William Harvey Thompson (“Kinky” Thompson) Violent Prohibition Agent

Kinky Thompson

Prohibition agents during National Prohibition (1920-1933) were widely criticized for using excessive force. And it was 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 Prohibition.

People called Thompson Kinky because of his tight curly hair. The press first reported Kinky after he shot a moonshine still-tender through the stomach during a raid.

Suspicious Story

William Harvey Thompson
William Harvey Thompson

Later William Harvey Thompson reported bootleggers attacked him one night as he was driving on a deserted 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. A woman awakened by gunfire reported seeing a man standing by his parked car shooting bullets into it.

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Also, 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.

Blackjack Artist

Kinky Thompson was 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. He said that “No bootlegger gets rough treatment unless he deserves it.” Indeed, he told Thompson and his partner to be tough. They should “beat the hell out of them and drag them out by the feet.”

Favorite Tactic

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

Example of Violence

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. They demolished 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 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.”

Violence Defended

Prohibition Agent Corwin defended the violence. He said that “Anyone who has been hit by Thompson had it coming.” Corwin 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. The agents bravely had to consume alcohol as part of their undercover work. This threatened their health and caused crazed behavior.

However, a local newspaper asked a good question. Patrons drank the same beverages. Why didn’t they 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. They were outraged at his behavior.

“Do as I Say, Not as I Do”

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 and snapped off a telephone pole. Then he careened through a plate glass window into the middle of a store.

Kinky’s Death

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

William Harvey Thompson was eulogized as a martyr for the dry cause. His death was ironically blamed on societal disrespect for law and order. Federal Prohibition officials later praised Thompson’s “zeal.” But they never acknowledged that he had ever used excessive force.

Prohibition Problems

Prohibition caused many other serious problems in addition to those shown by Kinky Thompson. It promoted these, among others.

  • Growth of organized crime.
  • Consumption of dangerous bootleg alcohol causing blindness and death.
  • Police corruption.
  • Disrespect for law.
  • Heavy episodic drinking (binge drinking).
  • Violence.
  • Gangsterism.
  • Political corruption.
  • Lower tax revenues.
  • Increased criminal justice expenses.

For these and many other reasons, voters called for Repeal by a vote of three to one.

In spite of the dismal failure of Prohibition, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibitionist ideas. They also strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue.

Reading & Reference on William Harvey Thompson

Metcalfe, P. Whispering Wires: the Tragic Tale of an American Bootlegger. Portland, OR: Inkwater Press, 2007. Includes biography of William Harvey Thompson. All references are from this book.