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Prohibition begins

Even as the Volstead Act went into effect at 12:01 a.m. on this date, only the naive really thought Prohibition would do away with alcohol consumption.

Chicago's gangsters, crooked cops, corrupt politicians and the booze-consuming public all conspired to keep the drinks coming. The combination of flamboyant characters and flagrant law breaking would make the Prohibition era the most notorious in Chicago's history and leave the city's reputation with a whopping hangover for decades.Evanstonian Frances Willard, a power in the Prohibition Party and a founder of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, achieved much of the groundwork in the 1870s that led to the 18th Amendment, but she died nearly 22 years before this experiment in social reform came to pass.

Bootleggers and other criminals should have been building shrines to her memory, because Prohibition ushered in a bonanza for the underworld. By 1924, there were 15 breweries in the city going full steam and an estimated 20,000 saloons.

These speakeasys (a term meaning "speak softly when ordering" that originated in the dry states of the 1880s) and the gangs that supplied them operated more or less openly, because William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson, who was mayor during much of Prohibition, was a master of the broad wink. His police chief, Charles Fitzmorris, complained that "60 percent of my police are in the bootleg business."

Hundreds of bars brazenly kept their doors open and conducted business as usual. Slightly more discreet "blind pigs" proliferated. Customers would mutter a code phrase at the door ("Joe sent me"), undergo peep-hole scrutiny and then join the crowd inside. Women, previously relegated to a side entrance at most drinking establishments, could enter these illicit saloons through the same door as the men, risking neither arrest nor a sullied reputation.

Cops also took a laissez-faire attitude toward the gang wars that frequently broke out over the control of alcohol-distribution territories. At first, Johnny Torrio, a New York import, dominated the mobster scene. He called in a Brooklyn thug named Alphonse Capone, a former brothel bouncer who was blowing out the candles on his 21st birthday cake the very day Prohibition took effect.

Capone, nicknamed "Scarface" because of the reminder of a brawl on his left cheek, helped Torrio open a string of suburban vice-and-booze road houses. As Torrio--severely wounded in a bumpoff attempt--faded from the picture, Capone muscled in on the Chicago saloon trade. Federal authorities estimated the Capone-Torrio mob pulled in $70 million a year, while rivals scrapped over another $40 million or so.

Dion O'Banion, the North Side gang kingpin, was gunned down by Capone's men in 1924 at O'Banion's flower shop across from Holy Name Cathedral. Two years later, O'Banion's loyal former partner, Earl "Little Hymie" Weiss, staged a vengeance raid on Capone's headquarters in Cicero. But Big Al escaped. Within a month, Weiss succumbed to a hail of Capone-gang bullets in front of Holy Name, leaving George "Bugs" Moran as Capone's only serious rival.

For the time being, Capone wanted peace. Ten days after Weiss' death at a meeting of gang leaders Capone had convened at the Hotel Sherman, the city was split into territories. Capone, of course, got the lion's share--everything south of Madison Street. "There's plenty of beer business for everybody," Capone recalled later. "Why kill each other over it?"

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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