- By Lee Barwood
- Published 03/22/2012
During the Roaring Twenties and lingering on into the 1930s and the Great Depression, America was a turbulent society, exploding with excitement, desperation and crime. True-life tragedies and the highest murder rate of the century were fueling a new brand of fiction peopled by tough investigators and relentless heroes who were somehow bulletproof and unstoppable in their quests for justice. Most likely, the elevated crime rate was an unexpected consequence of Prohibition, the national constitutional ban on alcohol, and its transportation or sale in commerce, sometimes called bootlegging. Prohibition most certainly paved the way for organized crime, since the combination of high profits from illegal trafficking in liquor and the low risk of being subject to the cuffs of law enforcement action combined to create a highly attractive business model. With organized crime at its helm, the illegal liquor enterprise exploded, paralleling the rise of the industrial corporation. With unenforceable contracts among producers, distributors and sellers-a disgruntled business partner could hardly haul his colleagues into court, after all-the market was murderously competitive. The chief means of enforcing the terms of a contract-or eliminating a rival-was the business end of a Smith & Wesson revolver or a Thompson submachine gun. Gangs controlled both bootlegging and the business itself, punctuating their arrangements with violence and extortion to control channels that carried veritable floods of alcohol. Famous examples of this in the Hollywood cinema include Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, wherein Federal Agent Eliot Ness sets out to stop Al Capone and his “Chicago Outfit”-dedicated to smuggling and bootlegging liquor, as well as to other illegal activities such as prostitution-in Chicago from the early 1920s to 1931. Capone’s ruthless exploits led him to become one of the most notorious American gangsters of the twentieth century and has fascinated writers and filmmakers to the point where he has dominated everything from the written word to the movie screen. Everything about the gangster-from his appearance to his techniques in crime-have found their way into portrayals of the gangster persona in everything from comic books to the Broadway stage. For another infamous Prohibition-era gangster, one has only to look as far as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, most recently immortalized by Steve Buscemi in the award-winning HBO series Boardwalk Empire from Martin Scorsese. Drawing from a Nelson Johnson book titled Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City, Scorcese has put together a running view into the Atlantic City of the Prohibition Era.
Johnson reached the zenith of his career and power during Prohibition. While the law was enacted nationally in 1919 and lasted until 1933, it was basically ignored in Atlantic City, already a tourist haven that had made a conscious decision to provide the vices that would give it an edge over other destinations. Illicit liquor, gambling and prostitution were some of the city’s chief attractions for visit
ors attracted by its thriving vice industry. Johnson himself made money on every drink, roll of the dice and visit to a prostitute, thanks to the percentages he skimmed off the protection money that vice operators paid to stay in business. As Johnson became rich, Atlantic City began to call itself “The World’s Playground.” Johnson was unashamed of the vice den that thrived under his stewardship in the seaside resort. He was reputed to say: “We have whisky, wine, women, song and slot machines. I won’t deny it and I won’t apologize for it. If the majority of the people didn’t want them they wouldn’t be profitable and they would not exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that the people want them.” That provocation for criminal mayhem persisted until 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt put an abrupt end to it by signing the constitutional amendment that repealed Prohibition. By that time, however, the illegal industry of producing, transporting and selling alcohol had already soared to $2 billion annually. Defeating apparently invincible criminal organizations and their impervious villains seemed to require equally invincible heroes, brimming over with courage and determination. Fiction writers responded and created a host of these larger-than-life characters-such as the first genuine superhero of the twentieth century, Walter B. Gibson’s “The Shadow.” Clad in black, with a secret identity, superpowers and sidekicks, The Shadow had ample supervillains to slay and subdue. Then there was Doc Savage, the crimefighting adventurer who was to inspire the Indiana Jones franchise, and the very first tough private eye, Race Williams, who also emerged to immediate fame in the 1930s. These and other famous crimefighters were brought to life in the pages of the pulp fiction magazines that millions of Americans devoured each month-Detective Fiction Weekly, Thrilling Detective, Popular Detective and Black Mask among them. It was in the pages of these rough, inexpensive pulps that now-famous names were first able to display the mastery of their craft-Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Norvell W. Page and L. Ron Hubbard. Dashiell Hammett drew on his experience as a private detective with the Baltimore and San Francisco branches of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to create realistic portraits of hard-boiled detectives and shady criminals. For his detective fiction, L. Ron Hubbard interviewed law enforcement officials, police officers and federal investigators. He even developed a long-term friendship with New York’s chief medical examiner. The coroner shared his professional expertise with Hubbard and other members of the New York Chapter of the American Fiction Guild members over lunch, members who would, as Ron recounted, “go away from the luncheon the weirdest shades of green.”
While the era of Prohibition intruded into so many lives, with its restrictions, evasions and subsequent crime wave, pulp writers had the job of creating heroes who could challenge the ruthless gangs and the misery they inflicted on the public. The best of those writers, using their own personal experience to bring the reader along to watch the guilty vanquished and the innocent triumph in a way that reality often failed to do, live on still between the pages of the much-beloved pulps.