By Susan Wallner
State of the Arts
The dedication to Prohibition Gangsters: The Rise and Fall of a Bad Generation reads: to “my great uncle, Harry Mappen, who was born in 1895 to an immigrant family on New York’s Lower East Side. He was a pickpocket, drug dealer, jewelry fence and stool pigeon with a long arrest record.” Author Marc Mappen’s great uncle was a product of his time, as were Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Nucky Johnson. These men were part of a generation born around the turn of the century to immigrant parents in big cities. They were hard-scrabble kids without many opportunities who jumped at the riches offered by the underworld of crime that flourished during Prohibition (1919-1933).
Dr. Mappen is a good storyteller; he’s also been called “the eminent New Jersey historian” by the New York Times. Formerly a dean at Rutgers University, he retired as Executive Director of the New Jersey Historical Commission in 2010. Prohibition Gangsters: The Rise and Fall of a Bad Generation is his seventh book. It’s a featured selection of the History Book Club and the Book of the Month Club.
I asked Dr. Mappen a few questions about his new book, which is published by Rutgers University Press and available everywhere.SW: You’re a former dean at Rutgers University, the recently retired director of the New Jersey Historical Commission, and an expert on all things New Jersey. There’s More to New Jersey Than the Sopranos, Jerseyana: The Underside of New Jersey History and Encyclopedia of New Jersey are some of your previous books. What drew you to writing Prohibition Gangsters with its heavy focus on Chicago and New York?
MM: I’ve been interested in the Prohibition era ever since I watched “The Untouchables” on TV back in the 1960s. It was a noir crime show set in the roaring ’20s, much different from standard television fare. I got deeper into the subject when I did some family genealogy, and found that my great uncle was a New York City gangster. I give a lot of attention to New York and Chicago because they had the largest and most notorious criminal element in the nation during Prohibition, but I also talk about Atlantic City, Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City and other hot spots.
SW: Why did the public vote for something as disliked as Prohibition?
MM: America has a long history of reform, such as the abolition of slavery and the expansion of voting privileges. These same reformers regarded alcoholism as the cause of poverty, household violence and other ills. WASPS also saw Prohibition as a way of forcing immigrants to conform to American values. To make their case, reformers cleverly used the fervor of World War I as an argument for national sobriety. The Prohibition Amendment was approved by a majority of states, but public opinion soon turned against it.
MM: I think the best way to look at the Prohibition gangsters is from a generational perspective. They were mostly Jewish and Italian sons of immigrants, and were mostly in their late 20s and early 30s when Prohibition became the law of the land [1919-1933]. For them, violating Prohibition laws was a pathway to status and wealth in their communities.
SW: You mention Jews and Italians, but what about the Irish? And what about African-Americans? Were they involved in Prohibition gangs?
MM: The wave of Irish immigration to the United States came a half century before the arrival of Jews and Italians in the late 19th century. By the time of Prohibition, the Irish were well assimilated into American society, and dominated police departments and government in the larger cities of the nation. They were less involved in criminal activities than the newly arrived Italians and Jews. But there were prominent Irish-American gangsters like Owney Madden, Legs Diamond and Bill Dwyer. Regarding blacks, they were exploited by white gangs. For example, the Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz used force to take over the numbers racket in Harlem that had previously been run by blacks.
SW: Did Prohibition cement the power of the gangs?
MM: It’s possible to go overboard here, to imagine that Prohibition produced a top-down, nationwide, all-powerful criminal syndicate. That is an exaggeration, but it is fair to say that criminal gangs became more sophisticated and complex than they had once been, and that characteristic continued after repeal.
SW: How realistic is the HBO miniseries “Boardwalk Empire”?
