Today’s Points interviewee is J. J. Binder, author of The Chicago Outfit (2003) and most recently Al Capone’s Beer Wars (2017).
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
I would say that the subtitle—A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago during Prohibition—accurately describes the book. It examines all the bootlegging gangs and the fighting between them, much of which has not been covered previously. It also covers all the other major rackets from 1920 to 1934, including narcotics, gambling, labor racketeering, business racketeering, and prostitution. Furthermore, it explores how the upperworld—federal agencies, local agencies, and citizens groups–fought organized crime.
What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
Alcohol historians would be interested in a full history of bootlegging in Chicago during Prohibition because it was a major center, if not the epicenter in the country, for activities related to alcohol. Chicago exported large amounts of pure alcohol to many other parts of the US. Therefore, it is probably the most interesting example of the effects of the 18th Amendment on a major American city. The book also contains an admittedly briefer but very interesting discussion of the evolution of drug use in the country with special reference to Chicago, which one federal agent described as “the source of supply for the entire country” in 1925.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
What’s most interesting, in my opinion, are the many myths and misconceptions that have been perpetuated over time and can be refuted through detailed research, whether they are related to Al Capone, the gang wars, gangland killings, or the role of the Capone gang and its successor, the Chicago Outfit, in the drug trade.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
Unfortunately, only one of the six or eight daily newspapers in Chicago during Prohibition has been digitized and is easily searchable. That is the Chicago Tribune. If a researcher browsed all the other papers on microfilm, it would likely provide many new details regarding gangland in Prohibition Era Chicago. This information would help complete/firm up parts of the existing story and shed light on some areas that we know little about.
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
It is interesting that you ask that question, because I just signed a contract for the production of the audiobook. I would say Gene Hackman, but he would be a bit expensive! The publisher of the audiobook sent me two voice samples of actors who have done such books before and asked for my opinion before hiring one of them.