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The Wickersham Commission Report on Alcohol Prohibition - 1930



(a) The Bureau of Prohibition Act, 1927

Following the hearing before the Senate Committee, Congress, by act of March 3, 1927, known as "the Bureau of Prohibition Act" (44 Stats. 1381) created in the Department of the Treasury two bureaus a Bureau of Customs and a Bureau of Prohibition each under a commissioner; authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to appoint in each bureau one assistant commissioner, two deputy commissioners, one chief clerk, and such other officers and employees as he might deem necessary, and provided that the appointments should be subject to the provisions of the Civil Service laws and the salaries be fixed in accordance with the classification act of 1923. The Commissioner of Prohibition, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, was authorized to appoint in the Bureau of Prohibition such employees in the field service as he might deem necessary, but it was expressly enacted that all appointments of such employees were to be made subject to the provisions of the Civil Service laws, notwithstanding the provisions of Section 38 of the National Prohibition Act. The term of office of any person who was transferred under this section to the Bureau of Prohibition, and who was not appointed subject to the provision of the Civil Service laws, was made to expire on the expiration of six months from the effective date of the Act, i.e, April 1, 1927.

From the time of enacting this law until the end of the year 1929, the tedious task of replacing men declared ineligible under the terms was taking place.

In April, 1927, the members of the force of the Bureau of Prohibition, exclusive of clerks in the field offices and clerks and administrative officials in the Washington headquarters (already serving under Civil Service regulations were subjected to examination to determine their eligibility to continue in the service. As a result, 41% of those of the force who took the examinations received therein passing marks by virtue of which they continued to hold their positions and 59% failed. 

(b) Changes in Personnel and in Organization

 The original organization set up in the Bureau of Internal Revenue at the beginning of prohibition did not last long, and experimentation with organization during the first few years was carried to a point which undoubted1y must have caused a feeling of insecurity and uncertainty in the force and detracted from the heartiness and confidence necessary to the effective working of any organization. During the eighteen months from January, 1920 to July, 1921, several hundred incumbents held the positions of agents for varying periods of time. There were constant changes in the prohibition administrators. In all but six of the twenty-four prohibition districts, during the period April 1, 1925 to March 31, 1927, there were two or more administrators two in each of ten districts, three in each of five districts and five in each of three districts. After the passage of the act of March 3, 1927, and during the subsequent period until July 1, 19301 in the twenty-seven prohibition districts there were two Administrators in each of eleven districts, three in one district, four in each of four districts, and five in one district. Not only were all of these changes made in the principal officers of the districts, but the boundaries of the districts themselves were frequently changed. Three districts underwent four territorial reorganizations, eight of them three, and nine of them two. Only seven districts remained substantially as originally outlined. 

Among the district administrators, during the period April 1, 1927, to July 1, 1930, there were ninety-one changes in the twenty-seven districts, and in some of the districts the average length of service was only six months. It is quite obvious that no organization could function efficiently and harmoniously in such a state of upheaval, with its leadership continually shifting and its plan of field organization subject to constant revision.

of 2,278 persons in the service on April 30, 1930, the number appointed in each calendar year since the passage of the National Prohibition Act is shown as follows:


1919 20
1920 90
1921 102
1922 126
1923 63
1924 99
1925 185
1926 184
1927 242
1928 390
1929 575
1930 202


Of the 943 Prohibition agents in the service on July 1, 1920, the salaries of 839 ranged from $1,200 to $2,000 per per annum. Of the remainder, 89 were paid from $2,000 to $2,500; 12 from $2,000 to $3,000, and only three received more than $37000. At the present time the prohibition agents receive a salary of $2,300 upon entering the service. This is gradually increased to a maximum of $2,800 per annum. The annual turnover in personnel has been large. Eliminating any increase or decrease in the aggregate and considering only positions vacated and refilled, the figures furnished us show the following annual turnover in personnel, by groups, for the fiscal years 1920 to 1930, inclusive (less narcotic field force):

