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Rare primary-source documents reveal the gritty reality of Prohibition-era law enforcement and the dangers they faced

Ratified in 1919, the 18th amendment outlawed the production, distribution and consumption of alcoholic beverages. As a result, the illegal liquor trade flourished throughout the 1920s, and in addition to bootleggers and speakeasys, violent crime and gang activity were out of control. The government and law enforcement couldn’t keep up. 

It’s an era that continues to capture our imagination. Bathtub gin and blind pigs, moonshiners and rum runners, mob bosses and gangster molls – this time in American history has been mythologized in popular culture with TV shows, movies and fashionable “Roaring ‘20s”-themed parties.

But for researchers looking to dig beyond the fictionalized romance and glamor, primary sources provide essential insight into the gritty reality of the dangers and challenges Federal agencies and local law enforcement dealt with during Prohibition. Original documents, including government reports, correspondence, manuals and more, provide a direct, unfiltered, first-hand look at the consequences of outlawing alcohol.

Consider this report, submitted to the Internal Revenue Service by Agent L. F. McGlothlin on April 29, 1927 regarding pursuit of suspected distillery operators Arnold Wise and Garnett Sprigg:

Sprigg placed some wood under the still that was in full operation, whiskey running. [Special agents] Watkins, Bone, and I rushed the still and demanded the operators to surrender. Sprigg threw up both hands and fell down on the ground. Wise started to run and pulled a 38-special. The officers still demanded Wise to surrender after he got the pistol out of his pocket. He then turned on the officers laid the pistol across his left arm as if he were taking rest, pointing direct at Watkins and me as we were very close together. Then there were several shots fired by the officers, one taking effect in Wise’s thigh severing an artery which caused Wise’s death in less than one hour after he was wounded.

McGlothlin’s report is just one of 800 case files included in Prohibition: Bureau of Internal Revenue Records of the Prohibition Unit and of the Division of Industrial Alcohol, 1918–1934.

While not all the case files are as dramatic as the shooting of Arnold Wise, the files provide an unflinching look into the world of Prohibition enforcement in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Documenting the IRS’s struggle with rumrunners, bootleggers and smugglers

Prohibition: Bureau of Internal Revenue Records of the Prohibition Unit and of the Division of Industrial Alcohol, 1918–1934 will be available to researchers beginning in October 2018. It’s part of an expansive new ProQuest History Vault module on one of America’s most interesting eras. Progressive Era: Reform, Regulation, and Rights will encompass two collections that document the Prohibition age.

In Prohibition: Bureau of Internal Revenue Records of the Prohibition Unit and of the Division of Industrial Alcohol, 1918–1934, researchers will find correspondence and documents revealing how the government sought to prevent and control the production of moonshine stills and industrial alcohol used in manufacturing medicines.

Letters from the Internal Revenue commissioner, subject files, draft sections of the 1929 field manual, copies of instructions and circulars, publicity files, correspondence on legal matters, photograph and fingerprint cards of employees, and correspondence with local Prohibition administrators are the pieces researchers can use to patch together history.

They tell an important story. Prohibition agents of the Bureau of the Internal Revenue enforced Prohibition laws, with a daily grind that included finding and destroying stills, liquor stashes and liquor on railroad cars. These were agents that tempted fate by seizing and then selling the vehicles used by rum runners, bootleggers and smugglers to transport alcohol… including Al Capone. From May 1930:

…they discovered, among other things, that Capone and his gang have set up headquarters at Montreal and Havana from which to ship liquor into the United States. He says further that Capone expects to use Miami as his seaport. … [the] specific request is that the government at Washington send to Miami one its best investigators from either the Department of Justice or the Prohibition Enforcement Department to cooperate with the local prosecuting attorney.

Capone was convicted and sent to prison the following year.

Documents reveal the real-life drama and danger of Prohibition enforcement

The second collection in Progressive Era: Reform, Regulation, and Rights focuses on the Records of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement.

In 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed the Commission, known popularly as the Wickersham Commission, after its chairman and U.S. attorney general under Taft, George W. Wickersham. It was designed to help solve an increasing number of challenges to enforcing prohibition. To wit, trying to put moonshiners in the mountains out of business was a Groundhog Day experience:

In the Northern District of Alabama the investigators found a difficult situation. The country is mostly mountainous, and industry and agriculture are the principal pursuits. The numerous industrial towns and cities create an active demand for liquor; and the agricultural regions, perhaps through economic necessity for life there is extremely hard, supply the demand. This condition is not new. In one county—Shelby—old citizens say that illicit distilling has been going on for seventy-five years. In another county—Cleburne—the sheriff stated that on an average he destroyed from fifteen to thirty stills a week, but the stills are of little value and the owners begin to rebuild as soon as the officers leave. Even when one is caught and sent to prison, the only result is a cessation of operations during the period of his confinement, for the moonshiner returns to his old calling as soon as he gets out. 

The collection’s reports, memos, agency circulars, letters, notes, testimony, pamphlets, legislation, and court opinions, with occasional newspaper clippings, telegrams, and photographs are fodder for deep dives into the extraordinary infrastructure created to police illegal alcohol. In addition, there are drafts and proofs of the commission’s final report, so that researchers can follow changes that occurred during the publication process.

The Progressive Era: More than Moonshine

The forthcoming History Vault module, Progressive Era: Reform, Regulation, and Rights captures the breadth of an exciting, pivotal era in American History. Other collections in this module cover women’s right to vote, the Standard Oil monopoly case, the journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd, University Settlement Society of New York City, law enforcement, the Teapot Dome bribery case regarding petroleum reserves on government lands, and regulation of food and drugs.

Plus, be sure to check back to read about the complementary History Vault module that is scheduled to release in June, Progressive Era: Robert M. La Follette Papers, documenting the career of “Fighting Bob,” a fierce opponent to corporate power.

Related resources for further research

For researchers interested in learning more about Prohibition, they can get a fantastic introduction to the subject by watching Ken Burns’ 3- part documentary Prohibition (A Nation of Drunkards, A Nation of Scofflaws, A Nation of Hypocrites) available in Alexander Street’s PBS Collection or Academic Video Online.

Ebooks available from Ebook Central pertaining to Prohibition include: Gentlemen Bootleggers: The True Story of Templeton Rye, Prohibition, and a Small Town in Cahoots by Bryce T. Bauer (Winner of SHSI Benjamin Shambaugh Award); Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City by Ellen NicKenzie Lawson; and Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City by Michael A. Lerner.

See additional related resources including scholarly articles, literary works, and more.  Plus, sign up to let us know that you’re interested in learning about ways to improve research and learning outcomes.

20 Apr 2018

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