Rhode Island’s First State Police

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine, July – 2013

By Jim Ignasher

In 1874, the Rhode Island Legislature created a special squad of state police constables to enforce newly enacted prohibition laws.

In 1874, the Rhode Island Legislature created a special squad of state police constables to enforce newly enacted prohibition laws.

This is not an article about the present-day Rhode Island State Police, an agency which was established in 1925, but rather it‘s about the state’s first statewide police force, a long defunct organization which existed nearly fifty years earlier that few have ever heard of.   

The Rhode Island State Police Constabulary, as it was called, was established by an act of the Rhode Island General Assembly on June 25, 1874.  The organization was not a state police agency as we know it today, for their authority was limited to the enforcement of Rhode Island’s liquor prohibition laws.    

 The formation of a state police force was in response to political pressure brought by certain religious and civic organizations who believed that alcohol consumption led to a host of social problems and immoral behavior, and should therefore be banned.  They highlighted cases where men squandered their paychecks on booze while their families went hungry, and declared that money wasted in saloons hurt the economy via unsold merchandise in local stores.  

One may be surprised to learn that these well meaning groups began their crusade in the early 1800s, nearly one-hundred years before the infamous “Prohibition Era” of the 1920s. 

Of course, not everyone considered the consumption of alcohol to be a problem, particularly those who made their living from producing, transporting, or serving it, or by those who enjoyed consuming it, which seemed to be the majority of the voting block.  Even religious leaders disagreed on the issue with some preaching total abstinence, while others urged moderation.  It was for reasons such as these that little action was taken by state politicians for the first half of the 19th century.  Then in 1852, those involved with the temperance movement succeeded in getting the “Maine Law” passed, which essentially banned the sale and consumption of “spirits” in Rhode Island.  Enforcement of the law was left to county sheriffs and local police, and was often selective at best, until the law was finally repealed in 1863. 

Undaunted, temperance advocates succeeded in getting another prohibition law passed in 1874, only this time enforcement would be carried out by a group of special state constables.  “Dry” advocates felt that a statewide police force was necessary to ensure success of the new law since in many municipalities local authorities seemed reluctant to take action. 

 The newly formed state police force consisted of a Chief Constable and seven deputies.  Appointments to the agency were political, as they were to virtually all law enforcement agencies of the time, for civil service laws were not in existence yet. The appointees came from all corners of the state; Warwick, Pawtucket, Newport, Providence, Bristol, and Westerly.  At least one constable was a church minister, and all presumably did not drink alcohol. 

The new state police organization wasted little time in getting started.  On August 16, 1874, they raided a saloon in West Greenwich and seized a considerable quantity of alcohol.  This action was quickly followed by more raids in Warwick and Providence.  In Providence however, the state police learned that local officials were unwilling to assist them in any way, and refused to recognize the authority of the new state agency. Furthermore, liquor peddlers in that city had discovered what they believed to be a legal loophole to circumvent the prohibition law by enlisting the help of Rhode Island’s United States Marshal.  

The validity of this “loophole” was tested when the state police raided a Providence saloon and seized a large quantity of alcohol.  The saloon owner cried foul, claiming that the Rhode Island Marshal had already “seized” the alcohol on his premises.   However, the seizure was in name only, for the saloon owner had been allowed to maintain possession of his alleged illegal property courtesy of the U.S. Marshal!  The owner thereby continued to sell the “seized” liquor in violation of state law.  Acting on this information, the state police took possession of the illicit stock, which was within their legal purview to do, but when they asked for assistance from Providence’s Chief of Police, the chief refused, and sided with the Marshal.  

A month later the case was heard before the Rhode Island General Assembly which directed, “That his Excellency the Governor be requested to cause to be prepared and transmitted to the President of the United states a statement of facts relating to interference of the United States marshal for the District of Rhode Island with the State Constables in the discharge of their duty.” 