Enforcement Group


Clerical Group


Administrative Group (percent) Total All Groups


1920 15.94 12.70 7.69 14.83
1921 96.28 30.08 43.75 76.15
1922 50.27 25.44 27.70 42.40
1923 47.51 26.24 37.50 43.70
1924 27.64 19.81 15.71 25.79
1925 24.18 24.48 18.05 26.40
1926 49.53 36.03 58.75 45.37
1927 38.06 23.19 47.31 33.38
1928 34.14 19.37 29.88 31.07
1929 31.29 19.38 22.00 27.10
1930 22.78 17.99 14.77 21.09

The turnover in the higher administrative posts averaged 29.37 per cent per annum during the period of eleven years, the peak being 58.75 per cent in 1926. The turnover in the enforcement branch during the years 1920 to 1930 averaged 39.78 Per cent. The effect of the application of the Civil Service laws marked a reduction but in 1930, the turnover was still too high, being 22.78 per cent.

One of the most unp1easant aspects of the problem of prohibition enforcement which relates directly to the matter of organization and personnel arises out of the charges of bribery and corruption. A general charge of this character against any organization is easily made but difficult of proof. It is obviously unjust to those in the organization who are not only honest but are diligent and patriotic in the discharge of their public duties. Yet to the extent that these conditions have existed or may now exist they constitute important factors in the problem of prohibition enforcement and are vital considerations as affecting the government generally.

From statements furnished, it appears that from the beginning of national prohibition to June 30, 1930 there were 17,972 appointments to the prohibition service, 11,982 separations from the service without prejudice, 1.604 dismissals for cause. These figures apply only to the prohibition organization and do not include Customs, Coast Guard, and other agencies directly or indirectly concerned -with the enforcement of the prohibition laws. The grounds for these dismissals for cause include bribery, extortion, theft, violation of the National Prohibition Act, falsification of records, conspiracy, forgery, perjury and other causes which constitute a stigma upon the record of the employee. The total number of employees in the service at the end of each fiscal year, the number in the enforcement group, and the number of dismissals therefrom for cause each year are given as follows (less narcotic field force):

Year Total Number of employees Total Enforcement Group Total dismissed for cause
1920 2,239 1,512 30
1921 2,285 1,372 194
1922 3,573 2,435 158
1923 3,288 2,012 197
1924 3,261 1,939 159
1925 3,564 2,320 182
1926 3,390 2,150 108
1927 3,981 2,577 196
1928 3,846 2,355 197
1929 4,325 2,784 98
1930 4,386 2,836 85

 These figures do not, of course, represent the total delinquencies of the character named which actually occurred. They only show those which are actually discovered and admitted or proved to such an extent as to justify dismissal. What proportion of the total they really represent it is impossible to say. Bribery and similar offenses are from their nature extremely difficult of discovery and improvements in organization and methods of selecting under Civil Service should operate to reduce the number of offenses.

(c) Training of Prohibition Agents 

Not until the year 1927, was any effort made to furnish even the key men in the prohibition enforcement organization with special training in the work they were expected to perform. In the fall of 1927, a plan for giving training periods, each of two weeks duration, to agents and prohibition employees, was inaugurated. This was followed by an extensive tour by the Washington officials in charge of personnel training through every district in the country. This was begun early in 1928 and was continued in January, 1929. In February, 1930, the Prohibition Bureau school of instruction established a correspondence course for instruction in the duties of the office, the elements of criminal investigation, constitutional law, etc.

Since the extension of the Civil Service laws over it, there has been continued improvement in organization and effort for enforcement, which is reflected in an attitude of greater confidence in the prohibition agents on the part of United States attorneys and judges.


  1. Appropriations for Prohibition Enforcement

In the following statement of appropriations and expenditures the appropriations for the narcotic unit, which was operate as a part of the prohibition unit or bureau but with a separate personnel, are included, since in the data furnished the expenditures for the two services are combined. The appropriation for the narcotic unit averaged about 10 percent of the total.

These figures do not represent the total expenditures for prohibition enforcement. The expenditures for the Bureau of Customs, Coast Guard and other services directly or indirectly connected with prohibition enforcement many of which have been necessarily increased to a greater or less extent to meet the additional burdens imposed by the National Prohibition Act, do not appear in the foregoing figures.

