Corruption During Prohibition of Alcohol in the US was Rampant

We should expect corruption during prohibition of any product or service. Of course, that includes the prohibition of alcohol. In fact, we can cause corruption by simply making a highly-desired product or service illegal.


I.   Background

II.  Al Capone

III. George Remus

IV.  Ira Reeves

V.   Customs Agents

VI. Widespread Corruption

VII. Resources

I. Background: Corruption During Prohibition

National Prohibition  (1920-1933) put the fifth largest industry in the U.S. out of business. That industry had satisfied the demand for beer, wine and spirits (liquor) from tens of millions of consumers.

Naturally, illegal producers quickly stepped in to supply the demand. Of course, these producers and retailers were illegal. This led to widespread corruption during prohibition.

The demand for alcoholic beverages didn’t disappear because of laws. In the place of legitimate, tax-paying business, illegal bootleggers sprang up to meet the demand. Bootlegger Al Capone said “I am just a businessman giving the people what they want.”

Many of the high profits of bootlegging went to corrupt law enforcement officials. It was a cost of doing business.

II. Gangster Al Capone

corruption during prohibition
Al Capone

Al Capone reportedly took in $60 million in 1927 and had half the city’s police on its payroll. He said “I got nothing against the honest cop on the beat. You just have them transferred someplace where they can’t do you any harm.” Of course, there were always plenty of corrupt officers to replace them.

Police officials often warned speakeasies of impending raids or let evidence, such as liquor, disappear, and judges dismissed charges. Some policemen, on salaries less than $4,000 a year, had up to $200,000 in the bank. That’s about $2,750,000 in today’s dollars.

III. Bootlegger George Remus

George Remus

Major bootlegger George Remus had a thousand salespeople on his payroll. Many of them were in law enforcement.

The Prohibition Bureau bugged his hotel suite when he had a meeting with 44 men. It was to work out some of the logistics of his illegal operation. All 44 were on his payroll. They included politicians, prohibition agents and federal marshals. Remus estimated that half his receipts went as bribes.

Corruption during Prohibition extended to the highest levels of government. The highest law enforcement officer in the country is the Attorney General. U.S. Attorney General Harry Daughtery was guilty of selling alcohol illegally and giving licenses and pardons to offenders. He also took bribes from other bootleggers.

Corruption existed both among cops on the beat and the Attorney General. It also permeated alcohol enforcement between the extremes of the top and bottom.

IV. Prohibition Enforcer Ira Reeves

corruption during prohibitionEnforcement was hard because of rampant corruption during Prohibition. Col. Ira Reeves had served in the army during WW I and was a hero. He became head of the New Jersey district for the Prohibition Bureau.

The teetotaling Reeves strongly supported Prohibition and fiercely wanted to make it work. He led raids all over the state. Reeves shut down speakeasies, roadhouses, stills, breweries, and bottling plants. He confiscated bootleg shipped by car truck, train and boat. Col. Reeves was unstoppable.

But Reeves quickly became disillusioned. Virtually everyone around him drank with impunity. Under political pressure, he had to promise not to raid the state legislature’s annual dinner. But worse was the pervasive corruption of law enforcement officers and entire departments.

Reeves tried to shut down a brewery. So the chief of police in Trenton had Reeves’ agents arrested for carrying concealed guns without a permit. In Essex County local police showed up to protect a still. Then Reeves discovered that his own agents had been accepting bribes.

Reeves became convinced that Prohibition was unenforceable. He resigned and later became a leader in the movement to repeal Prohibition.

Eliot Ness and his 11-member Untouchables are famous from books, movies and TV series. Yet even among the elite handful of “untouchable” agents, at least one was corrupt.

V. Customs Agents

Corruption existed wherever people were empowered to enforce Prohibition. Many members of the U.S. Coast Guard made huge profits by escorting rumrunning boats into ports.

Customs agents often enjoyed a very common method of bribery, the “free night.” Bootleggers paid agents to be absent for a specific period of time on a specific night. During that time, smugglers could bring in large amounts of alcohol.

Customs agents could also confiscated liquor from those who hadn’t paid graft. They could then force the rumrunners to pay them off for a high price. Or they could sell the seized alcohol to other smugglers. They could arrest uncooperative rumrunners. This would make it appear as if they weren’t corrupt themselves.

VI. Widespread Corruption

Judicial corruption during Prohibition also hindered prosecution. For example, police caught bootleggers red-handed unloading moonshine from a barge in New Jersey. Yet prosecutors dropped all charges for supposed “lack of evidence.”

The widespread corruption of public officials became a national scandal. Several rather typical cases reported by the New York Times in a short period show the extent of the problem.

corruption during prohibition
National Gesture
    • Boise, Idaho. Police arrested the police chief, the sheriff and a deputy sheriff, and a number of others for moonshining.
    • Edgewater, New Jersey. The mayor, chief of police, a sergeant, two detectives, a U.S. customs inspector, and eight others were guilty of conspiracy. A rumrunner confessed that he had paid them $61,000 to help land liquor worth one million dollars.
    • Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Police arrested the sheriff, the assistant chief of police, and seventeen others for conspiracy. The others included policemen and deputy sheriffs.
    • Morris County, New Jersey. The former county prosecutor was guilty of accepting bribes from liquor law violators.
    • Philadelphia. A jury found a city magistrate guilty of taking $87,993 in liquor bribes during his ten months in office. That’s about $1,250,000 in todays dollars.
    •  South Jacksonville, Florida. A federal grand jury indicted almost the entire city administration. It included the mayor, chief of police, head of the city council, city commissioner, and fire chief.

Cartoon about Corruption During Prohibition

This popular cartoon was about corruption during Prohibition. Titled “The National Gesture,” it suggests the widespread nature of corruption. It portrays a prohibition agent, police officer, politician, magistrate, petty official and member of the clergy. Each has his hand extended in the “national gesture.”

VII: Resources: Corruption During Prohibition

Web Pages

Prohibition Bootleggers

Women Bootleggers

Prejudice and Prohibition


Husain, M., et al. Eliot Ness: Untouchable. NY: A&E. DVD video, VHS tape.

Popular Books about Corruption During Prohibition

Asbury, H.  The Great Illusion.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Behr, E. Prohibition. NY: Arcade. (Excellent on corruption during Prohibition.)

Burns, K., and Novick, L. Prohibition -Episode 2. San Francisco: Kanopy. (Focuses on corruption during Prohibition.)

Gitlin, M. The Prohibition Era. Edina, MN: ABDO. (Juv)

Heimel, P. Eliot Ness: The Real Story. Nashvillle: Cumberland.