Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith

Isidor Einstein (Izzy Einstein) and his fellow Prohibition agent, Moe Smith, were the best known Prohibition agents in the country. Einstein was born in Austria some time between 1882 and 1888, and moved to the U.S. around 1901. He married shortly thereafter and had at least seven children. The census of 1910 reports that he was a merchant in Pennsylvania and the census of 1920 indicates that he was a mail sorter in New York City.

Moe W. Smith was born about 1887 in New York City and the 1920 census reports that he was a U.S. marshall in the city. The census ten years later reported that he was married, was working as an insurance agent, and had a daughter, Estelle.

National Prohibition went into effect in January of 1920, and Einstein applied for a job as a Prohibition agent because it sounded like more fun than sorting mail. He had no training in law enforcement and clearly didn't conform to the stereotype of one at five feet and five inches in height and 225 pounds. He listed from side to side as he walked. Einstein enlisted his friend, Moe Smith, to become a Prohibition agent. Both were members of the Masonic order1 and that is where they may have met.

Izzy Einstein's success was based on his skill in disguising himself. His ability to speak German, Polish, Hungarian, Bohemian, Yiddish and some Italian and Russian helped him deceive his victims. The human chameleon disguised himself as a German pickle packer, a Polish count, a Hungarian violinist, a Jewish gravedigger, a French maitre d', an Italian fruit vendor, a Russian fisherman and a Chinese launderer. His disguises included a streetcar conductor, an ice deliverer, an opera singer, a truck driver, a judge, a traveling cigar salesman, a street cleaner, a Texas cattleman, a movie extra, a football player, a beauty contest judge, a grocer, a lawyer, a librarian, a rabbi, a college student, a musician, a plumber and a delegate from Kentucky to the Democratic National convention. "In Coney Island, he entered a drinking joint in a wet bathing suit, shivering and gasping for aid. Wearing an attendant's white jacket, he shut another saloon near a hospital."2 He even disguised himself as an African-American man in Harlem.

"Izzy once tossed his agent's badge on the bar of a Bowery saloon and — this fat, unkempt individual — asked for a pint of whisky for ‘a deserving prohibition agent.' The bartender sold it to him, thinking him a great wit."3

Izzy and Moe Smith made 4,932 arrests of bartenders, bootleggers and speakeasy owners with an amazing 95 percent conviction rate. On a particularly busy day, they raided 48 speakeasies. Izzy referred to his successful operations as the "Einstein Theory of Rum Snooping."4 Einstein never carried a gun, although Moe sometimes did, and was shot at only once; fortunately, the gun jammed and he escaped harm. With arrests he typically announced "There's sad news here. You're under arrest."5

Izzy became popular across the country and he was permitted to visit other cities. He posed as a Mexican laborer in El Paso, as an unemployed auto worker in Detroit and as a member of a construction crew in Providence.

Many establishments had signs warning bartenders not to serve Einstein, a task made difficult because of his disguises. However, a perceptive bartender in Detroit "refused to serve him because he insisted he was that ‘Izzy Epstein.' ‘You mean Einstein don't you?' Izzy said. When the bartender insisted it was Epstein, Izzy bet him a drink. When the bartender poured him a drink, Izzy cuffed him and said, 'There's sad news here.'"6

Izzy and Moe Photograph

Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith.

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After a busy day arresting Prohibition offenders, Izzy and Moe enjoyed sitting back and enjoying their favorite beverages, which were beer and cocktails. Such hypocrisy was common throughout National Prohibition, even at the highest levels. Alcohol was illegally served in the White House, bootleggers sold alcohol in the halls of Congress, and a member of the President's Cabinet operated an illegal still.

