Perceptions of the Mafia in Popular Culture in the 1930s

  1. Introduction 
  2. Great Depression 
  3. Mafia Background
  4. Hollywood
  5. Government/News Thoughts
  6. People
  7. Conclusion
  8. Bibliography


The Mafia and organized crime has been a part of America, and other societies as well, since there were suppressed groups of people. The Italians were by no means the first group to fall into the Mafia mystique, and they were by no means the last. However, the Italians were the ones who captured the American imagination of wealth, power, and prestige during a time that many Americans were struggling to support their own families. During the 1930’s the role that the Mafia played in popular culture sharply rose. More newspapers began running more news stories about the big Mafia names, such a Lucky Luciano, John Dillinger and Alfonso “Scarface” Capone. Magazines also ran articles about these same people and organized crime in general. Perhaps most important of all, Hollywood began producing more films relating to the Mafia and their lifestyle. The people were obsessed at this time. This apparently became such a problem that governors and other political leaders started speaking out against the “Mafia Problem” and laws were introduced so that Hollywood didn’t romanticize the Mafia lifestyle. However, it remains clear that the Mafia did play a large role in popular culture in the 1930’s. The romanticization of the Mafia brought the lawlessness of the West into the Cities. It also provided people with an escape from their own daily lives. When they entered the movie theater, they were in another world. This world was one that was foreign to them but at the same time familiar, because these films were based off the very same stories and problems published in the newspapers and magazines they read.  

Great Depression

In order to understand the mindset of the culture during this 1930’s, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of life during the Great Depression. Studying the major events of this decade usually leads to the conclusion that life was difficult during this time and there was very little room for enjoyment. However, that might not have always been the case because there is evidence that people during this time took part in leisure activities more than ever before. In order to escape from the everyday life of the Depression, more people went to see feature films, travel, and attend sporting events and so on. As life became difficult people during this time seemed to band together to work towards enjoying their life and living the American dream.

This is not an attempt to underestimate the impact that the Depression and the Stock Market crash in 1929 had on American culture, politics and economy. To get into the details of it would be too in depth for this paper, however it is important to provide a general background. The crash of the stock market was not the actual cause of the Great Depression; rather it represented a larger economic failure which took place in the early 20th century. One of the biggest causes of the Depression was the fact that there was no regulation on consumer credit. During the twenties, millions of Americans were borrowing large sums of money without really considering the consequences of not being able to afford to pay that loaned money back. During this period the Banks had the control of everyone’s wealth. They functioned because they were able to make money seemingly out of thin air, by charging interest in any loans which were taken out.

At first glance this might not seem like such a problem, because in the cities if people worked hard enough they could work to pay the loan off. On the farm, however, life was different. These were people who were struggling to make ends meet year after year and failing.  Finally, there came a point at which these people could not afford to buy the supplies needed to even grow crops anymore. At this point farms began to fail and fewer goods were being shipped into the cities. The cycle was interrupted and for the first time American cities began to feel the beginnings of the Great Depression.

During this time the immigrant population, including Italian Americans, was among the hardest hit. They were the first to lose their jobs and the ones most likely to not be able to afford food and lodging. They had the lowest income, largest families, and the smallest space to live in. Humbert S. Nelli explains that since the turn of the century, “living conditions in urban areas of the various cities in which Italians lived were typically unhealthy, unpleasant, and socially demoralizing.”  Many people realized this and there were attempts to correct the situation. However what made this situation even worse was that the late 1920s and early 1930’s experienced another small influx of Italian immigrants. Most of these people were attempting to escape Benito Mussolini’s newly instated fascist government. During this time most of the Italian immigrants were coming from southern Italy and Sicily because those were the areas most persecuted under the changing governments.

The place that this new wave of immigrants came from is important because southern Italy and especially Sicily has for most of history been associated with organized crime. The old Mafioso families, meaning those with connections to the mafia, originate from this area and it is in Sicily that they draw most of their connections, both political and economic. However later on these same families would frown upon the new gangsters emerging in the sphere, because they upheld a different mindset on how the underworld should be organized. Lucky Luciano and Johnny Torrio are examples of people who repeatedly came under fire from the old families.

Mafia Background

Organized crime had already been a part of America long before this wave of Italians immigrated to America around the 1920s. In fact, the first forms of ethnic organized crime in America did not come from the Italians but rather from other early immigrants in the 1830s.  The reason for this is simply that the prominent mafia figures from Sicily had no reason to leave. Their social connections were already established and had been so for many generations. Even this is an over simplification because much of the crime which was considered to be organized crime before the 1930s merely involved local street gangs. In fact one of the biggest examples of criminal activity is commonly overlooked as being organized crime simply because of the color of their skin. The Ku Klux Klan of the south is not referred to as organized crime because there is a common preconception that it has to be imported from immigrants, or crime has to grow out of the slums of the city. In the case of the Ku Klux Klan, neither of this is true, yet they still technically were (and still are) a criminal organization engaging in illegal behavior.

