Gangsters & Organized Crime in the '20s
Category: Culture & Society
Before the 1920s, gangsters in the United States were generally the hired help of organized crime. Tough, working class young men -- often from Italian, Jewish or Irish neighborhoods -- sold their skills as street fighters to politicians, gambling bosses and pimps. With the passage of the Volstead Act in 1920, the gangsters came into their own. Alcohol was illegal throughout the country, and the vast amounts of money available from bootlegging transformed the gangs into criminal syndicates.
The Chicago Beer Wars
Al "Scarface" Capone -- the most famous gangster of the Prohibition era -- came to Chicago from New York City in 1920 or 1921, just as Prohibition was getting under way. One of the leading racketeers in Chicago at that time was Big Jim Colosimo, who operated a number of brothels but didn't see the potential in bootleg alcohol. Colosimo was murdered in 1920, clearing the way for Capone's mentor John Torrio to go into the bootlegging business. Another major Chicago gangster was Dion O'Banion, a florist and former choir boy who was also the boss of the North Side gang. Gang wars for control of the bootlegging business claimed several hundred lives during Prohibition, including O'Banion's. The Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929 took the lives of six North Side gangsters and one other man, and left Al Capone the victor of the Chicago beer wars, but he went to prison for tax evasion in 1932.
New York City
In New York City, organized crime during the 1920s was dominated by an old-time racketeer named Arnold Rothstein. Rothstein was involved in bootlegging but was primarily known as a loan-shark and gambler. Another man named Waxey Gordon handled Rothstein's bootlegging business for him. Other major figures included Owney "The Killer" Madden from the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan, Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Masseria and Maranzano were both members of the Sicilian criminal society known as the Mafia, but they did not dominate organized crime in New York the way the American Mafia later would. Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond were two major New York gangsters known for their reckless use of violence; Diamond even got into a shootout with a customer in his own nightclub.
Gangsters were powerful all over the United States during Prohibition, not just in New York and Chicago. Bootlegging in St. Louis was controlled by a gang called Egan's Rats. The Purple Gang smuggled alcohol from Canada to Detroit and the Great Lakes area. Tony "The Hat" Cornero was a major gangster in Los Angeles, and Pete McDonough in San Francisco. In Seattle, bootlegging was controlled by a former police lieutenant named Roy Olmstead -- the first major racketeer to be convicted based on wiretap evidence.
Birth of the Mob
The Prohibition years led directly to the birth of the modern American Mafia or "Cosa Nostra" as it is now known. The Masseria and Maranzano gangs would eventually wage the Castellammarese War of the 1930s, which led to the deaths of both men. During the 1920s, Masseria employed Carlo Gambino, Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Gaetano Lucchese -- later the founders of the Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese organized crime families. Maranzano employed Joe Bonanno, founder of the Bonanno crime family. Luciano was responsible for creating the Commission, the ruling body of the American Mob. The Commission includes the leaders of New York's five organized crime families, as well as a representative of the Chicago Outfit, the gang once led by Al Capone.