Learn about Life in the 1920s

Killings by Federal Agents Enforcing Prohibition in 1927

MORE THAN TWO HUNDRED PERSONS, it is estimated, have been killed by Federal agents enforcing Prohibition since the Volstead Act was placed on the statute books.

According to incomplete records kept by the Prohibition Unit at Washington, 113 had been reported killed up to September 16. But the bureau, say Washington dispatches, makes no effort to record the killings by local and State officers and agents of other branches of the Federal service. These, it is believed, would bring the total well over two hundred. Of the 113 cases recorded, State authorities brought prosecutions in fifty-seven. Twenty-two of these, we are told, were taken out of the State's hands by the Federal courts, with the Federal prosecuting attorney acting as counsel for the accused. Of the twenty-two cases, thirteen resulted in acquittals, one in a conviction, one in a plea of guilty, and seven are still pending.

Such was the situation on September 16, when four Prohibition agents drove up to the home of an aged Maryland farmer, entered upon the premises without a search-warrant, ignored his menacing shotgun and warnings not to approach his home, and shot him to death after he had injured one of their number with a load of small shot. As a result of this killing, says the Washington correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, bone-dry Senators and Congressmen are planning to take the initiative in demanding an investigation of the whole situation. "Hair-trigger" enforcement methods must be abolished by legislation, maintains the Chicago daily. We read on:

"A sweeping investigation into the tragedies of the 'shoot first and shoot to kill' enforcement policy of the United States Government to determine how many murderers have escaped punishment because United States attorneys have intervened in Federal courts to protect the killing agents from State court prosecution is almost a certainty.

"State courts have indicted dozens of the killers, but virtually without exception the slayers have found refuge in the Federal courts under an interpretation of the law which gives them the sole jurisdiction in cases where revenue agents kill in line of duty. The exact number of citizens killed or of those wounded or permanently disabled is not available even in the Prohibition bureau.

"It has been charged that Federal judges have been swayed to dismiss murder and manslaughter charges against reckless, swashbuckling killers for fear of destroying the 'morale' of the Prohibition service, which has been built up on the assurance that the Government will protect its agents if they can make any sort of a showing that they killed in self-defense. "

The outcome of the trial of the four agents who are accused of killing the aged Maryland farmer "is being watched with widespread interest," says a Washington dispatch to the New York Evening Post, "because the case provides a severe test of the Government's law-enforcing strength, and of the power of the community to strike back through the State courts." As the Maryland case is summarized by the New York Herald Tribune:

"Charles P. Gundlach, seventy-seven, the slain farmer, had the traditional German fondness for beer, and brewed some for home consumption. When a stranger stopt by his meager little farm he gave him a glass of his home-brew as a mark of hospitality. Such a stranger on one occasion was Randolph Brewer, Washington Prohibition agent, who accepted the old man's hospitality, only to return later when Gundlach was absent and smash all the bottles of home-brew he could find. Brewer with three of his enforcement colleagues afterward planned and carried out a sortie upon the farm. Gundlach spied them, grabbed his shotgun and warned them. But, as they continued to advance, he opened fire, wounding one of the agents in the knees. The agents opened fire in their turn, felling the old man with a wound in the foot. As he lay on the ground, his wife says, the so-called officers of the law strode up to him, ignored his plea for mercy, and deliberately shot him through the head, stepping over his body to search for the still which they themselves acknowledge they could not find. And all this without even the excuse of a search-warrant.

"There is an old English common law proviso that a man's home is his castle. There is also a provision of the Bill of Rights of the American Constitution that 'the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures' shall not be violated. Both of these basic safeguards of American liberty were violated by the killers of Gundlach."

"The situation," maintains the Washington Post, "calls for a remedy." "The majority of the American people want all laws respected and enforced by proper means, " believes the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, "but they are reacting against the theory of extremists that any one law is of such supreme importance as to justify its enforcement at the expense of other laws, and by the commission of crimes." According to the New York World:

"It is no doubt possible to make out a legal argument in favor of the agents in every one of these cases. That is to say, it is possible to argue that they were forced to kill in the performance of their duty, just as other police officers are sometimes forced to kill in the performance of their duty; and that their acquittal, under these circumstances, is to be taken for granted. But that argument, while it may dispose of any effort to cast doubt on the workings of justice in individual cases of the past, does not dispose of the situation which now confronts us. That situation is this: We have in the Federal service a Prohibition force which, on the word of its ' undercover' officials here in New York, is recruited to a large extent from the very class of criminals which it is supposed to hunt down. Yet this highly dangerous class of men is loosed upon us, knowing quite well from the record cited above that it may kill with impunity, since the chance is almost negligible that it will suffer any punishment."

Senator C. C. Dill, Democrat, of Washington, a pronounced dry and representing a State bone-dry in political sentiment, "believes that the time has come to call a halt to unwarranted and illegal action under the guise of Prohibition enforcement," remarks the Washington Post. Moreover—

"He has announced that he intends to press for legislation in the next Congress placing all Prohibition agents under bond, so that citizens whose rights have been violated may have some recourse. As matters stand now, there is no redress in those instances where the life and property of citizens, held sacred in one part of the Constitution, are jeopardized through the powers claimed under the Eighteenth Amendment."

In the case of Gundlach, points out Senator Dill, his heirs might have been able to recover damages in the courts if the four agents accused of the killing had been bonded. " The Government can not be sued for damages," explains the Baltimore Sun, "and a judgment against the agents would be worthless."

W. W. Jermane, Washington correspondent of the Seattle Times, however, is unable to find, even at the headquarters of the Anti-Saloon League in the capital, "any one who displays even mild enthusiasm over the Dill proposal. The bonding bill may be introduced in Congress, but there doesn't seem to be anybody here who believes it will pass."


Keeping Prohibition out of Party Platforms - 1927
Article discussing problems of Political Parties in relation to Prohibition

Repeal of Prohibition - 1933
Survey of current state of Prohibition Repeal Votes

World Prohibition - 1923
Most of the World was considering Prohibition in 1923

Prohibition Killings - 1927
Killings by Federal Agents Enforcing Prohibition

Prohibition in Belgium - 1927
A European Approach to Prohibition

Prohibition Articles
Prohibition Category Page at 1920sEra.com

Dangers of Bootleg Liquor - 1926
Increased deaths caused by drinking bootleg beverages

Speakeasies in Detroit - 1929
10 - 20,000 Speakeasies created strong competition and lowered profitability