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American Organized Crime

American Organized Crime

Tommy guns, bootlegged alcohol, bathtub gin, and millions of dollars in profit were prolific in the world of organized crime! While other ethnic gangs existed, the largest and most well-known was the Italian mafia. Gangs provided protection, money, and purpose to members who were often young, poor, immigrant men. Prominent American cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, and New York City saw a large influx of organized crime with the passing of the 18th Amendment, which banned the sale of alcohol. Continue reading to see how small street gangs turned themselves into some of the most powerful operations in America!

American Organized Crime Origins

Throughout the first part of the 20th century, labor wars and the onset of prohibition created a perfect storm for organized crime in America. In the 1800s, gangs were first formed as a means of protection for immigrants. These gangs came to rely on each other, believing they could not trust the police or other gangs.

Organized Crime

The activities of a group of individuals that operate to gain profit, generally through violent and illegal methods.

American Organized Crime Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol in 1921, StudySmarter

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol in 1921. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The early gangs eventually dissolved and were generally made up of poor immigrants living in crowded slums. However, the Italian immigrants who formed the mafia ("Cosa Nostra") came to define organized crime in America. The mafia would maintain power for decades, becoming incredibly powerful and wealthy through illegal methods such as extortion, selling stolen goods, and prostitution.

History of Organized Crime in America

The late 19th and early 20th centuries ushered in thousands of Italian immigrants fleeing difficult economic times. New York City saw 250,000 Italian immigrants by 1890, and by 1910 half a million immigrants called the city home. With the large influx of immigrants, gangs formed to protect their own and profit from illegal activities. These gangs often used violence to benefit themselves and sometimes victimized fellow immigrants in their communities. The influence of Italian gangs proliferated with the introduction of Prohibition in the 1920s.

American Organized Crime Portrait of Al Capone, 1935, StudySmarter

Portrait of Al Capone, 1935 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 5 Image of the bombing of Nagasaki, 1945

In 1920 Congress passed the 18th Amendment banning the sale, production, and transportation of alcohol. Temperance societies had popped up all over the U.S. by the twentieth century, and a new wave of anti-liquor sentiment ignited in the early 1900s. These societies often pushed that alcohol was the cause of lawlessness and the breakdown of families. With the banning of alcohol, Italian-American gangs and others took advantage and entered the profitable bootleg trade. The Italian gang was transformed into a highly successful business that used bribes, money laundering, and smuggling to increase profits.

Temperance Societies

A society dedicated to the abstinence of alcohol.

Bootleg

An item that is made and sold illegally.

Prohibition

The banning of alcohol sale, production, and transportation imposed under the 18th Amendment.

Did you know?

Thousands of people died during Prohibition by drinking tainted liquor known as bathtub gin, which often contained industrial alcohol that could poison or blind people!

Organized Crime in the 1920s

Before the Prohibition era, crime was considered random and unorganized, not serving business-like goals. Most gang members worked for corrupt politicians, doing their bidding and often bullying people to vote a certain way. However, the 18th Amendment eliminated thriving bars overnight, and gangs instantly filled the void. Mobsters began bringing in new profits that required a business model to organize. While the decision to ban alcohol was made to slow down violence, it only became a catalyst for thriving gang businesses.

 American Organized Crime New York City Deputy Police Commissioner watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid, 1921, StudySmarter

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner watching agents pour liquor into sewer following raid, 1921 Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Mafia bosses soon began making millions of dollars annually from the bootlegging business. Some profits were used to bribe politicians and police to look the other way. Organized crime was forced to increase their effort in running their operations. Many gangs had to hire accountants and lawyers to organize and funnel the money away. However, the booming bootlegging business ended when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. While bootlegging had officially ended, gangs' business practices would continue for decades.

Did you know?

Mob bosses brought in as much as $100 million a year, which is $1.4 Billion today!

Cosa Nostra "Our Thing"

As Italian immigrants came to America, the old mafia soon evolved into Cosa Nostra or "our thing." Cosa Nostra was interchangeable with the Sicilian mafia and became well known in America by the 1920s.

American Organized Crime Louis Capone and Emanuel Weiss, American Mobsters in the 1930s, StudySmarter

Louis Capone and Emanuel Weiss, American Mobsters in the 1930s, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Cosa Nostra is a descendant of the Mafia, but is different in its goals and organization. New York is believed to be the first large congregation of the Cosa Nostra, but the first significant grouping began in New Orleans. Like most immigrants, those who formed the Sicilian Mafia came to America to escape economic difficulties.

The real and fictive kinship ties of the old Mafia still operate among fellow Sicilians and Italians, but these ties now coexist with bureaucratic ones. The Cosa Nostra operates above all in new and different terms.1 - Robert T. Anderson

In the above quote, Robert Anderson explains that the new Cosa Nostra prevalent in 1920s America did not rely solely on familial ties, but spread out to encompass business partnerships that benefitted the gang. The Cosa Nostra had evolved into an incredibly complex organization with various levels, authorities, and specialties, making organized crime in America highly profitable.

Leaders of American Organized Crime in the 1920s

Every gang needs a leader, and in America, the organized crime bosses became infamous figureheads of their operations.

Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly is sometimes referred to as the father of organized crime due to starting the Five Points Gang, one of the first dominant gangs in New York.

