Crime in the 1920's

Becca Gehman, Rachel Tuli-Babunga, Alyssa Schmerfeld

The Time of Crime

Although there was still crime before the 1920's, the 20's brought new types of vice to the United States. With prohibition in affect, bootlegging, racketeering, and organized crime became the new way for gangs and criminals to get rich quick. Scandals were also a part of the 1920's and many tabloids jumped at the chance to publish the latest rumors. Groups like the KKK reformed and were involved in lynchings and murders. Even the President was involved in the scandals and crime of the decade. There is no doubt that the 1920's was the time of crime!

Scandals, Schemes, and everything in between

Schemes and Scandals were more common in the 1920's because of the tabloids, new media, and the new generation. More people were acting provocatively during the 1920's, especially the younger generation. Because of this, the flapper, drinking, smoking, and inappropriate behavior were more common. The new lifestyles of young adults brought rumors and scandals that were published in the tabloids. People that were famous from movies, heroism, or other forms of media were often lied about in the tabloids. These lies were known as scandals or schemes, and while some of them may be true most of them were inaccurate. The 1920's became the era of scandals, schemes, and everything in between!

Roscoe Arbuckle Scandal- nicknamed Fatty, Roscoe Arbuckle became famous for his career as an actor and film director in the early 1920's. On September 5, 1921 Arbuckle went to a party in San Francisco. Another famous actress named Virginia Rappe also attended the party. When Rappe mysteriously died from a ruptured bladder four days after the party, rumors circulated among the party goers and the media. The people who went to the party claimed that Arbuckle had raped Virginia and was the cause of her death. William Randolph Hearst did not waste a moment and published the news as soon as he heard. Tabloids everywhere were crying rape, but since there was no evidence, Arbuckle was found not guilty.


Thomas Ince Scandal- On November 19, 1924 Thomas Harper Ince suddenly died from what was supposedly a heart seizure. However, this death was not all that simple. Speculations and rumors spread about the death claiming that Ince was actually shot. Three days before the death, Ince, William Hearst, Charlie Chaplin, and Hearst's mistress went aboard Hearst's yacht. Hearst had feared that he was losing his mistress, Marion Davies, to the magnificent Charlie Chaplin and was enthralled with rage. Many people believe that Hearst shot Ince in the head mistaking him for Chaplin. More rumors occurred because Ince's body was stealthily and quickly cremated without a coroner's examination. More stories were fueled by the clashing testimonies given by the witnesses. To this day nobody knows what really happened to Thomas Harper Ince.


The Ponzi Scheme- Fueled by money and greed, Charles Ponzi ,an Italian immigrant, tricked wealthy investors into investing in him and his business. Ponzi formed the Securities Exchange Program and claimed that his investors would get a 400% return on the company's profit. The investors thought that the money would come from purchasing international postal reply coupons and brokering them in more inflated national currency. However no profit was actually being created. Instead investors were getting paid through other investors money and soon Ponzi had generated millions of dollars for himself. Eventually, Ponzi was unable to generate enough customers to maintain his scam, and soon his company imploded. After the break down of the financial company, the fraudulence of the association was exposed. Ponzi was sentenced to five years in jail after pocketing seven million dollars.


The Black Sox Scandal- Around the country everybody gossiped about the infamous Black Sox Scandal. According to the rumors, the world series baseball competition between the Cincinnati Redlegs and the Chicago White Sox had been fixed. The favored White Sox had given a below average performance and many significant players failed to play up to their standards. People began to speculate whether the game was played honestly or not. On September 7, 1920 a grand jury began an investigation. They found that two baseball stars Joe Jackson and the pitcher ,Eddie Cicotte, had manipulated the game. According to the investigation, they had been paid off by Arnold Rothstein, a mafia leader and gambler. They paid each player who participated to rig the game ten thousand dollars. On August 2, 1921 all the accused were discharged. However, a day later the commissioner of the national baseball league banned the players associated in the scandal for life.

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A Plagued President

Warren G. Harding, the 29th President, served in office from 1921 to 1923. He is the only president to die in office, and because of this the vice president, Calvin Coolidge served the rest of his term. Harding was known for having a drink or two during the prohibition era and was not as innocent as you would think. Because of the tabloids, scandals and secrets were revealed about this republican. Warren Harding was plagued through scandal during an era of promiscuousness.

