. Special Agent Frank Wilson found he had been evading income tax and in June 1931 he was found guilty of tax evasion and sent to Alcatraz. He would be released in 1939 and die as a recluse in his home in Florida. Prohibition fell next. Anti-prohibition groups had lobbied the government and in 1933 Franklin Roosevelt became president and heeded their calls. With the country in the midst of the Great Depression enforcing prohibition was too costly and if it was returned it could be taxed so the 21st Amendment was passed the same year. With alcohol legal now Moran lost his power and had to resort to low level crimes, even leaving his once wealthy gang. He was arrested for robbery and would later die in prison.
The sources that I have used are as follows:
-The Penguin History of the United States by Hugh Brogan
-The People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn