PROHIBITION WAS BETTER than no liquor at all,” the saying went, and it didn’t take much effort to convince the thirsty. The evidence was everywhere. In New England the liquor came from ships anchored beyond the three-mile limit and ferried to shore by an enormous fleet of sailboats, skiffs, dinghies, rowboats, and even a few seaplanes. In Philadelphia the primary source was the chemical industry of the Delaware Valley, where denatured alcohol produced under government permit for industrial uses could be diverted, renatured, diluted, flavored with a little juniper oil, and made available on Market Street within days. Chicagoans depended on the resourceful (if murderous) Genna brothers, who oversaw hundreds of home stills situated in apartments all over the Near West Side, a network so large the entire neighborhood reeked of alcohol fumes. The $15 a month the Gennas paid to each mom or pop distiller for their output added up to very little, really, if you considered that the brothers’ operation grossed $350,000 a month.
Denver drinkers could look to cunning moonshiners who placed animal carcasses near their distilleries, thus disguising the telltale scent of sour mash with the more potent aroma of rotting flesh. Across the South, moonshine technology developed along local lines, Georgia contributing the Double-Stacked Mash Barrel Still, Virginia the Blackpot still, and Alabama the Barrel-Capped Box Still, which in turn spawned a North Carolina variant fueled by propane instead of wood (no telltale plume of smoke to tip off hijackers, competitors, or lawmen).
The liquor available in Kansas—dry by state law since 1880—was largely a concoction called Deep Shaft, named for the mines in the southeast part of the state where it originated. In Detroit, so near to the bounteous output of its Canadian neighbors, subterfuge was generally unnecessary. Wrote newspaperman Malcolm Bingay, “It was absolutely impossible to get a drink in Detroit unless you walked at least ten feet and told the busy bartender what you wanted in a voice loud enough for him to hear you above the uproar.”
In Washington, Warren G. Harding could get his drinks from Taylor, his manservant at the house he kept near the golf course at the Chevy Chase Club, who kept it stocked with bourbon and Scotch; from his attorney general, Harry Daugherty, who had large quantities of seized liquor delivered by Justice Department employees to his infamous den of iniquity, the Little Green House on K Street; or from his friend Representative Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, Teddy Roosevelt’s son-in-law, “who did not have the slightest intention of complying with the Eighteenth Amendment and never pretended to.” That was the verdict of his wife, Alice, who believed that the family’s butler made “a passable gin.” The Longworth cellars also produced a homemade beer that won compliments from Arthur Balfour when the British diplomat visited Washington for the 1921 Disarmament Conference.
It was of course no surprise that Harding’s Washington was awash in alcohol from the moment of his inauguration. In the Senate he’d been a dry only as a matter of convenience, doing what he felt necessary to stay on the right side of the Anti-Saloon League, which was so powerful in Ohio. Harding never really thought Prohibition would work, and his attitude toward liquor was probably best demonstrated in a sociable nature that made him, said one of his contemporaries, “not at all averse to putting a foot on the brass rail.”
This was a common posture among those who frequented the private rooms at Harding’s White House. The president set the tone when he arranged to have $1,800 worth of liquor that he’d purchased before January 16, 1920, transferred to the presidential living quarters from his home on Wyoming Avenue. (Going in the other direction, Woodrow Wilson had his personal supply relocated from the White House to his home on S Street.) Harding provided liquid hospitality to guests ranging from Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, to the floating cast of characters who took part in his regular poker games. Those were among the most freely lubricated nights at the White House, when Florence Harding graciously took on the responsibility of filling and refilling the glasses of her husband’s Ohio cronies (including Attorney General Daugherty) and his higher-toned Washington pals. Thus could the First Lady find herself from time to time accommodating not only the nation’s chief legal officer, but a future Speaker of the House (Longworth), two U.S. senators (Frank Brandegee of Connecticut and Joseph Frelinghuysen of New Jersey), the chairman of the U.S. Shipping Board (advertising pioneer Albert Lasker), and occasionally even the daunting secretary of the treasury, Andrew W. Mellon, the vastly wealthy man whose department was responsible for enforcing the Eighteenth Amendment. Florence Harding’s friend Alice Longworth, who said “no rumor [about the Harding White House] could have exceeded the truth,” recalled “air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whisky . . . cards and poker chips ready at hand—a general atmosphere of the waistcoat unbuttoned, feet on the desk, and the spittoon alongside.”
