The Era of the Gangster Begins

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol<br />

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol, 1921 from the Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society. From Wikimedia Commons.

In January of 1920, the passage of the Volstead Act made the production and distribution of “intoxicating beverages,” that contained more than 0.5% alcohol, illegal in the United States. The era of Prohibition had begun, but as an unintended consequence, so did the era of the gangster.

The illegal alcohol market allowed organized crime to gain levels of prosperity and social prominence that it had never before attained.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition<br />

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition, January 17, 1920 from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Massive illegal distilleries covertly produced vast quantities of illicit alcohol, and complex networks of smuggling operations moved truckloads of booze from Canada into northern U.S. cities before continuing down south. Underground bars, called speakeasies, were built all throughout the United States as distribution centers. This black market quickly began to generate millions of dollars each year. Like any big sector of the economy, the successful and powerful companies, in this case gangs and mafias, began to emerge as industry leaders, and the men who were able to lead these enterprises became famously rich.

Al Capone while incarcerated at Alcatraz<br />

Mug shot of Al Capone while incarcerated at Alcatraz, 1930s. From Wikimedia Commons.

The financial success of high-ranking mobsters made them infamous and a dangerous, yet captivating, part of people’s daily lives. The exploits and profiles of these mobsters and gangsters would flood the newspapers and radio waves of the 1920s and 1930s. The public’s reaction to these high-profile crimes and criminals was not entirely negative. Many Americans did not care for prohibition laws and were dissatisfied with the socio-economic reality of the time. With gangsters openly defying the laws and undermining prohibition, they became a type of antihero, loved for breaking the law.

As celebrity gangsters began to rise to power, cars were becoming a normal and integral part of American society. The daily dependency on cars to travel to work and leisure activities created a strong car culture in America that still dominates today.

An aspect of this car culture was the celebrity car. Unlike the public mass transit systems of street cars and railroads, privately owned automobiles allowed for affluent people to turn the car into a statement not just of wealth but of importance. It mattered what car a movie star drove because it was a representation of the importance of that movie star in Hollywood.

Isotta-Fraschini advertisement, 1923<br />

Isotta-Fraschini advertisement, 1923. From Wikimedia Commons.

Rudolph Valentino, best known for his roles in The Sheik and The Eagle, had his iconic 1924 Isotta-Fraschini Tipo 8A. Clara Bow, made famous from her role in Mantrap and Wings, owned a 1929 Rolls-Royce Phantom Tourer. The Duesenberg was a luxury car for the extremely rich, and had owners like Clark Gable, Marian Davies, Ginger Rogers, and Gary Cooper. Just as these movie stars needed the status symbol of a powerful and impressive car to convey importance, so did the celebrity gangster.

The Era of the Gangster Begins