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Citation : Target: Mafia—the prohibition years [Video file]. (1996). Retrieved May 17, 2017, from https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspxID=18566&xtid=42372
Welcome to the world of Arts andEntertainment. And thank you for joining ushere on A&E Home Video.
The mafia is a basic part of American life, denyit or not. Every generation has had it’sunderworld kings. Unforgettable personalitiesthat commit unspeakable crimes. The mafia,it’s a name that speaks fear, representing thefascinating, appalling underside of our nationalexperience.
Often, they’ve been glorified. We call themnames like Al “Scarface” Capone, LuckyLuciano, or the Dapper Don. Many meet theirfates in undignified ways. It’s not surprising,they’re playing a high stakes game. The mafia isa business. It turns over more money thanAmerica’s 10 largest industrial corporations.How did they get this big? Who runs the show?To understand, one has to go back to a quieter,more peaceful time.
Back at the turn of the century, America wasstill a largely white Anglo-Saxon Protestantcountry. But the face of America was changingdramatically. The new wave of immigrantsjostled the sense of stability of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, known as WASPs. Manycities became clusters of ethnic neighborhoodspopulated by the Irish, the Jewish, the Italians,and others. Most immigrants arrived in the USwith very little money. They lived in poverty andcity slums. And their lifestyles seemed improperto some WASPs.
Local crime was on the increase, street thefts,prostitution, gambling, and burglary. And crimewas also becoming more violent.
Well, it’s been said in the defense of ethnicgroups that feel slighted by their associationwith crime, particularly the Italians, that crimeis not an ethnic phenomenon, which it certainlyisn’t. It certainly goes across all ethnic groups.But, one must understand that extremecriminality is often found among groups whichare, let’s say, the hungriest when they arrive.
There was also another side to it. Manyimmigrants brought with them a hostileattitude toward the law. The Irish had beenoppressed by the British, and, for them,opposition to British law was heroic. TheItalians from Southern Italy felt that the lawwas unjust, and the Jews fled Eastern Europebecause they’d been persecuted and denied theright to own property. So for many, gettingaround the law was an honored activity.
The WASPs feared the changes they wereseeing. They wanted to establish more control.They were particularly worried about thedrinking habits of the new immigrants. TheAnti-Saloon League and other temperancemovements were already making their opinionsknown.
Alcohol is a detriment to youth. I wish that allthe youth in America would see it in the samelight that I do.
On January 16, 1920, the EighteenthAmendment to the Constitution became federallaw. Enforced by the Volstead Act, it bannedliquor sales, production, and consumption.Most just called it prohibition.
Prohibition was hoisted on this country bywhite Protestants who were worried about thenew immigrant groups, worried about socialcontrol, and they saw the abolition of the liquortraffic as a way of imposing a kind of socialcontrol on these new immigrant groups.
However, many Americans did not want to stopdrinking. They’d suffered through World War Iand they wanted to have some fun. A strongdemand was created that needed someone tosupply it. For many immigrants and we’relooking for ways to make money, prohibitionwas a dream come true. An illegal, but highlyprofitable career as a bootlegger, provedirresistible. The Irish were the first bootleggers.In many cities, they were the saloon keepersand bar owners, and they had close ties to thepolice and to the politicians. Very soon,however, the Irish met fierce competition.
Then when you come down to bootlegging, ofcourse, this would be at precisely the time thatthe young Italians and the young Jews raised inAmerican slums would be coming to manhood.And there was an opportunity to move quicklyinto an expanding business activity.
Most newly arrived Americans played the gamestraight, committed no crimes, and rose bytheir own legitimate efforts. Gangsters decidedto steal and kill not because they were Irish,Jewish, or Italian, but because they werecriminals. Ironically, for the WASPs, however,criminal circumstances actually worsened as aresult of prohibition.
No one could predict what would happen withprohibition. People expected it to work. It’s anexample of the inscrutability of history. Often,consequences are unintended and prohibitionis a classic example of it. No one thought that itwould produce an organized crime institutionlike it did.
The WASPs believed they could use prohibitionto control the recent immigrants, what theydidn’t know was that a new defiant attitudetoward American justice was taking root. SomeItalians believe more in the Mafia code that inany United States law. And soon, Italiancriminals would begin to dominate the otherethnic gangs. But as we’ll see, the 1920s werestill a time when all the gangs needed eachother. Bootleggers connected coast to coastmoving booze. The underworld was becomingcoordinated and organized crime, the Mafia,was born. In turn, the Mafia helped organizeAmerican justice.
