Prohibition in Illinois was promising at the start. Temperance movements had been popular in the state as early as 1833. Prohibition sentiment had grown much stronger since then.
In the early 20th century the General Assembly passed a local option law. It was sponsored by the Anti-Saloon League. That law led to prohibition in two-thirds of Chicago precincts by 1909. But those who wished to evade the law could simply go to a “wet” precinct.
With National Prohibition in 1920, most residents looked forward to the expected benefits. They thought that Prohibition would improve health, reduce crime, and lower violence. That it would protect the family and youth, promote prosperity, and raise public morality. They were to be deeply disappointed.
Chicago’s location made it a natural spot to become the major center for bootlegging in the country. “Chicago is the imperial city of the gang world, and New York a remote provincial place,” wrote Alva Johnston in the New Yorker.
Although there were powerful mobsters in New York, Chicago became the capital of racketeers. They included the powerful Al Capone, “Bugs Moran,” Johnny Torrio, the Gennas, and the O’Banions.
Violence became a way of life that affected not only gangsters but innocent residents as well. But it wasn’t just stray gunfire that threatened life and health. The illegal bootleg alcohol often contained creosote, lead toxins and even embalming fluid. The dangerous beverages sometimes caused paralysis, blindness and painful death among some consumers.
Bootlegging and operating speakeasies required that law enforcement officers be bribed. In some cases, entire police department were bought off. Payoffs were a normal business expense for illegal operators. They often had to pay off prosecutors, judges, and various elected officials. Corruption during Prohibition was widespread.
The widespread graft and corruption caused by Prohibition created a deep lack of respect for law. It became fashionable to flaunt the law, especially among women and young people.
Prohibition also led to the pattern of infrequent but very heavy drinking. People didn’t go to a speakeasy to have a leisurely drink with a meal. They went to guzzle alcohol while they could.
The problems caused by Prohibition in Illinois were worse than any supposed benefits. Residents of the state voted overwhelmingly for Repeal.
Although Prohibition was discredited, temperance sentiment remained. Evanston, Oak Park, River Forest, Glencoe, Winnetka, Kenilworth, and Western Springs kept local prohibition. So did La Grange, Wilmette, Park Ridge, Wheaton, and Maywood, plus 47 precincts in Chicago. Within recent years, the number of dry precincts in Chicago has grown to upwards of 500.
Temperance sentiment today can also be seen in the very high taxation of alcohol products. Chicago consumers face seven different taxes every time they buy single spirits. Chicago’s liquor taxes are higher than in any other metropolitan area including New York. They’re almost twice the rate of surrounding areas in Illinois and neighboring states. Chicago residents are still denied fair and competitive prices.
Nearly one in five adults in the U.S. today favors making drinking illegal for everyone. And many more support neo-prohibitionism.
Learn more about Prohibition in Illinois
Bluemer, R. Speakeasy. Prohibition in the Illinois Valley.
Granville, IL : Grand Village,20 03.
Helmer, W. and Bilek, A. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Nashville: Cumberland House, 2004.
King, D. Al Capone and the Roaring Twenties. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch, 1999.
Ness, E. The Untouchables. NY: Messner, 1957.