Corruption During Prohibition of Alcohol in the U.S. in the U.S. was Rampant: The Public Demanded Alcoholic Beverages

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 from tens of millions of consumers. Naturally, illegal producers quickly stepped in to supply the demand.

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.

Gangster Al Capone

corruption during prohibition

Al Capone

Al Capone’s Chicago organization 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.

Bootlegger George Remus

corruption during prohibition

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 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.

Prohibition Enforcer Ira Reves

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 energetically 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 indefatigable.

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

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. Reeves then discovered that his own agents had been accepting bribes. (He became convinced that Prohibition was unenforceable. Reeves resigned and later became a leader in the movement to repeal Prohibition.)

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.

Widespread Corruption

Judicial corruption also hindered prosecution. For example, police caught bootleggers red-handed unloading moonshine from a barge in the Rancocas Creek 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.

  • Boise, Idaho. Officials 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. Officials 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, president of the city council, city commissioner, and fire chief.

corruption during prohibition

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.”

Resources on Corruption During Prohibition

Asbury, H.  The Great Illusion.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950.

Behr, E. Prohibition. NY: Arcade, 1996. Excellent on corruption during Prohibition

Burns, K., and Novick, L. Prohibition -Episode 2. (Focuses on corruption during Prohibition) San Francisco: Kanopy, 2015.

Gitlin, M. The Prohibition Era. Edina, MN: ABDO, 2011. Juvenile.

Heimel, P. Eliot Ness: The Real Story. Nashvillle: Cumberland, 2001.

Husain, M., et al. Eliot Ness: Untouchable. NY: A & E, 2008. DVD video, VHS tape