In case you were wishing for a time machine so you could learn what happened in Pittsburgh on 23 October 1920, well, here you go:
Prohibition officers assembled in three squads of three men each on the North Side, approaching their targets from different spots to heighten the element of surprise. If surprise there was, it was short-lived. Several thousand people - some accounts said up to 5000 - "swarmed the street" to watch the agents raid multiple establishments in the immediate vicinity of Reedsdale Street.
After all, as the character of Eliot Ness was told in the 1987 movie The Untouchables: "Mr. Ness, everybody knows where the booze is."
Successful raids at four North Side establishments yielded roughly 220 gallons of whiskey and wine plus 10 gallons of assorted liquors. But the officers left other raid locations empty-handed.
For their troubles, one group headed by Special Agent Samuel Melvin Palmer of the Pittsburgh district had a ferocious encounter with an unnamed woman at the Star Hotel on Reedsdale. In defiance of Palmer's search warrant, the lady swung a chair over her head and "threatened the government officers until dissuaded by other members of the household and the agents."
Perhaps she was lubricated with the elixir of righteous indignation, for no liquor was found on the premises of said Star Hotel.
Overall it really wasn't a good day for 48 year old Officer Palmer.
As he carried his first armful of liquor from a Reedsdale saloon owned by Joseph Foyzey and William Lutz, "a group of foreigners, perhaps unacquainted with "Volstead procedure," formed a human barricade on the steps, refusing to allow the officer to descend to the ground floor." Palmer's fellow agents had to explain how things worked to the "foreigners" in order for him to pass unmolested with his haul.
As if that wasn't exciting enough, thievery was afoot amidst "mingled cheers and catcalls as several agents began carrying whisky and wine from the establishment to load it on an automobile truck." In the chaos a North Side youth "....aged about 17, suddenly snatched a quart of whisky from the overflowing truck and made off through the crowd with a yell."
Gadzooks! What's a Yinzer dry agent to do when some young punk lams off with the juice?
Faced with this dilemma, Agent Palmer had to think quickly. From his position standing guard on the other side of the vehicle, the Federal Prohibition Officer briefly considered the likely ramifications of leaving his truck unguarded "to the mercy of the crowd" while he chased down the thief.
He thought about it good and hard.
And then he stayed put.
A few officers did take off after the lad but quickly realized the futility of a chase through the crowd. A description was sent round to local authorities, but presumably the North Side teen remained free to enjoy his quart of pilfered liquid joy.
The rest of the hooch was hauled to prohibition headquarters at the Bowman Building at 304 Ross Street, Downtown, where it was stored in a vault. It remained in government storage under seal along with lots and lots of other seized liquor, and an impressive collection of stills ranging in size from a 2 gallon milk can to a 50-gallon specialty made contraption.
The resistance of North Siders that day wasn't unusual. Truth is, many Pittsburghers of the era were either indifferent to or resented constitutional prohibition. There were certainly women who welcomed enforcement in hopes that it'd prevent their husbands from drinking away the family wages. But the "foreigners" on Reedsdale Avenue were part of an urban immigrant population for whom alcohol was a traditional social and cultural lubricant. Nearly 2/3 of the city's industrial labor force had been born in another county, and for those North Side residents the English language and evolving American laws and traditions were indeed foreign. For them, and indeed for most residents, Pittsburgh would never be dry. For the duration of constitutional prohibition from 1920 to 1933 Pittsburgh remained “wet enough for rubber boots,” as described by an unnamed prominent citizen in a 1923 edition of the Literary Digest.
As for the intrepid federal agents, their frustration on the streets that day was probably palpable. Faced with the lack of coordination between federal, state, and local authorities to enforce the "noble experiment" ushered in by the Volstead Act that year, some officers would eventually quit out of frustration. Others were fired for abusing their positions in creative ways.
Samuel Melvin Palmer came to a different end. He joined the federal Bureau of Prohibition after a 20 year career as a veterinary dentist in Wilkinsburg. He seems to have stuck with the job for only two years, although during that time he was frequently mentioned in local newspapers for his assistance on raids.
Palmer died in 1926 after consuming an unnamed poison. This was described in some papers as a suicide attempt due to despondency from being in "ill-health for some time." But other reports asserted that Palmer died of an accidental ingestion of the "effects of poison he had taken the day before from a bottle he had mistaken as medicine." According to that account Palmer, "....without his glasses, searched in the bathroom and got the poison. No sooner had he swallowed it had he realized his mistake...."
The official death certificate recorded Palmer's death as a result of "unknown poison taken in mistake for gargle."
--"Foyzey & Lutz" would make a great name for a saloon.
-- Pittsburgh's Prohibition headquarters from 1920-1925 was in the building that now houses Mitchell's restaurant on Ross Street. They really should have capitalized on that history to sell more drinks.
-- Please, just put me in charge of historical research for Pittsburgh's bars and pay me in Cabernet.
A version of this story appeared on my Facebook page on 24 October 2020.
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