Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Whispering Wires

Jun 18, 2013

Recently I’ve been researching the history of prohibition during the 1920s, in Canada and in the borderlands with the US as well. As so often happens, echoes of one’s own research can be heard in the political issues of the present day, specifically in the recent revelations of massive electronic eavesdropping by the American government on its own citizens.

Watchers of Ken Burns’s television series “Prohibition” that showed last year on PBS will recall the story of Roy Olmstead, the Seattle police officer turned rum-runner. His life is also chronicled in Whispering Wires: The Tragic Tale of an American Bootlegger (Inkwater Press) by Philip Metcalfe.

Olmstead was known as “the good bootlegger” because he dealt with the finest hotels and restaurants in Seattle, never digressed into drugs or prostitution and his men never carried guns, at least so the folklore went. Most of his booze came from Vancouver which he frequently visited, staying at the Hotel Vancouver under the name Mr. Potter.

Anyway, what makes Olmstead relevant today is that in 1926 he went to trial on liquor charges based on evidence gathered by wiretaps placed on his phones by federal agents. The press called it “The Whispering Wires Case.” It was the first time that the new technology of listening in on people’s phone conversations was ever used in a courtroom.

Olmstead’s lawyers argued that wiretaps violated the constitutionally sanctioned right to privacy. But the judge allowed the evidence, which had been gathered without warrant, and after a seven-week trial Olmstead was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. His appeals based on the privacy issue went all the way to the Supreme Court which, in a 5-4 decision in 1928, ruled that the constitution did not protect telephone conversations and rejected the appeal.

Olmstead did his time, but once prohibition was repealed he won vindication of a sort when President Franklin Roosevelt granted him a full pardon. He died in 1966.

During his trial, one of Olmstead’s lawyers rather presciently told the jury: “This is the first wire-tapping case in the history of your country and I hope that after you bring in your verdict, it will be the last. Put a club like this into such hands and you’ll see how far they go.”