Because of the Teapot Dome scandal and various other outrages that brought dishonor to his administration and that for the most part became known only after what Samuel Hopkins Adams called Harding’s “timely death,” there’s much about this least respected of presidents that has been sifted out of his historical image. He began his administration by throwing open the gates of the White House, allowing average citizens to roam the grounds of this highly symbolic piece of public property. He brought black citizens back into federal positions (Woodrow Wilson had all but purged them during his administration), implored Congress to pass an antilynching bill, and forthrightly denounced the Ku Klux Klan. On October 26, 1921, in one of the boldest speeches ever delivered by an American president, he traveled into the heart of the South to tell an enormous crowd in Birmingham, “I would say let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.” Wilson had refused to pardon Eugene V. Debs, who had been imprisoned on a preposterous espionage charge arising from the domestic hysteria that accompanied World War I; Harding pardoned him on Christmas Day of the first year of his presidency, with the probably unprecedented proviso that the recipient of the pardon had to come visit him in the White House.
But there was this persistent thing about Warren Harding, however enlightened (if ineffectual) some of his statements might have been: his inability to make a decision. He told one of his speechwriters, “I listen to one side and they seem right, and then—God!—I talk to the other side, and they seem just as right.” He both smoked and chewed tobacco, and at times would grow so desperate to calm his raging anxiety that he’d grab a cigarette, rip it open, and stuff its contents straight into his mouth. The New Republic said Harding had none of “those moral or intellectual qualities which would qualify him even under ordinary circumstances for statesmanlike leadership.” That was accurate but not really the point. What Harding lacked was the courage of his convictions—which, practically speaking, meant he had no convictions at all.
WAYNE WHEELER HAD two primary responsibilities once the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified: keeping Congress and the president in line. This took vigilance but little heavy lifting. Congress was no problem at all; the ASL had effectively seized control of both House and Senate in the 1916 elections and had only tightened it since. The feckless Harding would have required more attention had he not been so inherently complaisant. Wheeler’s grip on the short leash he allowed Harding was so firm that when he wanted something from the president, Harding would respond with the eagerness of a puppy. When Wheeler objected to the pending Supreme Court appointment of Senator John K. Shields of Tennessee, who had voted for the Eighteenth Amendment but against the Volstead Act, Harding capitulated instantly. On one occasion, hoping “to see you briefly concerning some matters of mutual interest,” Wheeler heard back from Harding by return mail: “I need not tell you,” the president wrote, “that I will always try to make it possible to see you when you find occasion to call.” Not that it was always a pleasant prospect for Harding. When Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon announced his permissive interpretation of a particular Volstead Act provision, Harding parried Wheeler’s speedy complaint with a doleful response: “Somehow,” Harding wrote, “I had rather expected your letter.”
But Wheeler never complained publicly about anything Harding did; to do so, wrote his ASL colleague Justin Steuart, “might be construed as evidence that he lacked influence with the administration.” If so, that would have been virtually the only such evidence extant. When the president was about to appoint a chief Prohibition enforcement officer, the Harding administration took pains to assure Wheeler that “no one would be appointed for this position who was unacceptable” to the ASL. This was how the nation won the services of Roy A. Haynes of Ohio.
