Over the next few weeks, Lost in Translation will be looking at various incarnations of The Untouchables, including two TV series and a feature film. However, each of those can trace back to the real-life Untouchables, a group of agents who took down Al Capone in during Prohibition. The Untouchables, led by Eliot Ness, gained their nickname by turning down sizable bribes. The name also was used for Ness’ autobiography, the 1959 TV series, the 1987 film, and the 1993 TV series.
There is a history lesson to get through first, to set up the era. Prohibition, the banning of alcohol except for very limited uses or, if today’s media existed in the Roaring Twenties, “The War on Alcohol”, ran from January 19, 1920 until December 5, 1933. Instead of just enacting laws, the US went with a Constitutional amendment, the Eighteenth. To enforce the amendment, the Volstead Act was enacted, with Congress overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. The Act banned “intoxicating beverages”, which was further defined as anything having greater than 0.5% alcohol by volume. The restriction included home-brewing of beer but, thanks to the Bureau of Internal Revenue, not home wine making.
The Volstead Act also provided for the creation of the Bureau of Prohibition, a branch of the Treasury Department that was charged to enforce the law. The Bureau of Prohibition was understaffed, with an initial 1500 agents for the entire US, and lacked resources, with a budget of $500 000 (a little under $6.8 million today). There were no initial requirements to become an agent other than be recommended by a Congressman or local politician. Cronies easily slipped into the Bureau.
The lack of budget caused another problem. People weren’t willing to just stop drinking alcohol. Booze is a social lubricant; people enjoy going out for a couple of drinks with friends. Prohibition was brought in because of excesses, but it didn’t take into account the reasons why people drank alcohol. There is a huge difference between having a glass of wine with dinner and polishing off a six-pack in an hour. Since all alcohol, with exceptions for medicinal purposes and home-made wine, was illegal, the only way to get alcohol was to turn to the criminal element. Organized crime saw a massive influx of cash during Prohibition, enough that it was cheaper to pay off a Prohibition Agent with a year’s salary, $3000, to look the other way. Agents were underpaid, at least in the field. Combined with cronies put in by politicians who frequented speakeasies, the Bureau of Prohibition was a bandaid on a sucking chest wound.
Even if a speakeasy was found and closed, the fines involved weren’t enough to dissuade the fined from re-opening elsewhere. The Volstead Act just didn’t go far enough to be a deterrent. There were enough ways around the laws and enough people who didn’t care about the laws to stop the flow of alcohol. Organized crime flourished, allowing men like Al Capone to get rich while controlling cities.
A few things changed because of the corruption and lack of effect the existing laws were having. In 1927, the IRS started investigating tax evasion by mobsters and bootleggers. The IRS didn’t care where the income came from; it just wanted the income declared and taxed. In May, the ruling in the United States v Sullivan ruled that, yes, criminals still had to file tax returns, though the Fifth Amendment allowed for not revealing the source. With this, the IRS created a special unit specifically to go after tax evasion by mobsters.
In 1930, the Bureau of Prohibition was taken from Treasury and placed under the Department of Justice. Prohibition agents were investigating more violent crimes, which fell better under the umbrella of Justice. In Chicago, the US attorney appointed Eliot Ness as Special Agent in Charge of the area. Ness gathered the top agents in Chicago, all of whom were incorruptible and skilled, in order to take down Capone’s mob. After a few attempts at working with the Chicago Police Department on raids that were busts because of corruption in the department, Ness and his team worked alone on raids that did put a dent in Capone’s criminal empire.
Ultimately, Al Capone was arrested for tax evasion. The Volstead Act just could not do justice to everything the mobster did in his career. Capone was tried and convicted of five counts of tax evasion in 1931 and was sentenced to eleven years in prison and a then-record $50 000. Capone’s gang continued without him, but the biggest blow to rumrunners was to come.
In 1933, Utah became the thirty-sixth state to sign off on the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth entirely, ending Prohibition. However, there were some lasting effects. Organized crime got a strong foothold and a large infusion of cash during Prohibition. Corruption among Prohibition agents and local police left both with poor reputations, even if it wasn’t a majority of law enforcement officers involved. Several states ran into problems with revenues; taxes on alcohol funded a number of budgets. The Federal government lost $11 billion in tax revenue and spent another $300 million to enforce Prohibition.
There’s still some holdovers from the era. Cocktails became popular during the time; bartenders added juices, colas, ginger ale, and maple syrup to the bathtub gin they served to hide the taste of the raw alcohol and the impurities from the distilling process. NASCAR has its roots in bootleggers racing each other, even after Prohibition ended. Non-American breweries and distilleries made new in-roads to the US market. At least one brewery, Sleeman Breweries in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, has included its role in provided beer to the US during Prohibition in promotional material.
The stage is now set to review the various versions of The Untouchables, from three different eras. Each review will link back to this if a refresher is needed on the era. If some of what happens seems familiar, remember that some lessons take a long time to learn.
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