Prohibition: When Chicago’s Seedier Elements Became National Celebrities

Al Capone’s Beer Wars features an exhaustively researched, incredibly in-depth look at organized crime in Chicago during the years of Prohibition.

From a historical standpoint, crime in the city of Chicago seems to have risen concurrently with the Second City’s prominence. It wasn’t until the enactment of the Volstead Act on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties that the city’s seedier elements made the leap from the scourge of the police department to nationally-recognized celebrities. Granted, there has long been a fascination with the very idea of gangsters and a life lived largely above the law, it would be almost inconceivable to think of any sort of modern-day lionization of any number of active gang members still controlling the streets of Chicago. Of course, the primary difference is rooted in the ethnic and socioeconomic disparities between so-called gangsters then and now. While xenophobia certainly played a role in the years surrounding the rise of organized crime in Chicago, it lacked the racial component that keeps today’s lawlessness largely off the greater public radar.

But that’s an entirely different discussion with far more moving pieces than one could ever hope to get into in a few short paragraphs on a work documenting a very particular period of time in the city’s history. That said, it still warrants mention in order to show a then-and-now picture of the public perception of gang members. Where in the early part of the 20th century these groups consisted primarily of immigrants from Italy and Ireland — themselves subjected to discrimination at the hands of “natives” — the latter half of the century saw the concurrent rise of the Mafia mythos and increase in gang activity within the black communities largely confined to the ghettos of big cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

While this on the surface has little to do with Al Capone and the “Beer Wars” chronicled in John J. Binder’s exhaustively researched Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition, the individuals involved both then as now were criminals trying to better their positions in life by any means necessary. Yet the modern gangsters, instead of being vilified and subsequently deified, are simply the former. It’s an interesting social and historical contrast that speaks volumes for the deep-seeded racism that continues to run rampant throughout the United States.

Leaving that tangent for another time, Al Capone’s Beer Wars looks at a very specific period of time during which organized crime reigned supreme and murder was practically a daily occurrence. Yet before delving into the Prohibition Years — and, to be sure, it is an incredibly deep dive — Binder allows for a fair amount of scene setting, recounting the origin stories of the so-called Chicago Outfit in Italy and setting the record straight on a number of popularly held misconceptions. It’s this latter idea that Binder takes up as a mantle throughout the book, pointing out the inaccuracies of his forbearers on the subject and providing copious notations and bibliographical supporting evidence for his particular claims.

From the seemingly mundane details of the proper spelling of obscure gangster’s given names to questionable claims on the part of the gangsters themselves as to where they were when, Binder strives to be the definitive source. Creating a carefully researched collection of facts supported by census reports, crime statistics (including pages upon pages of charts showing the rise and fall of corruption and vice based both on who was in the mayoral seat at the time and the city’s growing population) and details of the myriad hits as reported by contemporary newspaper accounts, Binder’s encyclopedic approach to his subject is beyond admirable and, for those future scholars looking for the source on all things crime-related in Chicago during Prohibition, Al Capone’s Beer Wars will certainly fit the bill.

The problem with this, however, is that it lacks any sort of narrative structure that would enable even the most casual of readers to be fully engaged. This is no dig on Binder; he’s clearly an extremely thoughtful, thorough researcher who faced a daunting task in compiling hundreds, if not thousands of loose pieces of information into one coherent whole. Indeed, his map of the major bootlegging gangs in the Chicago area is both impressive and invaluable in providing context for the in-fighting amongst the likes of the South Side O’Donnells and the Torrio-Capone gang who controlled the cities wealthiest and thus most prominent districts. Through the corresponding biographies in miniature of each gang — from the colorfully named Circus Gang to the obscure Schultz-Horan Gang — Binder provides a highly-detailed who’s-who of every player from the most well-known to the smallest goon.

Perhaps it’s the fault of The Godfather or, more recently, Boardwalk Empire, but stories of organized crime need to be just that in order to fully land. So while Binder’s meticulous research has paid off in spades in terms of the sheer volume of content, it lacks any sort of narrative structure or through-line that would help better tie together all the disparate elements. Helpfully breaking things down in separate chapters rendered chronologically and biographically in terms of what went down when and who was involved, the cast of hundreds tends to get jumbled and, without being part of a larger, more structured narrative, tend to get lost in the shuffle.

Thankfully, Binder has included notes, a bibliography and index that takes up nearly a quarter of the book, allowing for those who might need something more of a road map in navigating the varying levels of corruption within the mayor’s office, the complementary rise in vice as the city’s population boomed, and the countless hits conducted by the competing gangs. But even still, his approach ultimately proves more academic than accessible, leaving it up to the reader to assemble the pieces of what is ultimately a fascinating piece of history and an interesting look at an era far removed from our own. Al Capone’s Beer Wars is full of invaluable information and John J. Binder must be commended for his exhaustive research, but the story itself remains untold.

RATING 6 / 10