Newspapers loved human interest stories about Izzy and Moe, who were extraordinarily cooperative. "They frequently scheduled their raids to suit the convenience of the reporters and the newspaper photographers, and soon learned that there was more room in the papers on Monday mornings than on any other day of the week. One Sunday, accompanied by a swarm of eager reporters, they established a record by making seventy-one raids in a little more than twelve hours."7

The country enjoyed reading about the antics of the madcap duo. However, "During the summer of 1925 the almost continual stories about Izzy and Moe in the newspapers got on the nerves of high prohibition enforcement officials in Washington, few of whom ever got mentioned in the papers at all."8 They announced that any agent whose name was mentioned in relation to Prohibition enforcement would be punished. Izy was called to Washington and reprimanded. "You get your name in the papers all the time, and in the headlines, too, whereas mine is hardly ever mentioned. I need to ask you to remember that you are merely a subordinate, not the whole show."9 Izzy and Moe were later discharged "for the good of the service" on November 13, 1925. "The service must be dignified," a Prohibition enforcement official said in explaining the firing. He offered the opinion that "Izzy and Moe belong on the vaudeville stage."10

Izzy's version of the facts was that he was offered a transfer to Chicago, which he declined, preferring to remain in New York. He said that he fired himself, began working as a special representative for the New York Life Insurance Company, and got more money and sleep. "Yes, sir!" he said. "What was good enough for ex-President Coolidge is good enough for ex-Agent Izzy Einstein!"11

Moe W. Smith died in 1960. His obituary in Time magazine read: "Died. Moe Smith, 73, who, with Partner Izzy Einstein, formed the 1920s' funniest and most effective team of prohibition agents. Addicted to disguises—they posed variously as vegetable vendors, gravediggers and Democratic National Convention delegates—Izzy and Moe arrested 4,000 suspected bootleggers, confiscated an estimated 5,000,000 bottles of hooch; of a stroke; in Yonkers, N.Y."12

Isidor Einstein, who died in 1938, wrote an autobiography, Prohibition Agent No 1., which he dedicated to the 4,932 persons he arrested, "Hoping they bear me no grudge for having done my duty."13 The amazing story of Izzy and Moe was produced as a made-for-television film, Izzy and Moe, in 1985.

It's easy to romanticize National Prohibition, but it created enormous social problems including the growth of organized crime; the production of often toxic bootleg alcohol that caused blindness, and death; dramatic increases in crime and violence; widespread corruption of law enforcement (one of the famous "untouchables" was even corrupt) and public officials; the promotion of binge drinking because of its secretive nature; and increased disrespect for law.

Although National Prohibition was not only ineffective but counterproductive, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue to remain.

 

References:

  • 1. Jenis, Albert. Izzy and Moe. Reprinted from Empire State Mason. " Bro. Moe W. Smith was raised a Master Mason in Emanuel Lodge No. 654 on November 8, 1922. His friend, Bro. Isadore "Izzy" Einstein, was affiliated with Emanuel Lodge on December 13, 1922." Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon. http://www.freemasonry.bcy.ca/biography/izzy_moe/izzy_moe.html.
  • 2. Jenis, Albert. Izzy and Moe. Reprinted from Empire State Mason. Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon. http://www.freemasonry.bcy.ca/biography/izzy_moe/izzy_moe.html
  • 3. Jenis, Albert. Izzy and Moe. Reprinted from Empire State Mason. Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon. http://www.freemasonry.bcy.ca/biography/izzy_moe/izzy_moe.html
  • 4. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Izzy Einstein - Prohibition Agent No. 1. From the Archives, May, 2009.
  • 5. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Izzy Einstein - Prohibition Agent No. 1. From the Archives, May, 2009.
  • 6. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Izzy Einstein - Prohibition Agent No. 1. From the Archives, May, 2009.
  • 7. Asbury, Herbert. The Merry Antics of Izzy and Moe. In: Hyde, Stephen and Zanetti, Geno. Players: Con Men, Hustlers, Gamblers, and Scam Artists. NY: Avalon, 2002, p. 183.
  • 8. Asbury, Herbert. The Merry Antics of Izzy and Moe. In: Hyde, Stephen and Zanetti, Geno. Players: Con Men, Hustlers, Gamblers, and Scam Artists. NY: Avalon, 2002, p. 187.
  • 9. Asbury, Herbert. The Merry Antics of Izzy and Moe. In: Hyde, Stephen and Zanetti, Geno. Players: Con Men, Hustlers, Gamblers, and Scam Artists. NY: Avalon, 2002, p. 187.
  • 10. Rapczynski, Joan and Zywocinski, Florence. Prohibition as a Reform. New Haven, CT: Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 1998.
  • 11. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Izzy Einstein - Prohibition Agent No. 1. From the Archives, May, 2009.
  • 12. Milestones, Dec. 26, 1960. Time, December 26, 1960.
  • 13. Einstein, Isidor. Prohibition Agent No 1. NY: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1932.

