BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Juice, sauce, booze, liquid courage: Alcohol has had a lot of nicknames through the millennia, but the nickname that applies to this story is “spirits.” As in the spirits that have maintained residency for nearly 100 years in the Bakersfield office of the U.S. Bureau of Prohibition.
“The what?” you ask. Well, this isn’t just a ghost story, it’s a history lesson. First, the history.
In 1920, the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, along with 46 of the 48 states, acted on decades of pressure from religious social reformers and banned the importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. They passed the 18th Amendment—Prohibition. The party was over and responsibility for local enforcement of the nationwide ban fell to the people of Bakersfield in the U.S. Post Office located on, appropriately, 18th Street.
Or rather, it fell to the federal agents who worked in the basement of the post office building, behind a still-intact door—that of the U.S. Bureau of Prohibition, a division of the Treasury Department. This Post Office, Bakersfield’s first, formally opened in early 1925, four and a half years into Prohibition.
It’s where Prohibition agents stored confiscated liquor—likely behind a semi-inaccessible door six feet above the floor—and interrogated suspected bootleggers and traffickers by the light of a single basement bulb, still hanging in the same spot.
One of those bootleggers, as legend has it, died while being interrogated and agents allegedly moved his body into an adjacent room, where it remained until they could arrange its removal.
Pure myth? Perhaps. But several of the postal workers said they’d heard that story, handed down through three generations of local mail carriers, and a few said they sometimes still feel the presence of something or someone lurking over their shoulder late in the evening, after closing.
The USPS district office in Sacramento wouldn’t allow interviews with those postal workers on camera.
While the that bootlegger’s story is unknown, but we do know that the most feared Prohibition agent in the county, Special Officer William “Bud” Wiles, was killed during a raid on a bootlegging operation in the mountain town of Woody a week before Christmas, 1924. And he would have been based right there at 93301, the downtown post office.
Local historian Ken Hooper said Wiles was one of four agents who were ambushed that day as they approached a still hidden in a remote cabin.
“Officer Wiles was a deputy from Wasco who’d been brought in by the District Attorney’s office to prosecute and go after these bootleggers,” Hooper said. “And he had developed a pretty large reputation for success. A lot of bootleggers in Kern County feared the name of Bud Wiles because he had been so successful.”
Thirty-one-year-old bootlegger Louis Lowe pleaded self-defense and was eventually found guilty of manslaughter. Lowe, who had previously served out a sentence at San Quentin State Prison for felony burglary, was this time sentenced to 1-to-10 years at Folsom Prison. He was later transferred to a convict labor camp in Fresno County.
What a perfect coincidence that the historic building that served as Prohibition headquarters was renamed the Merle Haggard Post Office in 2018 in honor of the Bakersfield-born country music legend who gave us songs like, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
“There’s plenty of irony when it comes to booze and Merle Haggard,” Hooper said, “but the fact that it’s in the Merle Haggard Post Office, the Prohibition office, I think he would laugh at that.”
Is the downtown Post Office haunted by the ghost of a bootlegger? By the psychic aura of the most diligent Prohibition agent in Kern County? Still, almost 90 years after the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition? No telling.
But as any longtime denizen of downtown Bakersfield will tell you, those spirits would be in good company with ghostly neighbors at the nearby Bakersfield Californian building and the Padre Hotel, both just off 18th Street. But those are ghost stories for another day.
The Post Office’s motto is “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” One might add, “Nor even the spirit of bootleggers or Prohibition agents haunting post office basements.”