By Guest Blogger Noah Neiber
Noah is a home school student who is active in the museum’s junior volunteer program and works in the Collections department once a week.
Prohibition. It was a time when crime rose to become powerful, and anarchy ran rampant across America. The law meant little or nothing to people, and law enforcement seemed powerless if not incapable. All of this was due to a division in the United States over alcohol and the question of whether or not it was immoral to partake of it. The feud between the wets – those who wanted alcohol to remain legal – and the drys – those against the selling of alcohol – continued until January 6, 1919, when the United States government ratified the 18th Amendment to the constitution that forbid the selling or consumption of alcoholic drinks. That was the beginning of what is now known as prohibition.
The struggle was keeping people from drinking alcohol as well as keeping them from brewing it at home. This was an evident problem throughout all of prohibition, because not only were small town people involved, but the mob as well. The mob retrieved liquor from Canada. They also brewed their own and made a fortune off of it. A well-known success story is that of mobster Al Capone, who made millions off of the illegal sale of alcohol. He operated from Chicago and would occasionally even do business with people in Rockford. This is where our story comes in.
Rockford was a major center for selling alcoholic drinks and other criminal enterprises for many reasons. One of the biggest reasons was our proximity to Chicago which was, in all respects, a mob run town. There were also corrupt Illinois officers who liked to drink. The St. Louis Star newspaper stated: “It is said that least two bootleggers carry deputy sheriff stars.” As prohibition took hold, many police forces struggled to keep up with the enforcement of it. It took a while for those in charge to realize that they needed a new tactic. So law enforcement started using a new strategy to bring down alcohol sellers: the use of undercover agents.
These undercover agents were generally people from out of town who could keep a low profile as they mingled with the owners of bars. The eventual goal was to provide evidence that these establishments were selling and/or producing alcoholic beverages. Rockford has records of having such brave men in their employment. One example was Agent 126, whose real name is believed to be George F. Moore. His job was to get in close to owners of pool halls, bars, and small establishments that housed stills. When trust was built, these bootleggers brought him deeper into the organization of people selling booze. Once enough evidence was compiled, he would turn them over to the cops.
Despite the efforts of people like Agent 126, criminals continued to sell liquor unabated. Because of this, and the growing demands of people who wanted to legally drink again, the government repealed the 18th Amendment in 1933, and the sale of liquor became legal again throughout all states. Now law enforcement could finally take a rest and not be concerned about people selling illegal alcohol. Rockford was no longer a place of prohibition related crimes and we could breathe a sigh of relief before World War II began. It was no longer a mad scramble between individual still owners to produce the most alcohol and rule the underworld. It was just peace for people like Agent 126 who had fought, and some died, to keep crime from expanding and taking over.
Note: Midway Village Museum has in it archives a collection of reports from agents like George Moore, detailing their undercover operations during prohibition.