Chicago in the 1920’s

‘‘Chicago was afflicted with such an epidemic of killings as no civilized modern city had ever before seen’’

Vaudville and Jazz: Chicago has been regarded as a hub for African American culture since the Great Migration from 1916-1918. 50,000 people came into the city, diversifying and enhancing the already emerging minority culture. The essence of the Jazz Age was born out of the artistic culture that was brought from the South.  African American performers were abundant in Chicago with whites and minorities in attendance. Jazz brought people together; quite ironic for the Murder City.

Vaudeville was seen as a more family-friendly environment in these times. It was a subculture that broke off of salons and men’s clubs which were much more sexual. Vaudeville manipulated Jazz into something more than just music, it became entertainment. The spectacle of Vaudeville theatres and nightclubs encompassed the sounds of jazz and opera which appealed to more than one idea of what music could be. Suddenly the rich, predominately white population were mixing with the growing black population in a socially acceptable manner. Black singers, composers, and musicians were regarded among the best of their field in Chicago and transcended barriers which their parents and themselves may have been born into.

tivoliWhen the Tivoli Theatre opened in 1921, Chicago saw a boom of the black population in the Washington Park area where it is located. At the time the Tivoli opened, the black demographic was only 15%. The theatre is located on Cottage Grove Avenue which marked an invisible line of segregation where African Americans did not move to the East. However, to the North was the neighborhood of Grand Boulevard which had a black population of 32% in 1920 and 95% in 1930. Even with all of the violence and obvious racial tensions still in effect, African culture flourished and evolved through Jazz and the City of Chicago.

Al Capone is perhaps al-caponethe most notorious gangster in America. He was born in Naples, Italy but became the Mafia lord of Chicago in the 1920’s. Their main operation lied in bootlegging and speakeasies. The gang also controlled the gambling and prostitution of Chicago. The most famous instance of Capone’s gang violence is the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre when men, believed to be working for Capone, shot members of an enemy gang. Ultimately, Capone was apprehended on charges of tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in the notorious Alcatraz. Capone was released from prison when it became apparent that the effects of syphilis had consumed him. His mob made millions of dollars off of their illegal business. Tactics of intimidation, manipulation, and murder lent them the materials to success. A respect for one’s wardrobe was emphasized by mobsters like Capone who had their suits custom tailored and accessorized with diamonds, silks, fedoras, overcoats, and more. Mobsters looked more like businessmen than shrewd criminals. Their lavish wardrobes lent them extra confidence and influence when dealing with their trade. Many of these wardrobe details have become quintessential of crime in the Golden Age.

Crime in Chicago from the turn of the century and into the ’20’s skyrocketed exponentially. Chicago’s homicide rate grew to 3x what it had been twenty years earlier, and lethal violence grew by half. Overall, the national homicide rate grew by half, most of the activity coming from cities, Chicago among the worst. Robbery-homicides were among the most common of crimes, which lends credit to the story Roxie tells Amos and the police after she shoots Fred. District Attorney Harrison, who prosecutes Roxie, would have had a lot on the line in trying to turn the tides in his favor, especially after the hanging of Hunyak. Crime punishment in the 1920’s was not efficient and was even subject to scandal. Reform was called for but nothing seemed to be done: Criminals were not being held in custody and the consequences of the most violent offenders went unpunished. “At the peak of Chicago’s crime wave in the mid-1920s, local prosecutors secured convictions in 22 percent of homicide cases.” Taking this information into consideration, Chicago seems more to be a reverse “Making a Murderer” than a satirical comedy.

Prohibition was the child of a wartime effort to conserve grain . After the war, Prohibition remained in effect in an effort to increase the morality of American citizens, especially with its effects on “poverty, marital distress, and negligence.” The production and selling of liquor was illegal. This gave birth to a multimillion dollar black market. Bootleggers made and transported liquor through flasks and other containers in their boots, and speakeasies were bars which, low-key, served alcohol, which made the patrons “speak easy.” The liquor in production was very expensive and could only be afforded by the middle and upper classes. Intentions of increased morality backfired on the American government as the costs of apprehending and imprisoning violators became increasingly expensive. For more information on Prohibition please visit this article from a past dramaturgical project of mine.

