Prohibition in Illinois: From Beginning to End

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 wrong in every case.

Prohibition in Illinois
Al Capone

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.

There were powerful mobsters in New York City.  But Chicago was the capital of racketeers. They included the powerful Al Capone, “Bugs Moran,” Johnny Torrio, the Gennas, and Dean O’Banion.


Violence became a way of life. It affected not only gangsters but innocent people. But it wasn’t just stray gunfire that threatened life and health.

The illegal bootleg alcohol often contained lead toxins. The dangerous alcohol sometimes caused paralysis, blindness and death.


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 business. They often had to pay off prosecutors, judges, and elected officials. Corruption was widespread.

Prohibition caused most of  the graft and corruption. That created a deep lack of respect for law. It was the fashion 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. Most voters called for Repeal.

Prohibition in Illinois
Prohibition in Illinois was a disaster.

Prohibition clearly failed. Worse, it created serious problems.

Yet temperance ideas remain. These cities and towns kept their local prohibition.

    • Evanston
    • Oak Park
    • River Forest
    • Glencoe
    • Winnetka
    • Kenilworth
    • Western Springs
    • La Grange
    • Wilmette
    • Park Ridge
    • Wheaton
    • Maywood

Within recent years, the number of dry precincts in Chicago has grown to about 500.

Temperance Sentiment

Temperance sentiment today can also be seen in the very high taxation of alcohol. Chicago consumers face seven different taxes every time they buy liquor (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 the state and neighboring ones. Chicago residents are still denied fair and competitive prices.

Nearly one in five adults in the U.S. today favors making drinking illegal.  And for everyone. And many more support neo-prohibition.


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