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 shows 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.
Later William Harvey Thompson reported that bootleggers attacked him. It was 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.
But 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.
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. This showed that it had been shot at point blank range. In other words, Thompson had made up the whole story.
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Kinky Thompson was a “blackjack artist.” In one situation, 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 man.
The judge who presided at the trial later called Thompson’s supervisor into his chamber. The judge warned him about Thompson’s behavior. But 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.”
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.”
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 official 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.
But a reporter asked a good question. Patrons drank the same beverages. Why didn’t they also become crazed with an strong 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 drunk. 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.
Police called 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, killing 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 caused many other serious problems in addition to those shown by Kinky Thompson. It promoted these, among others.
- Growth of organized crime.
- Drinking dangerous moonshine. Could cause blindness or death.
- Police corruption.
- Disrespect for law.
- Heavy drinking.
- Political corruption.
- Lower tax revenues.
- Increased criminal justice cost.
- Revival of the Blu Klux Klan. It supported Prohibition.
So voters called for Repeal by a vote of three to one.
William Harvey Thompson
- Metcalfe, P. Whispering Wires: the Tragic Tale of an American Bootlegger. Includes biography of William Harvey Thompson.