The Bureau of Prohibition (or Prohibition Unit) was the federal law enforcement agency formed to enforce the National Prohibition Act of 1919, commonly known as the Volstead Act, which backed up the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution regarding the prohibition of the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. When it was first established in 1920, it was a unit of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. On April 1, 1927, it became an independent entity within the Department of the Treasury, changing its name from the Prohibition Unit to the Bureau of Prohibition. In 1930, it became part of the Department of Justice. By 1933, with the Repeal of Prohibition imminent, it was briefly absorbed into the FBI, or "Bureau of Investigation" as it was then called, and became the Bureau's "Alcohol Beverage Unit," though, for practical purposes it continued to operate as a separate agency. Very shortly after that, once Repeal became a reality, and the only federal laws regarding alcoholic beverages being their taxation, it was switched back to Treasury, where it was renamed the Alcohol Tax Unit.
The Bureau of Prohibition’s main function was to mostly stop the selling and consumption of alcohol. Agents would be tasked with taking down illegal bootlegging rings and became notorious in cities like New York City and Chicago for raiding many popular nightclubs. Agents were often paid low wages and the Bureau was notorious for allowing many uncertified people to become agents. However, doing so strengthened the bureau, as they were able to hire agents in greater numbers. In 1929, the Jones Law was passed. The Jones Law increased violations previously set in the Volstead Act. First time offenders were now expected to serve a maximum of five years and a $10,000 fine as opposed to the previous 6 months and $1,000 fine in the Volstead Act. In the public opinion, this strengthened animosity towards prohibition agents as many of them, such as Major Maurice Campbell, Prohibition administrator of New York City, were already hated for their unfair raiding of popular clubs usually inhabited by New York City’s elite.
Its investigators were called Prohibition Agents, or more colloquially prohis /ˈproʊhiː/. Its most famous agent was Eliot Ness. Some of the other famous lawmen who carried a Prohi's badge at one time or another in their career include former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, full-blooded Cherokee Tom Threepersons, James L. "Lone Wolf" Asher and Chicagoan Pat Roche. The two-agent team of Isidor "Izzy" Einstein and Moe Smith, working out of the New York City office, compiled the best arrest record in the history of the agency. Izzy and Moe, as they would later be called, had 4,932 arrests while confiscating over 5,000,000 bottles of alcohol. The duo would disguise themselves as street vendors, fishermen and many others as well as having the ability to speak multiple languages.
The Untouchables were by far the most famous group of prohibition agents, because they were tasked with taking down the famous gangster Al Capone. They earned their famous nickname because they were seen as fearless agents who were not as easily corrupted as other prohibition agents were. Through their efforts, Capone was indicted on 5000 separate violations of Prohibition laws, though it was decided, ultimately, not to bring these charges to trial, but rather to concentrate on income tax violations. Nevertheless, the Untouchables gained national acclaim, particularly their leader, Eliot Ness.
In the public opinion, the Bureau agents were not perceived as positive people. Bureau agents were supposedly notorious for killing civilians that were caught in the middle of gunfights between them and bootleggers. Also, the general public did not like the fact that Bureau agents were able to wire tap phones. Many cases have been reported of civilians lashing out at agents such as a woman scratching an agent in his face after he pointed his gun at her. With the passing of the Jones Act, tensions rose even further as Prohibition agents were now able to launch a full-scale war on illegal speakeasies. This, in conjunction with local police, ended up raising the tensions of civilians in cities such as Chicago and New York due to the numerous bootleggers inhabiting those cities.
Even though Prohibition agents were tasked with stopping the consumption of alcohol, many were viewed as easily corrupted. During the early stages of Prohibition, it was alleged that some agents accepted bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to bootlegged liquor, mainly as a result of relatively low wages. It was also rumored that many agents imbibed the very alcohol which they were charged with confiscating.
On July 1, 1930, the Prohibition Bureau was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Department of Justice. Early in 1933, as part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt-sponsored Omnibus Crime Bill, the Prohibition Bureau was briefly absorbed into the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), or Division of Investigation as the agency was then called. At this point it became the Alcohol Beverage Unit. Though part of the FBI on paper, J. Edgar Hoover, who wanted to avoid liquor enforcement and the taint of corruption that was attached to it, continued to operate it as a separate, autonomous agency in practice.
Following the repeal of Prohibition in December 1933, the Alcohol Beverage Unit was removed from the FBI and the Justice Department, and returned to Treasury, where, coming full circle, it became the Alcohol Tax Unit of the IRS, ultimately evolving into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, or ATF. The present-day ATF deals mostly against illegal firearms and illegal drugs.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush signed into law the Homeland Security Act of 2002. In addition to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the law shifted the ATF from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Justice. The agency's name was changed to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or BATFE; however, it continues to be referred to as the ATF.
The task of collecting federal tax revenue derived from the production of tobacco and alcohol products and the regulatory function related to protecting the public in issues related to the production of alcohol, previously handled by the ATF and the IRS, was transferred to the newly established Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which remained within the Treasury Department. These changes took effect January 24, 2003.
The Bureau of Prohibition is featured prominently in the HBO period crime series Boardwalk Empire, particularly through the character of Agent Nelson Van Alden. Eliot Ness’s book, The Untouchables, went on to become a best-seller and was adapted into a movie and television series. Izzy and Moe, a TV-movie starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, was loosely based on the real life Isador Einstein and Moe Smith.