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The Forgotten Drug War: Dorothy Sullivan, Informant (Chicago, 1941)

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

“There was not the least sign of social disorder in 1942”

—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, speaking at the 100 Years of Heroin Conference, Yale University, 1998

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Informants have been a critical part of drug law enforcement since the earliest days of America’s war on drugs. It isn’t hard to understand why. In my book Cocaine, I described an early attempt by investigators from Charles Merriam’s City Council Committee on Crime to penetrate a cocaine-selling joint in the city. One summer evening in 1914, an investigator concealed himself to watch the back door of a South Side residence. One after another, a total of thirty-seven people “of all classes, both white and black” came to the door, knocked, and purchased small packages of cocaine. The alley itself turned into a kind of social area for consumption; as the investigator noted, “some of the men and women could not wait until they got out of sight and snuffed the cocaine” right on the spot. Others sat in the alley drinking beer and sniffing cocaine, periodically going back to the residence for more. Emboldened by the seemingly open selling, an investigator approached the back door and knocked. Nothing happened. Two more times the investigator tried, without success. Clearly the correct knock had not been employed.

And that’s the main point. Seemingly open systems of drug distribution have always been closed off in important ways, protected by networks of relationships between sellers and consumers. As I noted back in Cocaine, “the drug trade relied on trust and long-term relationships, a reciprocal arrangement in which sellers demanded the discretion and loyalty of buyers, and buyers rewarded those sellers with a reputation for providing a product of consistent quality and avoiding police entanglements.” For police, this means the central challenge is to penetrate those closed systems. And few resources for penetrating closed illicit enterprises have been as widely employed, and abused, as police informants. Here’s what history tells us.


Second, drug informants have often found themselves trapped in a long-term relationship with drug enforcement, in which they are tapped over and over again to facilitate drug busts. Dorothy Sullivan herself fit that profile well. From what little we know of Sullivan, she has first been drawn into informant work the previous year. Only twenty-seven when she died, Sullivan had first been arrested at the age of eighteen, charged with grand larceny. Her first arrest was in Dayton; subsequent arrests appeared on her record in Minneapolis, Gary, Indiana, and Lincoln, Nebraska. When she came to the attention of Chicago authorities, she must have seemed an ideal candidate to work as an informant. Her first major case involved the celebrated narcotics arrest of former Levee madam Vic Shaw (more on Shaw in another post). Her work as an informant continued into the next year, until the day of her death.

Third, for whatever value informants may hold for drug law enforcement, the police appear to have done a relatively poor job of protecting them. The history of the drug war is replete with story after story of dead drug informants. Traditionally, FBN agents were said to “own” their informants, meaning that there was virtually no oversight. Indeed, rival agencies or even agents within an agency, could set each other’s informants up to be undermined. At one point, according to Douglas Valentine’s study of the early DEA, The Strength of the Pack, the agency had at one point 27 unsolved informant homicides. Certainly there was little in the way of protection for Dorothy Sullivan. The window from which she plunged to her death was that of Alvin Bernstein, the subject of the federal investigation, and the person with whom Sullivan had been working to set up the heroin purchase in the case.


What was Dorothy Sullivan doing in Bernstein’s office? We have no way of knowing. But her death reveals one more aspect of the informants’ history—the code of silence which so often obscured the worst of police practices. The day after Sullivan’s death, her mother charged the Federal Bureau of Narcotics of manipulating her daughter, forcing her to testify against her will, with the clear implication that she had been murdered for undertaking that role. But a coroner’s jury accepted the highly implausible police theory—that Sullivan had simply returned to visit Bernstein, that Bernstein had left her alone in the office for a moment, and that Sullivan had attempted to clear her cigarette-stained fingers with benzene when it ignited, setting her on fire and causing her to fall out of an open window. To further muddy the waters, a city physician testified that Dorothy Sullivan had three times previously tried to take her own life, a charge denied by Sullivan’s mother. That the suicide implication matched not at all with the accidental fall story mattered little, but it did remove the suggestion of murder, and therefore the implication that the negligent police handling of an informant had led to her gruesome death. Sullivan’s story and many others have not been told. And while contemporary critics of the confidential informant system have exposed its dark side, historians have a great deal still to add.


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