There is also an important distinction to be made between organized crime and the Mafia. The Mafia uses organized crime to gain power and to hold onto it. However, organized crime does not have to be affiliated with the Mafia in any way, shape, or form. The case of John Dillinger is an example of this difference. Dillinger had nothing to do with the Mafia, he merely established his own organized crime network to go and rob banks all across the nation. The Mafia takes organized crime to the extreme by creating intricate family networks and organizations, notably the La Cosa Nostra. Organized crime can also be found at the level of local street gangs as long as there is a system of rules set in place which benefit everyone involved. It is when someone tries to leave, or undermine, the organization that they get hurt. Organized crime is as much a form of protection as anything else because there is the expectation that the member will hold themselves to the rules of whatever organization they are a member.

The various forms of organized crime that existed before the growth of the Italian American Mafia are also complex to understand depending on how organized crime is defined. Usually it is loosely defined as large underground organization that is engaging in illicit behavior normally not permitted by the ruling government. Although this definition is really broad and can include multiple organizations. If we went by this definition even our Founding Fathers could be seen as criminals. One of the ways in which we narrow the definition is through the placement of unintentional clauses or assumptions. One of the biggest assumptions is that organized crime is violent, arises from a lower level income area, and usually consists of a minority population (one that appears to be un-American).

However, the mafia of the 1930s, and before, is commonly accepted to be more so the American Mafia than it having any kind of international connections and influence. The reason being that the leaders of the Mafia during this time were usually second or third generation Italian immigrants. Even the people who came directly from Sicily and had connections with the mob there, tended to lose those connections in favor of pursuing wealth and power in America.

Another misunderstanding is the fact that the mob and organized crime originated in Italy. Organized crime can actually be taken further back into antiquity. The Ancients Greeks had a form of organized crime as well as the Aztecs. There is a definite correlation between civilization and organized crime. There are many opposing views on the kind of conditions in which crime flourishes in a civilization. Most scholars agree that in order for organized crime to thrive it has to have a source of income, and that income comes from the exploitation or trade of other citizens. Regardless of the conditions in which crime flourishes one thing remains constant. In order for there to be crime there has to be something which people cannot obtain through normal means. It could be something that cannot be obtained because of legal restrictions or because it is too difficult to acquire.

This is important because in the history of organized crime in America, the Mafia did not flourish until Prohibition. Prohibition began as a religious and moral movement to exterminate sin from America, yet it actually turned out to be one of the American Mafia’s greatest enterprises. Prohibition was the major reason in the forming of the underground mob into the organized crime syndicate which became prevalent in the 1930s and beyond. Before Prohibition there were laws against gambling and prostitution which also spurred on the organization of the Mafia. However, Prohibition is important because for the first time there was a market that the American Mafia had at their disposal and easy way to accumulate wealth.

The only problem is, is that this new influx of wealth had to be regulated and distributed to all the parties involved. Since the wealth was obtained through illegal methods such as bootlegging and rum running, this very same wealth had to be then distributed through a complex underground system. However, because of the industrial tycoons of an earlier era these gangsters had an idea of how such a business can be handled. In fact, it was Johnny Torrio in Chicago who first began organizing territories to set up his “business.” He looked to tycoons such as J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller for inspiration in how to manage his new criminal enterprise.  

Not only did Torrio begin to reform the entire crime syndicate in Chicago, but he also took under his wing someone who was not very well known at the time. He was “a young New York Hoodlum named Alphonse Capone.” The reason why Torrio chose him is because he already had a reputation for being ruthless, due to his involvement in the 5 Points Gang. However, Torrio also knew that Capone was more of a politician. Torrio was the mastermind behind the organization of the gangs of Chicago into factions and their payouts. When Al Capone took over, he politicized the organization through money and fear. Nobody questioned Capone for many reasons. One of them being the fact that he had bribed most of the Agents hired to enforce Prohibition with a better pay cut.

The Prohibition Bureau was established shortly after the passing of the 18th Amendment. However, the actual bureau was merely for show purposes. There were only 1,500 Agents to cover the entire country and they worked on a salary of a mere $2,300 a year. Compared to the fact that Al Capone took in 100 million a year for his bootlegging schemes, it is easy to why these Agents were so easily bribed. In fact, in most cases the agents who were hired thought of the job as a way to make easy money on the side, and after a year most left. However that doesn’t mean that the government took to these offenses lightly because, as Repetto explains, “between 1920 and 1931, 1,600 agents were fired and 257 were prosecuted as criminals.”  Beyond this there was no real enforcement of the new Amendment, which turned out to be a failure. Now Americans felt the need to drink even more because of the thrill of doing something to undermine the “system.”

