This is one of 1122 articles in my book Now and Then Again, The Way We Were and the Way We Are, second edition. The book is available from Amazon for $20.95 print and $9.95 Kindle and also as an ebook from Apple, Kobo, and Scribd for $9.95. It’s fixed format so it’s better with a tablet, laptop, or computer. There are more articles from the book on another blog here. And there is a book preview website .
Izzy and Moe
After the 18th amendment went into effect at 12:01 A.M. January 17th, 1920, 16,000 saloons in New York City went out of business and were replaced by anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies. With only 1500 agents in the whole country, a woefully understaffed Bureau of Prohibition was tasked with enforcing the unenforceable. But Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, prohibition agents extraordinaire, made a comic opera and highly successful attempt.
“Dere’s sad news here. You’re under arrest.” Those were the words used by Izzy and Moe when they pinched violators of the Volstead Act. The sad news was heard by 4932 people between 1920 and 1925, with an extraordinary 95% conviction rate.
Isador Einstein was born in Tarnow, Poland, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, circa 1880 and emigrated to New York in 1901. The 1920 census shows him as a mail sorter for the Post Office. He applied for a job as a prohibition agent in 1920. Five foot five and 225 pounds he didn’t look the part but he convinced James Shevlin, head of the southern New York Bureau that he could blend in. He was fluent in Yiddish, Polish, German, and Hungarian, and could get by in French, Russian, and Italian. He could play the violin and trombone, too.
On his first raid, Izzy went to a speakeasy in Brooklyn that agents hadn’t been able to get into and when the peephole opened, he demanded a drink saying he was a new prohibition agent. The joke was appreciated and the drink was poured. Izzy downed it but before he could arrest the bartender, he grabbed the bottle and escaped out the back leaving Izzy with no evidence. Thereafter, Izzy rigged a funnel in a vest pocket with a rubber tube leading to a hidden flask.
Izzy’s friend Moe Smith owned a cigar store. He was a few inches taller than Izzy but weighed 250 pounds, twice his weight as a featherweight boxer in his youth. Izzy talked Moe into becoming a prohibition agent and the pair were off into the headlines.
Izzy impersonated “a German pickle packer, a Polish count, a Hungarian violinist, a Jewish gravedigger, a French maitre d’, an Italian fruit vendor, a Russian fisherman and a Chinese launderer. His disguises included a streetcar conductor, an ice deliverer, an opera singer, a truck driver, a judge, a traveling cigar salesman, a street cleaner, a Texas cattleman, a movie extra, a football player, a beauty contest judge, a grocer, a lawyer, a librarian, a rabbi, a college student, a musician, a plumber and a delegate from Kentucky to the Democratic National convention,” according to the SUNY Potsdam web site.
“In Coney Island, he entered a drinking joint in a wet bathing suit, shivering and gasping for aid. Wearing an attendant’s white jacket, he shut another saloon near a hospital.” “Izzy once tossed his agent’s badge on the bar of a Bowery saloon and — this fat, unkempt individual — asked for a pint of whisky for ‘a deserving prohibition agent.’ The bartender sold it to him, thinking him a great wit,” reported a Canadian Masonic web site in a reprint from Empire State Mason magazine. (Izzy and Moe were both Masons, which is probably how they met.)
Izzy was proud of one his early exploits. There was a a wet parade up Fifth Avenue on July 4, 1921, with bands playing How Dry I Am, and a sign with a quote from the Bible “Use a little wine for they stomach’s sake” (1 Timothy 5:23). Izzy marched in the parade and “He followed some of them into the by-paths, with devastating effect on the unsuspecting dealers in which the very article for which the demonstrators were perspiringly parading,” said Truman H. Talley in the New York Times March 26, 1922.
In Detroit, a newspaper article announced that Izzy was in town. Izzy got into an argument with the bartender in a speakeasy by insisting that the agent’s name was Izzy Epstein. The bartender bet Izzy drinks on the house that it was Einstein. When shown the newspaper, Izzy conceded defeat, paid for the drinks, and pinched the bartender.
The Smithsonian web site tells a story of Izzy and Moe going into a cabaret as violinists dressed in tuxedos. They “sat down and asked a waiter for some ‘real stuff.’ The waiter consulted with the proprietor, who thought he recognized the musicians as performers from a nightclub down the street.”
“‘Hello, Jake,’ he called to Izzy. ‘Glad to see you. Enjoyed your music many a time.’ He told the waiter to serve the musicians anything they wanted. Moments later, the proprietor approached their table and asked if they might play ‘something by Strauss’ for the room.” “‘No,’ Izzy replied, ‘but I’ll play you the ‘Revenue Agent’s March’ He flashed his badge, and the proprietor suffered a heart attack on the spot.”
