Prohibition: The Noble Experiment That Failed

The 18th Amendment was a “noble experiment” to correct the ills of substance abuse, but as a law proved to be an ultimate failure. Jon McGinty takes a look at how Prohibition affected our region. Spoiler: there was definitely mayhem and murder.

Rockford Police dump confiscated illegal booze into the street in front of the county courthouse. (Midway Village Museum photo)
Rockford Police dump confiscated illegal booze into the street in front of the county courthouse. (Midway Village Museum photo)

With the adoption of the 18th Amendment to our Constitution on Jan. 16, 1919, Prohibition came to America after nearly a century of activism to bring it about. It ended 13 years later, with the amendment’s repeal on Dec. 5, 1933. Intended primarily to protect individuals and families from the ravages of alcohol abuse, the “law of unintended consequences” reared its ugly head, sowing chaos and corruption throughout the country.

As Ken Burns’ 2011 documentary states: “Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, [and] encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates.”

Northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin were not immune to these effects, in part because of their proximity to Chicago, home of one of the most notorious gangsters of the era. Local personalities also played a role in setting this “noble experiment” into motion.


The temperance movement against the consumption of alcohol began at a national level in the 1820s, and women played a major role from the beginning. By 1830, the average American male over age 15 consumed the equivalent of 88 bottles of whiskey per year, more than three times the average consumption today. Women and children were often the victims of drunken and alcoholic men, who spent their wages on booze, then beat or neglected their families, or both.

“During the 19th century, women had few rights,” says Jenny Kalvaitis, coordinator of secondary education for the Wisconsin Historical Society. “They couldn’t own property, even their own clothes, or get a divorce. Obtaining the right to vote seemed essential to changing all that.”

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, historic figures in the movement for women’s suffrage, were first involved in the temperance movement. They co-founded the short-lived New York Women’s State Temperance Society in 1852, soon after Anthony was refused permission to speak at a convention because she was a woman.

Frances Willard was also a leading reformer in the temperance and suffrage movements. She attended college in Evanston, Ill., and briefly taught school in Janesville, Wis.

“The schoolhouse where she taught is now part of the Rock County Historical Society,” says Kalvaitis.

Willard helped co-found the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), in 1874, and became its president in 1879, serving until her death in 1898. Willard’s tireless efforts included giving 400 lectures per year for more than 10 years, and traveling almost 30,000 miles each year. She promoted the idea that women should obtain the right to vote for “home protection,” so they could better fight against the evils of alcoholism.

“She taught women to be strong, to stand up to their husbands, to control their drinking,” says Cindy Herman, a historic re-enactor who volunteers for various events at Midway Village Museum in Rockford, including re-enactment rallies and marches to support women’s suffrage during World War I. This summer she portrayed a Willard-like woman for the museum’s “Tipsy History Prohibition” event. She conducted a temperance meeting – complete with temperance songs – and led a protest march past the speakeasies to the saloon in the village hotel.

“We had banners and signs and buttons,” says Herman. “It was great fun.”

With its large immigrant population from Germany, and a long tradition of beer breweries in the state, Wisconsin became a battleground between the “wets” and the “drys” over the enforcement of Prohibition.

“In the 1830s, one infamous saloon-keeper owned an establishment in Madison called ‘The Worser,’” says Kalvaitis. “It was rumored to hold wild animal wrestling in the basement. When Prohibition arrived in 1920, some Wisconsin residents called it the ‘Bone-Dry Act,’ and somebody said it sucked all the happiness out of Milwaukee.”

When Prohibition ended in 1933, it had little lasting impact on Wisconsin’s drinking culture, says Kalvaitis.
Wisconsin still has one of the highest rates of drunken driving and binge drinking in the nation.

Another major woman in the story of Prohibition was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who served as Assistant U.S. Attorney General from 1921 to 1929. She handled cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act, the law passed to implement the Constitutional amendment. Willebrandt was the highest-ranking woman in the federal government at the time. Some said she was the most famous woman in America who was not in the movies.

From June 1924 to June 1925, Willebrandt prosecuted 48,734 Prohibition-related cases, of which 39,072 resulted in convictions. She also developed the idea of prosecuting major crime figures for income tax evasion, which led to the successful incarceration of Al Capone in 1932.

Willebrandt campaigned for Herbert Hoover and expected a role in the new administration. “She was passed over for Attorney General,” says Herman, “so she went back to private practice, where she represented a lot of Hollywood personalities.”

