Lentis/Technology, Organized Crime, and Law Enforcement in the early 20th-Century United States

Technology that made the 1920's roarEdit

Prohibition banned the sale and distribution of alcohol between 1920 and 1933. Organized crime, including Al Capone's Chicago Outfit, flourished as major distributors of alcohol and used their criminal activities to consolidate their power. The Bureau of Prohibition, the Department of the Treasury and local governments found themselves struggling to shut down the Mafia's operations. The balance of power between the parties was pushed and shifted when the groups turned to recent inventions and new technology to further their interests. By looking at the response of the Mafia to technological innovation and the variety of efforts to stop their success, one can look at similar contemporary situations through a new lens.

Technology Use By The MafiaEdit

The Tommy GunEdit

   see also: the Tommy Gun

General John Thompson, who first designed weapons for the Spanish-American war, found himself disappointed with the current state of the United States' arms at the beginning of World War I. He retired from the U.S. Army and became the chief engineer of Remington Arms Company with the intent of developing the perfect trench-clearing weapon[1]. The design for the Thompson submachine gun, the first handheld automatic weapon, was finalized in 1918, two days before the end of WWI. By the time the patent was approved in 1920, most vendors had revoked their orders.

The first documented case of a Thompson submachine gun in a gang killing occurred in 1927, when criminal Frank Wright was assassinated by the Purple Gang with three Tommy Guns. This killing was dubbed the Milaflores Massacre and it became famous for Frank Wright’s last words; asked if he could remember anything about the attackers, Wright replied “the machine guns worked; it's all I can remember[2]."

The Tommy Gun was immortalized in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Members of Al Capone's Chicago Outfit came disguised as police officers and murdered seven members of the Irish North Side Gang using Tommy Guns[3]. The violent nature of the crime directed the attention of the public towards the criminal activities of gangs. Originally designed for Trench Combat, the Tommy Gun was repurposed by the Mafia when they determined it was an effective weapon for urban warfare.

Bulletproof GlassEdit

In 1903, French chemist Edouard Benedictus discovered safety glass when he inadvertently knocked a flask to the ground. To his astonishment, while the glass did break, the flask maintained its general shape and did not shatter. Curious, Benedictus learned from his assistant that the flask had recently held a solution of cellulose nitrate. This liquid plastic had deposited a thin coating of plastic on the flask’s interior that kept the glass from shattering. In 1909, Benedictus successfully filed a patent in France for laminated safety glass and patented it in the United States in 1914[4]. Safety glass was first used during WWI when it was put in gas masks to protect soldiers' eyes.

Bulletproof glass is a variation of safety glass that uses layers of laminated glass to provide protection from small arms. In 1928, Al Capone was the first known person to apply this technology to his automobile when he used it for his car's windows[5]. Capone used bulletproof glass two years before it was introduced to the public in 1930, when it was was initially used only by criminals and the wealthy. While the car was never involved in any gunfights, it was intimidating to his rivals[6].

The Detroit-Windsor TunnelEdit

  See also: Detroit-Windsor Tunnel

In 1919, New York and New Jersey began collaborating on plans for a connection across the Harlem River. A bridge proved technologically unfeasible, so a submerged tunnel was proposed even though no submerged tunnel had ever been built across a span that wide[7]. The 1.6 mile tunnel would have to use new ventilation techniques to prevent travelers from being suffocated by the carbon monoxide in exhaust fumes[8]. Clifford Holland was hired to lead the design team for the tunnel and his team developed a series of exhaust ducts with powerful fans at regular openings along the roadway. The Holland Tunnel was opened in 1927 and this new ventilation design was able to circulate air in and out of the tunnel in under 90 seconds[9]. As soon as the Holland Tunnel proved the viability of long, submerged tunnels, every major city along a river wanted one of their own. Detroit hired the same firm that designed the Holland Tunnel to design a tunnel under the Detroit River[10] and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel was opened in 1930[11]. The tunnel was the first connection between the U.S. and Canada in that area of the country.

Seventy-five percent of all alcohol coming into the United States from Canada passed over the Detroit River from Windsor[12]. The Purple Gang, a predominantly Jewish Mafia affiliate, was a major supplier of alcohol to Al Capone's Chicago Outfit. In winter, before the construction of the tunnel, "Rum-Runners" resorted to dangerously driving cars across the frozen Detroit river and taking alcohol in small quantities by plane[13]. The opening of the tunnel provided an easier route for bootlegging during the winter months and the Purple Gang used violence to take over the tunnel and transport alcohol through[14]. So much alcohol passed through the tunnel that it was nicknamed "the Detroit Funnel[15]."

Efforts to Stop The MafiaEdit

Snow PlowEdit

More cars driving on roads at the beginning of the 20th century meant more cars driving in snowy cities. In 1923, Hans and Even Overaasen were trying to come up with a way to clear roads in their native Norway. They repurposed an old crop plow and mounted it on the front of a car. The Overaasens began to market and sell the first snow plow[16].

