The Roaring Twenties: “Gangsters and Feds”
The Roaring Twenties was
the decade which started with the celebration of the end of the “Great War” (1919) and ended
catastrophically with the great “Crash”
of Wall Street (1929). That was a period where dramatic changes took place in
the United States.
“New Morality” appeared
that decade, which was more permissive than the previous one.
“New Woman” fought for
her right that period. In 1920 the 19th Amendment gave them the right to vote.
became popular and “Art Deco” was the
new style launched in design and architecture.
“The Car industry” led by the pioneer Henry Ford started producing new and better models
with more affordable prices. Larger roads started connecting the major cities.
“The Aviation industry” was also evolved during the Roaring Twenties. The commercialization of
the Aviation gave the opportunity to the people to travel to remote cities
faster, go over the Atlantic and reach the Europe.
“Science and Technology” evolved rapidly. Many of the
household items we enjoy today like refrigerators, radio, electric irons,
toasters, air-conditioners, vacuum cleaners, television developed into viable commercial products in the 1920’s.
At this period, “The cultural civil war” took place, where many
African-Americans came from the southern countryside to the cities and
especially to the northern ones. The black culture invaded the lives of the
ordinary “white population”. A number of vicious crimes took place in many
different places of the US against the African-Americans. Likewise, an anticommunist
movement known as the “Red Scare” encouraged the hysteria against people coming
from the Eastern European and Asian countries Twenties.
“Sports” gained unmatched
publicity and promotion included baseball, swimming, football, boxing, golf,
and tennis. The publicity of sporting giants was increased by newspapers,
radio, magazines, and movies.
“The Lawless Decade – Organized crime”
Although, gangs existed
in the American society by the end of the 19th Century, the scale
and the organization of crime made the difference. Some of the factors which
resulted to the development of organized crime are:
· Urbanization. Too many people were
concentrated in small areas, which resulted to the anonymity of big cities and
freedom of moral constrains.
· Immigration. Many people with
different cultures were living together. Poverty and discriminations help
illegal economy to grow.
· Communication. New technologies made
transportation and communication mush easier. As a result, crime expanded.
In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the US constitution made
illegal “the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquor”.
Drinking is addictive and it was popular. As a result, the enforcement of that
law was very problematic and the perfect setting for organised crime was
established. Illegal alcohol was imported from Canada and the Caribbean, or home-brewed
spirit was made. In 1920s illegal alcohol could be found in every street.
Bootlegging was well established and speakeasies were becoming more popular.
The origin of the
American gangs of the 1920s is dated back to the eighteenth century with the appearance
of mafia at first and the abrupt rise of the Black Hand in the late nineteenth
century second. The very seeds of Mafia began to appear in western Sicily where
people joined gangs to protect their properties because the government failed
to provide them the security they wanted. By the beginning of the 19th century
and due to the declined political and economic situation in Italy a massive entry
of Italian immigrants accompanied with criminal elements headed to the United
States picturing it as the land of opportunities.
The American branch of
the Italian Mafia was known as “La Cosa Nostra”. Gangs were very well organized.
They were expanded citywide or even in larger regions. They used organization
techniques used by legitimate businesses. Of course, they used different, more
violent techniques, for overdue costumers and rivals. They had to protect
themselves from other gangs and from law enforcement. Violent attacks between
gangs was a common phenomenon. The level of violence was raised. Their
preferable gun was the Thompson submachine, called “Tommy Gun”.
They also used knives and bombs. They also adapted a hand grenade (WW1), which
was known as the pineapple. Anyone how disagreed with the mobster “was taken
for a ride”, and of course he never came back.
The gangsters were using many common
standards, both in their appearance and activities. One of them was their dressing code. The
pattern of a man’s suit has been basically unchanged since the late 1920s.
Gangsters, living a life of women, booze, crime and cars had the money to buy
the finest fabrics and hire the best tailors. The basic pattern of the gangster
suit was black, navy blue, or white. The typical gangster costume had
pinstripes. Brooks Brothers was
producing high-quality suits in New York City since 1818. The fabric of the
shirt, ideally, was complementing the gangster suit in colour. The tie was
matching to the gangster’s suit and should “pop”. They were used to
coloured silk ties, with enough heft to create a heavy “knot.” The
suit was matching with high-quality shoes with “closed-laces”. Handkerchiefs, Belts or Suspenders were a must
to the total outfit. Handkerchief was always in the jacket pocket. It was the
sign of a true gentleman. They wore one every time they were wearing a jacket,
regardless of whether they’re wearing a tie. Belt was simply faded into the
background or they were using suspenders over a dark shirt.
At first, organized
crime focus was mainly on gambling and prostitution, the best example for that
is Big Jim Colosimo; an Italian rich gangster who collected his wealth from
brothels and gambling profits, but after the announcement of the Volstead Act
and the prohibition of liquor, the organized crime turned its attention to the
bootlegging activities. The 1920s witnessed a tremendous growth of Organized
crime. Criminal minds such as Johnny Torrio, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, created
organized crime in America. They shaped its core to a new extent. Criminal
groups were highly organized and in some cases, they seemed untraceable for
political institutions, in the same time organized crime leaders sought the
help of politicians when they needed it, the gangs knew well how to control the
bootlegging activities in their speakeasies which were spread all over New
York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and with the help of politicians their illegal
dealings were guaranteed. It was common for gangsters to fill political positions
or even be chosen to a governmental position.
