Learn about Life in the 1920s

Larger and better resourced police departments were required once prohibition was introduced as crime escalated. Huge money was made by criminal gangs and murders were common as gangs fought to expand or protect their territory.

Motorcycle Cop

Prohibition Caused an Increase in Crime

Once prohibition came into force it provided an opportunity for criminals to make huge profits from illegal alcohol.

Petty criminals immediately started to manufacture, distribute, and sell bootleg liquor to all and sundry. They were also involved in running the illegal speakeasies and gambling dens where liquor was freely available during the prohibition era.

Once it became obvious that there were huge profits to be made with illegal liquor the large crime syndicates moved in to take control. Crime gangs fought each other in order to protect or expand their territories resulting in a constant stream of murders, with Chicago being the murder capital of the U.S. Al Capone was the head of one of the more notorious gangs.

Bullet Proof Vest Test
Testing a Bullet Proof Vest in 1923

Toward the end of the 1920s gunmen from crime gangs in the United States started to wear home-made bullet-proof vests that were constructed from thick layers of cotton padding and heavy cloth in order to protect themselves during inter-gang gunfights and also against law enforcement agents. These early vests were capable of absorbing the impact of bullets fired from most handguns and small bore rifles of the period.

To overcome the protection afforded by these vests, law enforcement agents such as the FBI began to use the newer and more powerful .38 Super, and later the .357 Magnum cartridges.

Record Numbers of Murders

ONE PERSON IN EVERY TEN THOUSAND met a violent death in the 118 leading cities of the United States last year.

To Chicago went the doubtful distinction of having the most homicides—510; New York City, with approximately twice the population of Chicago, had 340. In twenty-eight of the leading cities the rate was 9.9 per 100,000, as against 11.0 in 1925. "Slight as it is, the reduction is encouraging," observes the collector of these statistics, Dr. Frederick L. Hoffman, writing in The Spectator, a New York City insurance journal. "But," he adds, "our murder record of approximately 12,000 persons each year is a most serious indictment of American civilization, and evidence of lawlessness which has no counterpart in any other country in the world." As if to confirm the statement, the Baltimore Sun finds that there were only 17 murders in London in 1926, and that there were arrests in 16 of the 17 cases. In Dr. Hoffman's statistics, we are reminded by the Baltimore paper, no distinction is made between degrees of murder and voluntary manslaughter and justifiable homicide. All are included in death by violence.

It will probably astonish most readers," notes the Providence Journal, "to learn that in the matter of homicides, Jacksonville, Florida, headed the list of American cities, having a rate of 75.9 per 100,000 population." Tampa, Birmingham, and Memphis come next on Dr. Hoffman's list. In an effort to learn just why these prosperous Southern cities led the other 114, telegrams were dispatched to several newspapers. According to the Jacksonville Florida Times-Union:

"Jacksonville's rate is going to be better the next time an inquiry is made. Already, within the present year, there has been noticed a speedier handling of criminals, and juries have been found that would convict, and judges unafraid to rule for the safety of the people and against the wrong-doers who have violated laws of God and man.

"A movement is under way to reduce crime in Florida. The legislature in session recently took cognizance of the need for more stringent laws regarding serious crimes and did what was possible to bring about changes. Florida is undertaking to check the crime wave through every possible means, and proposes to give speedy trial to those evil-doers who are apprehended and to award such penalties as will be effective in preventing repetition where convictions are obtained.

"Perhaps the placing of the record clearly before the people may bring about a better state of affairs, through sectional and State and city pride."

Replies were not received from Tampa and Memphis, but the staggering killing record of these and other Southern cities, believes the Baltimore Sun, "is due to their large negro population." Says the Birmingham News:

"The announcement that Birmingham ranks fourth among American cities in the proportion of homicides to population in 1926 is a summons to serious thinking and sound action which this community should not fail to heed.

"In the light of the record of 124 murders, the question suggests itself: 'Have we been so intent on capitalizing the resources and opportunities at hand, that we have lost sight of larger values?'

"The social implications of the situation are easily grasped. This is in many respects a pioneer city. In less than a generation, it has changed from a small town to a great metropolis. It has drawn to it a large body of people from the farm, the factory and other fields. It is continuing to act as such a magnet. The presence of uprooted folk, finding themselves in a strange environment, of industrial transients, constantly on the move, hag made for a certain flux. The city's life is not yet crystallized—we have not yet found our soul—the process of stabilization checked by accessions of populations and interests, has not yet given Birmingham the character and form which is described by the term 'settled down.'

"In the hectic atmosphere generated by such a social situation, the things which make for crime, the forces which drive toward bloodshed, are likely to inflict themselves on the life of the city, unless ample preventive measures are taken by the authorities."