With this new found thrill came a fascination for anything related to crime. As much as people were repulsed by Al Capone’s actions, they were also fascinated by him. When he was released from prison many people stood outside the Eastern Penitentiary on Philadelphia just for the thrill of seeing a real “bad man.” They wanted to see the man who was known to be responsible for the infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

The massacre occurred on February 14, 1929. Bugs Moran was causing too much of a problem in Chicago and was hinting at plans to fight Capone’s gang. Bugs Moran was the leader of the North Side gang in Chicago and both Capone and Moran were always fighting over each other’s territory. From either fear for starting another gang war, or from a continuation of an ongoing war, Capone’s men decided to take matters into their own hands. They dressed up as police officers and approached a building where they knew Bugs Moran was having a meeting with some of his own men. At this point, some of Capone’s men decided to stake this building until they saw Bugs Moran enter. Finally someone who resembled Moran’s appearance walked into the building and Capone’s men followed. As it turns out, it wasn’t Bugs Moran who entered the building, rather another small member who happened to look like him. Still not knowing Bugs Moran was not there, Capone’s men entered and ordered everyone in the room to stand against the wall. It was then that more of Capone’s men entered, this time in plain clothes, they each pulled out a machine gun and basically proceeded to massacre the seven men.

Even though everyone knew Al Capone was somehow behind this massacre he couldn’t be convicted of it because there was no evidence to prosecute him. He had a firm alibi because he was in Florida at the time of the massacre. When he was jailed for one year in Philadelphia, it was not because of any of his actions in Chicago, but rather because he was carrying a concealed weapon in the street. Upon his arrest he also seemed to be relieved to be going to jail, as if that was his goal the entire time. Most likely Al Capone wanted to escape the “heat” after the massacre because the other gang faction was out for revenge.

During this time it was not crime which fascinated so many, it was the whole idea of lawlessness which surrounded the Flapper Era that captivated the imagination of a nation. This is especially true of early Hollywood and their life style. Most celebrities during this time were known to frequent speakeasies, do drugs, gamble, and have extra-marital affairs and more. However it wasn’t until two famous Hollywood murders happened close together that began to question the morality of Hollywood. And Hollywood responded to that questioning. The first of these murders was that which involved the beloved Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He was a comedian who stood out with a big smile and a rather aggressive personality. However what quickly brought down his fame was the murder trial of Virginia Rappe. Even through Arbuckle was acquitted of all charges, his career was ruined. Film makers were worried about including him in any major roles out of fear for negative public reaction.

It was not until a murder a couple months later that there was a strong negative reaction to the image that Hollywood was portraying. This was the murder of William Desmond Taylor. At first glance this murder seemed to be another unfortunate tragedy; however as events unfolded information appeared which led people to believe that Taylor was not the man people thought he was. For one thing he had used an alias in Hollywood and actually came from an immigrant family. His brother also had a couple of run-ins with the law, so people began speculating how deeply involved he too was with crime. Yet, for many people there was still a distance between what was happening in Hollywood and what was happening with the immigrants. After all there was no connection between the two lifestyles. The case of Leopold and Loeb fueled people questioning whether or not the fascination with crime has gone too far. They became known as the “thrill-killers” and in an unexpected twist the case was also a test of the court system. The reason being that Leopold and Loeb were seen as the typical American boys. One was the son of a famous businessman and the other was seen to be brilliant and went to Harvard.

What makes their story still resonate today was the motive behind the murder that they committed. These two young men wanted to murder somebody simply for the sake of finding out what it felt like. These young men came from well off families, so they had no need to kill for money or even revenge. This is why many Americans found their story so disturbing, and this is also a major influence to why people began to step back and question their fascination with crime and what it meant for American society. After all a concern was that if crime can influence two people young men who were brought up the proper way, it could mean that future generations will be corrupted.

The Mafia in the 1930s also underwent a complete change, this time it was because of the repeal of the 18th Amendment. They no longer had the support of Prohibition to build their empire and in order to make this new empire last, certain things had to happen. The mastermind behind the changes in the 1930s was Lucky Luciano. Unhappy with the way his Boss, Masseria, was handling things, he arranged a deal with his rival who wanted Masseria dead. Luciano invited Masseria to dinner and as Luciano went to go to the bathroom Masseria was shot in the back of the head. After this, Maranzano, the person Luciano cut a deal with, remodeled the entire crime syndicate in New York City and organized the gangs into five families, the birth of the La Cosa Nostra. The existence of this organization was questioned for a long time and it was only after people came forward and gave out details of the organization in the 1980s that scholars generally accepted its existence. It can be seen that this is the first time the Mafia organized itself into a national corporation rather than just remaining something which happened in cities.

This corporation was kept in utmost secrecy and it fueled the stories of the Mafia as some kind of great powerhouse. It played a large part in the murder of Dutch Schultz because of his attempt to go against the wish of the corporation. It was the type of organization that once you were in it, you didn’t leave it. This organization was powerful and the members were almost untouchable. In May of 1929 there was a conference held at the President Hotel in Atlantic City. It was a conference to discuss the violence in street gang wars and what to do about it so that it didn’t bring in unwanted attention. Attending this meeting were many top gangsters from across the country. Yet the police or government didn’t do anything about it because they didn’t have any power over these mobsters.