All these illegal
activities gave amazing profit. Labor racketing became a common practice to
control unions. This way, gangsters’ involvement could be considered as legitimate
workers and had an income. Sometimes that was a win-win situation, because
businessmen could control the competition. Anyone who tried to differentiate
was executed by the gangsters.
Of all United States’ twenty crime families, New York only contained five,
which took the lead of organized crime making it the capital of delinquency and
dirty activities in the United States. On the other hand, other cities could
barely contain one family. Thus, the Big Apple became the headquarters from
which the other cities’ crime families were ordered.
Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese were the infamous five
families of New York that mustered their strength over the years to become the
kings and queens of the underworld, therefore, it resulted into an inevitable
domination over other Mafia organizations, diminishing their power, some even
For the Cosa Nostra New York was a crown jewel, it helped furnishing the
gangs businesses and financial affairs via the sale of different products. They
diverted their illegal benefits in hideous secretive ways such as in times of
filling up gasoline. They took over the huge commerce in the country’s biggest
port. Their benefits of construction estimated about a billion-dollar, getting
money from every possible domain they could reach and from every man they could
blackmail. The five crime families showed no mercy towards those who tried to
bar the way of their despicable operations. New York alone could not contain
the five crime families’ germs; the Sicilian mafia’s ideas and traditions soon
were transferred into other cities spreading this germ at an unprecedented
scale. La Cosa Nostra’s greed for narcotics dollars accelerated crime rates,
law-enforcement corruption, and the erosion of inner-city neighbourhoods in New
York and throughout the United States; it also supported the five crime
families within the Big Apple. The Sicilian mafia is considered to be the most
dangerous and the most powerful organization in the United States of America,
with its 2,500 members it could manage to run its activities as diverse as;
drugs dealings, counterfeiting, political corruption, frauds, and other
racketeering crimes. The Sicilian mafia crimes swept over everyone who stood on
its way even high-ranking officials including; generals, judges, mayors and
parliament members could not survive its threats. The Sicilian mafia paved the
way to other Italian gangs essentially the Outfit.
As for Italians, they were treated as foreigners and were
disenfranchised at first, but when the government announced the prohibition of
liquor they seized the moment and started extending their power over Chicago.
Italian gangs used to live on the profits of gambling and prostitution it was
rare to have any trouble, but with the bootlegging in the field several things
changed. Assassins were hired to kill famous gangsters, gangs planned ambushes
for each other and murders were just familiar daily events. Italians formed the
Outfit gang. The Outfit earned their bad reputation under Giacomo Big Jim
Colisimo leadership in the 1920s, but they were feared more under the rein of
Johnny Torrio and his partner Al Capone. “Many Chicago policemen worked
illegally and in close harmony with criminals and politicians”. Policemen were suborned and paid for, and for
those who dared to apply justice they ended up facing inevitable death. The
Outfit gang was only one example of New York’s notorious gangs which
later on took Chicago as its main area of illegal activities.
A notorious example was Al Capone, the Chicago gangster. He was ruthless
and considered responsible for
many violence actions, mostly against other gangsters e.g. the St. Valentine’s
Day Massacre in 1929, where seven rivals were assassin. His saying “A
smile can get you far, but a smile with a gun can get you further” shows how cruel he was. However, the
only reason Capone was arrested, in 1931, was for taxation charges.
Mob bosses were very
powerful and had influence not only over gangs but also over politicians and
law enforcement officials. For example, Arnold Rothstein was financing other
criminals, he was resolving conflicts between gangsters and problems between
gangsters and the police or politicians. His business was specialized in illegal gambling.
The “Great Gatsby” was inspired by him.
Some gangsters consider themselves as Robin Hoods. They used charity to
achieve acceptance. The image of the gangsters (popular to women, easy with
money, well dressed) was attractive to young men, and made recruitment easy.
They liked expensive cars, which they often customised armour or false floors.
The only way a crime organisation could succeed, was to prevent the law
enforcement. Bribery was a common way to achieve that. Free entertainment was
also offered to politician and the police. Corruption granted immunity from the
law. Gangsters were even informed about police raids on their operations.
On the other hands, in the early twenties, the Federal Bureau was not effective
and local police forces could not do much, since they were lacking of modern
tools and training.
The Bureau needed an excellent housecleaning. Edgar Hoover was the person
who did that. He took over in 1924, when he started organising an effective
force. He organized finger prints files, which became vital for law enforcement,
worldwide. In 1929, they started to keep criminal records by classifying
crimes. They also try to take advantage of new scientific methods, and began to
organise scientific crime labs. Through the years they managed to get modernize
and more effective.
Eliot Ness was a well-known G-Man (American Prohibition government agent)
in Chicago. He needed to fight police corruption. For that, in 1930, he formed a
squad of eleven agents, “The Untouchables”. Their investigations led
to the conviction of many gangsters e.g. Al Capone.
All sites where
visited on December 24th and 25th, 2017 several times.
Ness and the Untouchables
James. The encyclopaedia of the Jazz age.
FBI and the American gangster, 1924-1938
Jazz Age: Redefining the Nations 1919-1929
guide to the twenties: crime and punishment
crime. How it was change by prohibition.