13 May Some Drinking at Work was Deemed Necessary—The Life of the Prohibition Agent
While gangsters, flappers, and bootleggers were largely enjoying the 1920’s, the situation was very different for Prohibition agents charged with enforcing the Volstead Act. Badly outnumbered by gangsters and speakeasies, the Prohibition agents were often fighting against history and public opinion. Of the articles written about these agents during the time, very few are favorable.
Take for example an article that ran in the Chicago Tribune highlighting that six Prohibition agents had been fired after raiding a Catholic convent in Los Angeles in 1929. In the pre-Twitter age, the fact that a small story out of California made it in the Tribune was unusual. Apparently, the nuns were not indulging in leftover Communion wine and the raid was for naught. Likewise, a December 11, 1931 Chicago Tribune article complained that a pregnant woman named Hazel Golden was arrested and torn from her bed by “ungentlemanly and indefensible” Prohibition agents when she was accused of doing nothing wrong, other than being married to an out of work bootlegger. But please, let’s bring back the term “ungentlemanly”!
The press was equally as harsh when the Prohibition agents failed to do their jobs, resulting in headlines like “Where have Prohibition Agents Been These Years” which ran in the January 28, 1923 edition of the Chicago Tribune. That article complained that two million gallons of liquor had been smuggled during 1922 from the Bahamas into the streets of a dry America. It wasn’t the press, though, that injured sixteen Prohibition agents when they attempted to raid an American Legion homecoming celebration in August 1924 near Ottawa, Illinois. Despite the huge amount of “wet evidence” (literally the words used) being confiscated that day, the agents were forced to draw their guns while dodging flying bottles of beer (presumably empty) resulting in many cuts and one knockout.
The day after the ill-fated bust, the feds released a new manual for Prohibition agents, acknowledging that they may need to have a drink or two while investigating a speakeasy, but prohibited “unnecessary” imbibing. The agents were also prohibited from drawing their revolvers unless they were first threatened, pretending to belong to a certain lodge or club to see if they would be served, and probably banned from raiding convents, pregnant women’s bedsides, and Ottawa.
Likely the biggest problem federal Prohibition agents faced inside the Chicago city limits was the lack of cooperation from local law enforcement. Police, politicians and judges were often in the pocket of Al Capone and his guys. The agents were stranded in a sea of “wet evidence” without a paddle.
Written by Amy Williams