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Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives


18th Amendment Splits the Country

On January 19, 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages. However, there were no provisional funds for anything beyond token enforcement. Because Prohibition banned the commercial production of liquor, the regulatory and tax collecting functions largely disappeared. The jurisdiction was no longer revenue protection.

Andrew Volstead

Eliot Ness (left) & Andrew Volstead (right)

Prohibition Agents (a.k.a Dry Agents) Emerge

Andrew Volstead, a leading Republican member of the House of Representatives, authored the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act. The Act was passed over President Woodrow Wilson's objections. It affirmed and further specified the provisions of the 18th Amendment, delineated fines and prison terms for violation of the law, empowered the Bureau of Internal Revenue to administer Prohibition, and classified all beverages containing more than ½ of 1 percent alcohol by volume as alcoholic. Plans for the enforcement of the Act were drawn up and responsibility for policing the 18th Amendment was delegated to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. On January 16, 1920, the country went dry.

Prohibition had little effect on America’s thirst. Underground distilleries and saloons supplied bootlegged liquor to an abundant clientele, while gangsters fought to control illegal alcohol markets. The mayhem prompted the U.S. Department of the Treasury to strengthen its law enforcement capabilities. On August 26, 1926, Agent Eliot Ness was sworn in as a temporary Prohibition Agent with the Prohibition Unit in Chicago.

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Prohibition Unit Bureau of Internal Revenue U.S. Department of Treasury 1920-1926