(This article appeared in the July 2010 issue of “Inside ATF,” the monthly magazine of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.)
Prohibition Agent Major Hart:
An All-Star Liquor Raider and Historic Hoop Dreamer
By Barbara Osteika, ATF Historian
with Claude Johnson, Black Fives Era Historian
I n November 1923, Prohibition Agent Major A. Hart was sworn in as a Federal Treasury Agent in Washington, D.C. He earned $2,000 a year enforcing Prohibition under the Volstead Act, risking his life to track down bootleggers and rumrunners. Already a veteran of two wars, he became a dogged investigator whose celebrated exploits were widely reported in the newspapers of the day. “He raided more wildcat breweries* and [distilleries] than any other man in the service,” according to Judge Roscoe C. Harper, former Chief of Prohibition under whom Hart had worked. On July 16, 1927, Agent Hart’s life as a lawman was cut short in a car accident in the line of duty while he was detailed to a special case in Rochester, New York.
Agent Hart’s renown in law enforcement, however, was not the first time that he had attracted attention. Few know of the historic role he played in a different arena—the basketball hardwood—in an earlier time, long before his ferocious fight against bootleggers.
Hart Makes History in the Black Fives Era
Major Hart was a pioneering entrepreneur of the Black Fives Era, a time that paved the way for African Americans in professional basketball, eventually leading to the National Basketball Association. By all accounts, he was a man ahead of his time. After serving as a rifleman in the Philippines during the Spanish–American War in 1898, he returned to New York and became the manager of the St. Christopher Club, a church-sponsored basketball team that played with strict adherence to amateur standards and moral virtues.
On October 13, 1910, the history of African–American basketball shifted forever when Hart unexpectedly quit the organization and took its best players with him to form the first
African–American basketball team to play for money—a new semi-professional squad called the New York All Stars. African–American basketball promoters had never dared to try this before.
In its early years, professional basketball was considered taboo across racial lines. Basketball’s original purpose was to balance mind, body and spirit, and it began strictly in a religious context within the Young Men’s Christian Association to keep young men away from alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling, sex and other tempting vices. Even the well-established white professional basketball leagues were condemned by basketball’s founding fathers.But Hart’s vision for African–Americans in basketball was bigger than what most dared to dream. The powerful African–American press quickly denounced Hart, and other rival amateur basketball clubs were outraged by his plan. “We want to play the game as our white friends play it,” Hart insisted. “This team was not formed for any spirit of revenge or to hurt any of the good clubs that are in the game, as has been rumored.”
The All Stars had all the best players and were ready to dominate African–American basketball in New York City. Led by the strongly anti-professional St. Christopher Club, New York City’s amateur teams boycotted the All Stars, which forced Hart to take his club on the road. Hart invited big-ticket out of-town teams to Manhattan—like Howard University and the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Five from Fort Ethan Allen in Vermont, the Army’s African– American basketball champions. All Star games were played at the Manhattan Casino in Harlem, an arena that would become the Mecca of African–American basketball in America. “Games are being negotiated with teams from Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other places, and the lovers of the game will be treated to some fine contests during the coming season,” wrote Hart.
African–American sportswriters began to warm to the idea, but ultimately Hart was unable to change negative public opinion. Eventually, the All Stars lost momentum and finally disbanded after the 1912–1913 season. In 1917, Major Hart did what all able-bodied young American men did—he went off to fight in the Great War.
A New Menace for Bootleggers
Because of segregation, Hart normally would have worked in special assignments, temporarily assigned to cities that were determined by the regional director to have a “colored problem,” where African–American agents would go undercover to investigate violators of the National Prohibition Act.
Agent Hart may have had a different experience. It appears that he worked within a general prohibition squad, per haps in part because of his experience with breaking barriers during his pro motion of African–American basketball stars—the Black Fives—and perhaps partly because of his World War I assignment as an orderly to the not-yet integrated 27th Division’s commanding general, which may have allowed him to integrate more freely. Hart is cited in many newspaper articles, which indicates that he worked in an integrated environment.