The Ohio Gang- Harding appointed several politicians and industrialists to be part of the government. However, these people were poorly qualified for the positions. This group of people was known as the Ohio Gang and they defrauded America out of millions of dollars. They were also part of the Teapot Dome Scandal where millions of gallons of oil were illegally leased to private oil companies Once Harding died the fraudulence of the gang was revealed. The gang members consisted of Charles Forbes, Charles Cramer, Harry Daugherty, Jess Smith, Thomas Miller, and Albert Fall. Many people speculated why Harding didn't act upon the Ohio Gang. The reason why Harding refused to do so was because he was afraid his secrets would be revealed by the Ohio Gang, who knew all about Harding's scandals.

Nan Britton- Harding was known for having several affairs behind his wife's back, but none was more infamous than his affair with Nan Britton. Britton was only 15 at the time while Harding was around age 50. His affair with her lasted for six years and Britton became pregnant. Although there is no proof that Harding is the father, many suspect that he got her pregnant because of the allegations in a memoir Britton wrote called The President's Daughter. Because of these rumors some people believe that Harding's wife, Florence Harding, murdered her husband after finding out about the many affairs Warren accumulated over his marriage. However, whether the First Lady knew about the affairs or whether she murdered her husband still lies as a mystery today.

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Race Riots Ruin Lives

African Americans started moving North because they wanted more job opportunities and to escape prejudice in the south. This was called The Great Migration . This left racial tensions because whites had more competition for jobs and many people were racist. During this time the Ku Klux Klan revived after almost being eliminated in 1915. This group is still around today and is against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and others. They were revived by Colonel William J. Simmons through fundraising and publicity. Due to The Great Migration and the KKK more race riots than ever broke out especially in the cities.

The Red Summer- In the summer of 1919, violence erupted between the blacks in the whites in about 25 cities. Because of all the blood that was spilled that summer is known as the Red Summer. Although all cities contributed to the violence the worst was Chicago. The African American population doubled from 1910-1919 and as a result left neighborhoods overcrowded which increased the tensions between both races. The spark that started all the riots was an incident that occurred at a beach on Lake Michigan. This beach was only supposed to be used by whites, but once a black boy swam into the "white area", chaos broke out. Stones started being thrown at the blacks and one struck a 17-year old boy. The rock killed him! Blacks were infuriated and broke out into fights with the whites. Little was done to control the fighting that broke out over the next few days. In the end 23 African Americans 15 whites died, and an astounding 537 people were injured. Many people also became homeless because of the destruction

The KKK- The KKK was known for their lynchings and other crimes against blacks and other groups throughout their existence. Although they claim to be helpful they cause more harm than good. David Stephenson, a highly ranked participant in the KKK, was arrested for second-degree murder. David fell in love with Madge Oberholtzer, a school teacher; however, she did not feel the same way. David had his body guards kidnap Madge and was repeatedly raped by David. Madge swallowed a bottle of mercury in an attempt to commit suicide. David then fled the scene leaving Madge behind to tell the story to the police and others before her death.

Prohibition Intuition

The 18th amendment was passed in 1920 and was supposed to diminish the amount of drinking across the country. The amendment stated that you could not manufacture, sell, or distribute alcohol but stated nothing about consuming it. In the early stages of prohibition the amount of people drinking had dropped dramatically, but towards the end of the decade about the same amount of alcohol was being consumed prior to prohibition. Prohibition failed and the 18th amendment got repealed in 1933.

Diverted Alcohol- When prohibition first started diverted industrial alcohol was the main source of illegal liquor. Under the law you were still aloud to make alcohol as long as it was industrial alcohol. This type of alcohol was commonly used in paints, but it had to be denatured. This means that the alcohol had additives in it to make it undrinkable. Bootleggers attempted to remove the additives and added coloring and flavoring to make the drink more appealing. However, sometimes the additives would not be removed and people would die from the poison the drink possessed.

Beer making- taking advantage of loopholes many breweries started selling near beer. This was simply beer made in distilleries that had the alcohol removed from it. To replace the lacking alcohol people added grain alcohol and called it needled beer.

