852 RARE: Harvard, Al Brown, and the Wickersham Commission

852 RARE: Harvard, Al Brown, and the Wickersham Commission

In May 1929, President Herbert Hoover formed the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, more commonly known as the United States Wickersham Commission (after the chairman, George W. Wickersham) and charged its members with studying the problem of the enforcement of laws – with special attention to be given to the problems and abuses stemming from the Prohibition laws. (Prohibition was enacted under the Volstead Act and lasted from 1920 – 1933.)

Detail of Prohibition Map by Stanley Shirk United States Wickersham Commission Records, box 1-3

Detail of Prohibition Map
by Stanley Shirk
United States Wickersham Commission Records, box 1-3

The United States Wickersham Commission Records, 1928-1931, part of Historical & Special Collections at the Harvard Law Library, contains correspondence, reports, and collected research materials. Examples of research material include government circulars with titles like, “How to Take Fingerprints” and the “Effect of Prohibition Law on Workers and Families.”

Of course, when most people think of Prohibition, they think of gangsters and the most famous gangster of the day was Al Capone. He is mentioned (by his alias, Al Brown) in a March 1927 confidential letter written by two Special Agents to the Treasury Department in which they outline possible corruption among Prohibition agents. They noted, “…keeping the place under surveillance… and also the license number of the automobiles used by gangsters associated with Al Brown…”. In May 1932, Al Capone was sent to a federal prison in Georgia to serve 11 years for tax evasion.

Detail from August 12, 1927 report United States Wickersham Commission Records box 1-3

Detail from August 12, 1927 report
United States Wickersham Commission Records
box 1-3

The investigative work of the Commission was both broad and comprehensive. An example of this is a report sent to Wickersham that showed the extent to which Prohibition was affecting drinking among college undergraduates. Harvard was included in this report, which noted that Prohibition had little effect on the drinking habits of undergraduates.

The Law Library also holds the Papers of Miriam Van Waters who was asked by the Commission to make a study of juvenile delinquency. Other collections containing research on this topic include the Papers of Sheldon Glueck and Papers of Eleanor T. and Sheldon Glueck.

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