Readings about Izzy and Moe:

  • Asbury, Herbert. The Merry Antics of Izzy and Moe. In: Hyde, Stephen and Zanetti, Geno. Players: Con Men, Hustlers, Gamblers, and Scam Artists. NY: Avalon, 2002.
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Izzy Einstein - Prohibition Agent No. 1. From the Archives, May, 2009.
  • Einstein, Isidor. Prohibition Agent No 1. NY: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1932. (Izzy Einstein autobiography.)
  • Jenis, Albert. Izzy and Moe. Reprinted from Empire State Mason. Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon. http://www.freemasonry.bcy.ca/biography/izzy_moe/izzy_moe.html
  • Milestones, Dec. 26, 1960. Time, December 26, 1960. (Reported death of Moe W. Smith)
  • Prohibition: Izzy and Moe. Time, November 23, 1925. (Reported the discharge of izzy and Moe)

Newspaper Stories about Izzy and Moe:

  • EINSTEIN, RUM SLEUTH; Exploits of Prohibition Agent in Disguises Ranging From Dress Clothes to Overalls Einstein's Disguises. Izzy's Plumbing System. EINSTEIN, RUM SLEUTH Was a Truck Driver. An Enormons (sic) Still. New York Times, March 26, 1922. (Reports enforcement tactics of Izzy and Moe.)
  • IN WHITE WING GARB IZZY AND MOE NAB 71; Carrying Street Cleaning Brushes, Dry Agents Set Record for Day's Catch. WOMAN KISSES EINSTEIN Enthusiastic Worshipper at Church Near Raided Saloon Shows Her Approval. New York Times, November 20, 1922. (Reports record number of arrests made by Izzy and Moe.)
  • IZZY AND MOE DON EVENING CLOTHES; Visit Delicatessen Shop and Later Seize $10,000 of Imported Liquor. OWNER HAD BEEN ENJOINED Was Raided Only a Few Months Ago -- Punishment for Contempt of Court Will Be Asked. New York Times, January 13, 1923.
  • IZZY AND MOE MAKE SUNDAY LIQUOR RAIDS; Discarding Disguises, Dry Agents Get Drinks Near Einstein's Home. RUM IN TALKING MACHINE New Hiding Place Yields Seven Quarts--Coast Guards Watch for Wet Cargoes. Liquor in Musical Company. Got Drinks "Everywhere." Watch for Rum Runners. Nine Face Court Today. New York Times, April 17, 1922.
  • IZZY AND MOE SEIZE 'SACRAMENTAL' WINE; Purchase 10 Cases After Giving Passwords and Using Marked Bank Notes. GREENWICH VILLAGE RAIDS Arrests Made After Liquor Was Bought in "Prohibition Agent Proof Room." New York Times, October 13, 1922.
  • 'MACHINERY AGENTS' SEIZE $50,000 RUM; Izzy and Moe, Posing as Kentucky Dealers, Raid Office in West Broadway. FIND DISTRIBUTING CENTRE Trucks Trailed to Broadway Cafes--Other Agents Capture Liquor Worth $30,000 in Dwelling. New York Times, November 17, 1922. (Describes disguises successfully used by Izzy and Moe.)
  • Prohibition: Izzy and Moe. Time, November 23, 1925 (Reported that the head of Prohibition enforcement "gave orders that if the name of Izzy Einstein or Moe Smith appeared once in print, they would be fired. For two months their exploits have been hidden from the public eye.")
  • RUM DIRECTOR OFF TO CANADIAN BORDER; Says He May Transfer Bulk of His Force to Check Renewed Inflow. FINDS STAFF INADEQUATE Agents Visit Cafe and Are Served Drinks From Printed Wine List, They Assert. New York Times, April 2, 1922. (Reports activities of Izzy and Moe in Albany, N.Y.)

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