Teaching With Documents, Volume 1


Letter from a Mother

In May 1929, in an effort to stem the increase of criminal activity in the United States, President Herbert Hoover created the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. Called the Wickersham Commission after its chairman, George Wickersham, the 12-member group gathered information on particular aspects of criminal law enforcement, including penal institutions and juvenile delinquency. The major part of the Commission’s investigation, however, focused on the problem of enforcing prohibition under the provisions of the 18th Amendment. That amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. (For a more detailed discussion of the Wickersham Commission, see "A Political Cartoon" on page 116.

Found in the records of the Commission at the National Archives are thousands of letters from citizens expressing their concerns about the causes of crime and the increase in criminal activity. Letters reporting crimes associated with prohibition violations were common. Citizens presented arguments both for and against the 18th Amendment. The following excerpts from letters sent to the Commission suggest the range of American opinion on the causes of crime:

From Tulsa, Oklahoma (May 25, 1929):

This great wave of crime is due to the use of cigarettes and nothing else. The indiscriminate use of hooch, poison liquor, wine, Jamaica ginger and any other product that has a kick, is due to the use of cigarettes and nothing else.

From Seattle, Washington (May 23, 1929):

The first thing to be observed, perhaps, is that the increase of crime is not from the increase of netural [sic] criminals, but the great increase of criminal opportunity afforded by the invention of the auto. The easy means by which the auto can be used for robbery...as well as the disposing of liquor, have caused vast increase in those forms of crime.

From Baltimore, Maryland (June 10, 1929):

Second, the newspapers seem to be making law enforcement more difficult by giving crime great value as "news" and assigning headlines accordingly.

From Spokane, Washington (June 13, 1929):

The present prohibition law has offered to the bootlegger a lucrative occupation and this fraternity harbors criminals of all kinds from the gentleman bootlegger who caters to so-called respectable trade to the burglar and highwayman who finds the business almost as profitable and not nearly as dangerous as the one previously followed.

The letter reproduced here in full is an expression of a mother’s concern over increased crime as it affects her family. It is from the Correspondence Files; Anonymous Letters Expressing Complaints, Grievances (April 1929-August 1931); Records of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Record Group 10.

Teaching Activities

The following activities vary according to ability level and skill focus. We recommendthat you review the activities and select the one most consistent with your class objectives.

Activity 1: The Letter as Evidence of Life in the 1920s
(Locating information, drawing conclusions, and discussing)

1. Provide students with copies of the letter and allow time for them to read it carefully.

2. Write the following items on the board in a column, directing students to reread the letter to find factual information about the 1920s in each category.

a. the cost of living
b. the level of technology
c. the enforcement of prohibition laws
d. citizen faith in government
e. public attitude toward immigrants
f. the generation gap
g. peer pressure

3. As a concluding activity, discuss with the class the problem of using this document to draw generalizations about life in the United States during the 1920s.

Activity 2: The Letter as a Reflection of the Individual and Society
(Locating information and making generalizations)

Most written documents can be used effectively with this activity.

Ask students to read the document silently, or select one student to read it orally while other students follow the letter on an overhead projection or a copy.

2. Write on the board the two column headings that follow:

Individual Society
1. 1.
2. 2.
3. 3.

3. Direct students to locate evidence in the letter that gives information about the individual who wrote it. Students may work as a class or independently. Then direct the class to repeat the process, focusing on information about the society in which the individual lived. Record the information on the board. (Be sure to include the significance of the "received" stamp, the notation, and the absence of an identifiable signature.)

Activity 3: The Letter as a Skill Exercise
(Writing, punctuating, and spelling)

1. Provide each student with a copy of the letter. Direct students to use a red pen or pencil to correct punctuation errors. Students should underline spelling and typographical errors.

2. As an alternative, ask students to rewrite one or two paragraphs of the letter with corrections.

Activity 4: Mr. Wiekersham’s Reply
(Synthesizing, evaluating, and writing)

As background for this exercise, discuss with students the function of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement and the role of Mr. Wickersham as its chairman.

2. Before proceeding with the exercise described below, direct students to read the document carefully and, in a class discussion, to consider the letter’s content and purpose.

3. Direct students to compose a letter from Mr. Wickersham in reply to the mother’s letter. Be sure that students address the mother’s concerns and offer a solution to her dilemma. Students should consider how the government might solve such a problem.

Activity 5: Using the Letter for Role Playing
(Problem solving and valuing)

1. After students have read and discussed the letter, ask for volunteers to play the parts of the mother, the son, and the son’s companions. Direct students to recreate the following incidents, drawing on information they know about human nature, prohibition, and life in the 1920s.

a. The decision to get a drink afterswimming. (son, son’s friends)

b. The confrontation between the mother and the drunken son and one or two of his companions. (mother, son, and companions)

2. Follow up this role-playing activity with a discussion of specific issues of conflict between parents and teenagers today. How do students and their parents resolve conflicts?

Activity 6: Topics for Discussion
(Comprehending, synthesizing, and evaluating)

This document provides a versatile range of topics for discussing life in the 1920s. Many of the issues raised then parallel issues of current concern and make interesting comparisons. For example, prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s and prohibition of marijuana today; intolerance of eastern European immigrants in the 1920s and intolerance of Asian and Hispanic immigrants today; conflicts between the older and younger generations then and now; attitudes toward government in the 1920s and the post-Watergate attitude of the 1970s.


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Chicago: "Letter from a Mother," Teaching With Documents, Volume 1 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 111–114. Original Sources, accessed May 29, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QNC2SEH6F7QCKQV.

MLA: . "Letter from a Mother." Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989, pp. 111–114. Original Sources. 29 May. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QNC2SEH6F7QCKQV.

Harvard: , 'Letter from a Mother' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1. cited in 1989, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board, Washington, D.C., pp.111–114. Original Sources, retrieved 29 May 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QNC2SEH6F7QCKQV.