Peaky Blinders: Why US’ Prohibition failed and was ‘catalyst’ for modern syndicate crime

Peaky Blinders: Why US’ Prohibition failed and was ‘catalyst’ for modern syndicate crime

February 27, 2022

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The opening episode of Season 6 of Peaky Blinders airs on BBC One tonight at 9pm. The hit show’s long awaited new season promises to be a final reckoning for the Shelby family, as Tommy goes head to head with notorious fascist MP Oswald Mosley. The beloved BBC programme is centred around a criminal gang in Birmingham in the years following World War 1.

Yet tonight’s episode sees Cillian Murphy brooding protagonist Tommy venture to the US with the end of the Prohibition having thrown up new business.

But how did the country’s ban on the sale of “intoxicating liquors” become a tool for the criminal underworld to gain notoriety? 

Before the 18th Amendment came into effect in 1920, which banned the sale and importation of alcohol, corrupt politicians were at the centre of US organised crime.

According to Criminal Justice professor at St John’s University Howard Abadinsky: “The gangs were thugs in the employ of the political machines.”

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Mr Abadinsky told History that gangs would intimidate opposition candidates and funnel votes to politicians, and in return they would be left alone to run their illegal gambling and prostitution rings.

But when the Prohibition came into force, the power dynamics in the underworld shifted dramatically as gangsters stepped in to tend to the substantial thirst of the Roaring Twenties.

Meanwhile, the federal government was never equipped to enforce the Prohibition.

According to the Guardian, only 1,500 federal agents were given the job of enforcing the new law, which amounts to 30 for each state in the union.

The Prohibition also never had unanimous public support, while neighbouring Canada and Mexico had no intention of clamping down on alcohol distilleries near the US border.

In turn, the gangs filled the void, with Mr Abadinsky explaining that the key to running a successful bootlegging operation was paramilitary organisation.

However, the academic added: “They had to become businessmen, and that gave rise to what we now call organised crime.

“Suddenly gang leaders are making deals with each other.”

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They would form mutual protection pacts across state and international borders to ensure the shipment of alcohol arrived into the big cities.

Mr Abadinsky continued: “These are very violent people who are used to solving problems by killing them, but eventually they sit down and say, ‘We’ll guarantee peace in your area if you guarantee peace in our area.’

“That’s called syndicate crime, this cooperation between criminal groups.

“In the absence of the Prohibition, we wouldn’t have had the kind of syndicate that occurred. Prohibition was the catalyst.”

The relationships between each syndicate did at times become bloody of course. 

In Chicago, Johnny Torrion’s Italian bootlegging operation kept peace with the Irish and Polish gangs of the North side, but by the time Al Capone, his protégé, took over a turf war erupted.

In the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, Capone ordered his men to dress as police officers and murder seven of the rival gang’s henchman.

Meanwhile, the demands for alcohol meant the most influential Prohibition mobsters like Capone were earning a reported $100million a year in the mid Twenties, which amounts to £1.05billion in today’s money.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the cash grab was over, but the sophisticated criminal business schemes remained. 

The gangs merely switched their attention from alcohol to drugs, gambling and prostitution.

According to Mr Abadinsky: “The gangs had cash in a cash-starved economy. 

“If you want to set up a legitimate business, you have to go to organised crime. Loansharking becomes a major industry.”

Watch Peaky Blinders on BBC One at 9pm.

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