Doctors- One of the only types people who were allowed alcohol legally were doctors. Doctors need to be able to prescribe alcohol for medical purposes. However, many doctors took advantage of the opportunity by selling the alcohol, but it was not a major source for liquor.

Moonshine- Americans even started making their own beer, wine, and spirits. Especially in the Appalachian Mountains. Stills were making more moonshine than ever. Making these products were quick, cheap, and easy and it was not hard to conceal the finished product. Different recipes circulated about hot to make bathtub gin and other liquors. However most people made their drinks in jugs rather than the bathtub, moonshine was still popular during prohibition.

Bootleggers- Bootleggers was the most common way to smuggle alcohol in the 1920's. Many smuggled illegal alcohol into the United States from other countries. Canada was responsible for storing over two thirds of the alcohol that smuggled their way to the U.S. Police could not handle the unwieldy lawbreakers during prohibition especially at the long border between Canada and the United States.

Rum Runners- If the liquor wasn't coming by land it would come by sea. Rum runners were the bootleggers of the sea. They would stock up boats full of liquor and race across to non-American waters where they were safe from the law. By using boats they would transport liquors to the U.S and hopefully escape the police. Rum Runners used special boats so they could outrace coast guards and police boats so they could sail to safety. Most of them sailed just of the American coast of major cities such as New York. They then sold their liquors to bootleggers who would distribute them to the costumer. Many boats were stationed at Rum Row, a common place for rum runners and bootleggers to meet to exchange the contraband.

Speakeasies- For the middle class new generation, speakeasies were the place to be in order to get liquor. In order to get into a speakeasy you needed to be recognized by the guard or know the password to get in. Many people had connections to access infamous speakeasies. Speakeasies were hidden in basement, back rooms, or anywhere away from the police. They were most common in cities. In New York City alone there was about 32 thousand speakeasies and 219,000 in the country. Some people had membership cards to get in behind the locked doors with a tiny slot so the guard can peer through. Although speakeasies were exclusive and hard to get into, you were able to have a fun night out featuring jazz music and illegal boos.

Gangsters- Although there was gangs and organized crime prior to the 1920's, prohibition made it profitable. Millions of dollars were pocketed because of the prohibition phase and there was nothing anybody could do to stop them.

Al Capone- One of the most famous gang leaders was Al Capone. He was a bootlegger who terrorized his competition or paid them off. He was called the "mayor of Crook County" and practically ran Chicago. It was common to find his picture in the paper as he was responsible for millions of dollars worth of alcohol transported and distributed into the U.S. Eventually Capone was caught and later died of syphilis in jail. Capone made bootlegging look cool and captured the eyes of America.

Bill McCoy- McCoy was a rum runner who specialized in real genuine alcohol. Eventually he got the nickname 'the real McCoy" because of how good his whiskey was. It was important for a customer to buy safe alcohol in the 1920's. Many people bought unhealthy and even dangerous alcohol. Reports were made that certain drinks to blind or even kill people. Bill was able to deliver safe liquor which is why he was so popular.

Racketeering- Besides bootlegging, racketeering was also popular among gangs. Gangs would often get paid to intimidate people for a certain cause, such as a boss paying gangs to intimidate workers into behaving. In some cases racketeering became violent and people were injured or killed. Gangs threatened companies in exchange for money or offered protection from other companies for money. Racketeering was another way for the criminals to become more important in society.

St. Valentines Day Massacre- In 1929 seven people died from gunshots because of the gangsters cause by prohibition. Everybody flocked to the crime scene to see the deaths of the seven people. Many people felt unsafe because of this and started questioning prohibition.

Prohibition Enforcement- By the late 1920's prohibition was getting dangerously out of control. The police needed to do something to enforce the law. This was hard to do because so many people were in the bootlegging business, and many police officers were corrupt. Police didn't get paid that much, so they left the big bootleggers alone as long as they got paid. Some even sold alcohol on the side. Congress eventually passed the Volstead Act ,which made it illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell liquor. It was expensive to control the massive amounts of bootleggers with a small amount of people and many cops failed to do so. Eventually police started going through special training to fight back against the bootleggers. However there were two famous police officers who were good at busting crim. Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith made thousands of arrests by dressing up as average people and catching the bootleggers in the act.

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