Border Patrol's role in the era of 'Boardwalk Empire'

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When the United States Border Patrol was formally launched in 1924, a major part of its mission was to stop drug smuggling.

Sounds a lot like today, right? There's one big difference though: the drug in question was alcohol.

As HBO's Boardwalk Empire is set to wrap its run tonight, here's a primer for those who haven't followed the show's five season or prohibition-era history. Alcohol was banned in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933, but during that period, outlaw businessmen continued to import booze from outside the country.


The Border Patrol was created right around this time. While new immigration laws were part of the reason, so was prohibition.

The New York Times covered the launch of the law enforcement agency, running a headline about the "special constabulary" that had already engaged in "skirmishes with illegal importers of aliens, liquor and narcotics" along the borders with Canada and Mexico.

Here are some fun facts about the early days of the Border Patrol, when "the border" meant Canada, with input from prohibition expert (and creator of fantasy baseball) Daniel Okrent, the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

  1. In 1932, the majority of Border Patrol agents were stationed on the northern border with Canada. Only 10 percent of today's agents guard the dividing line with Canada.
  2. The starting pay for a Border Patrol agent was $1,680, equivalent to $23,368 in modern-day dollars. Agents do better these days: they can start at anywhere from $38,600 to $49,000. Okrent said the real money to be made during that time came from collaborating with smugglers and that these "were dream jobs that paid very, very little but were guaranteed tickets to vast wealth."
  3. When the Border Patrol was officially formed in 1924, the federal government allocated funds to hire 450 "patrol inspectors." The force is remarkably larger today: in 2013, the agency had 21,391 agents.
  4. Restrictive immigration quotas enacted in 1924 led more newcomers to head to Canada or Mexico and try to enter the country through there. Of 700 people caught crossing in the early days of the patrol, "many of them were above the common immigrant class," according to the Times. "One was an Italian count.”
  5. Agents wore “uniforms of soldierly design" and displayed "badges of Federal authority,” the Times reported. Until 1928, however, some officers were required to provide their own outfits, as well as their own horse and saddle. The government provided a badge and a revolver, and oats for hungry steeds.
  6. Border Patrol was supposed to work together with other federal agencies to stop smugglers from bringing alcohol across the border. Instead, they were "veritable syndicates of corruption," Okrent said. "So much money was to be made."
  7. Two dozen Border Patrol agents died in the line of duty from the inception of the agency until 1933, but most of those deaths occurred near the border with Mexico. At the Canadian border, some agents saw the bootleggers as a money-making opportunity, according to Okrent. In a scene that would play well on screen, he says cheating agents driving a liquor shipment "would kind of drag the equivalent of rake behind them to throw up dust so that they couldn't be seen by honest patrolman."
  8. The Canadian companies producing booze to be smuggled into the U.S. made a killing during prohibition. The Montreal-based distiller later known as Seagram, for instance, found global success after the ban ended. Pressure from the U.S. led Canada to tighten its export laws, but smugglers continued to find ways to get booze to the states.
  9. Liquor wasn't the only Canadian product crossing the border illegally — smuggled wool was also somewhat of an issue, apparently. In 1933, wool from Montreal could fetch twice as much in Boston, according the Times.

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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