Jazz and Speakeasies were quintessential social aspects of the 1920’s. Speakeasies served illegal and bootlegged liquor and hired jazz bands to entertain guests. Speakeasies were usually run by mobsters who supplied the alcohol, or if they were not run by them their presence was heavily influential. Jazz was considered the be the music of troublemakers: the theme music to impropriety. Older generations and champions of life before WWI denied Jazz as a real art form, attributing it’s reputation with sex, scandal, and dehumanization. Speakeasies were also among the few places that would hire African-American performers. Add that to serving liquor, it is not hard to see why the upper classes and officials were so against the new age.

Rum Running was a practice which was exercised in various forms during prohibition. Essentially, rum running consisted of some kind of large, main method of transportation transferring illegal liquor to smaller means of transportation to avoid detection and pass inspections. The most common international middlemen included Nassau, Bahamas and Canada. Methods of transportation included railway, large vessels and small dingys, as well as cars. The term “souped up” spawned from this practice. Chicago being so close to the Canadian border made the city a hub for the interception of alcohol, which in turn fostered the increase of crime and mob presence in the city. “Rum Running” is quite synonymous with the more popular term “bootlegging.” In an article from 1920, the debate over Rum-running extended to the businesslike nature of the transactions. The practice was defined as the making, selling, furnishing, bartering, transporting, importing, or exporting intoxicating liquor. It is recorded in  the same 1920 article that ten states did not have methods in place to enforce the Prohibition Law, including Illinois by association with Chicago. 


Whiskey Stolen from Box Car by Max Florence. Utah Historical Society.

Statesboro is pretty stingy about checking IDs at restaurants, etc, especially with the closing of most of the bars in the area. If you get carded after ordering a drink and can’t pass the test, nothing happens. The waiter won’t serve you, but a cop is not going to come arrest you, you won’t be fined, and no one is going to look down on you for just wanting a drink with friends at the end of the day. Now imagine if everyone in Statesboro and Bulloch County were under the same kind of rules as prohibition. As much as the prohibition laws were flawed and unpopular, going into an establishment under the impression that it was a speakeasy was risky business with real consequences. The consequences remain the same in reverse, for the danger of exposure for the owners of speakeasies was just as real and could actually hurt the black market economy. In the article from 1920, “one of the most efficient Prohibition officers in the third larges city in the Unites States” painted a detailed picture of this situation:

“To say that it is a perfectly simple matter to buy whisky is ridiculous. Bartenders scan carefully each customer, and, if he looks suspicious or has a witness with him, he gets no liquor… They are living in daily fear of arrest…Those persons who are selling liquor across the bar have usually a little hidden under the counter which they dole out to those who they know will not give evidence which will lead to their arrest and conviction.”

Of course this is just one side of the debate. This officer obviously does not favor liquor and the illegal transportation of those goods, but he does offer insight into the fact that these practices were illegal and held extreme consequences if caught. Beulah and Belva used excuses of liquor and intoxication in their defenses, but the angle they took, victims of men and liquor, helped them go free.


Carter, Maria Agui, and Calvin A. Lindsey. “The Devil’s Music: 1920s Jazz.”PBS. PBS, 2` Feb. 2000. Web. 18 July 2016. <;.

“Al Capone.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2016): 1. Literary Reference Center. Web. 8 July 2016.

“Prohibition.” A+E Networks, n.d. Web. 25 Dec. 2015.

“Prohibition.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2015): 1p. 1. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. Web. 24 Dec. 2015.

Mordden, Ethan. That Jazz: An Idiosyncratic Social History of the American Twenties. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978.

Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s. New York: Harper & Row, 1931.

Beshears, Laura. “Honorable Style In Dishonorable Times: American Gangsters Of The 1920S And 1930S.” Journal Of American Culture 33.3 (2010): 197-206. Literary Reference Center. eb. 11 July 2016.

Liming, Sheila. “Suffer The Little Vixens: Sex And Realist Terror In ‘Jazz Age’ America.” Journal Of Modern Literature 38.3 (2015): 99-118. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 18 July 2016.

“Indomitable Spirits: Prohibition in the United States.” Digital Public Library of America. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2016. <;.

Wheeler, Wayne B. [Rum-running a crime not a business. Prohibition a growth not a fixed status by law. Reprinted thru courtesy of “The Christian Herald” by The American issue publishing company. 1920]. Westerville, 1920. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <;.