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 making a highly-desired product illegal.


I.   Background

II.  Al Capone

III. George Remus

IV.  Ira Reeves

V.   Customs Agents

VI. Widespread Corruption

VII. Resources

Corruption During Prohibition

I. Background

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

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

Many of the high profits of bootlegging went to corrupt 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. He had half the city’s police on his 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 police to replace them.

Police often warned speakeasies of impending raids. They let evidence, such as liquor, disappear. So judges dropped charges.

Some police had salaries much less than $4,000 a year. Yet they 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 police.

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 business. All 44 were on his payroll. They included elected officials, Prohibition Bureau agents, and federal marshals. Remus estimated that half his receipts went as bribes.

Corruption during Prohibition extended to the highest levels. The highest law enforcement officer in the country is the Attorney General. US Attorney General Harry Daughtery was found guilty. He was selling moonshine. And he was 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. It existed from the top to the bottom.

IV. Enforcer Ira Reeves

corruption during prohibitionEnforcement was hard because of rampant corruption. 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. He wanted it to work. And he did his best 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 couldn’t be stopped.

But Reeves quickly became disillusioned. Virtually everyone around him drank with impunity. Under pressure, he had to promise not to raid the annual dinner of the state state legislature. But worse was the pervasive corruption of law enforcement. Entire departments were corrupt.

Reeves tried to shut down a brewery in Trenton. So the chief of police had Reeves’ agents arrested . The charge? 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 could not be enforced. So he resigned. Later he became a leader in the movement for Repeal.

Eliot Ness and his 11-member Untouchables are famous. They were portrayed in 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 US Coast Guard made huge profits by escorting rumrunning boats into ports.

Customs agents often enjoyed a very common method of bribery. It was 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 instance, 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. This, in a short period, show the extent of the problem.

corruption during prohibition
National Gesture
    • Boise, ID. Police arrested the police chief, the sheriff and a deputy sheriff, and a number of others. They were moonshining.
    • Edgewater, NJ. The mayor, chief of police, a sergeant, and two detectives were arrested. They, along with a US customs inspector, and eight others were guilty of conspiracy. A rumrunner confessed that he had paid them $61,000. That was to help land liquor worth one million dollars.
    • Fort Lauderdale, FL. Police arrested the sheriff, the assistant chief of police, and seventeen others for conspiracy. The others included policemen and deputy sheriffs.
    • Morris County, NJ. 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, FL. A federal grand jury indicted almost the entire city government. 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 the era. Titled “The National Gesture.” It suggests the widespread nature of corruption. It portrays a prohibition agent, police officer, and elected official. Also a magistrate, petty official and member of the clergy. Each has his hand extended in the “national gesture.”

VII: Resources

Popular Books