“He never sent his card ahead of him, but when he left, they knew who had been there,” said the minister of the Park Street Church in Boston.
He was talking about Harold D. “Three Gun” Wilson.
Never heard of him? What if I called him the Elliot Ness of the East?
Wilson was a prohibition agent from Wilmington in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a mild-mannered insurance agent who worked at shutting down stills and rounding up bootleggers.
The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which took effect in 1920, made it illegal to produce, transport or sell alcoholic beverages. That sent the U.S. down a path known as Prohibition, a 13-year period known for its corruption, gangsters and speakeasies. However, it was not universally popular.
Wilson was born in Kansas. He came to Massachusetts to study at Tufts College in Medford, where he became known for his athletic prowess, taking letters in three sports. He had strong leadership abilities, and was president of his class. He also became active in the West Somerville Baptist Church.
In 1917, he enlisted in the air corps, becoming a flight instructor. At the end of World War I, he was discharged as a First Lieutenant. Some time after the war, he moved to South Tewksbury, at Parker and Lake streets. In the early 1920s, he moved to Wilmington on Church Street, next to the common, across from the Roman estate.
In June 1921, he was named as the Federal Prohibition Director for Massachusetts. Six weeks later, the office was reorganized, though, and he became deputy director. His enthusiasm, though, remained unflagged.
To let people know there were agents in the area, he took part in a baseball game at Silver Lake on Aug. 28, 1921. The teams were named the Wets and the Drys. Wilson captained the Drys and played second base. The Wets won, 15 to 10.
Soon he was conducting raids all over the state. On Sept. 24, 1921, accompanied by three federal agents, plus Chief of Police Walter Hill and officers Paul Flagg and Fred Field, he went to a home on Shawsheen Avenue in Wilmington. They seized two stills, 1,100 pounds of mash, 70 pounds of sugar, 30 gallons of kerosene and five six-burner stoves.
His efforts were met unenthusiastically by some local officers, including the chief, who did not want to be raiding the homes of their friends and neighbors. Wilson approached Peter Neilson, a masonry contractor and reserve officer, to participate in a raid at a home on Parker Street. Wilson told him to watch the back door while he and another man went in the front. When the raid came up empty, Wilson went around to the back of the house and asked Neilson if he’d seen anything.
Oh, just a woman dumping buckets of water, he said. Wilson never asked him to go on another raid.
Throughout the fall of 1921, Wilson was busy raiding various sites throughout Massachusetts. On Oct. 16, he hit a barn in Franklin and found five stills with tons of mash. On Oct. 26, he led raids on three hotels in Greenfield.
His work sometimes led to confrontation with politicians. Shortly before Christmas, he received a tip that the governor and other officials were at an event at the Quincy House, a large hotel in Boston, with illegal alcohol. Wilson knew it would end his position as a prohibition agent, but he was determined to raided the party.
“I was so disgusted at this monumental hypocrisy that nothing could have stood in the way of my raiding that banquet,” he wrote.
The next day, the raid was the number one story in the Boston papers. A month later, he was relieved of his position. Much like the stills he had raided, his career was officially shut down after just eight months. But he did not go quietly.
A front-page story in the Globe told of a rally at the Tremont Temple attended by 2,000 people, supporting him. A few weeks later, he published a tell-all book, “Dry Laws & Wet Politicians,” with some scathing comments on various officials.
“Wilson, deposed dry enforcement agent for Massachusetts, has collected the various scalps of his political enemies and hung them out to dry in the public gaze in a book which will cause many political heartbreaks,” wrote the Boston Globe.
That summer, he announced his candidacy for state attorney general. He did not win the Republican primary, but he drew nearly 60,000 votes. During the campaign, he received a speeding ticket in Salem. A few weeks later, there was a fatal accident in Brookfield. A wheel came off his car and careened down the road, killing an elderly pedestrian.
His drive against the evils of alcohol never ended, though. He continued speaking to temperance groups and church audiences.
His enemies were not retiring, either. In May 1924, as a member of the Anti-Saloon League, he was called before a grand jury probing published attacks against federal officials.
In late 1925, he became involved in controversy over a raid at a farm on Andover Street in North Wilmington. A large still was found there, hidden under a chicken house, to disguise the clouds of water vapor. There was considerable criticism of Chief Hill for failing to act against the operation. Though not in an official position, Wilson was at the forefront of the issue, seeking to have Wilmington taken out of the Woburn court district.
After Civil Service was implemented, Wilson went back to work in 1930. He was appointed deputy director of prohibition in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a district including nearby states. He lasted a few months in that post, until — guess what — he pulled a raid on a picnic put on by a political group, the Amen Corner. He was subsequently transferred to Wilmington, Delaware.
“I am here to save Delaware from the skullduggery of corrupt officials, from the evils of speakeasies and the eternal damnation of booze!” he said on his arrival.
The Wilmington News Journal described him as a hard-boiled, hard-hitting, Bible-quoting, relentless, dedicated prohibition agent.
At one point, he took a job running a speakeasy, working until he had enough evidence to take the owners to court. Not surprisingly, he received threats.
“You stay away from Lincoln Street or you will need more than three guns,” one letter said.
The Delaware post led to another political raid on a party for the governor in November 1930, by the Democratic League of Delaware. When the case went to trial, Wilson refused to tell the judge who gave him the key to the party. He was held in contempt of court and sent to jail.
Freed from jail and his job, he was transferred to Nebraska. He published a second book, “Dry Laws, Facts Not Fiction,” a much longer work than his earlier piece. Among other revelations, it gave the background of his nickname, “Three Gun Wilson.” Given the nature of his work, it is likely that he carried a firearm, but the guns in the nickname referred to his being an enforcement raider, a speaker and writer, and an organizer and leader.
Prohibition ended in 1934, and with it, Wilson’s position. But he remained active, speaking out against alcohol. In 1945, he set off to California, sometimes delivering three speeches a day. All the while, he kept his home in Wilmington. He ran for Congress in 1934 in the Eighth Congressional District. He was listed at the home on Church Street in 1955, giving California as his home the previous year. He gave his occupation as executive secretary of the Foundation for Alcohol Education.
Wilson died at age 77 in Wayland in 1961. He was buried in the Wildwood Cemetery in Wilmington.