Another way in which the power of the organization is made obvious is through funerals of big time gang leaders, such as Al Capone. It was a big event in which most of the city turned out to see. Most times these were major Bosses who people had heard about or lived with every day. in some cases, such as that of Dutch Schultz, people admired them because of charitable contributions or jobs they offered. With Dutch Schultz as an example, after he was shot, doctors went through a lot to try to keep him alive. Even the local Barber who was there when he was shot immediately offered himself for a blood transfusion.   

There is not only a relation between American society and the Mafia, but also one between the government and the Mafia that cannot be overlooked. It the 1930s there was a definite drive to end crime on the part of the government. It appears that as the American Public began to romanticize the notion of the Mafia more and more, the American government began to break the organization down into a science. While fighting organized crime the government felt the need to distance them as much as possible from it, possibly to avoid more political scandals within the government.

Even Hollywood, beginning in the late 1920s, saw the opportunity to make films based off of the Gangster life. Though these were met with a lot of outrage and was a large contributor to the enforcement of the Production Code, the films soon became their own genre that would become an icon of the 1930s.


Hollywood during the 1930s is interesting because for the first time we see an attempt for the industry to organize itself and then enforce guidelines on what is considered tasteful for films. Before the Depression this kind of internal organization would not have been possible because the Hollywood industry thrived on its own individuality. However the Depression cut a lot of profits and major film companies were either forced to merge with other companies or go bankrupt. This consolidation led to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, or MPPDA, acquire more power and influence within the industry, and later became responsible for enforcing the Production Code.

As for the industry itself, Hollywood did not begin to feel the effects of the Depression until much later. This is because at first the people used the film industry as a way to escape the realities of everyday life. In fact “in 1930, motion-picture attendance had reached its all-time peak of 80 million patrons a week.” It wasn’t until a year later, when people began cutting extra expenses that Hollywood began to crumble. However it would be the National Bank Holiday, put into place by Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1933 that would almost cripple the entire movie industry.  People had completely stopped going to movies because of the bank holiday. Without the influx of any kind of money the big film companies struggled to acquire the funds needed to produce a film. And it wouldn’t be until 1934 that the film industry began to pick up again. It was during that year that the Department of Commerce worked to revive recreation and amusement industries. It was during this year that 1,000 theaters were re-opened to once again show films.

However, the Hollywood of 1934 was vastly different from the Hollywood of the Flapper Era. Not only did most of the movie companies go bankrupt, Warner seemed to be one of the few which didn’t, but new codes were being enforced to ensure the quality of movies being produced. It would be in July of 1934 that the MPPDA agreed with the Catholic Legion of Decency to fully implement the Production Code.  It is at this point a shift occurs in how movies were filmed and how the Gangster were portrayed in these films. In the early films released in this decade film makers seemed to be content with just inserting a passage from the Bible warning others to not go down this path. For example in Little Caesar, the movie opened with a quote from Matthew, “All who live by the sword shall perish.” The entire film is then based around the idea that the main character of this movie, played by Edward G. Robinson, gets what he deserves in the end.

However, after watching this movie the viewer can’t help but feel bad for him. Yes he did engage in criminal activity, but he was just trying to do the best that he can in the situation. It is this kind of empathy towards the main character that people were outraged about. Somebody like Al Capone should not be portrayed as any sort of tragic hero. This problem becomes more so the case in Scarface: Shame of a Nation. Released in 1932, one year after Little Caesar, there are notable differences between the two films. The first difference is that there was an even greater attempt to convince the public that this was wrong. The opening scene also had this quote:

 This picture is an Indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: What are you going to do about it?

It was more so a question of what will you, the American people, do to help stop this problem. It almost seems as if this is a ploy by Hollywood stating that they do not support such behavior, contrary to the popular belief at that time. Most likely this was an early way to navigate around the Hays Code. At this time it was not as strictly enforced as it would be in 1934, however Hollywood still seemed to want to comply with the ideology of the people so that they can get more movie ticket sales. However, in Scarface, the main character is still portrayed as a tragic hero. The main character Toni Camonte, played by Paul Muni, is based off of the life of Al Capone. This is problematic because at this time people agreed that he was a criminal, someone who should be featured as any sort of hero.

Yet this did not prevent the fascination from still existing. People were fascinated by him, and the news industry knew this. They exploited this fascination because funding was short and they needed to create something which would attract a lot of people. What is also interesting to note is how they attracted viewers to the films in the trailers released. In both Little Caesar and Scarface there was a focus on the other story in the 1920’s decade, that beneath the prosperity and happiness there was an underground world, one that was organized crime. Both movies also advertise the fact that these were people who seemingly had everything such as wealth, power, and even the gorgeous girl yet they acquired it through ill means and would therefore fall.