In other words, the Governor was asked to contact the White House and let the President settle the dispute.  Unfortunately the final outcome is not recorded, but one can certainly surmise the politics surrounding this case.

 When the prohibition law of 1874 was repealed the state police were disbanded.  However, another state prohibition law was enacted in 1886, and with it the legislature reconstituted the Rhode Island State Police, this time with a force of one Chief, and ten officers. 

Under the new law, the state police had the authority to enter an establishment or private home to search for alcoholic beverages without a warrant, and could hold any homeowner or business owner for up to twelve hours while they investigated the allegations against them!  Many breathed a sigh of relief when this law was also repealed, and the state police were once again disbanded.

In 1919, the Federal Government instituted the unpopular Volstead Act by passing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which ushered in the “Prohibition Era” for the entire country.  Ironically, Rhode Island was one of two states that refused to ratify the amendment; the other being Connecticut. 

In September of 1922, two of the most infamous Prohibition Agents to ever work for the Federal Government, Izzy Einstein, and Moe Smith, came to Rhode Island to assist local agents in shutting down the numerous establishments that openly served alcohol apparently without fear of local authorities.  Izzy and Moe were known for using various disguises to gain entrance to “speak easys”, yet evidently in “Little Rhody” such ploys were unnecessary.   

After conducting several raids in Providence, the duo reported that patrons and bartenders alike simply laughed at them, and in one case a pitcher of beer was thrown in Izzy’s face! 

Yet the worst insult occurred on September 9th when they were both arrested by sheriff’s deputies and charged with assault and trespassing due to a complaint filed by a bar owner whose establishment they had raided!  When news of the arrests reached Washington, a team of lawyers descended on Providence to defend the agents. Agent Einstein later described Providence as a “wide open town” that was worse than New York in its disregard of the Prohibition laws.  

The colorful exploits of Izzy and Moe were depicted in a Hollywood movie starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in 1985.

The Rhode Island State Police organization that we know today was established in 1925, and although apprehending “bootleggers” and enforcing prohibition laws of the 1920s may have been part of their duties, it was not their sole mission. 

The “Prohibition Era” ended in 1933 with repeal of the Volstead Act.   Even today, there are some who would like to see a “dry” America, but the chances of such an occurrence are slim.  History has proven that prohibition of a product doesn’t work, for as long as there is a demand there will always be those willing to supply the want.

 

The Great Georgiaville Liquor Raid of 1898

By Jim Ignasher 

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – March, 2010.

Officially, with a wink and a nod, there were no unlicensed liquor establishments in Smithfield.

Officially, with a wink and a nod, there were no unlicensed liquor establishments in Smithfield.

As the sun settled low on the horizon casting long shadows that marked the end of the day, five men stood on the platform of the Enfield station waiting for the evening train. (Enfield later became known as Esmond.)  To the untrained eye, they might have looked suspicious grouped together in their long overcoats, but they were in fact a contingent of Smithfield police officers under the command of Town Sergeant Jenckes Smith.  Their mission that evening was to conduct surprise raids on unlicensed liquor establishments in Georgiaville, but to accomplish this Smithfield’s tiny police force would need extra men and that was the purpose of meeting the train. 

The train arrived shortly before 5 p.m. and two officers from Johnston and one from East Providence disembarked.  After a brief discussion, the eight men set off for Georgiaville.  The date was December 19, 1898. 

In today’s day and age, one may wonder why such a show of force was necessary to raid unlicensed liquor establishments, but to understand history, one has to take into account the values and attitudes of the times, and not be prejudiced by Twenty-first Century hindsight.  The officers were only doing their jobs by enforcing the law, but what set the night’s events into motion was a local political battle that had begun months earlier.

The 1920s were not the only days of prohibition of alcohol in America.  In Rhode Island, prohibitionists were active nearly one hundred years earlier, and over time they gained enough political clout to get laws banning the sale and use of alcohol passed in 1852, and in1874, but both laws didn’t remain in effect for very long.

