Prohibition Inspired Al Capone and Eventually HBO’s Boardwalk Empire

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A Brief History

On December 5, 1933, history was made that would change the United States (back) forever!  Well, you never know, so maybe not forever.  In any event, this date was the day Prohibition ended in the United States, although its legacy lives on in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

Digging Deeper

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, known as the Volstead Act had been passed in 1920 riding a wave of anti-alcohol sentiment, largely by women that had previously been active in the women’s suffrage movement. Apparently, women especially were likely to be anti-alcohol as they saw drunkenness as a highway to domestic abuse, lack of industriousness/income, and adultery/prostitution.

Amendment XVIII in the National Archives

The country at that time was still mostly rural, and the rural Protestants overwhelmed the urban Catholics to prohibit most forms of alcoholic beverages.  Although many “dry” groups had campaigned against alcohol since before U.S. independence and continuously since, after ratification of the 18th Amendment, plenty of Americans were not so satisfied with the result.  Consider, for example, the 30,000 to 100,000 New York City establishments that served alcohol illegally!

With that kind of demand for booze, beer and wine, a whole new genre of criminal developed: the bootlegger.  Fortunes were made by the likes of Al Capone and allegedly Joseph Kennedy, father of future president John F. Kennedy (although this claim is hotly debated).  Illegal booze generated about $3 billion a year or criminals. Lawmen like Eliot Ness of Untouchables fame and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI made their reputations based on vigorous enforcement of prohibition.  Other lawmen drove the wrong way on that one way street and served as escorts and facilitators for the bootleggers.  The current HBO production of Boardwalk Empire showcases the criminals and corrupt politicians and lawmen in graphic style.

Intertitle from the HBO television program Boardwalk Empire

Many Americans traveled to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean to enjoy their alcohol and smuggle back their own stash.  A lot of American money flowed out of the country during prohibition, which probably meant a serious period of mourning in those places after this epic date!  Many other Americans resorted to “moon shining”, the home manufacture of beer, wine and especially whiskey.  Illicit “stills” ramped up production for personal use and sale to neighbors, and new stills sprung up all over the country.

Transporting illegal “hooch” was dangerous and profitable, and spawned a new breed of drivers that modified cars to carry alcohol and go faster, corner better, etc.. so as to better elude the police.  This activity led to the development of the auto racing form now known as “stock car racing.”  Meanwhile, the term “rum-running” most likely originated at the start of Prohibition in the United States (1920–1933), when ships from Bimini in the western Bahamas transported cheap Caribbean rum to Florida speakeasies.

Rum runner schooner Kirk and Sweeney with contraband stacked on deck

Researchers seem to be in disagreement as to the actual impact prohibition and the repeal of prohibition had on alcohol consumption in the U.S., whether consumption went up or down before, during, and after prohibition.  One lasting effect that we do know, is that many counties, wards, precincts, towns and cities in the U.S. still prohibit the sale of alcohol and are known as “dry” jurisdictions.  The state of Kansas even outlawed alcoholic drinks served in bars and restaurants until 1987, and Mississippi did not repeal their own state prohibition until 1966.  Since the repealing of the 18th Amendment did not prohibit states from controlling alcohol within their own borders, and many states allow smaller jurisdictions to restrict alcohol as local whim dictates, we have a patchwork of “wet” and “dry” areas and different selling days and times all over the country.

The ratification of the 21st Amendment that repealed the 18th Amendment was certainly a momentous day in U.S. history.  Questions for students: Would the 1920’s have “roared” without prohibition?  Would Alcoholics Anonymous have been founded in 1935 without the 21st Amendment?  Would we even have NASCAR today?  Feel free to state your opinion of the 18th and 21st Amendments in our comment section.  Cheers!

Amendment XXI in the National Archives

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Historical Evidence

To learn more about this time period, you may want to follow the series on HBO and read-up on the historical background as covered in a nice companion book.

Johnson, Nelson and Terence Winter.  Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.  Plexus Publishing, 2010.

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The featured image in this article, a photograph of Detroit police inspecting equipment found in a clandestine brewery during the Prohibition era between 1920 and 1933, is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 541928.  This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.