Although in Scarface, as much as with Little Caesar, the main character is portrayed as a tragic hero. By the end of the film there is a feeling of empathy tied with the characters. This feeling is what was caused a lot of outrage in the public. During a time where people were trying to find the root of the crime problem they looked to where people received the most influence. Since Hollywood came under their target they began to strictly enforce the Hays Code and the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” after 1934. The change in the motion picture at this time is quite remarkable. An example of this can be seen in Boy of the Streets (1937). This film is interesting because it has a similar story line to two other popular films released around the same time, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Dead End Kids (1937).

At this time it seems that Hollywood had found a storyline that the people enjoyed, and one that fit in with the Hays Code. Playing it safe many films were produced which followed the storyline of a troubled boy who happened to end up on the wrong side. Usually in these movies it is a pretty girl who leads to the boy wanting to reform his ways so that he can be with her. This is especially true in the case of Boy of the Streets, because the main character is a boy who dropped out of school and formed a small street gang. However, a girl caring for her ailing mother catches his eye and he works to reform himself so that he can be an eligible suitor.  

Boy of the Streets is also interesting because it is the story of a boy who slowly realizes that he was manipulated by the system. Eventually he concludes that his only escape is to join the military. This story is a much different story than the other films from the earlier period. This isn’t a story about the major crime syndicates; it is one about the local level street gangs.

Hollywood during this time not only embraced the Mafia through the big screen, but in the private sphere as well. Although Bugsey Siegel came after the 1930s he still represents a fascination for the Hollywood way of life. Also from this time period the fascination grows and Hollywood becomes even more immersed in the role the Mafia might have on its lifestyle. Even Frank Sinatra, whose early years can be traced to the 1930’s, has attacks and rumors centered on his Mafia involvement. For celebrities their lives were so public that any event that took place was immediately blown out of proportion.

Yet the lifestyle of the Mafia isn’t the only things that continued to be influenced by the Mafia. In fact from the 1930’s onward the Mafia genre began to grow and expand. For now there seemed to be an uneasy peace between what film producers wanted to make and what critics expected. The Hays Code would be implemented until the 1960s, when it would be seen as something that is corrupted and broken and then dropped. The way that film directors worked around some of the limitations of the Hays Code also produced some of the more iconic images in Mafia film history. For example, one of the rules in the 1930 version of the Hays Code was that  “a. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation. and b. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.” In Scarface, the method they got around this was by either showing the shadow of somebody shooting a gun or the face of either the person shooting or someone being shot. One of the opening scenes with Tony Camonte’s shadow sliding up the wall as we hear a faint whistle before he commits the first big hit of the film is one that we are all familiar with because it has been reproduced in popular culture so many times.    

Government/News Thoughts

During the 1930’s the Government perception of the Mafia and organized crime was mixed, especially between the local and federal levels. At first most people believed that enforcement had to come from the upper levels of the law, and this was the tough for much of the 1920s. However people soon realized that the agents hired by the federal government were easily corrupted and tended to turn the other way when the Mafia was involved. The early 1930’s was an interesting time for the fight against organized crime itself. Mostly because at this time people had realized that their method of dealing with organized crime wasn’t working. So a new idea spread, that it was up to the local people to stop the spread of organized crime. This idea was greeted with mixed feelings. On the one hand many agreed that the neighborhoods had to work together to stop organized crime, yet on the other hand people still believed that higher authorities had a direct influence on the perception of organized crime.

The people who believed in the latter began targeting Hollywood as the main culprit in promoting gang violence. They targeted Hollywood because the industry was known to romanticize the role of the Gangster in these early films. However, Hollywood wasn’t the only target because people began questioning the role that the actual government itself played. During the early years of the Depression, the Harding Administration and the Teapot Dome scandal was still fresh on everyone’s mind. The Teapot Dome scandal was one of the biggest scandals  in American political history. Basically what happened was that the Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall had leased petroleum reserves to private companies for a low rate. Once this was uncovered Americans did not know what to think. If people couldn’t trust in the government then who could they turn to? Questioning began to see if there were more underhand deals happening within the government and whether or not it was tied to an even bigger crime problem. This incident influenced how the federal government responded to the mafia problem and organized crime in general. They believed that they had to distance themselves as much as possible from this form of organized crime in order to protect themselves. They wanted local law enforcement to take care of the problem until they saw it become a national crisis.

The government during the 1930’s was undergoing much scrutiny for multiple reasons. The first is that the government was seen to be responsible for the onset of the Depression. The moment where people needed the governments help the most, it seemed as if the government was not capable or willing to do anything.  Hoover’s empty promises to just ride out the current Depression did nothing to appease the population. It wasn’t until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected into office that the people felt the government was taking action through the form of the New Deal. It is possible that during this time people once again began to question other problems in the government. One of the questions that surfaced was the problem of corruption within the government. This mainly is a repercussion from politicized events from the 1920’s that resurfaced during this time because of the rise in the fascination of the Mafia.

