Gangsters, gambling and guns – how betting boomed in Prohibition-era America
On January 17th 1920, the 18th amendment outlawing the distribution and consumption of ‘intoxicating liquors’ came into effect in the United States. With it, America entered the Prohibition era, a period aimed at weaning the country off the alcohol which had been widely and roundly accused of corrupting the moral fabric of the predominantly Christian country.
But like a lot of things designed to do good, Prohibition backfired quite spectacularly. Though alcohol was outlawed, its continued abundance is underlined by the fact that, in the 13 years before the 18th amendment was repealed, the US imported more cocktail shakers than the rest of the world’s countries combined. America’s dry days also ushered in an age when the gun held sway and a relatively new vice, gambling, swept the country.
It was Chicago – home of one Alphonse Gabriel Capone – where gambling became a particularly big deal. With booze off the menu and financial ruin commonplace in the wake of the Wall Street crash, blue-collar Chicagoans sought any distraction they could from the hardships of life. And so they made their way to the pool halls, the race track and the speakeasies that had sprung up across town offering a sympathetic ear, illegal hooch, and the opportunity to win a few extra dollars playing cards, roulette or craps.
In the early days, the Chicago rackets were the preserve of men like Mont Tennes, Dion O’Bannion and James O’Leary, true old skool gambling kingpins. As the gangsters grew aware of exactly how much money was to be made through gaming – and of how efficient a way it was to launder illegal earnings – it fell to Al Capone to ‘persuade’ Tennes and O’Bannion to ‘retire’ (the latter via means involving a revolver and a fatal gunshot), so leaving the way clear for the man known as ‘Scarface’ to clear up.
Capone (portrayed quite brilliantly by Stephen Graham in the award-winning Boardwalk Empire, above) could affect so hostile a takeover due to the huge sums of money he’d accrued bootlegging alcohol. With pockets deeper than Lake Superior, Capone – who was only in his early thirties – paid off any government official who dared to stick their nose into his business. The police, meanwhile, were all but on Al’s payroll so allowing him to take his gambling business out of the basements of Chicago and relocate to the city’s far more sedate suburbs.
Though the popular image of Al Capone is of a psychotic thug with a hair-trigger temper and a Tommy gun in his mitts, there was a shrewd businessman beneath the bullish exterior, one who would always try to bend a law before breaking it outright. So it was that, with the telegraph having made it possible to relay horse racing results across the country, Capone was free to run books on events that would have been illegal had they taken place in Illinois. It was a method Capone borrowed from his predecessor Mont Tennes, but with his resources and connections, the new king of Chicago turned a nice money spinner into a million dollar industry.
It was the speakeasies where the real money was to be made, however. In the excellent Prohibition, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns estimates that, in the 1920s, there were two speakeasies per block in New York City. While figures for Chicago are sketchier, the very fact of it being a town in thrall to Al Capone suggests that an equivalent number must have existed in the Windy City.
As for what it was that made them so lucrative, the speakeasy comprised all of Capone’s key interests. Here, illegal liquor, illicit gambling and loose women could all be enjoyed under the same roof. The close proximity of gaming and alcohol proved particularly profitable with the clientele invariably blowing their winnings behind the bar.
And exactly what games were Capone’s customers playing? Casino stalwarts such as craps and roulette were certainly in vogue. When it came to cards, though, faro was the big game in town. A variant of basset which itself shares certain similarities with poker, faro was popular with players on account of it giving the house such a low edge. The bankers sought to correct this by cheating, often without much subtlety. But who was going to cry ‘Foul’ in a speakeasy run by Al Capone? Presumably the same people who were stupid enough to try and use sleight of hand and distraction to try and even the odds – measures that rarely ended well for either the players or their thumbs.
Of course, the good times couldn’t go on forever. Prohibition itself was kicked to the curb in 1933 (and celebrated by man and woman alike, above) with new President Franklin Delano Roosevelt acknowledging that, far from sobering up America, the legislation had simply turned the US into a country of under-the-table drunks. The nation’s lawmakers were also chastened at how a measure designed to make America a safer, more wholesome nation had instead transformed the country into a place where gun rule was the norm and the very worst lived the very best lives.
There were ironies, though, that made this bitter pill worth swallowing. The FBI’s first order of business since 1927, Al Capone sought to put an end to this unwanted attention by going legit. In trying to do so, he found himself over a barrel when his understanding of America’s tax laws was found wanting.
The key issue was whether or not income earned from illegal activities – in Capone’s case, alcohol and gambling – was itself taxable. Al had always believed that it couldn’t be. So it must have come as quite a shock when, in 1931, he found himself sentenced to 11 years for income tax evasion.
Al Capone, as much a gambler as a gangster, had been left holding a busted flush. By the time he emerged from his prison, he was riddled with the countless unpleasant symptoms associated with syphilis. He would die in the January of 1947, aged just 48.