(e) Cooperation with other Federal agencies

Cooperation of the Prohibition Bureau forces with the Customs and Coast Guard forces was imperfect, despite the fact that all three services were subject to the same department of government and directly under the control of an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury until July 1, 1930. Long experience had accustomed the officials and men of the Customs Service and the Coast Guard to work together. They did not readily cooperate with the prohibition forces. Despite the efforts of the Assistant Secretary, constructive cooperation between the three branches was not established.

The problem of preventing the smuggling of liquor into the United States at many points on our land and water borders-nearly nineteen thousand miles in extent-was added to the other duties of the prohibition force and the limited customs and coast guard forces.

The duties of the men in the Customs Service in preventing smuggling of liquor and other commodities over the international boundaries devolved upon what is called the border patrol of that service, the members of which receive a salary of $2,100 a year and are under the direction of the collector of customs. On the rivers such as the Niagara, the Detroit and the St. Clair, the customs service does the patroling in small picket boats.

The duties of the Coast Guard, apart from their life saving and maritime activities, include patroling the border waters of the country for general police purposes. Their number has been considerably increased since the enactment of the Prohibition Act, and on June W 1929, included 12,100 officers and men. The enlisted men in this service are paid $36 a month and furnished with uniforms, food and lodgings. The Coast Guard service had a serious organization problem of its own at the time that its forces were rapidly augmented in 1925 for the purpose of breaking up the rum row of vessels which lay off our coasts beyond the three mile limit, at which time some three thousand additional men were enlisted.

The Bureau of Immigration in the Department of Labor has a border patrol which was organized in 1925 primarily to prevent the illegal entry of aliens. The personnel of this patrol has been increased from about 400 in 1925 to approximately 1000 in 1930. This service works more closely with the Customs Bureau than it does with the prohibition forces, as the immigration inspectors are accustomed to work on the border with customs inspectors. This border patrol does, however, aid in the apprehension of aliens who are engaged in smuggling liquor.

Cooperation between all the forces above referred to would have been difficult at best. Each of the forces other than prohibition has duties to perform of a different nature than seizing liquor or apprehending smugglers of intoxicants. Effective cooperation is only possible where there is mutual respect and confidence. The older services had no such feelings for the newer. 

These conditions explain the fact that save in a few places and under special conditions, there was no cordial, effective cooperation between these branches of the federal service. The attempts at better coordination have resulted in some progress, but much remains to be done. The Commissioner of Prohibition as late as June, 1929, stated that the then existing cooperation could be better. "It is a little spotty now, due to individual temperament. There is no difference of opinion or lack of complete harmony in the directing heads, but as you go down the service, the service rivalry crops out." One of the most important pressures necessary to the enforcement of the prohibition of liquor importation is the creation of a competent border patrol which shall unite in one efficient force the men of the four different services above mentioned. Difficult as is the task it does not seem to be beyond accomplishment although some legislative aid may be necessary to perfect such an organization.  

(f) General Observations 

The foregoing statements are sufficient to indicate the nature, extent, and resources of the Governmental machinery which has been set up for the purpose of prohibition enforcement and the more important aspects of its administration. Viewed solely from the standpoint of the enforcement machinery and administration, it is obvious that the organization has passed through many vicissitudes and has been subject to conditions many of which have been prejudicial to effective service. How far these conditions were inherent in the nature and subject-matter of the undertaking and in the conditions under which it was inaugurated and has been developed and how far they might have been or may now be avoided is difficult of determination and opinions differ thereon. The Eighteenth Amendment represents the first effort in our history to extent directly by Constitutional provision the police control of the federal government to the personal habits and conduct of the individual. It was an experiment, the extent and difficulty of which was probably not appreciated. The government was without organization for or experience in the enforcement of a law of this character. In creating an organization for this purpose, it was necessary to proceed by the process of trial and error. The effort was subject to those limitations which are inseparable from all human and especially governmental activities.




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