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. That it would reduce crime. And it would lower violence. That it would protect the family and youth. It would promote prosperity. And that it would raise 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.” So 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. It affected not only gangsters but innocent residents. But it wasn’t just stray gunfire that threatened life and health. The illegal bootleg alcohol often contained creosote and lead toxins. The dangerous alcohol sometimes caused paralysis, blindness and death among some customers.
Bootlegging and operating speakeasies required that police be bribed. In some cases, entire police department were bought off. Payoffs were a normal business expense for illegal operations. They often had to pay off prosecutors, judges, and politicians. 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 beer. They went to drink a lot of alcohol.
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. These cities and towns kept their local prohibition.
- Oak Park
- River Forest
- Western Springs
- La Grange
- Park Ridge
Also 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. Chicago consumers face seven different taxes every time they buy distilled spirits. Chicago’s liquor taxes are higher than in any other city. That includes 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.
Resources: Prohibition in Illinois
Illinois Alcohol Laws. Think you really know them?
Negative Effects of Prohibition.
Bluemer, R. Speakeasy. Prohibition in the Illinois Valley. Granville, IL: Grand Village.
Helmer, W. and Bilek, A. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Nashville: Cumberland.
King, D. Al Capone and the Roaring Twenties. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch.
Ness, E. The Untouchables. NY: Messner.