In 1929, Federal Agent Eliot Ness was tasked with taking down the operations of the Chicago Outfit. He formed an elite squad of nine agents that was dubbed "The Untouchables" by the media. That same year, a warehouse full of bootlegged alcohol was discovered by wiretapping Al Capone's brother Ralph. When Ness and his team were unable to break into the warehouse, Ness made a call down to Chicago's public works division and asked to borrow a snow plow. Ness attached the snow plow to the front of a truck and broke down the door by ramming it. The snow plow also deflected bullets fired by a warehouse worker. Ness continued to use the snow plow to break down doors in subsequent liquor raids[17].

Poisoning LiquorEdit

The Mafia distributed an alcoholic beverage called Jamaica Ginger. Colloquially named "Jake", the beverage consisted of 80-90% alcohol and was marked as a medicinal cure for “general debilitation”[18]. This liquor was widely purchased early in Prohibition until the U.S. Department of the Treasury outlawed its sale by its high alcoholic content[19].

In order to meet continued demand, many formulae were developed to dilute the alcoholic content of Jake below the legal limit. Harry Gross and his brother-in-law Max Reisman, owners of the Boston firm Hub Products, were funded by bootleggers to develop a compound called tri-orthocresyl phosphate[20]. This compound diluted Jake enough to pass inspection while still maintaining its normal flavor and consistency. Jake was then widely distributed with the new additive.

The FDA later discovered that tri-orthocresyl phosphate was extremely poisonous[21]. It is estimated to have caused over 50,000 cases of paralysis and death in America during Prohibition[22]. So many people suffered from a partial paralysis known as "Jake Leg" that a league called the United Victims of Ginger Paralysis was formed with 35,000 documented members.

In this case, the government responded to drinking by trying to suppress a source of illicit alcohol. In response, the Mafia and its affiliates were able to find a way to continue distributing Jamaica Ginger in an unsafe form and many people became ill.

Tax EvasionEdit

In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Sullivan that all income, legal or illegal, was taxable[23]. Previous efforts to arrest Capone for liquor smuggling, murder or racketeering were unsuccessful and Elmer Irey, chief of the Internal Revenue Service, formulated a plot to arrest Capone by exploiting the new rule. In 1931, Ralph Capone, Frank Nitti and Al Capone were all arrested and convicted for tax evasion[24].

Lessons and Contemporary ComparisonsEdit

The Tommy Gun, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and safety glass were invented with defense, commerce, transportation and safety in mind. All of these technologies fell into the Mafia's hands during Prohibition and they were repurposed for criminal operations. The Mafia's repurposing calls to mind the biological phenomenon of Exaptation; much as evolution changes the purpose of biological traits, the pressures of Prohibition and persecution forced the Mafia to repurpose whatever technology became available to them.

Under what circumstances were government agencies successful at taking down the criminal operations of the Mafia and liquor consumption during Prohibition? Ness got clever with the snow plow, using simple technology for a very different purpose in order to shut down criminal operations. The Department of the Treasury got clever, taking advantage of a recent Supreme Court decision to prosecute Capone through a legal loophole. When the government tried to make alcohol taste poor, it did nothing to curtail drinking and they got outsmarted by chemists and organized crime. The government's effort worked when they thought liked the Mafia; they were successful when they got creative and used the resources they already had to their advantage.

What can this interplay between the Mafia and the government teach us about contemporary situations?

Cyber hacking is a major threat to finances, security and the power grid. Cyber hackers are normally fought through firewalls or defensive software. These solutions are only temporary, as any hacker who wants some information is willing to take the time to figure out how to get by any new defense. If we want to keep ourselves safe and curtail cyber hackers in the future, will we succeed by out-coding them? Or will we have to be more clever and challenge them by using our own loopholes in the way that the Tax Evasion Law challenged Capone?

Another modern example of technology being repurposed by threatening organizations is the use of social media by ISIS, specifically Twitter. An estimated 46,000 twitter accounts are associated with ISIS, averaging 1004 followers and 2,219 lifetime tweets per account[25]. ISIS uses Twitter to incite fear, release propaganda and to recruit new members. Twitter is the gateway from the West to ISIS in which westerners can find ISIS contacts and send personal messages to denizens of the state. These messages start on Twitter and move to other forms of communication, including Skype, where prospective recruits can learn about life in the Islamic State[26]. Large scale attempts to shut these accounts down have been made and the hacking group ‘anonymous’ has claimed to have shut down 6,000 ISIS accounts[27]. Twitter profiles continue to spring up regardless of how many are taken down. ISIS’ repurposing of Twitter has forced Western nations to question how they should the misuse of a popular technology. Will they keep trying to brute force them out by having hackers close individual accounts as they continue to pop-up? Or will it take a new kind of thinking, perhaps a more clever one, to shut down ISIS' operations? Can the resiliency of criminals during Prohibition teach us anything about dealing with this new threat?


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  22. The TIME Vault: January 10 (1927). time.com/vault
  23. United States v. Sullivan, 274 US 259 (Supreme Court April 27, 1927).
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  25. JM Berger, & Morgan, J. (2015). The ISIS Twitter Census (Analysis Paper No. 20) (p. 68). brookings.edu
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  27. The Week. (2015, December 11). Islamic State: Anonymous declares “Troll Isis Day.” World News. theweek.co.uk