Special Report

What Life Was Like in the Roaring Twenties

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Bootleggers were getting rich

The profits to be had from bootlegging, the illegal importation of alcohol, were enormous. One famous gangster, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, was a 23-year-old mob flunky recently arrived from Sicily in 1920; by the late ’20s, bootlegging had made him a multimillionaire. Al Capone’s organization is said to have generated the modern-day equivalent of about $1.4 billion from bootlegging and related rackets.

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There were speakeasies everywhere

Speakeasies were illegal bars — sometimes formerly legal ones that adapted to the times but often hidden back rooms or even private apartments converted to the purpose. Serving illegally imported booze or moonshine of dubious provenance, they thrived in every corner of the country. At one time, according to some estimates, there were as many as 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone.

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Mobsters killed each other in the streets

Bootlegging is said to have put the “organized” in “organized crime,” as mobsters developed vast networks of suppliers, distributors, enforcers, accountants, and attorneys. It also engendered deadly competition. By 1926, it was said that there were more than 12,000 murders a year associated with bootlegging and related crimes across the country.

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Federal agents were seen as heroes fighting gangsters

The FBI was an inefficient and politicized organization at the beginning of the decade, but J. Edgar Hoover, named director in 1924, reformed it and the Bureau began targeting the increasingly dangerous gangs that thrived as a result of Prohibition. Even better known and more appreciated by the law-abiding public than the FBI were the agents of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition — the most famous of whom was the legendary Eliot Ness.

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Suspected communists were arrested and deported

The first nation’s “Red Scare” was at its height from late 1919 to early 1921, and the so-called Palmer Raids, directed by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, saw about 3,000 “reds” (mostly Italians and Jews from Eastern European) arrested. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 of them were deported. Suspected or self-avowed communists were also expelled from various labor unions and legislative bodies throughout the decade.