Harold D. Wilson, Source: Sunday Star, Wilmington, DE
As the “drys” celebrated their great victory, the passage of the National Prohibition Act, the difficult work of enforcing the law was just beginning. The 18th amendment banned the production, manufacturing and transportation of alcoholic beverages, but thirsty types wouldn’t go without drinks for too long. So virtually overnight a complex, underground market involving moonshiners, bootleggers, rumrunners, and organized crime, developed. The lawmen charged with trying to keep the spigot closed, the Federal Prohibition Agents struggled to corral the illegal trade, but it was an almost impossible task.
This drastic action, a total booze ban, was too much for many law-abiding Delawareans. That, coupled with the temptation for quick profits, caused stills, speakeasies, and criminal types to go into high gear, hatching plans to produce and distribute whiskey, moonshine, rum and bathtub gin. In the woodlands across Kent and Sussex, “often working by moonlight,” many stills were seen, the Delaware State News reported.
The teetotalers in the First State demanded stronger enforcement and they didn’t want a mild-mannered agent. To accommodate the outcry the federal government ordered one of their best, most aggressive supervisors transferred to Wilmington. This man, Harold D. Wilson, was just the person the drys were looking for and he arrived in Delaware in 1930. The State News hoped, the new lawman would “be able to take the word bootlegger out of Delaware’s dictionary.”
“Three Gun” Wilson was a hard-boiled, hard-hitting, Bible quoting relentless, dedicated prohibition agent, according to Bill Frank of the Wilmington News Journal. When he got off the train in Wilmington, he was greeted by a large group of citizens who escorted him to the Customs House. There he announced that he had come to “save Delaware from the skullduggery of corrupt officials, from the evils of speakeasies, and the eternal damnation of booze.” In a few days he had completed an inspection of the city, where he saw a number of places with swinging doors, which he intended to stop from swinging in the near future. A federal official confirmed the government’s intention to halt the flow of illegal booze here, saying “We propose to have absolute enforcement of the prohibition law in Delaware, under Mr. Wilson’s direction.”
His efforts rocked the First State as he swooped down on rum-joints, raided speakeasies, smashed stills, and chased rumrunners. “Three Gun’s” actions were spectacular and much headlined, and the onslaught caught many citizens in the dragnet and seized thousands of dollars worth of liquor. Once he took charge of a speakeasy and served liquor to customers until he had all the evidence he needed. The actions of the Feds started threatening profits of bootlegging, soon enough. Naturally he annoyed many during these raids, but this was all to the delight of the States militant church people and temperance activists.
Three Gun Wilson death threat letter. Source: Sunday Star, Wilmington.
But when he began upsetting powerful politicians and business leaders, the lawman started getting into serious trouble. He once got a letter warning him that he was going to be killed. “You stay away from Lincoln Street or you will need more than three guns. I think the best thing for you to do is to leave town and stay away if you value your life,” the Wilmington Sunday Star reported.
After the “clean-up man” raided the powerful Democratic League in Wilmington without a warrant, he refused to tell a judge the name of the person who tipped him off and furnished him with the key he used in the sensational visit. The judge found him in contempt of court and threatened to jail the officer. Sometime later, Wilson was transferred to Nebraska, the case was closed, and the contempt fine of $250 was paid. By-the-way, he had been moved from Pittsburg to Wilmington soon after raiding a political picnic in western Pennsylvania.
“Three Gun” Wilson only lasted in Delaware for 15 months His next assignment was Nebraska, and he left town in 1932 on the B & O. A large crowd was at the du Pont street station to see him off, and he was succeeded here by a very mild-mannered federal prohibition administrator, Willie Rowan.
Three Gun Wilson heading to save Delaware from the evils of alcohol. Source: Pittsburg Post.