The onset of prohibition proved an enormousbusiness opportunity for the underworld. What it really spawned were the criminal gangs thatwe know today. With the passage of theVolstead Act, modern organized crime cametogether and developed it’s web-like structure.It was like an event waiting to happen.
Many of the early bootleggers had beeninvolved in the newspaper wars. Majornewspapers hired gangs of thugs to force newsdealers to carry their paper and not theoppositions. It was a natural graduation intothe prohibition liquor trade, where makingmoney and violence went hand in hand.
The most violent and the most successfulbootlegger in New York was the Irishman,Owney Madden, a convicted murderer and gangleader. When illegal bars or speakeasies openedall over New York, many of them serveMadden’s beer, a brew called Madden’s NumberOne. Like other successful bootleggers duringthis time, Madden went from being a nasty,small time killer to running a major underworldbusiness empire.
Owney Madden of New York was a stone killer.He ran that town. Ed Sullivan, who was aBroadway columnist in the 1920s, said thatknowing Owney Madden in the ’20s was likeknowing the mayor.
The story was the same in Boston, a city with astrong Irish community and a history ofresistance to prohibition. Most of thebootleggers had names that we’ve forgottentoday, with one notable exception, Joseph P.Kennedy, the founder of the Kennedy dynasty.During prohibition he was already a bankpresident and making money on the stockmarket.
So many of the Boston Irish were involved inbootlegging in the 1920s. And I think, perhaps,Joe did it, on one level, just be one of the guys.To have this connection to the old communityfrom which he had sprung and which he had,frankly, long ago left behind. It’s a way ofreturning to his ethnic roots in East Boston, tobecome a bootlegger.
I think Joe Kennedy did have a natural affinitywith other people who saw themselves asfighting the establishment. I don’t think there’sany doubt that Joseph Kennedy was in contactwith a number of Mafia characters during the1920s.
Kennedy kept quiet about his underworldassociates although, he would maintaincontacts with organized crime figures all his life.His public associates were more refined. Whenthe Harvard class of 1912 had its 10th alumnigathering, Joe played a critical role in making ita roaring success.
Ralph Lowell of the Boston Lowell’s, who wasthe secretary of the class of 1912, laterdescribed Joe as our decennial Santa Claus, theman who provided the booze. Joe’s operativesbrought the booze ashore in Plymouth just asthe pilgrims had come ashore in 1620, and itwas great stuff. The Harvard reunion in 1922,was very grateful for this high class boozeprovided by Joe Kennedy to the class.
Most of his bootlegging activities weren’t soaltruistic. Bootlegging was a business for Joe,and it helped him launch the Kennedy fortune.It was, of course, also illegal, and the federalgovernment was doing its best to stop the bootleggers. It was a difficult task. Many peopledidn’t respect the law, and their determinationto keep drinking demonstrated that creativitywas alive and well in the 1920s America.
Much of the alcohol came across the Canadianborder. Much of it came from another famousfamily, the Bronfman’s of Canada. SamBronfman used the prohibition trade to buildthe Seagram’s empire, which he ran from anoffice in Montreal.
The Bronfman group we’re able to set up clanshipping company in the West Indies, and evenin Mexico. So what they really did was to set upa transportation system all the way around theUnited States, West coast, East coast, WestIndies, and so on.
All of this took sophisticated organization, andit was a major reason why prohibitioneventually led to the creation of organizedcrime. Moving large amounts of liquor aroundwas quite different from robbing banks or pettyextortion. You had to ship the liquor, you had toget it passed through the Coast Guard, you hadto stored in warehouses, and sell it tocustomer’s. This was big business, and itbecame the business of organized crime.
One of the main masterminds was ArnoldRothstein, who was aptly called The Brain.
Rothstein is significant because his complete, Ican only say intellectual, involvement as TheBrain marked the emergence of organized crimeas a complete business entity. If furtherelaboration of the syndicate along businesslines is generally due to him.
Arnold Rothstein didn’t have a gang as mostbootleggers did. He was the money man,fronting money for various enterprises, andthen, being owed money. Rothstein came froma comfortable orthodox Jewish family on theUpper West Side of New York. He was aninveterate gambler, and legend has it, that thenotorious 1919 World Series was fix byRothstein. It’s the greatest scandal in thehistory of American baseball. Eight members ofthe Chicago White Sox were bribed to throw theseries to the Cincinnati Reds, but it’s one fixthat Rothstein didn’t do. He just heard aboutthe tampering and made a fortune betting onthe right side.