John R. Smith (1860–1927) was Colorado’s chief state prohibition officer during the years 1923–25. He successfully rooted out black-market alcohol crime but received harsh public criticism for his often-unconstitutional methods. He brought his friends on “booze” raids and did not shy away from using Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members to brutally enforce dry laws. Newspapers called his vigilante groups “purity squads.” These groups diminished public trust in law enforcement. While his time as state prohibition officer was short, Smith left a lasting mark on the state’s history, contributing to the public’s distrust of Progressive politics and morality-based law practices.
Early Prohibition Enforcement
Little is known about John R. Smith’s early life. He first appears in the historical record as a government internal revenue officer for Colorado, often dealing with cattle ranchers and agriculture. By 1919, three years after statewide alcohol prohibition passed, he was accompanying local police officers in alcohol raids on boardinghouses around Denver. By 1921 local newspapers began referring to Smith as a federal dry agent as his reach spread to Colorado Springs.
During the state election year of 1922, Smith visited Western Slope towns such as Durango and Montrose on behalf of Denver banker and Democratic gubernatorial candidate William E. Sweet. Newspapers referred to Smith as Sweet’s “personal representative.” Both Sweet and Smith were Democrats in favor of making Colorado a “bone-dry” state, and Sweet employed Smith after admiring his work in prohibition-related arrests. Sweet also admired Smith’s visible campaigns against alcohol, such as publicly smashing seized liquor on the steps of the State Capitol with temperance groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League.
Chief State Prohibition Officer
When Sweet was elected governor of Colorado in November 1922, he immediately named Smith the state’s chief prohibition officer. Smith had no formal training, but the office had a history of being used for political favors. Governor Sweet appointed William Byron and James Melrose as Smith’s deputies. Smith brought his son Jack on raids, though he was not an officer. Melrose occasionally brought his son too, and the gang formed a semilegal vigilante group of law enforcers who called themselves the “Melrose-Smith Detective Agency,” as well as the “Melrose-Smith Investigating Bureau.” They operated out of an office at 828 Seventeenth Street (Boston Building) in Denver.
Smith also had an office at the State Capitol, alongside other members of the state prohibition forces. Newspapers referred to Smith and his gang as a “purity squad.” When federal prohibition officers became skeptical of his authority, Smith defended his appointment and referred them to Sweet. The purity squad was most often at odds with federal prohibition director John F. Vivian and federal enforcement officer Robert A. Kohloss, who focused on individual arrests of bootleggers rather than mass raids. Kohloss disagreed with the publicity Smith’s raids garnered and his public destruction of alcohol. Smith, in turn, criticized Kohloss for letting alcohol evidence “disappear” from the prohibition offices.
Soon after Smith’s appointment in January 1923, arrests for liquor-law violations came pouring into Colorado courts. Northwest Colorado newspapers claimed that Smith and his deputies had accomplished more in one month than their predecessor’s crew of fifteen had in a year. By July the The Denver Post boasted that Smith and his men had cut the state’s liquor supply by 20,000 gallons each month.
Smith’s purity squad focused heavily on rural mining and industrial towns to make arrests, which also meant that Smith concentrated his attention on immigrant and working-class communities. The most notable raids occurred in Trinidad, Cripple Creek, Pueblo, Silverton, Durango, Longmont, and Denver’s Globeville neighborhood. These raids were never small operations; newspapers frequently reported that Smith and his men seized thousands of gallons during single raids in mining towns, often arresting up to twenty-five people.
Smith became known for his vigilante-style tactics, which included breaking down doors with axes, digging up backyards with shovels, and arresting suspects by any means necessary, sometimes with up to thirty men. Lawsuits from across the state charged that Smith’s purity squad entered private homes and businesses without warrants. Besides private homes, popular targets included dance halls, soft-drink parlors, warehouses, barns, and other buildings with a reputation for making or selling booze. Once in a building, the purity squad would prevent anyone from leaving and sometimes tied people to chairs, insulting and whipping them until they confessed the location of alcohol. Busting moonshiners became a sort of sport-like activity for Smith’s purity squad. The governor publicly congratulated the men for their hard work, giving credibility to their tactics.
For several years into the state prohibition experiment, it was common for judges and law enforcement officials to overlook women’s involvement in illegal booze production, sale, and consumption. Smith, however, quickly saw that women were taking advantage of new opportunities in the black market and arrested them too. Nearly half of Smith’s reported arrests involved women.
Smith was also known for recruiting local KKK members for liquor raids, though it is unclear whether he was a member. On New Year’s Eve, 1923, Smith used “every available man in Denver” to patrol the city’s streets and dance halls, arresting anyone seen with alcohol on sight. The patrols consisted of both officers and civilians, with some reports indicating that members of the KKK were also involved. These patrols became commonplace during Smith’s service even as several newspapers condemned them as unconstitutional. Both the Democratic mayor of Denver, Benjamin Stapleton, and the chief of police, William Candlish, were members of the KKK, and supported Smith in his endeavors. Governing forces held illegal booze in such contempt that extralegal efforts to stop its production and consumption were allowed, even encouraged. Alcohol’s cultural association with marginalized communities in Colorado, such as immigrants and Catholics, provided a convenient excuse for policing bodies to exercise social control over them.
On November 14, 1923, Smith and his deputies faced the first real consequences for their behavior. The state attorney general deemed the appointments of both Smith’s and Melrose’s sons illegal, and Smith risked losing his job if he continued to take them on raids. This, however, did not stop Smith’s son Jack from continuing to join raids through December.
Week after week, headlines praised Smith and his purity squad for seizing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of booze, each article claiming the newest bust was larger than the last. Yet the general distrust that Coloradans had for Smith’s quasi-legal lawmen increased with each raid. Locals were under no illusions that Smith was already abusing his power and knew his claims about the amount of alcohol he seized were often fabricated or exaggerated.
While countless lawsuits mounted against Smith and his men, the only time he personally faced legal action was after an attack he made on one of his own officers. In September 1924, prohibition officer Robert A. Grund filed charges against Smith with the Civil Service Commission, claiming assault and battery. The commission discharged Smith on December 30, 1924, though his two deputies stayed on the force.
After Smith’s dismissal, his predecessor and fourteen former officers were charged with corruption. Clearly, Colorado law enforcement was deeply corrupt and abused its power while enforcing prohibition. These charges and the open affiliation of state prohibition enforcement with the KKK only fueled the fire of local Coloradans to eventually repeal prohibition in 1933.
Later Life and Legacy
In 1925 newly elected governor and Ku Klux Klan member Clarence Morley appointed Lewis N. Scherf as chief state prohibition officer. Meanwhile, Smith returned to his role as a tax officer dealing with cattle ranches, an obvious step down from his headline-generating career that rocked Colorado for two years. He passed away February 1, 1927, at Colorado General Hospital after suffering a “nervous attack” three weeks prior.
During his role as chief state prohibition officer, John R. Smith became a notorious figurehead of Colorado’s corrupt legal and political system. Receiving more publicity than any other leader in the fight against alcohol, Smith’s extralegal actions, abuse of power, and open utilization of KKK members for booze raids created immense distrust between Colorado citizens and the state law-enforcement system.