American Organized Crime Italian American mobster Paul Kelly, StudySmarter

Italian American mobster Paul Kelly Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kelly became well known for exploiting young, poor men and recruiting them into the gang. During the early 1900s, Kelly became known as one of the most successful mobsters in New York. The Five Points gang would produce some of the most infamous mobsters of the 20th century, such as Johnny Torrio and Al Capone.

Giovanni "Johnny" Torrio

Moving to New York with his mother in 1884, Giovanni Torrio's mother Americanized her son, giving him the name Johnny. Torrio began running with the James Street Gang and opened up an illegal gambling ring. Paul Kelly, the mafia boss at the time, brought Torrio into the business, teaching him how to look legitimate.

American Organized Crime Johnny Torrio leaving the federal court house in New York during his trial, 1939, StudySmarter

Johnny Torrio leaving the federal courthouse in New York

during his trial, 1939. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Torrio broke away from Kelly to start his empire that involved prostitution, loans, and opium. Torrio eventually began mentoring Al Capone, who would become one of the most infamous mob bosses.

Al Capone

Al Capone was one of Chicago's most influential and well-known mob bosses. In his youth, Capone joined a New York gang, where he would meet Johnny Torrio. At 19, Capone was a father and husband who worked at a construction company in Baltimore for a short time before returning to work for Torrio in the bootlegging business. Torrio turned over the business to Capone in 1925. As Capone gained notoriety, he spent his wealth publicly, not concerned about drawing attention.

 American Organized Crime Mug Shot of Al Capone in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he had been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, 1929, StudySmarter

Mug Shot of Al Capone in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he had been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, 1929 Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is estimated that Capone was worth roughly $100 million in 1920. Capone became well known for using intense violence to assure his dominance. For example, in the St. Valentines Day Massacre in 1929, Capone decided to murder seven rival gang members, souring public opinion. President Herbert Hoover responded by taxing income on illegal ventures, providing a solid case against Capone. In 1931 Capone was officially convicted and sent to prison for 11 years.

Did you know?

Al Capone earned his nickname "Scarface" by making a slur at a young woman in a bar! The young woman's brother slashed Capone across the face, leaving the infamous scar!

The End of the American Gangster

While mob bosses and gangs continued to thrive through Prohibition, the public and the federal government started to notice.

American Organized Crime J. Edgar Hoover sitting at his desk 1930s-1940s, StudySmarter

J. Edgar Hoover sitting at his desk 1930s-1940s Source: Wikimedia Commons

The burgeoning bootlegging industry had been profitable for gangs and allowed them to protect themselves fully through weapons and alliances. Local police forces lacked appropriate tools to fight organized crime, and their officers were often already bribed by gangs. The fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), under J. Edgar Hoover would begin implementing critical new practices (such as fingerprinting) to help bring down mafia bosses. While the FBI encountered several failures, it ultimately captured or killed many public enemies by 1934.

American Organized Crime - Key Takeaways

  • American organized crime formed when a large influx of Italian immigrants entered America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Large cities, such as New York, Chicago, and New Orleans, became epicenters for organized crime.
  • Before passing the 18th Amendment (Prohibition - banning the sale, transportation, and production of alcohol), most gang members worked for corrupt politicians, bullying people to vote a certain way.
  • Prohibition wiped out thriving bars and businesses, and the mafia instantly filled the void. Mafia bosses began making millions of dollars, and gangs were forced to adopt a business model and hire lawyers and accountants to deal with the money.
  • As Organized Crime developed, certain key figures became infamous leaders, such as Paul Kelly, Johnny Torrio, and Al Capone.
  • As the mafia became larger and more violent, the FBI was tasked with eliminating the "public enemies." By the end of 1934, most public enemies were captured or killed.

References

  1. Robert T. Anderson, 'From Mafia to Cosa Nostra', American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 71, No. 3, (Nov. 1965)

Frequently Asked Questions about American Organized Crime

Organized crime began in America in the 1920s when Prohibition was enacted. 

Italian American gangs started organized crime in America. 

Organized crime in the 1920s focused largely on the bootlegging industry, bribes, and political manipulation. 

Prohibition was a primary reason for increased organized crime in the 1920s. 

Prohibition helped perpetuate organized crime in America by creating a large void in American culture. Prohibition had caused many bars to close, and gangs stepped in to fill the void. 

Final American Organized Crime Quiz

Question

Before organized crime, gang members worked for what group? 

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Answer

Corrupt Politicians 

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Question

Why were gangs formed in the 1800s? 

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Answer

Offer protection for immigrant groups 

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Question

What major city did thousands of Italian immigrants flock to in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? 

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Answer

New York

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Question

What year did Congress pass the 18th Amendment? 

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Answer

1920

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Question

What did the 18th Amendment prohibit? 

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Answer

Sale, distribution, and production of alcohol 

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Question

What was a defining characteristic of Costa Nostra? 

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Answer

Spread out to include non-familial partnerships 

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Question

What particular business launched gangs into organized crime? 

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Answer

bootlegging

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Question

What mob boss was well known for his violence and the Valentines Day Massacre? 

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Answer

Al Capone 

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Question

Who was in charge of the FBI when the organization began hunting the mafia? 

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Answer

J. Edgar Hoover 

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Question

Many gangs had to start hiring what specialists to deal with the influx of cash flow? 

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Answer

lawyers & accountants

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