The Baltimore Years
As a new agent during the early years of Prohibition, Hart was assigned to the Baltimore District. There he made cases on everything from seizing trucks delivering “real” beer to downtown speakeasies to huge “still” (distillery) raids, where large quantities of sugar and barrels of mash were seized. On another occasion, Agent Hart chased a rum-running automobile for 15 miles to arrest Lee Johnson, the inventor of the smoke screen device. Before the chase ended, Johnson had deployed the smoke screen device on Agent Hart, who later found that “Johnson had equipped most of the cars used by bootleggers between Baltimore and Washington with the smoke device.” (From The Baltimore Sun: September 4, 1923; September 15, 1923; February 10, 1924; July 11, 1924)
Prohibition agents faced a daunting task throughout the country. But in western New York, because of its proximity to the U.S.–Canadian border, American crime families had strong ties to the Canadian mafia from southern Ontario, which supplied liquor for smuggling to the United States. Mafia families were a powerful presence in Buffalo’s underworld and a dominant force in the area’s bootlegging operations.
On June 7, 1926, Agent Hart and his squad captured a rumrunner boat on Lake Ontario, seizing the liquor on board. The boat was rigged with an incendiary device set to detonate if the boat was captured by rival gangs or seized by “dry” (Prohibition) agents. The boat flared up and became enveloped in flames. Two agents on board barely escaped unharmed. “Major Hart of the prohibition enforcement office at Buffalo examined the prisoners late this afternoon and started for Youngstown where additional arrests are expected.” (The New York Times, June 7, 1926)
Even while traveling between assignments, Agent Hart was a menace to bootleggers. On March 12, 1927, while on his way to Washington, D.C., Agent Hart stopped off in Baltimore to visit some friends. “Walking along Howard Street, he detected the odor of cooking mash and soon had the place from which it emanated spotted.” After conducting his business in Washington, D.C., he returned to Baltimore and raided the large still with the aid of another agent. (The Baltimore Sun, March 12, 1927)
On May 25, 1927, just two months before his death, he launched an investigation with the local U.S. Attorney to uncover the source of poisonous liquor flowing to Buffalo, an investigation that would have been wrought with potential political ramifications whether or not Agent Hart was aware of the Treasury Department’s public campaign of “enforcement by poisoning” (Olean Evening Times, May 26, 1927). It remains unclear who was responsible for the poisonous liquor flow into Buffalo.**
On June 17, 1927— just a month before his death—Agent Hart pulled off one of the biggest liquor raids of the year in Western New York. “Singlehanded and armed only with a baseball bat, Agent Hart seized two large stills, a complete whisky manufacturing plant and 22,500 gallons of alcohol. The lone dry agent invaded the plant after trailing a truck three miles. He broke down a barricaded door, and when he waived the bat menacingly, the quartet submitted without resistance.” (The New York Times, June 17, 1927)
The Car Crash
On the night of July 16, Hart was the passenger in a car with another man while they were returning to the Buffalo office to report the result of the investigation. According to the driver, Hart anticipated an impending collision with another vehicle, grabbed the steering wheel away from him and turned it sharply to avoid the collision. The sudden swerve overturned the automobile, and Agent Hart was killed instantly.
His death made headlines. “Major A. Hart, Dry Agent Here, Killed,” wrote The Buffalo Evening News. The New York Times, in an article titled, “Buffalo Dry Agent Killed in Collision,” stated, “[Agent] Hart was well known in Western New York because of numerous raids on large wildcat breweries. He had appeared prominently in Federal courts many times,
testifying in scores if not hundreds of prohibition cases.”
After Agent Hart’s death, hundreds of cases were thrown out of court because he was the only link to the evidence. Headlines read, “Death of Hart means collapse of many cases. Dry agent worked as lone wolf and much evidence will go to the grave with him.”
It seems that some people become stars through sheer determination and will, working hard and excelling in their chosen field of talent and expertise, regardless of what they do. Major Hart was this kind of man, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is proud to count him as one of its own. Today, we remember and honor Major A. Hart, Prohibition Agent, an inspiring historical figure, for his innovative foresight, his bold and brave law enforcement work and his willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice in service to the mission.
*During Prohibition, mini or microbreweries, called “wildcat” breweries by the press, sprang into action, built by newly unemployed brewers who still lived in the area. They produced “alley beer,” a lower quality beer. Wildcat microbreweries may not have been very sophisticated, but they were springing up all across the United States, many hidden in old warehouses. Although the product’s quality was not as high as prior to Prohibition, people were happy to purchase and drink it.
**Federal officials, frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, decided to try a different kind of enforcement. To scare people away from illicit drinking, they ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people (The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum).