Mobsters in the 1920s: Rise of Organized Crime in America

In the 1920s, the United States experienced a surge in organized crime, with mobsters becoming household names. These criminal organizations were involved in activities such as bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution. The most notorious mobsters were based in major cities such as New York, Chicago, and Detroit.

One of the most famous mobsters of the 1920s was Al Capone, also known as “Scarface.” Capone was the leader of the Chicago Outfit and was involved in various illegal activities, including bootlegging and racketeering. His rise to power in the criminal underworld made him a household name and a symbol of the era’s lawlessness.

Despite the efforts of law enforcement, the mobsters of the 1920s maintained their power and influence for years. The era came to an end with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, which significantly reduced the profits of organized crime. However, these mobsters’ legacy and impact on American society will continue to be felt for decades.

Prohibition and the Rise of Organized Crime

A smoky speakeasy with a hidden entrance, dimly lit by flickering candles. Gangsters in sharp suits exchange secretive whispers over glasses of bootlegged liquor

During the 1920s, the United States government passed the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol. This period, known as Prohibition, led to the rise of organized crime as bootleggers, speakeasies, and illegal distilleries became prevalent.

Organized crime groups, such as the Italian-American Mafia, Irish-American Gangs, and Jewish-American Mobsters, capitalized on the demand for alcohol and established a lucrative black market. They smuggled alcohol from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean and distributed it to speakeasies and other establishments.

The demand for alcohol also led to an increase in violence as rival gangs fought for control of the market. This violence was not limited to gang members, as innocent bystanders were often caught in the crossfire.

The government’s efforts to enforce Prohibition were largely unsuccessful, as many law enforcement officials were corrupt and accepted bribes from organized crime groups. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 marked the end of the era of organized crime’s dominance in the alcohol trade.

Overall, Prohibition and the rise of organized crime during the 1920s had a significant impact on American society. It led to an increase in violence, corruption, and illegal activity and ultimately failed to achieve its intended goal of reducing alcohol consumption.

Notable Mobsters of the 1920s

A smoky speakeasy with well-dressed men, playing cards and sipping whiskey, surrounded by opulent decor and dim lighting

Al Capone

Al Capone, also known as “Scarface,” was a notorious American gangster who rose to power during Prohibition. Capone became the boss of the Chicago Outfit, a powerful crime syndicate, and was known for his ruthless tactics and extravagant lifestyle. He was involved in various illegal activities, including bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution.

Capone was arrested and convicted for tax evasion in 1931 and spent 11 years in federal prison. Despite his criminal activities, he remains a cultural icon and is often portrayed in movies and television shows.

Lucky Luciano

Lucky Luciano, born Salvatore Lucania, was an Italian-American mobster considered the father of modern organized crime. He was a key figure in creating the National Crime Syndicate, a network of criminal organizations that controlled various illegal activities across the United States.

Luciano was known for his business-like approach to crime and ability to bring together various criminal factions. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison, but his sentence was later commuted and he was deported to Italy.

Bugs Moran

George “Bugs” Moran was a Chicago-based mobster who led the North Side Gang. The gang was involved in various illegal activities, including bootlegging and gambling, and was a rival of Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit.

Moran is best known for his involvement in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, where Capone’s men killed seven members of his gang. Moran survived the attack but never regained the power he once had. He was eventually arrested and spent time in prison for various crimes.

Mobsters and the Law

A group of mobsters gather in a dimly lit speakeasy, surrounded by poker tables and bottles of bootlegged liquor. The air is thick with cigarette smoke as they discuss their illegal operations, constantly glancing over their shoulders for any signs

The Volstead Act

The Volstead Act, also known as the National Prohibition Act, was enacted in 1920, making the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol illegal in the United States. This law was a major boon for mobsters, who saw the opportunity to make huge profits through bootlegging and speakeasies. Mobsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano became legendary figures during this period, building vast criminal empires through the illegal sale of alcohol.

Law Enforcement Challenges

Despite the efforts of law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the Bureau of Prohibition, mobsters were often able to evade capture and continue their criminal activities. One reason was the widespread corruption among law enforcement officials, who could be bribed or intimidated into turning a blind eye to illegal activities. Additionally, the mobsters were often highly organized and well-funded, with access to sophisticated weapons and technology that made them difficult to catch.

Significant Legal Cases

Law enforcement agencies made significant arrests and convictions during this period despite the challenges. One of the most famous cases was the trial of Al Capone, convicted of tax evasion in 1931 and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Other notable cases included the prosecution of Lucky Luciano and the arrest of Dutch Schultz, who were significant figures in the New York City underworld.

In conclusion, the relationship between mobsters and the law in the 1920s was complex and often tense. While the Volstead Act provided a significant opportunity for criminal organizations to thrive, law enforcement agencies ultimately made some significant inroads in the fight against organized crime.

The Structure of Mob Organizations

A dimly lit speakeasy with mobsters gathered around a table, exchanging hushed conversations and exchanging envelopes of cash. A shadowy figure oversees the meeting from a corner of the room


Mob organizations in the 1920s were structured hierarchically, with a clear chain of command. At the top of the hierarchy was the boss, who made all the major decisions and controlled the organization’s overall direction. Under the boss were the underboss and the consigliere, who served as advisors and helped to manage the organization’s day-to-day operations.

Beneath the underboss and consigliere were the capos, responsible for overseeing a group of soldiers. The soldiers, in turn, were responsible for carrying out the organization’s various criminal activities, such as extortion, gambling, and bootlegging.


One of the primary ways that mob organizations made money was through various criminal rackets. These rackets included gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging, among others. The mob would often use violence and intimidation to maintain control over these rackets and would go to great lengths to protect their profits.

Territorial Control

Another key aspect of mob organizations was territorial control. Mobsters often divided cities into different territories, each controlled by a different capo. The capo was responsible for maintaining control over his territory and used violence and intimidation to keep out rival gangs.

The structure of mob organizations in the 1920s was highly centralized and hierarchical, with a transparent chain of command. Mobsters made money through various criminal rackets and used violence and intimidation to maintain control over their territories.

Cultural Impact of 1920s Mobsters

Public Perception

The rise of mobsters in the 1920s significantly impacted public perception. While some saw them as ruthless criminals, others admired their power and wealth. Mobsters were often seen as glamorous figures who lived a life of luxury and could do whatever they wanted. The media fueled this perception and often portrayed them in a positive light.

However, the public perception of mobsters changed as their crimes became more violent and widespread. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, in which seven members of the North Side Gang were killed, shocked the nation and turned public opinion against mobsters.

Media Representation

The media played a significant role in shaping the cultural impact of 1920s mobsters. Newspapers and magazines often sensationalized their crimes and portrayed them as larger-than-life figures, helping to create a cult of personality around mobsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.

Movies and television shows also contributed to the media representation of mobsters. The 1931 film “Little Caesar” and the 1932 film “Scarface” depicted the rise and fall of fictional mobsters and helped popularize the gangster genre. This genre continued to be popular throughout the 1930s and 1940s, with films like “The Public Enemy” and “White Heat” becoming classics.

Overall, the cultural impact of 1920s mobsters was significant. They influenced public perception and media representation and helped shape the time’s popular culture. However, their crimes and violence ultimately led to their downfall, and they are now remembered as notorious criminals rather than glamorous figures.