The Bureau and the Great Experiment

With this connection, Means became a Bureau agent in 1921 and was soon using his position to extort significant sums of cash from bootleggers in return for promises of using his influence to get them out of jail. When J. Edgar Hoover took over in the Bureau in 1924, Means was shown the door. He came back to the Bureau’s attention in 1932, though, when he swindled a wealthy Florida woman. His false promise to her to find Charles Lindbergh’s son, who was kidnapped in March of that year, landed him in to jail.  

In 1927, Congress moved prohibition enforcement to the Department of Justice, creating a Bureau of Prohibition that stood apart from the Bureau of Investigation. Although better organized, this new law enforcement body struggled to keep up. Too many people wanted a drink, too many people were willing to supply that drink, and too much violence and corruption followed.

Prohibition agents like Eliot Ness sought to bring down the bootleggers but had limited success. Despite Ness’ famed hunt for Al Capone, it was the IRS that arrested the notorious bootleg king of Chicago. The Bureau played a minor, but important, role in the matter, too.

At the end of 1933, Congress passed the 21st Amendment to repeal prohibition. The Bureau of Prohibition, with its more than a thousand investigators, was no longer needed. The attorney general considered integrating them into the Bureau of Investigation, but Hoover convinced him that such a move would destroy the BOI and the work it had made to reform itself since the problematic days of the mid-1920s.

And Ness? Like his fellow prohibition agents, Ness was offered the chance to apply to Hoover’s Bureau. And, like his fellow-agents, he was told that he would have to start as a new agent and complete the extensive required training.

Ness, understandably, wanted to enter BOI in a leadership role, but when he was overheard trying to see if political supporters in Washington would back his plea, Hoover marked his application “unacceptable.”