BUSTED! Top Idaho Officials Caught Distilling Whiskey During the Prohibition Era

Idaho may not have had an Al Capone, but these prominent citizens caused a stir when they were caught moonshining.

Like the other states, Idaho played its part in shaping our nation’s values during the turbulent times of the Prohibition Era. Being more culturally conservative than many other states, it saw groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League sweep through and settle in and become citizens of Idaho. These groups mostly favored Boise and Lewiston. They were partially responsible for lighting the fires of moral panic which eventually grew to such a conflagration that an additional amendment to the constitution and a new federal force were created to address it.

One of the longest-lasting Idaho laws still on the books today was introduced by these special interest groups. It’s called the Sabbath Law and is what remains of anti-liquor statutes since the dust of the prohibition battle has settled. It is this law that keeps liquor stores closed on Sundays and certain holidays. 

In 1915, Moses Alexander, the first practicing Jewish state governor in the United States, won an election running on a platform that took temperance all the way to prohibition. Two years later, intoxicating beverages were forbidden in Idaho.

Seven years after that, boom, busted! Boise Chief of Police Henry R. Griffith, Ada County Sheriff James D. Agnew Jr., Dr. Henry Goodfriend (a physician who was an influential and noteworthy citizen of Boise at the time), Boise city police detective Ed Hill, and a handful of less prominent community members, were all arrested and tried for manufacturing and selling a “certain intoxicating liquor commonly known as ‘moonshine whisky.’” The trial lasted six months and only Police Chief Griffith got away without a conviction.

You can see Chief Griffith and Detective Ed Hill in this photo of the 1922 Boise Police Department courtesy of Boise State University.

Records from almost a hundred years ago (or more) being what they are, it is difficult to know if this level of government corruption was, until then, unprecedented in Idaho. Not only is this case remarkable for involving government officials, but it is one of the first cases in Idaho to consider and debate the ethics of being surveilled or recorded without permission, and having that record used against an opponent in court.

Finally, in 1933, Amendment 21 was passed to repeal Amendment 18, and Americans everywhere cracked open a cold one in celebration. 

Every state handled the cleanup from the wreckage of prohibition differently. In Idaho, further laws were made in 1935 in which the government saw fit to retain control over liquor sales and distribution. Beer and wine, however, are managed almost entirely through the private market.

What complicates matters is that each county in Idaho can add or change its own statutes to already existing state law for a better cultural fit for the communities in those areas. For example, liquor served by the drink is entirely illegal in Rexburg, Idaho.

While there is a consistent, overarching system of state laws regarding alcohol sale and consumption in Idaho, there are little pockets of very particular rules. These are the legacy of the roaring 20s prohibition laws. Idaho was left with somewhat of a patchwork of city and county laws, and has been stained with a streak of corruption in its governmental history. Embarrassing, sure, but not unusual for the circumstances of the day. Most cities had a corruption problem during those strange times.

Now, in the 21st century, America has been fighting another prohibition battle with passion and devotion felt on both sides. Cannabis has been illegal in the U.S. for more than a hundred years. But that has been changing rapidly, with each state passing its own legalization laws starting with Colorado and Washington in 2012. Rather than falling in line with the rest of the union, Idaho finds itself an island of prohibition surrounded by states that have voted to decriminalize and legalize marijuana and other THC products. To be fair, the federal government also has yet to get on board with repealing this ban. It hasn’t put forth the sweeping action that Amendment 21 provided, but there are still some rumors out there that things might change.

The prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s and the contemporary ban on cannabis are not the same, but they certainly have their parallels. It was probably not easy for Chief Griffith and the others to deal with falling from such heights during such a complex portion of U.S. and Idaho history. Imagine the people in those same roles today being caught with a giant cannabis growing operation out in the foothills somewhere. 

Our laws and culture are a little different now than it was 97 years ago. Prohibition of the 21st century already looks very different from 20th-century prohibition. But the story isn’t over yet. It remains to be seen how long Idaho can remain alone in a somewhat different legality war.

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Adam Brimhall

Adam Brimhall

An expert at going out.