Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith. They were the most famous Prohibition Bureau agents in the country. And for good reason.
They used wild and crazy antics in enforcing Prohibition. Their activities were widely reported in the press. And a movie was later made about them. But they were fired. Discover why.
II. Izzy in Action
III. Great Success
IV. Public Fascination
V. Izzy and Moe Fired
VI. Their Deaths
VII. National Prohibition
I. Background: Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith
Isidor Einstein (“Izzy” Einstein) was born in Austria some time between 1882 and 1888. Around 1901 he moved to the U.S. Shortly thereafter he and his wife had at least seven children. The census of 1910 reports that he was a merchant in Pennsylvania. The census of 1920 showed that he was a mail sorter in New York City.
Moe W. Smith was born about 1887 in New York City. The 1920 census reports that he was a U.S. marshall there. The ten years later the census listed him as an insurance agent, married, and having a daughter.
National Prohibition went into effect in January of 1920. Einstein applied for a job as a Prohibition agent. It sounded like more fun than sorting mail. He had no training in law enforcement. Nor did he conform to the stereotype of one. He stood five feet and five inches with 225 pounds. As he walked, he listed from side to side. Einstein enlisted his friend, Moe Smith, to become a Prohibition agent. Both were members of the Masonic order.1That’s where they may have met.
II. Izzy in Action
Izzy Einstein showed great skill in the art of disguise. He spoke German, Polish, Hungarian, Bohemian, Yiddish and some Italian and Russian. That helped him deceive his victims. He used many disguises. They included these.
- German pickle packer.
- Polish count.
- Hungarian violinist.
- Jewish gravedigger.
- French maitre d’.
- Italian fruit vendor.
- Russian fisherman.
- Chinese launderer.
- Streetcar conductor.
- Ice deliverer.
- Opera singer.
- Truck driver.
- Traveling cigar salesman.
- Street cleaner.
- Texas cattleman.
- Movie extra.
- Football player.
- Beauty contest judge.
- College student.
- Delegate to the Democratic National convention.
“In Coney Island, he entered a drinking joint in a wet bathing suit, shivering and gasping for aid. Wearing an attendant’s white jacket, he shut another saloon near a hospital.”2 He even disguised himself as an African American man in Harlem.
“Izzy once tossed his agent’s badge on the bar of a Bowery saloon and this fat, unkempt individual asked for a pint of whisky for ‘a deserving prohibition agent.’ The bartender sold it to him, thinking him a great wit.”3
III. Great Success
Izzy and Moe Smith made 4,932 arrests of bartenders, bootleggers and speakeasy owners. They had 95% conviction rate. On a single day, they raided 48 speakeasies or blind pigs. Izzy referred to his successful operations as the “Einstein Theory of Rum Snooping.”4 Einstein never carried a gun, although Moe sometimes did. Only one person ever shot at him. But the gun jammed and he escaped harm. With arrests, he typically announced “There’s sad news here. You’re under arrest.”5
Izzy visited other cities and became popular across the country. He posed as a Mexican laborer in El Paso. As an unemployed auto worker in Detroit. And as a member of a construction crew in Providence.
Many places had signs warning bartenders not to serve Einstein. This was hard because of his disguises. A Detroit bartender “refused to serve him because he insisted he was that ‘Izzy Epstein.’ ‘You mean Einstein don’t you?’ Izzy said. When the bartender insisted it was Epstein, Izzy bet him a drink. When the bartender poured him a drink, Izzy cuffed him and said, ‘There’s sad news here.'”6
Hypocrisy was common throughout National Prohibition. It reached to the highest levels. The White House illegally served alcohol. Bootleggers sold alcohol in Congress. And a member of the President’s Cabinet operated an illegal still.
IV. Public Loved Them
Newspapers loved human interest stories about Izzy and Moe. They were very cooperative. “They frequently scheduled their raids to suit the convenience of the reporters and the newspaper photographers. They learned that there was more room in the papers on Monday mornings. One Sunday, accompanied by a swarm of eager reporters, they established a record by making seventy-one raids in a little more than twelve hours.”7
The country enjoyed reading about the antics of the madcap duo. But “During the summer of 1925 there were almost continual stories about Izzy and Moe in the newspapers. This annoyed high prohibition enforcement officials in Washington. Few of them ever got mentioned in the papers at all.”8 Officials announced that any agent whose name was mentioned in relation to Prohibition enforcement would be punished.
V. Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith Fired
The Prohibition Bureau called Izzy to Washington and reprimanded him. “You get your name in the papers all the time, and in the headlines, too, whereas mine is hardly ever mentioned. I need to ask you to remember that you are merely a subordinate, not the whole show.”9 The Bureau later fired Izzy and Moe “for the good of the service.” This was on November 13, 1925. “The service must be dignified,” a Prohibition enforcement official said in explaining the firing. He offered the opinion that “Izzy and Moe belong on the vaudeville stage.”10
Izzy’s version of the facts was different. According to him, the Bureau offered him a transfer to Chicago. He preferred remaining in New York. He said that he fired himself. That he began working as a special representative for the New York Life Insurance Company. And that he got more money and sleep. “Yes, sir!” he said. “What was good enough for ex-President Coolidge is good enough for ex-Agent Izzy Einstein!”11
VI. Their Deaths
Moe W. Smith died in 1960. His obituary in Time magazine was to the point. “Died. Moe Smith, 73, who, with partner Izzy Einstein, formed the 1920s funniest and most effective team of prohibition agents. Addicted to disguises they posed variously as vegetable vendors, gravediggers and Democratic National Convention delegates. Izzy and Moe arrested 4,000 suspected bootleggers, confiscated an estimated 5,000,000 bottles of hooch; of a stroke; in Yonkers, N.Y.”12
Isidor Einstein died in 1938. He wrote an autobiography, Prohibition Agent No 1. He dedicated it to the 4,932 persons he arrested. In his words “Hoping they bear me no grudge for having done my duty.”13 The story of Izzy and Moe was a made-for-TV film, “Izzy and Moe,” in 1985.
VII. National Prohibition
It’s easy to romanticize Prohibition. But it caused enormous problems. They included these.
- Growth of organized crime.
- Glorification of gangsters.
- Production of often toxic moonshine alcohol that could cause blindness, paralysis, or death.
- Steep increases in crime and violence.
- Widespread corruption of law enforcement. (At least one of the famous “untouchables” was even corrupt.)
- Widespread corruption of public officials.
- Promotion of binge drinking.
- Increased disrespect for law.
- Job losses
- Tax losses.
- The rise of speakeasies. Also blind pigs, striped pigs, etc.
- Increased stigmatization of alcoholism.
- Popularization of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) because it strongly defended Prohibition.
- Overloaded criminal justice system.
- Led to increased illegal drug use.
National Prohibition was not only ineffective. It was counter productive. Yet today almost one of five American adults supports making drinking illegal. And many millions more support support neo-prohibition ideas.
VIII. Resources on Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith
Books and Reports
- Asbury, H. The Merry Antics of Izzy and Moe. In: Hyde, S. and Zanetti, G.. Players. NY: Avalon, 2002.
- BATFE. Izzy Einstein – Prohibition Agent No. 1. From the Archives, May, 2009.
- Einstein, I. Prohibition Agent No 1. NY: Stokes, 1932. (Izzy Einstein autobiography.)
- Jenis, A. Izzy and Moe. Reprinted from Empire State Mason. Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon.
- Prohibition: Izzy and Moe. Time, Nov. 23, 1925. (Reported Izzy and Moe’s firing)
- Milestones. Time, Dec. 26, 1960. (Death of Moe W. Smith)
Newspaper Reports about Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith
- IZZY AND MOE MAKE SUNDAY LIQUOR RAIDS. New York Times, April 17, 1922.
- EINSTEIN, RUM SLEUTH; Exploits of Prohibition Agent in Disguises Ranging From Dress Clothes to Overalls Einstein’s Disguises. Izzy’s Plumbing System. EINSTEIN, RUM SLEUTH Was a Truck Driver. An Enormons (sic) Still. New York Times, March 26, 1922. (Reports enforcement tactics of Izzy and Moe.)
- IZZY AND MOE DON EVENING CLOTHES New York Times, Jan 13, 1923.
- IN WHITE WING GARB IZZY AND MOE NAB 71. New York Times, Nov 20, 1922. (Reports record number of arrests made by Izzy and Moe.)
- IZZY AND MOE SEIZE ‘SACRAMENTAL’ WINE. New York Times, Oct 13, 1922.
- Izzy and Moe, Posing as Kentucky Dealers, Raid Office in West Broadway. New York Times, Nov 17, 1922.
1. Jenis, A. Izzy and Moe. Reprinted from Empire State Mason. Grand Lodge of BC and Yukon.
2. ______, ibid.
3. ______, ibid.
4. BATFE. Izzy Einstein – Prohibition Agent No. 1. From the Archives, May, 2009.
5. ______, ibid.
6. ______, ibid.
7. Asbury, H. The Merry Antics of Izzy and Moe. In: Hyde, S. and Zanetti, G. Players. NY: Avalon, 2002, p. 183.
8. ______, ibid., p. 187.
9. ______, ibid.
10. Rapczynski, J. and Florence, Z. Prohibition as a Reform. New Haven, CT:, 1998.
11. BATFE, ibid.
12. Milestones, Dec. 26, 1960. Time, Dec 26, 1960.
13. Einstein, I. Prohibition Agent No 1. NY: Stokes, 1932.