Since the Mafia was seen as becoming more and more tied with the Government in the early 1930s the government began to extensively examine the crime problem within the US. For this reason it is no surprise that the facet of crime that was seen to be most dangerous was that of organized crime, and with it, the Mafia. There are many reasons as to why the government tried to purge organized crime from the nation. For one thing it was a battle against something that was easy to target. Unlike fixing the Depression, which was something that no one really had any experience fixing, fighting organized crime could provide the government with some of the much needed support and trust they needed. Yet, there was still the connection between organized crime and the government that had to be dealt with. Especially after the Teapot Dome scandal was once again on people’s minds with the closing of the case by the Hoover administration in 1930. That and along with the fact that there were stories circulating of many other politicians turning out to be corrupt all added to the distrust that the American people felt for their own federal government.

For these reasons the Federal Government decided to fight back against crime. It wasn’t uncommon to see newspaper headlines proclaiming year after year that “Now was the beginning of the end of Organized Crime.” It was also during this time that Thomas Dewey became famous because of his crackdown on the Mafia in New York. Perhaps his most famous case was that involving Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano. It is also this case that really highlighted the corruption of law enforcement at the local level, not just the government.

Dutch Schultz became the Bronx’s Beer Baron during Prohibition and under Luciano was able to hold onto his power. When Dewey became New York’s Special Prosecutor in 1935 he made it his goal to take down the mob syndicate in New York City. He started with Dutch Schultz because of his connection with Lucky Luciano. During the investigation Dewey realized that the only way to bring Schultz down would be through tax evasion. The same way that Al Capone was brought down and prosecuted. However, what made this case interesting is that Luciano thought that Schultz was too dangerous and organized for him to be taken out before Schultz kills Dewey.

This isn’t an act of kindness on Luciano’s part by any means. If anything it is an act of self-preservation for the Mob Syndicate in New York City. Luciano realized that in order to keep the people’s trust, they could not take out a government official. This  is what Schultz had every intent of doing and it made him very dangerous for Luciano to keep around. Then in October 1935 Schultz was shot and immediately rushed to the hospital. Newspapers around the country, such as the New Hampshire Telegraph,  ran articles about how the “Gangster at Death’s Door.” Through the newspaper publications Dutch Schultz became a martyr as a result of the New York gang war. It is interesting that a man hunted down by the government as a public enemy can be portrayed in this manner.  Even the opening paragraph of the Telegraph holds this interpretations by stating:

City Hospital attached said a 1:20 p.m. today hope was virtually abandoned that Arthur (Dutch Schultz) Flegenheimer would survive the gangland bullets which killed two of his aides and critically wounded a third.

By implying that there was hope he would live shows the mixed feelings America had towards the mafia at this time. These mixed feelings also show up in how people believed the crime problem should be dealt with. Some people, like Dewey, wanted to attack the Mafia head on. They believed that if they took out the leaders then the crime syndicate would dissolve. Other people, such as Homer S. Cummings believed that the crime problem had to be attacked at a local level. He wanted to start at the local level in order to stop the local gangs from recruiting young boys and to prevent them from being enticed by criminal activity. One of the ways he prosed this should happen was through frequent outdoor activities. Still others, such as J. Edgar Hoover, believed that the federal government should remain completely unassociated with the Mafia.

To begin with Homer S Cummings, he was the Attorney General of the United States during the mid to late 1930’s and was really invested in the “Crime Problem.” On September 26, 1934 he gave a speech at the New York Herald Tribune Conference and it he addresses the current problems in the United States. For him his biggest concern is that of organized crime and though out the speech he makes reference to the crime problem and where it begins.

“Manifestly the problem of crime is not limited to detection, arrest, and punishment. It is a social question with manifold ramifications, touching environment, heredity, education, the home, the school, and, indeed, almost every activity of life.”

This statement seems strikingly similar to that given at the beginning of Scarface, because it talks about how this crime problem begins with the American people. However, unlike before where it was merely a form of protection for Hollywood, this time it appears to be a shift of responsibility from the government to the people and the local law enforcement. Yet, this idea didn’t begin with Cummings. In fact Daniel W. Hoan, who was the Mayor of Milwaukee, published a piece in 1931 on fighting organized crime. In his piece Hoan discusses how he kept the local law enforcements officials from becoming corrupt and accepting bribes. He first says that they have to pass a civil service exam, however what makes he brings up is the financial situation.

He acknowledges that crime exists when two parties benefit from some kind of illegal partnership. Hoan states that, “Milwaukee raised the policeman’s wages not because the men deserved it, but because the city wanted a police department where underpay would not put a premium on dishonesty.” In the case of organized crime it is simply that the Mafia can offer money to those who can give them protection, and when these officials aren’t being paid much anyway they take the bribe. Hoan’s theory is that if the police had no reason to accept the bribe then organized crime would lose most of its power in the city.

