Ken Burns Classroom

Whispering Wires

Ken Burns Film: Prohibition

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 7-12

Video Run Time: 9:36

In a sweep against corruption and lax enforcement in Seattle, the acting mayor, Bertha Landes, takes action while Mayor Doc Brown is out of the city. Speakeasies are closed and a “wiretapper” is hired to take transcripts of phone conversations of several Prohibition violators, including Olmstead. Evidence collected from the taps is used to convict him, and he is sentenced to four years at hard labor. Appealing his case, Olmstead’s conviction is upheld in the US Supreme Court. Although Olmstead received a presidential pardon in 1935 and the Supreme Court reversed its position on wiretaps in Katz vs. US, Olmstead had already served his sentence.