Prohibition banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933. The tremendously unpopular change in American law created an immediate division between law enforcement and the American public. Alcohol, so popular among such a broad swath of the population, united previously unconnected people in a way few other things could. The result was the proliferation of illegal alcohol, including the speakeasy – illegal taverns to dispense and consume alcohol. There were thousands of speakeasies in major American cities (some estimates put the number as high as 100,000 in New York alone).
With the rise of the speakeasy came the rise of organized crime. The “roaring twenties” became the era of the gangster, as the organized Mob took control of the alcohol trade. Mob boss Al Capone is said to have had a net worth of $100 million dollars at the height of his power – a staggering amount in the 1920s (the equivalent of 5 billion dollars today). As gangs and gangsters gained power and influence by serving the public the alcohol so many people wanted, they became folk heroes, at least after a fashion.
All of that changed on February 14, 1929.
The infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred on Chicago’s North Side. Already torn by gangland violence, Chicago – home to Capone – became the scene of what was, to that point, unprecedented violence in organized crime. Capone’s men rolled up to a garage occupied by members of Bugs Moran’s gang. Ordering the Moran gang members against the wall, the Capone gangsters (two of whom were dressed as police officers) pretended to arrest them. The Capone gunmen then opened up with a pair of Thompson submachine guns and a shotgun.
The massacre gained national attention and was widely covered in the media. Law enforcement – real law enforcement – retaliated by cracking down on the thousands of speakeasies in Chicago. While the number of people killed might seem tame in an area during which we are sadly numb to active shooters, it strongly disillusioned many Americans who (up to that point) considered gangsters exciting or dashing. The incident represents a turning point in attitudes toward the Mob in the United States. After Prohibition was repealed, Americans continued to view organized crime in increasingly more realistic, more negative ways… solidifying support for law enforcement to crack down on organized rings trafficking in everything from gambling and prostitution, to (in the decades that followed) drugs and guns.
Law enforcement serves a very real, urgently needed purpose in American life. It hasn’t always received the support it deserves. Reminders of just what the men and women of law enforcement do to protect the American public are all around us. This Valentine’s Day, as most of us celebrate with flowers, candies, and perhaps a nice dinner out, it’s worth remembering a Valentine’s Day almost a century ago. That day would change American attitudes against crime (and toward law enforcement) for decades to come.