1930s gangsters in a patrol wagon, New York City. (Credit: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
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Introduction

During the Great Depression, with much of the United States mired in grinding poverty and unemployment, some Americans found increased opportunities in criminal activities like bootlegging, robbing banks, loan-sharking—even murder.

The passage of the 18th Amendment and the introduction of Prohibition in 1920 fueled the rise of organized crime, with gangsters growing rich on profits from bootleg liquor—often aided by corrupt local policemen and politicians.

According to the FBI, Chicago alone had an estimated 1,300 gangs by the mid-1920s, a situation that led to turf wars and other violent activities between rival gangs.

Prohibition was unpopular with the public and bootleggers became heroes to many for supplying illegal alcohol during hard times. In hit movies like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both released in 1931), Hollywood depicted gangsters as champions of individualism and self-made men surviving in tough economic times.

Though the country’s most famous real-life gangster, Al Capone, was locked up for tax evasion in 1931 and spent the rest of the decade in federal prison, others like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky (both in New York City) pushed aside old-line crime bosses to form a new, ruthless Mafia syndicate.

The end of Prohibition in 1933 deprived many gangsters of their lucrative bootlegging operations, forcing them to fall back on the old standbys of gambling and prostitution, as well as new opportunities in loan-sharking, labor racketeering and drug trafficking.

The kidnapping and murder of the infant son of Charles Lindbergh in 1931 increased the growing sense of lawlessness in the Depression era. Amidst a media frenzy, the Lindbergh Law, passed in 1932, increased the jurisdiction of the relatively new Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its hard-charging director, J. Edgar Hoover.

At the same time, colorful figures like John Dillinger, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, “Baby Face” Nelson and “Ma” Barker and her sons were committing a wave of bank robberies and other crimes across the country.

Many Americans who had lost confidence in their government, and especially in their banks, saw these daring figures as outlaw heroes, even as the FBI included them on its new “Public Enemies” list.

But after the so-called Kansas City Massacre in June 1933, in which three gunmen fatally ambushed a group of unarmed police officers and FBI agents escorting bank robber Frank Nash back to prison, the public seemed to welcome a full-fledged war on crime.

A new anti-crime package spearheaded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his attorney general, Homer S. Cummings, became law in 1934, and Congress granted FBI agents the authority to carry guns and make arrests. By the end of 1934, many high-profile outlaws had been killed or captured, and Hollywood was glorifying Hoover and his “G-men” in their own movies.

Violent crime rates may have risen at first during the Depression (in 1933, nationwide homicide mortality rate hit a high for the century until that point, at 9.7 per 100,000 people) but the trend did not continue throughout the decade. As the economy showed signs of recovery in 1934-37, the homicide rate went down by 20 percent.

New Deal programs were likely a major factor in declining crime rates, as was the end of Prohibition and a slowdown of immigration and migration of people from rural America to northern cities, all of which reduced urban crime rates. Even when the U.S. economy stalled again in 1937-38, homicide rates kept falling, reaching 6.4 per 100,000 by the end of the decade.

The FBI and the American Gangster, 1924-1938, FBI.gov.
American History: The Great Depression: Gangsters and G-Men, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Barry Latzer, “Do hard times spark more crime?” Los Angeles Times (January 24, 2014).
Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 (New York: Penguin Books, 2004).