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The Killing of Henry Virkula

Killed in the name of alcohol Prohibition

Review and Outlook

When is a Law Right?

Wall Street Journal  - April 21, 1929, page 1

A bill has been introduced into Congress proposing the payment of $30,000 to the wife and children of Henry Virkula who was killed by a customs patrolman on the highway near his home in Minnesota. The most elementary consideration of justice, or even of decency, demands that this bill should go through and the compensation be paid. In addition to doing justice, the bill might be a precedent for other similar cases, the net result of which might become highly instructive to the people of the United States.

While riding with his wife and children this man was fired upon and killed by the patrolman who mistakenly thought he was transporting liquor. As to whether or not the officer was justified in shooting is for the courts and not the newspapers to decide. But leaving that matter out of consideration the pitiful fact remains that an innocent man on the public highway was killed, a wife was made a widow and two children orphans. A corporation or individual responsible for a death or injury is legally liable. The government should not hesitate to make similar amends.

There should be no hair-splitting arguments as to whether or not the officer exceeded his instructions. The government, which is the people of the United States, cannot evade its moral responsibility for this, and for similar tragedies of the future. Through their representatives, the people raised the transportation of liquor to the status of a felony. The legal conception of a felony is a heinous crime, such as murder, burglary or other crimes of grave import. An officer might be justified in killing to prevent the commission of a felony, and the moral sentiment of the people as a whole would justify the act.

But moral sentiment would be outraged by a killing to prevent a misdemeanor which is lesser offense. In such cases we do not need to go to the law for an interpretation or explanation of the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor. There is something within us that tells us what is and what is not a heinous crime. In all the generations of our christian civilization transporting liquor has never been looked upon as an atrocious crime even by sober-minded thinking people who did not use it themselves. But now, without realizing its consequences, we have permitted our lawmakers to make a felony of that which, in its nature, is not a heinous crime.

The tragedy under consideration is not the first one resulting from this mistake. Neither is it liable to be the last one. Forbidding the use of sawed-off shotguns will not prevent the other tragedies. President Hoover may honestly deplore killings, but the law remains to be enforced. He may call on the people of the border towns to cooperate in preventing violation of the prohibition law, but that will not bring back to life the innocent people killed on suspicion of committing what we have by law raised to a felony. The root of the whole trouble is in the law itself - law at which a respectable portion of the people rebel.

Thirty thousand dollars a life is not much, but eventually it may bring the people to asking themselves if a law is right when a train of tragedies like this follow its administration? 

Time Magazine, June 24, 1929


Henry Virkula lived in Big Falls, Minn., ran a candy store. He had a wife, two children, a car. One day last fortnight he drove them all to the Canadian border, started back for home along the highway after dark. Mrs. Virkula was in the front seat with him, the children asleep in the back. He stopped to light a cigaret, then drove on along the lonely wooded road.

Suddenly two figures leaped up before him. One held a sign: STOP! U.S. CUSTOMS OFFICERS. Virkula braked his car but had not stopped before a volley of shot tore through the rear windows. The car plunged into a ditch. Virkula was dead, a slug in his neck. U.S. Border Patrolman Emmet J. White, 24, came up to the car. Shrieked Mrs. Virkula: "You've killed him." Replied White; "I'm sorry, lady, but I done my duty." No liquor was found. The Virkula children woke up, began to cry.

Patrolman White had fired five rounds from a sawed-off shotgun into the Virkula car. His defense: the machine did not stop when Patrolman Emil Servine held up the stop sign. White was lodged in jail, charged with murder. The little town's citizenry seethed with indignation against White and "the system" he represented. Banding together they wrote a public protest to President Hoover which concluded: "In our utter helplessness, terror and distraction, we are at last resorting to you. For God's sake, help us!"

Time Magazine, July 1, 1929, page 70

"FULL OF HOLES": The President answered the plea from Big Falls: "I deeply deplore the killing of any person. The Treasury is making every effort to prevent the misuse of firearms. I hope the communities along the border will do their best to help end the systematic war that is being carried on by international criminals against the laws of the United States."

This reply was too general to please the friends of Citizen Virkula, who was not regarded as "an international criminal." Editorial writers wrote: "It is not enough for the President to 'deplore'"; "the President's answer is as full of holes as Henry Virkula's car."

From the Papers of President Herbert Hoover

International Falls City Council telegram to Hoover, 6/18/29:

Dear Mr. President: The International Falls City Council voted and passed upon the following resolution:

"Whereas at an open meeting of business men and city officials of this border city last June 14 an informal appeal to the President was drawn up, asking him to end the terrorism inflicted upon our citizens and neighbors by Federal customs patrolmen, engaged in prohibition enforcement;

"and whereas, our appeal has remained unanswered, even though the vicious and unlawful conduct of said government agents have continued unabated - except that there has been no fresh murder of our innocent neighbors;

"Therefore, be it resolved that we, the City Council of the City of International Falls, in regular session assembled, do hereby remind the President that the memorialization of the citizens' appeal was and is the articlulate pleading of the community:

"And be it further resolved that the City Council of the City of International Falls does hereby join its official voice in requesting from our President an urgent response to the pleas for help from our people. (Hoover 1929 1974 p. 195)

June 18/29: Hoover meeting w/ George W. Wickersham (Hoover 1930 1976 p. 666)

Hoover letter to International Falls City Council on its protest against prohibition enforcement incidents, June 21, 1929 [dated 6/18]:

...The matter has been referred to the Treasury Department for action. You may rest assured that there is no intention on the part of the Federal Government in any way to transgress the limits of the law. Yours faithfully, Herbert Hoover (Hoover 1929 1974 pp. 194-5)

Hoover news conference of 6/18/29: Prohibition Enforcement Incidents at the Canadian Border --

...I deeply deplore the killing of any person. The Treasury Department is making an effort to prevent the misuse of arms.... I hope the communities along the border will do their best to help the Treasury and the systematic war that is being carried on by internation criminals against the laws of the United States. It is these activities [not prohibition] that are at the root of all our difficulties. [Government Note: The statement referred to a series of incidents along the Canadian border in which Treasury agents had confronted persons illegally transporting liquor into the United States. a lie] (Hoover 1929 1974 pp. 189-190)

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