Time Magazine reported Oct 31, 1932 in a review of his book (see below) that at a German beer-garden, “Izzy made so much noise he was asked to sing a solo, which he did with great gusto. Then he announced: ‘This concludes the evening’s entertainment, ladies & gentlemen. The place is pinched. For I am Izzy Einstein, the Prohibition Agent.’”
Izzy was fast, too. He found liquor in 21 minutes in Chicago, 17 minutes in Atlanta, and in New Orleans an impressive 35 seconds: he got into a cab, asked where he could get a drink and the cabby turned around and offered to sell a him a bottle.
Moe told a story of how famous they had become. “’One time we went from Monticello to Port Jervis on the train, and the engineer, when we got to Port Jervis, got off and ran from gin mill to gin mill yelling ‘they’re coming, Izzy and Moe is coming.’ Talk about Paul Revere!’” — From Izzy’s obituary in The Milwaukee Journal February 18, 1938.
Sometimes the disguises didn’t work. On Palm Sunday, they put pieces of palm in their hats and went into a saloon owned by an Irishman. Izzy said ”He took one look at me, then at the palm in my hat and said: ‘Get the hell out of here. What do you think this is, Yom Kippur?’” reported the Times April 10, 1922.
There are hundreds of stories, best summarized by a listing of headlines of some of the 45 articles I was able to uncover about Izzy and Moe in the New York Times, in date order.
• Izzy Einstein in Disguise. Posing as Butcher, Dry Agent Arrests Employees in Drug Store. July 5, 1921
• Izzy the Rum Hound Tells How It’s Done. Champion Hootch Hunter Says Keen Scent Protects New York Agents From Poisonous Liquor. January 1, 1922
• Dry Raid Empties Jack’s Secret Room. January 7, 1922
• Rum Stills Found Near a Graveyard. Izzy Einstein, Posing as a Farmer Seizes Two Plants in Barns Up-State. Raiding Party in Sleigh. January 26, 1922
• Gentiles Lose Wine Ordered By Rabbis. Izzy Einstein Seizes Truck Load After One Buyer Admits He Is a Protestant. January 28, 1922
• Izzy and Moe Raid Thespian Retreat. Beguile Occupants With Tank Town Tales and Order Auto Load of Scotch. February 26, 1922
• Izzy, Ebon In Hue, Raids Rum Bazaar. March 3, 1922. Izzy and Moe in Harlem “with blackened faces and hands and a fluent flow of negro dialect.”
• Izzy ‘Grave Digger’ Captures 3 Stills. Einstein and Fellow Agents Wield Spades to Stalk Moonshine Plant. March 4, 1922
• Izzy and Moe Make Sunday Liquor Raids. Rum In Talking Machine. New Hiding Place Yields Seven Quarts. April 17, 1922
• ‘Izzy’ Seizes ‘Nozo’, 3% At 20 Cts. a Pint. They Call It Beer, but It’s Made of Bread and It has More Kick Than Volstead Allows. April 22, 1922
• Face on Barroom Wall Was Izzy’s. But No One Recognized the Dangerous Einstein as He Stood Undisguised Beneath It. June 27, 1922
• Sees Izzy and Moe, Bartender Faints. Another Collapses and Doctor Is Required When Dry Agents Reveal Identity. July 17, 1922
• Izzy Einstein Found Providence Wide Open. More Than 700 Places, He Says, Where Whiskey can be Bought, Some at 20 Cents. September 11, 1922
• Izzy and Moe Seize ‘Sacramental’ Wine. Purchase 10 Cases After Giving Password and Using Marked Bank Notes. October 19, 1922
• In White Wing Garb Izzy and Moe Nab 71. Carrying Street Cleaning Brushes, Dry Agents Set Record for Day’s Catch. Woman Kisses Einstein. Enthusiastic Worshipper at Church Near Raided Saloon Shows Her Approval. November 20, 1922
• 53 Barrels of Wine In Stable Seized. Izzy and Moe, Posing as Fruit Vendors, Hire Wagon and Find Liquor. November 22, 1922
• Izzy and Moe Don Evening Clothes. Visit Delicatessen Shop and Later Seize $10,000 of Imported Liquor. January 13, 1923
• Izzy Pawns Coat Gets $10,000 Rum. Doubted That Throng Leaving Pawn shop With Bundles Had All Redeemed Pledges. April 12, 1923
• Einstein Has Laugh On Chicago Saloons. Izzy Keeps Their Hired Detectives Busy While Moe Smith Works Unmolested. January 13, 1924
• Izzy and Moe End Gay Careers as Dry Agents; Picturesque Pair Among 35 Finally Dropped. November. 15, 1925
Retired Brigadier General Lincoln C. Andrews was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of Prohibition in April, 1925 and set about reorganizing the Bureau, consolidating 48 state offices to 22 districts. All 180 prohibition agents in the Manhattan office were notified that they were terminated and instructed to report to headquarters. 145 were reinstated and 35 were let go, among them Izzy and Moe.