Finally we have J. Edgar Hoover who was the director of the Division of Investigation in the United States Department of Justice. He was very wary of getting involved in the investigation of organized crime because he feared his department might become corrupted. His solution was to maintain that there was no such thing as organized crime at the national level. He published a piece called “How Many Crimes?” in 1934 and in it he produced a statistical analysis of crimes within major cities. However, throughout the piece he claims that it is important to collect the statistics before any kind of crime problem is approached and analyzed. There is no mention of organized crime or the Mafia is this piece. Rather each crime is broken down into categories such as: Criminal Homicide, Rape, Robbery, Aggravated Assault and so on. Yet there is no linking them together, as if Hoover did not want for the connections to be made.

The Mafia’s role in the government along with the perception of the Mafia by the government varied not just by time, but also people. Organized Crime and the Mafia was something that the government could easily launch campaigns against in order to boost its image. However, they may not have always worked in the way they anticipated, such as with the case of Dutch Schultz and Tom Dewey. It was a way for the government to prove that they were taking action. Yet for the people the Mafia represented something different.


The reactions to the publicity of the Mafia were mixed. On the one hand people were fascinated and Hollywood and other entertainment industries exploited this. Yet, on the other hand people were also outraged. For them they saw the rising fascination and the newspapers constant commentary on the state of organized crime as a sign that America was turning into a corrupt nation. This was the image that the Government tried so hard to erase, yet it remained.

As mentioned before there was a surge in the Mafia and Crime Noir films during the 1930s. Such a surge would not have happened if there was no interest in the genre. Since there was interest a new franchise began and other forms of media joined the trend. This included new radio shows and comic strips. In some ways the radio was more influential to the average person than Hollywood films. The reason that the radio had more influence is because going to the movies was usually reserved for Sundays, while the radio was something that was listened to everyday. Police Reporter shows grew in popularity and many of them featured Mafia related specials. Also a comic strip began which featured a female journalist bent on fighting organized crime. The character was named Jane Arden and was modestly popular throughout the 1930s. By 1939 Warner Brother released The Adventures of Jane Arden as a response to the comic strip.

Perhaps the most enlightening of media to examine was actually the newspaper because it published what people were interested in. During this period one of the biggest stories to grace the newspapers pages was that of John Dillinger. By resisting the government through a massive Bank Robbing spree John Dillinger came to represent a Robin Hood figure for the public while he remained a thorn in the government’s side. In a way Dillinger was seen as undermining the system which was seen to be the cause of the Great Depression. While Dillinger was robbing all of these banks the government became increasingly embarrassed because they could not find a way control the situation. It became a mission for them to catch Dillinger just to prove that they can at least protect the American people.

Perhaps the best article which best describes this situation is,   “Mr. Dillinger Gives Prison Guards Laugh” from Iowa’s Telegraph Herald and Times-Journal, published on March 4, 1934 it reads as follows:

“John Dillinger was feeling very elated as he left the Lake county jail today. After he forced all the guards on duty in the jail to surrender their weapons and enter a cell, he held aloft the ‘weapon’ with which he had forced them to surrender. ‘Ha, ha, ha,’ he chortled, ‘I did it with a wooden gun.’”

What is interesting is the casual voice of the writer reporting this, as if it was just some everyday occurrence. The next paragraph after this gently mocks the reaction of the Officer on duty, basically mocking the authority in the situation. The whole seen is rather reminiscent of a scene from a classic Western Film, another film genre popular during this decade. It is almost no surprise that many newspapers begin referring to Dillinger as a “desperado.”  This seemed to put an almost romantic spin on his adventures. By portraying him as the lone outlaw of the Midwest Dillinger became Americanized. The reason why that is the Mafia and its affiliations were seen as something that was foreign and brought into the country. Whereas the whole romantic notion of the Midwestern outlaw represented something that was distinctly American, even if it was criminal at least it was the American brand of criminal.  

By classifying Dillinger as a “Desperado” society accepted his actions. This whole fascination of the lone outlaw is made fun of in The Old Corral. The Old Corral (1936) is a Gene Autry film about a nightclub singer who escapes to the West to hide from the Mafia who is hunting her down. There is a scene where her carriage is stopped by a group of outlaws, and as they are asked to step out of the carriage one of the passengers exclaims, “Oh my! A real western hold up!” This shows that during the 1930s there was a disconnection between the violence of the West and what people’s interpretations of it were. By associating Dillinger with the romantic notions of the West, they romanticized his crimes.

Yet, the government took a vastly different approach. They saw Dillinger as a threat to the government and America as a whole they advertised his crimes as part of a bigger Organized Crime plot and quickly moved him up to Public Enemy Number One. What ensued was a costly and lengthy chase all over the country in order to catch Dillinger. Even J. Edgar Hoover considers Dillinger to be a threat to the government. The reason why Dillinger was a threat was because he was not tied to one specific city where his crime operations were based. Dillinger moving around across the country made him more dangerous because he could not be controlled by any local law enforcement. Rather they happened all over the country. So while this concerned to government it also created a connection between cities and his whole escapades.

