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Crime in the Cities in the Early 1900s

Updated April 17, 2017

Crime rates were lower in the early 1900s than they are today, and the types of crimes were different. The early 1900s Prohibition laws that banned alcohol led to crimes similar to those of drug prohibitions today. Not only were there different kinds of crimes, there were different attitudes that encouraged criminal activity. Organised crime attracted minorities from Sicily, Ireland and other places, who participated to get ahead.

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Organised Crime

Sometimes new laws, such as criminalising alcohol, created opportunities in crime. Making a business out of criminal activity was common in large cities in the early 1900s. Exploiting human nature for profit in activities like drinking, gambling and prostitution was more common in large cities and cities whose population was younger; cities with more retirees have always had lower crime rates. Gangsters of the early 1900s managed gambling operations, houses of prostitution or speakeasies where liquor was served during Prohibition.

Brewing and Bootlegging

The ratification of the Prohibition amendment in 1919, which took effect in 1920, opened the door for a very lucrative business in alcohol. People began brewing their own alcohol. Distilling operations were ubiquitous and bootlegging, running the alcohol to market, became a necessity and a profitable career choice. Gangsters readily took part in bootlegging since their businesses -- gambling operations, houses of prostitution and country clubs -- made good use of the liquor. Crimes that were byproducts of illegalizing liquor included bribing politicians and paying off law enforcement to turn a blind eye to the illegal activities.


With the start of Prohibition came labour racketeering, which meant infiltrating a legitimate business or union in order to extort money. In some cases, the racketeer pushed his way into a legitimate business or a trade union through threats and violence. Businessmen yielded control of their businesses because they feared being executed. The racketeer would find ways to pilfer the business's money, such as hiring cheaper workers and pocketing the wage difference. This crime was difficult to catch in the early 1900s. The term "racketeer" didn't emerge until the 1920s, well after the crime was taking place. Racketeering thrived because of a cutthroat mentality among competing businesses.

Violence and Murder

The stakes were high in the early 1900s. The profits in certain "turfs" were enviable and violence kept the turf in one gangster's hand, or ripped it away. The more frightened one gang was of another, the more they were yielded to out of fear. Weapons were sometimes horrifying to the less violent citizen. Sawed-off shotguns, machine guns and bombs were used successfully to intimidate and take more turf and more profit.

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About the Author

June Farquhar

June Farquhar has been writing for newspapers and special publications in California since 1998. She's the recipient of a press club award for organizing and designing a 42-page "Red Ribbon Week" tabloid, which received recognition from the California State Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives. Farquhar studied newspaper journalism at Bakersfield College.

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