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In January 1920, the United States, by law, swore off alcohol, but St. Mary’s County had already elected to ban intoxicants in 1915.

Yet after federal Prohibition began, it didn’t take long for the county to get into the bootlegging business.

Eighty-five years ago, an elderly farmer was shot and killed in St. Mary’s when Prohibition agents raided his property in search of a still.

On Sept. 16, 1927, four Prohibition agents, led by Hollywood native Joseph Brewer, arrived at the farm of Charles Gundlach, 77, off Brown Road.

Gunfire was exchanged. One of the agents was shot in the knee. When it was over Gundlach was dead on his front porch, shot through the eye.

The Sept. 24, 1927, edition of The Enterprise reported, “the body of Gundlach was allowed to lay where it fell, the prey of a herd of hogs. Mrs. Gundlach, being notified by one of the agents that the body could not be moved until viewed by the law.”

There were two opposing statements of who fired first.

Editor and attorney Aloysius King reported in the St. Mary’s Beacon on Sept. 23, 1927: “The manner of Mr. Gundlach’s death was so tragic that the entire community is deeply stirred. Our people do not believe it necessary to use such drastic measures in enforcing the prohibition law or any other misdemeanor.”

King’s editorial in the same edition said, “All right thinking citizens will deplore the fact that in recent years our county has been visited with a great deal of unpleasant notoriety and more or less disgraceful publicity as a consequence of repeated and much advertised violations of the national Prohibition Act.

“No sensible man or woman familiar with the remorseless tyranny of National Prohibition machinery expects that any punishment will ever be administered to these cowardly murderers,” King wrote.

Three of the agents were arrested and jailed in Leonardtown, while John Fisher, the injured agent, was sent to St. Mary’s Hospital.

A Leonardtown grand jury charged the four men with first-degree murder, but the jailed agents were released, most on a $2,000 bond, to the custody of the prohibition administrator for Maryland and Washington, D.C., newspapers reported. Brewer’s bond was $10,000. The injured Fisher was transferred to a D.C. hospital.

The (Baltimore) Sun reported on Sept. 18, 1927, that an examination of Gundlach’s body showed eight gunshot wounds.

Philip H. Dorsey, state’s attorney for St. Mary’s County and editor of The Enterprise newspaper, said the agents had no search warrant and no still was found on Gundlach’s farm.

Sen. Edward Edwards of New Jersey condemned the agents’ involvement in the shooting.

Sen. Clarence C. Dill of Washington announced on Sept. 18, 1927, introduction of a bill that would bond prohibition agents before arming them. Dill referred to the Gundlach case. “If the agents in question had been bonded, as I propose, there would be a good case for recovery by the survivors of the old man shot by these prohibition agents,” he said in The Sun.

St. Mary’s County officials wanted the case tried in Leonardtown, while federal officials successfully had the trial moved to federal court.

The Beacon carried stories that Brewer continued his duties as a prohibition agent, though it was initially supposed he was suspended. Brewer was reported to be the driver for other agents investigating in St. Mary’s. Outraged, local officials petitioned that Brewer be expelled from duties in St. Mary’s County, which he was.

The court case began on Feb. 13, 1928 in Baltimore. The prosecution, headed by Dorsey and Robert Archer, assistant attorney general of Maryland, said the agents trespassed on Gundlach’s farm and that Brewer held a grudge against Gundlach. The case called upon 52 witnesses, including Gundlach’s widow.

The defense team countered that the agents were lawfully investigating information that Gundlach was operating a home brew operation and that Gundlach fired first.

Fisher testified that he was the first of the agents to shoot at the farmer, only after he had been shot in the legs and felled. “Gundlach, [Fisher] asserted, came out of the house, walking fast and staggering as though intoxicated,” reported The Sun on Feb. 17, 1928. Gundlach carried a single-barrel shotgun, Fisher said.

“‘Put that up, old man,’ Fisher testified he said. “We are prohibition agents and will not hurt you.”

“‘I know who you are,’ Fisher testified Gundlach said, “‘and I don’t give a damn.’”

Further gunfire was exchanged between Gundlach and the agents. Gundlach’s widow testified that Brewer shot her husband at close range, while Brewer said he fired from about 70 feet away.

Dorsey said during the trial, “In the county I come from it is considered no crime to give another a drink of liquor or beer,” The Sun reported.

Maryland Assistant Attorney General Archer said, “I have made and drink homebrew beer. ... If that be treason, make the most of it. The state of Maryland is put under a cloud because Gundlach and his wife made homebrew. If the counsel for the defense is serious in such charges, then I must say I am ashamed of him.”

It took the jury 34 minutes to find Brewer not guilty of murder, The Sun reported on Feb. 18, 1928. The judge stipulated the jury could only make one of three findings, based on the charge: first-degree murder, second-degree murder or not guilty.

“If you believe that Gundlach was killed by Brewer in self-defense or in defense of Fisher or in defense of the other agents, then your verdict should be not guilty, even if you believe Brewer did kill Gundlach,” Judge William C. Coleman told the jury.

The charges against the other three agents were not pursued.

Rep. Vincent Palmisano of Maryland asked a few days later if Brewer should be investigated for violating the Volstead Act, which established Prohibition, based on court testimony that Brewer himself had a still.

Amos W. Woodcock, U.S. District Attorney, said there was no evidence to warrant prosecution.

Bootlegging continued in St. Mary’s.

In one month, December 1930, more than two dozen stills in St. Mary’s were reported raided.

After the Jarboesville Post Office was raided in November 1931 for making booze, the United Press ran an article detailing the bootlegging tradition in St. Mary’s.

Woodcock, by then the Prohibition director, called Southern Maryland “the wettest region in the United States.”

The article continued, “Southern Marylanders don’t argue about prohibition — they ignore it, with a certain polite contempt.”

Adam Wible, pen name Gabriel, wrote in The Enterprise Nov. 19, 1927, “we have reliable information that you can get the very best from prohibition agents who are shielded by the government and under the guise of enforcement officers, seize and what they don’t drink, confiscate and sell to their wealthy friends and patrons.

“What is the use of prohibition when nearly every man, woman, and child know how to make it, and do make it, and will continue to make it and drink it as long as we have this wonderful failure Volsteadism,” he wrote.

Prohibition was repealed in December 1933.

jbabcock@somdnews.com