William Harvey Thompson ("Kinky" Thompson)

Prohibition agents during National Prohibition were widely criticized for using excessive force against both persons and property. One of the most violent may have been agent William Harvey Thompson of the Seattle, Washington, unit. Thompson's career illustrates one of the many problems - unprofessional enforcement - that led to increasing opposition to National Prohibition in the United States (1920-1933).

Widely known as Kinky, because of this tight curly hair, Thompson's first mention in the press occurred after he shot a moonshine still-tender through the stomach during a raid.

Later Thompson reported that bootleggers attacked him late one night as he was driving on a deserted country road. He claimed that, while a car was overtaking him, he was shot in the arm. However, police investigators found holes in more than just Thompson's arm. His story looked like Swiss cheese. The muddy road had only one set of tire tracks and a woman awakened by gunfire reported seeing a man standing by his parked car shooting bullets into it. And it was Thompson's right arm, the one fartherest from the window, that had been shot. In addition, the wound was badly scorched by gun powder, indicating that it had been shot at point blank range. In other words, Thompson had fabricated the whole story.

Kinky Thompson was well known as a "blackjack artist." In one instance, he used one on a man who had no reputation for violence. A jury hearing the resulting case denounced Thompson for his brutal beating of the defendant. The judge who presided at the trial later called Thompson's supervisor into his chamber and warned him about Thompson's behavior. However, the supervisor defended Thompson's actions, saying that "No bootlegger gets rough treatment unless he deserves it." Indeed, he told Thompson and his partner to be tough and "to beat the hell out of them and drag them out by the feet."

Thompson needed no encouragement. His "favorite tactic was to walk into a joint, grab a pitcher of beer, and pour the contents on the bar, then offer to reimburse the nearest drinker. If the man denied that the beer was his," Thompson "would strike him over the head with a shot-filled blackjack, and then wring a confession by painfully twisting the victim's arm."

On one occasion, Kinky Thompson and his partner Agent Earl Corwin entered a pool hall. "Vaulting the counter Kinky sapped the cook. When the waiter protested, Kinky bludgeoned him to the floor. Kinky then demanded to know the location of the joint's liquor cache. When the owner said there was no cache, Thompson broke a bottle over the owner's head, cutting him severely. Then Kinky and Corwin set to work with axes demolishing cash registers, coffee urns, light fixtures, pool tables, even the long wooden counter. When they finished the floor was littered with meat and flour, cigars and candy, and the remains of a crate of eggs. Only a ventilation fan and a clock on the wall continued to turn, and these the agents destroyed with cue balls thrown like grenades."

Prohibition Agent Corwin defended the violence, saying that "Anyone who has been hit by Thompson had it coming" and insisted that "There is no more violence in this office than in any church in the city." Two weeks later Thompson blackjacked a twelve year old boy, the boy's mother, and his one-legged father. However, the Prohibition Bureau administrator assured reporters that it was all just "bootlegger propaganda."

Prohibition officials defended their agents' violence, arguing that they bravely had to consume alcohol as part of their undercover work and that it threatened their health and caused crazed behavior. However, a local newspaper asked why patrons who consumed the same beverages didn't become similarly crazed with an uncontrollable desire to injure others and destroy property.

Thompson went on to pistol-whip a manacled prisoner in full view of a crowd of onlookers who were outraged at his behavior.

For many Prohibition agents it was a case of do as I say, not as I do. Thompson often became highly intoxicated. While driving drunk one night he sideswiped another car, snapped off a telephone pole, and careened through a plate glass window into the middle of a store.

Police summoned to a drunken fight between a couple in a parked car asked to driver to move on. At that point the driver became belligerent and reached for something in his coat but the officer fired first, fatally wounding Agent Thompson.

William Harvey Thompson was eulogized as a martyr for the dry cause and his death was ironically blamed on societal disrespect for law and order. Federal Prohibition officials later praised Thompson's "zeal" but never acknowledged that he had ever used excessive force.

National Prohibition caused many other problems in addition to those illustrated by Kinky Thompson. It promoted the growth of organized crime, the consumption of dangerous bootleg alcohol leading to blindness and death, police corruption, disregard to law, heavy episodic drinking (binge drinking), violence, gangsterism, political corruption, and loss of tax revenues while absorbing almost 70% of federal law enforcement funding. It was rejected by a resounding 74% of American voters.

In spite of the dismal failure of Prohibition, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue to exist.

Reading on Kinky Thompson:

  • Metcalfe, Philip. Whispering Wires: the Tragic Tale of an American Bootlegger. Portland, OR: Inkwater Press, 2007. Includes biography of William Harvey Thompson.

Filed Under: Biography