Rockford detectives Roy Johnson and Folke Bengston examine the car in which Joe Giovingo was mistakenly gunned down by Al Capone’s men. (Midway Village Museum photo)
Rockford detectives Roy Johnson and Folke Bengston examine the car in which Joe Giovingo was mistakenly gunned down by Al Capone’s men. (Midway Village Museum photo)

Murder and Mayhem

Kathi Kresol is a Rockford historian and author. She is the current editor of the Rockford Historical Society’s newsletter, Nuggets of History. She’s been researching “murder and mayhem” in Rockford for more than 15 years. Kresol’s research includes reading old newspapers and visiting cemeteries and crime scenes, often placing flowers at the spot as a remembrance to the victims.

“I have to go to the places,” she says.

According to Kresol, Rockford earned a reputation in the early 1920s for being strict in enforcing the laws against illegal booze. This made the supply harder to obtain, driving up the prices, which attracted bootleggers from all over the state who came to sell their “hooch” at the higher prices.

“The bootleggers started to organize into gangs around 1923, to protect themselves from the authorities and other gangs,” Kresol explains.

The first reported gangland killing in Rockford was on Oct. 8, 1923. Louis J. Milani, a known bootlegger, was “taken for a ride” from his rooming house by unknown persons, shot and killed. Then his body was dumped in a culvert near Montague Road, where it was found by a teenager who was looking for insects.

“Police hit a brick wall in their investigation and the murder went unsolved,” Kresol says.

In January 1928, rival gangs confiscated the bootlegging equipment of Tom Perra. A few days later, Perra offered to become a “spotter” (informer) for the police.

“On Jan. 30, Perra left his new home in Freeport and his family never saw him alive again,” Kresol says. Perra’s body was found on Feb. 6 in some woods a mile east of New Milford, Ill. He had been shot several times. Police waited to tell his wife until after she gave birth to their fifth child. Like Milani’s murder, Perra’s was never solved.

“The killing of the Giovingo brothers, Joe and Paul, touched me the most,” says Kresol. “Their mother lost two sons.”

On Aug. 14, 1930, Joe Giovingo was talking to four men who were in a parked car on the corner of South Main and Morgan streets in Rockford. Two Rockford police detectives arrived and started to talk to Giovingo. Suddenly a large Dodge sedan drove by, someone inside fired a shotgun, and the car sped away. Joe was killed in the blast. Detective Folke Bengston fired his pistol at the escaping car to no avail.

“Al Capone actually called the Giovingo house to apologize to Joe’s mother,” says Kresol.” He explained that the intended target of the hit was another man in the car, Tony Abbott, who was hiding out in Rockford. Joe’s funeral was one of the largest in the city’s history. More than 1,500 people attended, with 150 cars in the procession to the cemetery.”

Joe’s brother, Paul, was released from prison in the fall of 1932, after serving two years for conspiring to violate Prohibition laws. He owned a speakeasy on South Main Street and used strong-arm tactics to get back into the business. On Feb. 12, he was shot to death in his car on Winnebago Street, only a block from his house on Montague Road. Indications were that he knew his assailant.

In 1928, an off-duty police officer, Arthur Bassett, was killed in a gun battle with four armed men on Michigan Avenue, in Rockford, while his fiancee, Pearl Johnson, watched in horror from inside Arthur’s car.

“Later, Pearl put together a wonderful memory album about Arthur,” Kresol says. “A visitor to one of my lectures heard the story, found Pearl’s book by chance at an auction, bought it and gave it to me. I show it at some of my lectures.”

County Corruption

During Prohibition, McHenry and Lake counties experienced a lot of gangster activity, due in part to their proximity to Chicago. Craig Pfannkuche, a retired high school history teacher from Crystal Lake, has been fascinated by local history ever since he heard about the McHenry County state’s attorney who disappeared in 1927.

“His name was Alford Pouse,” says Pfannkuche, “and he was on his way to the courthouse to indict several locals for Prohibition violations, but he never showed up.”

Pfannkuche discovered that Pouse had fled to New Jersey, where he eventually became an egg farmer. The persons he intended to indict were apparently associates of Al Capone, the Chicago mob boss. One of them, Sonny Grome, owned a speakeasy called the “Bubbling Over” on U.S. Rt. 14 between Woodstock and Harvard.

“They said it was the most evil and notorious speakeasy in all of McHenry County,” says Pfannkuche. “It burned down in 1936.” According to Pfannkuche, Capone operated a still in Ridgefield, Ill., south of Woodstock. When officials did little about it, a nearby farmer named Cole Peterson formed a vigilante group, attacked the brewery and captured the brew master. When a deputy sheriff tried to take the brew master into custody, Capone’s attorneys arrived by train and took him back to Chicago. Later, Peterson’s farmhouse was blown up, but no one was injured.

Peterson convinced the McHenry County Board to hire a private detective, James McQueeny, to investigate corruption in the county. His investigation led to a lengthy report, implicating many of the board members.