Yet another Rhode Island prohibition law was enacted in 1886 that was repealed in 1889.  At the time it was repealed, the matter of prohibition was left up to every city or town to determine for itself by popular vote whether to remain “dry” or go “wet”.  Smithfield elected to remain a “dry” town by a vote of 155 to 121.  

Human nature hasn’t changed since the beginning of time, and as with any banned substance, those who want it will seek out those willing to fill the demand.  So it was that many liquor establishments operated throughout Rhode Island in spite of state laws or local ordinances.

Smithfield was still a small town in 1898; the kind of place where everyone knew everybody else. Officially, with a wink and a nod, there were no liquor serving establishments within the Town of Smithfield, despite the fact that several were known to exist.  This situation more or less remained a non-issue until the matter of granting liquor licenses came up before the town elections held in the spring of 1898.  Who raised the issue is not clear.  Perhaps it was brought forth by those selling alcohol who wanted to legitimize their businesses. Whatever the case, the matter of issuing liquor licenses was defeated by a narrow margin of only ten votes; 112 in favor; 122 against.  The town would remain “dry”.

 After the election it seemed that business would return to normal, but then a group of concerned citizens approached the newly elected Town Council with a petition demanding that some action against the liquor establishments be taken.  There was after all, a law. The initial response of the Council was that there was no money to fund such enforcement measures.  However, the issue had ignited a political fire that demanded attention, and forces were rallied.  At a town financial meeting held June 14, 1898, it was voted that $500 dollars be appropriated to enforce the law.  Sentiment ran so deep that it was added that if the $500 should not be enough, more money would be allocated.  The voters had spoken, and the politicians had listened. This should have been a warning to anyone in the liquor business that trouble, at least for them, was coming.

The first stop for Town Sergeant Smith and his men were two reputed establishments near the railroad crossing on Farnum Pike.  One proprietor, apparently having received advanced warning, was caught in the act of trying to empty his supply.  After claiming it was all the liquor he had, more was found on hidden under a trap door in the floor.  The owner of the other business was not there, but at his “regular” job at the Bernon Mill. An officer was sent to arrest him, but he fled before the constable’s arrival.

Word of what was afoot spread quickly throughout the village and there were some, no doubt, who disposed of their private stock down their kitchen sinks.  However, the officers were after bigger fish, and concentrated only on businesses that had been previously observed openly selling alcohol by undercover “spotters”.

The next stop on the list was a well known bar room.  The bartender had made every effort to empty all bottles and jugs before the officers arrived, but he forgot about a quantity of liquor hidden at the bottom of a coal bin and was arrested.

The largest quantity of booze was found at what had once been called the Georgiaville Hotel, today a private residence.  Apparently the proprietor was one of a handful in the village that hadn’t received word of what was happening for he had made no attempt to empty his merchandise. Caught red-handed, he cooperated with police, and turned over two-and-half barrels of beer, six gallons of whiskey, and nine more of cherry rum.  

The last place to be raided was a barber shop where It was rumored that the barber would cut hair in the front while running a bar room in the back.  No liquor was found on the premises, but the owner was taken into custody anyway because one of the undercover “spotters” had seen him serving alcohol on an earlier occasion.

When it was over, four men were in custody and the hunt was on for another.   The amount of contraband seized filled two buckboard wagons. Of the four men arrested that night, one pled guilty, was fined $20, and given ten days in jail. The others duly pled “not guilty” and were released pending the outcome of their trials.   

The raid was reported in a local newspaper, and one might gather from the article that unlicensed drinking establishments only existed in Georgiaville.  However, it was also reported that a Greenville man had been arrested and was awaiting arraignment on “similar charges”, but his name and the location of his arrest were not recorded.   In any case, one can be sure that alcohol consumption wasn’t only confined to the Village of Georgiaville, and the raid of 1898 sent a loud and clear message that liquor establishments in Smithfield would not be tolerated – at least for awhile.  

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