• Meghna Singh

Prohibition and The Mafia

The short, violent transition from the golden age of jazz to the golden age of organised crime.

The Roaring Twenties, The Jazz Age, The Flapper Era, The Mad Decade

The 1920’s was a period of substantial social and political change; a change characterized by unprecedented freedom, wealth and modernization for the American public.

For the first time, more people lived in cities than on farms, women got the right to vote, the wealth of the nation doubled between 1920-1929, jazz bands played across clubs in big cities and a consumer society emerged.

The Great Depression, Violence, Crime

The raging prosperity of the 1920s was matched by the crippling adversities of the 1930s. Poverty, recession, unemployment reigned and the suffering of the common man became a symbol of this period. This sudden shift from extreme prosperity to extreme adversity led to the beginning of organized crime- one of the most notorious sections of American society.

Nascita (Trans: Birth)

Organized crime, popularly known as “Mafia” had its birth in the lap of Prohibition. With the onset of Prohibition in 1920 and the ban of liquor in every shape and form, someone had to quench the thirst of the masses in the Jazz Age. This is where the mobsters stepped in to rise to the occasion. Initially they were thug men of the political bosses, tasked with intimidating opposition candidates. In turn, the bosses agreed to turn a blind eye to their illegal operations. In bootlegging, they saw an opportunity to make their fortunes. They protected the illegal breweries and shops from rivals and paid off anyone who dared to snoop. With the demand for alcohol touching skies, these men started raking in a preposterous amount of money. Soon, the tables turned and it was the politicians and police who were in their back pockets, following their commands. The natural expansion of their operations also warranted the need to become organized and this is what turned the henchmen into mobsters and the rackets into empire.

Ascesa al Potere (Trans: The Rise to Power)

The switch from crime to criminal enterprise was more a necessity than a choice. Lucky Luciano established The Commission, a council of all the major crime families of New York City, to ensure bloodshed between rival gangs was halted and there was a monopoly of the gangsters over the bootlegging business.

Further, the alcohol trade was a national one and it demanded cooperation among Mafia across the country- leading to mutual peace pacts to secure effective transportation of booze across the States.

Money laundering was another aspect that spurred organized crime. In order to protect the millions they were making, mobsters invested them into casinos in Nevada and wired them to Swiss banks, to escape the authorities. Further they hired accountants and lawyers to handle their finances and commissioned thugs on a payroll to intimidate their enemies.

All these factors gave a façade of business to what was actually nothing but profiteering in a time of crisis and misery.

Morte (Trans: Death)

The Mafia empire was built on the ruins of the American economy and its downfall was as spectacular as its rise.

In 1957, police raided a conclave of close to 60 mobsters in Apalachin, and the days of the FBI turning a deaf ear to the activities of the Mafia came to an end. Pursued relentlessly, Joseph Valachi, a member of the Genovese family, defected to the FBI.

He laid bare the workings of the organization and gave away crucial details about its structure, providing the agency with an opportunity to infiltrate the cosa nostra.

The above breakthroughs allowed the Congress to pass a Rackeeters Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which gave it the power to prosecute those who had previously escaped conviction. All this led to a slow but sure demise of what was once a bloody war of morals between the outlaws and the American society.

La Fine (Trans:The End)

In the absence of Prohibition, we wouldn’t have had the kind of syndicated criminality that occurred. Prohibition was the catalyst.”- Abadinsky, a criminal justice professor at St. John’s University.

From Lucky Luciano’s establishment of the mafia empire in Boardwalk Empire to Henry Hill’s story of turning informant leading to the mafia’s demise in the Goodfellas, every aspect of the enigma that was the Mafioso has been immortalized in American society.


~ Meghna Singh