MM: The credits for the Boardwalk series say that it was “inspired” by the book of the same name, written by Atlantic City judge and historian Nelson Johnson. [The Jersey Arts Podcast features a recent interview with Nelson Johnson, author of Boardwalk Empire.] The HBO writers and producers expanded the story line far beyond the historical reality, with a level of deadly violence and gore that just did not happen in the real Atlantic City. I have to admit that I am nevertheless a fan of the program. The reality is that Atlantic City was a vacation resort that depended on crowds of tourists. Many of those vacationers wanted to enjoy three illegal activities — consuming liquor, consorting with prostitutes and gambling in casinos. The resort cheerfully overlooked the law in order to keep the tourists happy. The whole town was presided over by a corrupt political boss, Nucky Johnson (called Nucky Thompson in the TV show). Was Atlantic City a watering hole for gangsters? There was some rum running activity in the remote Jersey Shore that involved criminals. And we know that Chicago mob boss Al Capone visited Atlantic City in May 1929 along with some of his colleagues to conduct business.
SW: Was there gang activity elsewhere in New Jersey during this time?
MM: There was much bootlegging and gang activity in the Garden State. An extreme example was the decision of New York mobster Waxey Gordon to acquire some New Jersey breweries by killing the owners. He subsequently established a headquarters in a ritzy Elizabeth hotel, but it was invaded by gunmen who shot two of Gordon’s business partners. Gordon ultimately was arrested and sentenced to prison, but it was because of the crime of income tax evasion, not because of his violent life.
SW: Did Hollywood glorify gangsters or not?
MM: There are three classic Hollywood movies from the early 1930s that tried to depict gangsters as evil men who deserved to die — Scarface, Public Enemy and Little Caesar. It was hoped that these films would dissuade young males from going into criminal careers. But it didn’t work that way. Adolescent boys were captivated by the swagger of the Hollywood tough guys, who got the most beautiful girls, made a lot of money and eliminated anybody who got in their way.
SW: During Prohibition, the public seemed to follow gangsters almost like movie stars. Why was this so? When did it change?
MM: There was a sort of Robin Hood aura behind gangsters like Al Capone and other bootleggers who made it possible for the public to get the booze that the federal government tried to prohibit. But it all came crashing down in the 1930s when the United States entered the Great Depression and millions of people were unemployed. From the depths of the fiscal collapse, intellectuals and ordinary citizens looked back in wonder at how they ever could have admired those high living mobsters.
SW: What happened to the Prohibition gangsters after Prohibition was repealed?
MM: Many things happened to them. Some were sentenced to prison, some were killed in later gang wars, some were deported out of the United States. The smarter ones went into business ventures that were partly legal and partly illegal. The lucky ones survived into old age, dying with money to support themselves and loved ones to provide care.
SW: Are there any connections between Prohibition gangsters and today’s drug smuggling barons?
MM: The old Jewish and Italian mobsters from the Prohibition era are now long gone. Smuggling is in the hands of criminal gangs from around the world, notably Asia, Africa and Latin America. The prime forbidden substance is no longer liquor, but methamphetamines, hallucinogens and other illegal narcotics, as well as laundered money and deadly weapons. But despite all the changes, it still boils down to a battle between law enforcers and lawbreakers.
SW: I detect a sense of grudging admiration in parts of your book. Do you see the Prohibition-era gangster as demonstrating the American ideals of “innovation and initiative”?
MM: The Prohibition gangsters were ingenious in building smuggling networks across the Atlantic Ocean, and in putting together complex gangs with lawyers, accountants, bail bondsmen, chemists, casino operators, warehousemen, truckers and other specialists, all of which required managerial ability and raised the level of organized crime. It was an achievement that we should not admire, but we should at least acknowledge. They may have been bad men, but they deserve that much in their climb out of the immigrant ghettos of America.
Dr. Mappen is considered an expert on the underside of New Jersey history. He gave a talk called “The Serpent in the Garden State: A Brief History of Corruption in New Jersey,” at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University in 2005 which was recently posted to YouTube.
Marc Mappen will be speaking at various venues about Prohibition Gangsters: The Rise and Fall of a Bad Generation in the coming months, including at Archives and History Day in Manalapan Oct. 9 and 12, the Rutgers Lifelong Learning Institute Oct. 10, the National Archives in New York City Oct. 23 and the Warren Township Public Library Nov. 9. For more information, visit Mappen’s website.