“General Andrews does not like prohibition agents who get too much publicity. Two months ago General Andrews gave orders that if the name of Izzy Einstein or Moe Smith appeared once in print, they would be fired. For two months their exploits have been hidden from the public eye.” — Time Magazine November 23, 1925.
Despite offers from vaudeville, radio, and movies both Izzy and Moe went to work for the New York Life Insurance Company, in different offices. Izzy was reputed to have said “Yes, sir! What was good enough for ex-President Coolidge is good enough for ex-Agent Izzy Einstein!” They did very well at it, both being in the company’s 400 Club, writing at least $400,000 in business, according to the New Yorker June 6, 1936.
The New Yorker article tells of when Izzy Einstein met Albert Einstein. When Izzy asked him what line of work he was in, Albert said he was a discoverer. Izzy asked what he discovered and he said “’stars in the sky.’” “’So I’m a discoverer, too, I told him, only I discover in the basements. We both laughed.’”
Izzy went back to Tarnow to visit in 1928. The town held a parade in his honor and “the ovation he received was proportionately as enthusiastic as the one accorded the trans-Atlantic flyer [Lindbergh],” reported the Ogden Standard Examiner (Utah), July 8, 1928.
Izzy wrote a book, Prohibition Agent No. 1, in 1932. The Pittsburgh Press reported October 27, 1932 that Izzy dictated the book to his four sons. “’When one got dizzy, then I’d start dictating to another,’” Only four reporters showed up at the book’s premiere. “’What good is it to be famous yet when they forget you so soon?’” Izzy said. When Izzy tried to hand out books to various dignitaries, President Hoover wouldn’t see him and other politicians were “too busy.” But Henry Ford responded that if Izzy would go to Detroit Ford would see him,
The New Yorker reported that Moe said he would sue if he were mentioned by name since that would make him agent no. 2. Izzy cut out Moe’s name and they remained friends. “The book sold 575 copies. ‘the publishers sent me a free copy,’ said Moe. ‘Izzy would have sent me a copy, too, if I had sent him two dollars.’” Unfortunately Izzy’s book was not reprinted and is now a rare book selling for $600.
Izzy died February 17, 1938 at 57 after an operation to amputate his right leg after an infection. Moe died in Yonkers, N.Y. December 21, 1960 at 73.
Left. Izzy, left, as a rabbi, and Moe in drag. Right. Izzy, left, and Moe having a drink in 1935.
There are many variants of the Einstein/Epstein story, one from the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) cited on the SUNY Potsdam site, has the bartender insisting the name was Epstein, and two in books have the same story but with the verification of the name from the back of a picture of Izzy hanging on the wall. This one from the St. Petersburg Times Jan 13, 1929 seems the most plausible. The picture versions may have been conflated with another episode in Brooklyn in 1922. See “Face on Barroom Wall Was Izzy’s”, above.
Both Time Magazine and the Pittsburgh Press in articles on Izzy’s book in 1932 report that Izzy said he quit the Bureau in 1927, resigning because he didn’t want to transfer to Chicago. But the New York Times reports that in 1925 the Anti-Saloon League tried unsuccessfully to have Izzy and Moe reinstated.
Izzy and Moe along with another agent were arrested by deputy sheriffs in Providence, Rhode Island on September 8, 1922 on charges of assault and held on $10,000 bail.
The New York Times reported September 9, 1922 that civil suits were filed by near beer dealers “charging that prohibition agents are ‘rushing’ bartenders, intimidating them with revolvers, using ‘extreme, vile, vulgar, obscene and filthy language’ and even assaulting near-beer dispensers.” This was the coda to the hostile reception they received in Rhode Island:
“Saloon keepers simply laughed when served a summons to appear in front of the United States commissioner of Prohibition. In one instance, an irate bartender threw a pitcher of whiskey in Izzy’s face. All made it clear they planned to ignore any legal proceedings brought against them.” — Forgotten Tales of Rhode Island by Jim Ignasher
“Dry authorities assert it will be a fight to the finish with the liquor interests,” said the Times article
The Advance News of Ogdensburg, N.Y. Reported in Moe Smith’s obituary that due to animosity between prohibition agents and the police Moe Smith was turned down when he applied to join the police after his prohibition agent career.
Izzy and Moe, A television movie starring Jackie Gleason as Izzy and Art Carney as Moe was made in 1985.
Copyright © 2020 Joseph Mirsky