Although, not all American’s were swayed by the romantic story of John Dillinger, for many he was a cause for concern. Some used his story to ponder bigger questions, especially that concerning crime. In the Milwaukee Journal someone wrote in his thoughts about the Dillinger incident involving the Iowa Prison. In it the author states that the “horse and buggy days for hunting criminals are over.” He isn’t impressed with the amount of money wasted on catching this one criminal. For him, it should open eyes on how the police systems at local levels should be re planned. The wave of crime that appeared is new and the old ways aren’t going to fix the problem.

There are even people who think that the over stimulation is wrong because it hurts people morals. A Mrs. P. wrote into the Pittsburgh Press on March 17, 1935 about how disgusted she was that the paper turned into a “catalogue of crime.” She argues that the recent surge in crime is only a result of the recent voting in of “liquor and all its evils.” This highlights a big event for people along with their interactions with organized crime. This was the repeal of the 18th amendment in 1933. Done mostly in an effort to weaken the Mafia’s power that they gained because of prohibition, most people saw this as a good thing. In fact some people, as mentioned by Herber Yahraes Jr., predicted that it would mark the “end of the great surge in crime.”

In some places, the Mafia provided people with more than just alcohol during and after Prohibition. They also provided towns with protection. Perhaps the most famous case of this is in Las Vegas and Bugsey Siegel’s gambling industry which began after the 1930s.  When the Mafia came in they organized their jurisdiction there in such a way that people wouldn’t mess with them. Las Vegas actually became a safe place to be because no one would think to double cross the Mafia. Here the power was not so much in the money, though they made a lot, but rather the reputation. By the late 1930s the Mafia had developed a reputation for being ruthless and because of it would be criminals didn’t think to double cross them. Because then they would be on the hit list.

This ruthlessness combined with the power that the mafia acquired seemed to create an air of mystery around the organization. The press itself was responsible for exaggerating the actual threat of the Mafia, while at the same time it was a growing problem. Much like the Freemasons and the Ku Klux Klan people were fascinated by what they didn’t know.  There were wild speculations over initiation rituals because the mafia was something that was seen as foreign there was also a sense of distrust. Yet, in the 1930’s the Mafia represented a wealthier time for many. It was an escape from the toils of the Great Depression and also provided for a scapegoat to blame for the Depression. It was the beginning of a Hollywood genre that would come to represent so much about American History.


During this time the common archetype for the portrayal of the Mafia was either the charismatic killer, manipulative bully, or reluctant player. In the early 1930’s it was common to portray the Mafia leader as a figure who was being controlled by external forces. There was a sense of, “well he couldn’t help but follow that path.” Even after they lost everything because of their actions, there was still a feeling of empathy towards the character portrayed on screen. It is no wonder that there was such a backlash against these kinds of films because these films failed to portray just how severe these actions were.

Behind the charming faces of the silver screen there were real people who did lead these lives. The names which now have a sort of mythical aura around them were in fact real people who stopped at nothing to have power. The American people did like the idea of John Dillinger, he could be compared to a 1930s Robin Hood, because he stole from the very same banks which many believed caused the Depression. He undermined the system which, to the American people, seemed to be not working. Other Mafiosi figures such as Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano also leave an imprint on the minds of Americans. Bugsy Siegel is famous for his connections with Hollywood and bringing legalized gambling into Las Vegas. And Lucky Luciano reorganized the entire New York crime syndicate. Lucky Luciano also represented a new period in the history of organized crime, because he broke many of the traditions upheld by the older Mafiosi.

Although, perhaps most famous of all is the notorious gangster Al Capone. Also the most brutal, this man captivated the imagination of an entire nation. Al Capone symbolized the beginning of a new Era in crime. Al Capone made his life very public even though everyone knew of his criminal activities. He was someone who didn’t have to hide from the law, because he controlled it, never before had there been someone like him. So for many he was, and still is, fascinating. However, in all of this there is a lot overlooked about these men, the most obvious being that they were criminals by every right. These were men who were ruthless, brutal, didn’t think twice about killing to get or stay ahead, and most of all engaged in illicit activities. They set up a criminal organization within the American government system, yet Americans remain fascinated.

The projection of the Mafia in media, especially in Hollywood, only escalates after the 1930s. The 1940s and 1950s bring yet another new wave of organized crime, this time within Hollywood itself. However the next truly iconic decade for Mafia Hollywood films would be in the 1970s. During the 1930s the production of the classics was short lived because of the implementation of the Production Code. It is no coincidence that the three classic mafia films from this era were produced in 1930 or 1931. It is due to the enforcement of the Production Code that the industry went stale. However, people remained interested and that interest brought the genre’s revival back in the 1970s.



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