The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, on February 14, 1929, shocked the United States. People and newspapers had been talking about a “crime wave” all through the Twenties. True, gang wars and glamourized gangsters were popular topics, but as the decade wore out, the public started to worry. When Al Capone’s commando killed seven of Bugs Moran’s gangsters in a storehouse in Chicago and nobody could do anything about it, not even pin down a culprit, a line was crossed.
In May 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed George W. Wickersham – a prominent New York lawyer and a former US attorney general under President Taft – to head a eleven-member commission to evaluate the state of law and order in the nation. This was the first National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement.
The document they produced was the first federal review of the law enforcement and turned out to be an indictment to the police misconduct the commission had found throughout the country. Wide-spread use of “third grade” – the willful use of pain and violence to crime suspect – and other forms of police brutality were first denounced by this commission.
Although several committees were addressed, the most looked for at the time was the chapter regarding Prohibition.
The conflicted commission issued its findings, known as the Wickersham Report, in early 1931. The majority of the members opposed repeal of the prohibition amendment, but reported that enforcement was unworkable. Violations of the law were simply too tempting; profits from the sale of alcohol were high, especially in the nation’s large cities. Further, it was found that many citizens were openly contemptuous of the law and often took pride in flouting it. The commission also noted that additional problems were created by uneven enforcement by the various states and recommended that that role be assigned exclusively to the federal government.
Effort at enforcing the Volstead Act were clearly failing. Abuses of authority by those responsible of enforcement were common. The use of alcohol had risen since 1920 and Prohibition had corrupted the legal and political system in serious ways. The “crime wave” also largely depended on Prohibition.
These arguments the commission put forth were the same as the wets’ who, together with many other parties and associations had started asking for repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Still, the commission seemed to come to the same conclusions as the drys. Despite everything, it was recommended that the Eighteenth Amendment not be repealed and that all levels of government spent more money and effort on enforcing the Prohibition laws.
But this was not going to happen. As the commission it self has pointed out in a confusing way that would become infamous, Prohibition was simply unenforceable.