On Exhibit: “Lady Hooch Hunter”

Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

A new exhibit on America’s connection to alcohol is now on display at the National Archives. “Spirited Republic: Alcohol and American History” is about the United States’ love-hate relationship with the “demon rum.”

Daisy Simpson's Prohibition Unit ID, September 6, 1921. (National Archives Identifier 6238194)
Daisy Simpson’s Prohibition Unit ID, September 6, 1921. (National Archives Identifier 6238194)

Bruce Bustard, the exhibit’s curator, says the exhibit demonstrates the “changing attitudes of the American people about alcohol, and also looks at that through the records of the National Archives and Presidential Libraries.”

One of the most interesting people featured in the exhibit is Daisy Simpson. Simpson was one of the Treasury Department’s most famous Prohibition officers (called “prohis”).

Known as the “Lady Hooch Hunter,” Simpson quickly attracted attention—and press—with her spectacular busts of Volstead Act violators.

Passed on October 28, 1919, the Volstead Act implemented the 18th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which established prohibition in the U.S.

The act empowered Federal, as well as state and local governments, to enforce Prohibition by limiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol.

The U.S. Government turned to the Treasury Department to play the part of the act’s enforcer, a role in which women were integral.

While women gained the equal right to vote 1920, gender-based assignment of tasks endured. Women worked in the Treasury’s Prohibition Unit, but their roles were limited to taking field notes or photographs for their male counterparts following a bust.

However, a few women managed to become field agents themselves—the most famous of these was Daisy Simpson.

Daisy Simpson Personnel Information Sheet,  September 6, 1921 (National Archives at St. Louis)
Daisy Simpson Personnel Information Sheet, September 6, 1921 (National Archives at St. Louis)

A delinquent in her youth, Simpson spent many of her younger days in dingy dives, taking illegal drugs and hanging around with low-level gangsters. Eventually, she cleaned herself up and joined the morals squad of the San Francisco Police Department during World War I.

Her experience with the unseemly elements of society made her incredibly proficient at her new job. With the onset of Prohibition, she quickly signed up to be a Bureau of Prohibition agent.

Simpson rapidly became a star in the sensationalist press of the 1920s. Her fame came from chasing down bootleggers and working undercover on the streets of San Francisco, but she also worked special assignments as far afield as Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee, and New York.

Not everyone, however, was so enamored with her style. Her raids and arrests nabbed low-level distributors more often than the crime bosses the justice system desperately wanted to prosecute. More than one judge complained about the number of trivial cases Simpson’s evidence brought to trial or dismissed a case because of entrapment. Although her tactics were not uncommon of Prohibition agents, that did not mean they were always legal.

Simpson’s successful captures of bootleggers and rumrunners, however, was not enough to help her escape the gender discrimination of her times. In 1925 a San Francisco Treasury Department official banned women from serving as field agents. Simpson, unwilling to face life behind a desk as a secretary or stenographer, resigned her post soon thereafter.

Daisy Simpson Oath of Office, December 11, 1922 . (National Archives at St. Louis)
Daisy Simpson Oath of Office, December 11, 1922 . (National Archives at St. Louis)

Unfortunately, Simpson’s post-prohi days were not so wonderful. She slipped back into the seedier side of life shortly after she resigned and was picked up in March 1926 on drug charges in El Paso, Texas.

Unable to make the $2,000 bail, Simpson shot herself in the abdomen with a gun she had smuggled into prison.

Making headlines across the nation once more for her suicide attempt, an anxious nation watched and waited as the “lady with a thousand faces” hovered between life and death.

The wound became infected, but Simpson survived. Eventually, Simpson pled guilty, received a suspended sentence, and retired to a quiet life away from the public spotlight.

Like Prohibition itself, Simpson faded into history not with the bang from headlines to which she was so often accustomed, but with a whimper.

The official personnel folder documenting Daisy Simpson’s remarkable Federal service is held in by the National Archives in Record Group 146. It is open to the public.

Visit the National Archives at St. Louis’s web page to learn more about requesting this and other official personnel folders of former civil servants.

Want to learn more about Simpson and her fellow prohis? Visit “Spirited Republic” on display from March 6, 2015, to January 10, 2016, in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

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