Who was the real godfather of organized crime? No, it’s not Al Capone or Bugsy Moran. Neither was it Alvin Karpis, the escape artist, or Tim Overton, one of the leaders of the Dixie mafia. It’s none of the gangsters you’ve ever heard of, or any of the ones we’ve featured before on Crime Capsule. We’ll give you one hint before spilling the beans: the man more responsible for the growth of organized crime in the United States was none other than a down-home Minnesota boy from Granite Falls.
Ready to give up? That’s right—it’s the author of Prohibition himself, Andrew J. Volstead.
In her book Twin Cities Prohibition: Minnesota’s Blind Pigs & Bootleggers, author Elizabeth Johanneck introduces readers to the Volstead that most of us have never known. As sponsor both of the Eighteenth Amendment (the “Great Mistake”) and the Act that bares his name, Volstead—Anglicized from his Norwegian-American parents, the Vraalstads—is typically held up as one of the great villains of the early twentieth century. But as is so often the case, there’s far more to the story than just that.
Where It Started
A small-town lawyer by training, Volstead graduated from St. Olaf College and served as mayor of his hometown, Granite Falls, then county attorney for fourteen years before he was elected to Congress as a Republican in 1903. Having prosecuted bootleggers in dry counties in Minnesota during his legal practice, he was well-situated to sponsor his infamous legislation. As Johanneck explains,
“Though the terms are typically used interchangeably, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacture and sale of liquor, and the Volstead Act defined intoxicating liquor to that containing one-half of 1 percent alcohol, an amount considered by many to be an arbitrary figure.”
Discover the secret speakeasies and ‘blind pigs’ of Minnesota
Keep in mind that producing beer that barely met the legal threshold was how entrepreneurial Chicago brewer—and later gangster—Roger Touhy got his start ; it was Volstead’s law that had set those limits. As we know, of course, things didn’t quite work out as planned, and soon criminal outfits both established and new began to fight bitterly over the manufacture, sale, distribution, and overall control of the contraband hooch. In her account of the national overhaul, Johanneck notes drily that “the last thing organized crime wanted was for the Volstead Act to be done away with.”
Implementation wasn’t exactly smooth, with questions immediately arising about acceptable amounts of alcohol involved in medical settings (liberally interpreted, of course), or even how to regard liquor that was given as a bequest from one individual to another, as in a posthumous will. While it is true that Prohibition did result in some public health benefits for the country as a whole, the explosion in criminal activity that accompanied it, and that led to syndicates that lasted in some areas for decades longer than the Great Mistake (repealed in 1933), may well have undermined those gains.
Perhaps the greatest irony of those years? Again, a little-known historical fact: as Johanneck records, it came out in an interview with the New York Times that the Prohibitionist-in-Chief himself had been known to enjoy a tipple. Volstead was on the way to Germany to trumpet the success of the dry laws overseas, and yet the Grey Lady was able to pry this one admission out of him, claiming that “There is no harm in a man’s taking a drink if it is done in a proper way.”
Whether Volstead visited one of the famous German biergartens once he arrived, however, history does not record (or his aides scrupulously scrubbed from said record). But we at Crime Capsule like to think that even the best and most virtuous of us are—shall we say—complicated? Prost!