Just why there should be 104 homicides in Jacksonville, a city of 137,000, and but two in Grand Rapids, a much larger city, "is a question worth a good deal of study," thinks the New York World. To cite another instance: There were 75 homicides in Memphis, a city of 177,000, but only three in Worcester, Massachusetts, a city of approximately the same size, according to Dr. Hoffman. The Atlanta Constitution gives us a Southern view of the problem:

"These figures invite careful study, analysis, and remedy. Is it because the murderer escapes justice more in the South than elsewhere, thereby lessening the deterring influence of the gallows or the chair? Can it be possible that liquor flows more freely in the South?

"The Southern cities deserve a better record than this. Jacksonville is a splendid city of commerce and industry and shipping, with a fine citizenship. Why should Jacksonville have five human killings to one in Chicago, on a per capita basis?

"The total of murders in the 118 cities in 1926 was 3,451 persons. This is a reproach on the weakness of our criminal laws, the loopholes through which murderers can escape or indefinitely delay punishment, and upon the administration of criminal laws.

"Homicides are invited by such laws. It is safe to say in those States where the records are best the laws are strongest."

Certainly, agrees the Detroit News:

"It is significant that in Massachusetts, which has quite a large foreign population, where judges are appointed by the Governor to hold office during good behavior, and where justice is comparatively swift, the homicide record is low. It may be that a study of the Massachusetts system would be a wise first step for Michigan and other States to take."

"Of all the large cities, Boston has the lowest homicide rate," we are reminded by the Boston Post. Moreover, points out the Providence Journal, "it is not the largest cities that have proportionately the most murders." Continues The Journal:

"There are far too many murders in the United States every year, and this disagreeable prominence among the nations of the earth is pretty sure to continue until some drastic readjustment is effected in our administration of criminal justice."

Some of the reasons for the unwholesome distinction which the United States enjoys in the matter of homicides, declares the New York World, are "the mawkish sentimentality shown by the public toward murderers, the tortuous working of the law, racial enmity, and the general sale of firearms." One of the underlying causes of the murder tendency, declares Dr. Hoffman, is the "enormous increase in wealth." To quote from his report in

The Spectator:

"Our enormous increase in wealth is in itself one of the underlying causes of the murder tendency. Temptation to murder, as well as to less violent crimes, increases on every hand. Methods of murder are becoming more refined, more subtle and more difficult of detection. It is unquestionably true that murder in this country has become an established trade on the part of many. Police protection should not be in proportion to population, but in proportion to wealth and the accumulation of property. The best hope for the future lies in better law enforcement, in speedier trials, and in sentences more appropriate to the nature of the crime committed.

"The tabulation in detail for 1926 concerns 118 American cities. The combined homicide death rate of these cities for 1926 was 10.1 per 100,000, as compared with 10.5 for the previous year. The homicide death rate increased in 37 cities and either remained stationary or declined in 81 cities. This, then, can be looked upon as evidence of progress. No homicides were reported in 18 of the 118 cities. The cities without homicides during 1926 were:

"Altoona, Pennsylvania; Binghamton, New York; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Chelsea and Gloucester, Massachusetts; Hamtramck, Michigan; Haverill, Massachusetts; Hoboken, New Jersey; Lansing, Michigan; Malden and New Bedford, Massa-chusetts; New Britain, Connecticut; Newton, Massachusetts;

Newport, Rhode Island; Pasadena, California; Salem and Somerville, Massachusetts; and Troy, New York.

"It is gratifying to be able to note a slight decline in the murder death rate of Chicago, which in 1925 had a rate of 18.8, against 16.7 during 1926. There was also a decline in the murder death rate of New York City from 6.4 to 5.7 per 100,000 of population, while for the city of Philadelphia, the rate declined from 9.7 to 8.6.

"The cities in which the rate for 100,000 population was 18.0 or more are these:


Jacksonville, Fla........... 76.9

Tampa, Fla............... 67.6

Birmingham, Ala........... 58.8

Memphis, Tenn............ 42.4

New Orleans, La. .......... 33.7

Kansas City, Mo.......... 32.3

Dallas, Tex................ 32.0

Charleston. S. C........... 29.7

Nashville, Tenn............ 29.2

Mobile, Ala............... 28.4

Louisville, Ky. ............ 26.7

Houston, Tex............. 25.8

Detroit, Mich............. 25.3

Sacramento, Calif.......... 21.8

Pueblo, Colo. ............. 20.5

Kansas City. Kans......... 18.8

St. Louis, Mo............. 18.6

Cincinnati, 0.............. 18.2

Winston-Salem, N. C....... 18.1

Source: The Literary Digest - July 2, 1927