The 1920s and 1930s were a time of rising crime, driven at first by Prohibition and then
after its repeal, the Depression allowed it to take on a life of its own. When the sale of alcohol became illegal it created a new and extremely lucrative way to make money. Criminals of all stripes - from petty to gangster were quick to seize the opportunity to increase revenue, in conjunction
with gambling and prostitution, and expand their respective empires, regardless of size.
These were difficult times for the vast majority of Americans and the outlaws of the 1920s
and 1930s gained fame among those who dreamed of individuality and fast money. The
“romance” of the lifestyle and resistance to the socially imposed rules of the times led
numerous men and a few women into a criminal life that included bank robberies, illegal
sales of alcohol, gambling, prostitution, and black market drugs. Many gangsters rose to
prominence and became household names across the country. In many ways, the public saw
these famous gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s as heroes who outsmarted the government, and
became figures to be celebrated and admired, not hated.
As a reaction to the rise of organized crime came the restructuring of the Bureau of
Investigation, which would ultimately become the FBI in 1935. Chosen to head up these
crime-fighters as Director was J. Edgar Hoover, an assistant director (since 1921) who
would, starting in 1924 begin making reforms that would shape the bureau for decades to
This newly reformed bureau would spearhead a series of daring operations with the sole intention of taking down gangsters, often known as "public enemies," and bring peace to the streets of America.
George "Baby Face" Nelson was a notorious bank robber and killer who operated in the 1920s and 1930s across America.
Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson was an African-American mob boss who ran rackets in Harlem for the Mafia during the Prohibition era.
Al Capone was the co-founder and boss of the Chicago Outfit that made as much as $100 million each year through various illegal activities such as bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, among the most famous gangsters in American history, traveled the country robbing cars, banks, gas stations, and grocery stores — and killing those who stood in their way.
The Atlantic City political boss and racketeer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was notorious for his involvement in bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution during the Prohibition era.
The charismatic Jewish-American mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel made his living in the worlds of bootlegging, gambling, and murder.
Along with his Terror Gang, John Dillinger robbed enough banks in the early 1930s to become a nationwide celebrity and earn himself the title of "Public Enemy No. 1."
New York mobster Abraham "Kid Twist" Reles, one of the most feared of all hitmen, was known for killing his victims with an ice pick which he'd brutally ram through his victim’s ear and straight into his brain.
Charles “Lucky” Luciano was an Italian-American mobster who was largely responsible for creating the modern Mafia and its national organized crime network known as the Commission.
Known as the “Al Capone of New Jersey,” Abner Zwillman was involved in bootlegging and gambling operations although he desperately tried to make his businesses appear as legitimate as possible.
Known as the “Mob’s Accountant,” gangster Meyer Lanksy was responsible for developing a huge international gambling empire with help from his contacts in the Mafia, including "Lucky" Luciano, with whom he helped form the national crime syndicate known as the Commission.
Known as “the Mad Hatter” and “Lord High Executioner,” Albert Anastasia was a feared Mafia hitman and gang leader who was also involved in numerous gambling operations.
Albert Bates, a partner of the infamous "Machine Gun" Kelly, was a bank robber and burglar active across America during the 1920s and 1930s.
Nicknamed “the Brain,” Arnold Rothstein was a Jewish-American racketeer, businessman and gambler. The boss of the Jewish mob in New York City, he is said to have been responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series.
George "Machine Gun Kelly" Barnes
Nicknamed after his favorite weapon, a Thompson submachine gun, "Machine Gun Kelly" was a notorious bootlegger, kidnapper, and bank robber who operated across 1930s America.
Chicago's George "Bugs" Moran (right), head of the North Side Gang during Prohibition, murdered many of rival Al Capone’s associates, which likely prompted Capone to take revenge and kill Moran's men during the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929.
The charismatic albeit bloodthirsty Fred Barker was one of the founders of the notorious Barker-Karpis Gang with Alvin Karpis, who called Barker a “natural born killer.” He committed countless robberies, kidnappings, and murders in the 1930s.
Fred William Bowerman carried out many bank robberies starting in the 1930s and finally made it onto the F.B.I.'s Ten Most Wanted list in 1953 after one particularly daring heist.
Known as “The Dean of American Bank Robbers,” Harvey Bailey was one of the most successful thieves of the 1920s. He reportedly robbed at least two banks a year over his 12-year career.
An associate of John Dillinger and "Baby Face" Nelson, bank robber Homer Van Meter joined his compatriots near the top of authorities' most-wanted lists in the early 1930s. And like Dillinger and the others, Van Meter was eventually gunned down by police (pictured).
Known as “Joe the Boss” and “the man who can dodge bullets,” Joe Masseria was the early boss of the Genovese crime family in New York.
Italian-American mobster Johnny Torrio, also known as “Papa Johnny,” helped build the Chicago Outfit that was later taken over by Al Capone after Torrio's 1925 retirement prompted by an attempt on his life.
Also known as “Gentleman Jack,” Jack "Legs" Diamond was an Irish-American gangster who was involved in alcohol smuggling operations in Philadelphia and New York City during the Prohibition era.
Mobster Louis Buchalter was a racketeer and leader of New York's Murder, Inc. hit squad along with Mafioso Albert Anastasia. Buchalter was eventually made to pay for all these killings after being convicted on murder charges in 1941.
Alvin Karpis, also known as “Creepy” due to his unsettling smile, was the leader of the ruthless Karpis-Barker gang. In 1933, the gang kidnapped a millionaire Minnesota brewer and a banker which caused the F.B.I. to label Karpis “Public Enemy No. 1.”
"Pretty Boy" Floyd was a Depression-era gangster best known for his bank and payroll robberies. When Floyd moved to robbing banks in Oklahoma, he was celebrated and even protected by the locals because he supposedly destroyed mortgage papers during his heists, thus freeing people from their debt.