“McQueeny tried to sell the report to the county board for $5,000, but they refused,” says Pfannkuche. “I traced the report to Arkansas, where one of his grandchildren still has it. He let me peek at it, but he said I’d have to pay $5,000 to make a copy of it.”

George “Bugs” Moran ran a north-side gang of mostly Irish bootleggers in Chicago and was a major competitor to Capone. On Feb. 14, 1929, seven of Moran’s gang members were killed in a garage in Chicago in an apparent attempt by Capone to get rid of Moran, who had failed to show up in time and escaped. It became known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Pfannkuche learned that Moran had a summer hangout at Bluff Lake, just south of Antioch, Ill., in Lake County. On June 1, 1930, there was a big machine gun battle in the Manning Hotel on nearby Pistakee Lake. Several gangsters, including Bugs’ brother, were killed – but not Bugs. He died of lung cancer in 1957 in Leavenworth penitentiary, a few months into an 11-ye­­­ar sentence for robbery.

Capone was convicted of income tax evasion in 1932 and served seven years in a federal prison. He was released in 1939, suffered from advanced syphilis, and died in 1947 in Florida from complications caused by his disease.

This Seipp ad promotes the “healthy” aspect of drinking Seipp beer. (Wisconsin Historical Society)
This Seipp ad promotes the “healthy” aspect of drinking Seipp beer. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Chicago Brewer

Legitimate breweries were hit hard by the enactment of Prohibition, and Conrad Seipp Brewing Company of Chicago was no exception. A German immigrant, Seipp built his factory at 27th and Cottage Grove in 1855, and it soon became a top producer, annually brewing more than 100,000 barrels of beer by 1873. He was one of the first brewers to ship his product outside of Chicago. He also built company saloons near racetracks and made use of advertising before it was the norm.

In 1877, Seipp purchased 27 acres on the highest bluff overlooking Geneva Lake’s south shore in Wisconsin and built a Queen Anne-style Victorian “cottage” as a summer home for his family. Completed in 1888, the 8,000-square-foot home had 13 bedrooms and one bathroom. A fourth-story observation tower topped it. All materials were transported by boat and carried to the top of the bluff.

Over the years, the property expanded to 100 acres, including a 40-acre working farm.

“He named it Villa Lorelei, after a German legend,” says Michael Rehberg, lead interpreter at the facility. “Because of rising anti-German sentiment in the United States during World War I, they changed the name to Black Point Estates.”

Seipp died in 1890, at age 65, having enjoyed the summer home for only two seasons. By 1900, the brewery was producing 250,000 barrels of beer a year. World War I caused grain and coal shortages for the beer industry, and Prohibition began in 1920.

“The brewery manufactured half-percent cereal beverages, called ‘near-beer,’ under the brand name Salvo,” says Rehberg. “It also distributed soda pop to make ends meet. According to the Chicago Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Chicago, ‘Many speculated that Seipp also produced bootleg beer for the Torrio-Capone organization.’ That’s the only reference to bootlegging by Seipp that I’ve found.”

Four generations of the Seipp family enjoyed the summer estate, until 2005. That year, Seipp’s great-grandson, William Peterson, donated the 20-room house, all its furnishings and 7 acres to the State of Wisconsin as an historic site. After extensive renovations, Black Point Estates and Gardens opened for tours in June 2007. The Wisconsin Historical Society assumed responsibilities for the estate in 2013.

“It’s open for tours from May through October,” says Rehberg, “and can be reached by boat from Lake Geneva Cruise Lines in Lake Geneva. But be prepared to climb the 120 steps to the top of the bluff when you arrive!”


According to Burns’ documentary, when Prohibition legislation was passed, many people thought it would only ban strong drinks but would allow for the consumption of beer and mild wines. The Volstead Act changed that by prohibiting any drink over .5 percent alcohol. That law turned the U.S. into a “nation of scofflaws,” a word invented during the era, and provided criminals with a way to profit from its weak enforcement.

By 1932, in the heart of the Great Depression, half of all wage earners were out of work, 5,000 banks had closed and nearly 1,000 homes per day were lost. People saw enforcement of Prohibition as a waste of money when the country was broke. Restoring the brewery industry would put lots of people back to work and increase tax income for the federal government.

On Dec. 5, 1933, after 13 years, 10 months and 18 days of murder, mayhem and misery, Congress enacted the 21st amendment to the Constitution, which repealed the 18th. Most of the nation celebrated a return to a new normal. While Prohibition reduced alcohol production and consumption for a time, alcohol abuse and the havoc it wreaks never went away. No government, ours included, has found a way to prevent it.