If you can judge a man by his friends, then Haynes could be convicted on the basis of the wild enthusiasm in his behalf displayed by Representative W. D. Upshaw of Georgia, the driest dry in the House. Upshaw had given himself the nickname “Earnest Willie.” Having lost the use of his legs in an accident, he was also billed from time to time as “the orator on crutches” or “the Rolling Chair Evangelist.” Sometimes he was called “the Georgia Cyclone.”* He signed his mail “Yours very dry.” A religious fundamentalist and political naïf, Upshaw was an object of perpetual mirth to wets, who loved to bait him, and of substantial consternation to the ASL, which couldn’t control him. Said one league official, “No one questions Mr. Upshaw’s sincerity, but he is ranting and intemperate.” Indiscriminate, too: Upshaw’s single-minded devotion to the Prohibition cause led him to support both the Ku Klux Klan and woman suffrage, believing that both abetted the dry movement. Even more avidly, he endorsed Roy Haynes’s appointment as Prohibition commissioner. Upshaw applauded Haynes’s “unsullied integrity” and “amazing genius and energy,” and said “the story of [his] victories reads like a revised edition of the Acts of the Apostles, with Scottish Chiefs and the Arabian Nights thrown in.”
Ranting, intemperate, indiscriminate—and, judging by his appraisal of Haynes, Upshaw was also either profoundly disingenuous or just plain stupid. Roy Haynes had three characteristics (“qualifications” would be a gross overstatement) that might have led Wheeler to choose him for the job of supervising a national force of federal agents. He had been editor of a daily newspaper in Hillsboro, Ohio, where Mother Thompson had launched her Crusade back in 1873. He was a Harding crony. And, crucially, he was willing to be the ASL’s hand puppet—or, as the head of the New York State branch of the ASL called him, “Wheeler’s special pet.”
A large, doughy man whose sunny nature was as expansive as his waist and as predictable as the bow tie he wore every day, Haynes was convinced that leading the federal enforcement effort was a swell assignment. He seemed equally convinced that he was good at it. The evidence? In the first full year of Prohibition, he said, church membership in the United States had grown by 1.2 million, and if that wasn’t a sign of the nation’s turn in a moral direction, what was? And how about the wonderful “fact” he cited the following year—that 85 percent of the nation’s drinkers had sworn off the stuff since the dry regime began? This was an assertion so patently at odds with reality that critics found it as humorous as the admonitory fables Haynes liked to cite. Once, warning against the perils of bootleg liquor, he told the story of “a young woman on a Hoboken ferry-boat who took a drink from a flask carried in the pocket of her escort. Almost immediately, she staggered to the stern, plunged into the Hudson and was drowned.” The lesson was clear, Haynes concluded: “Who drinks bootleg drinks with Death.”
This sort of thing gave Haynes a second constituency beyond Wheeler, Upshaw, and other dry consuls—namely, vaudeville comedians who could get a laugh virtually by mentioning his name. These same satirists considered Haynes’s boss, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, less useful, which surely disappointed any dry with a sense of humor. The drys considered Mellon their most influential enemy, the one ranking member of the Harding administration least in sympathy with the ASL’s goals, its methods, and its membership.
Mellon’s Treasury Department housed Haynes’s Prohibition Bureau and his field agents, just as it had always been home to the federal agents in the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Frequently described as the second- or third-richest man in the United States after John D. Rockefeller and perhaps Henry Ford, except when he was described as richer than either of them, Mellon was a man of refinement (his collection would become the foundation of the National Gallery of Art) and an austere, even forbidding manner. In addition to the powerful Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh, he controlled Gulf Oil, Alcoa Aluminum, a hefty chunk of U.S. Steel, and the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. He affected no interest in how he was perceived by the public—Mellon once asked a journalist “just why should the secretary be expected to talk to the reporters?”—except when he had something to hide. About to sue his wife for divorce in 1911, he first arranged to have the tame Pennsylvania legislature pass a law allowing the trial to proceed in private, before only a judge—no public, no reporters, not even a jury.
His son referred to Mellon’s “ice-water smile,” but even that chilly facsimile of gaiety rarely appeared in public. Taut and contained, his 145 pounds stretched over a nearly six-foot frame, his white hair and gray mustache offsetting a sharply angular, even cadaverous face, Mellon looked as if he had been carved from chalky stone. And if the personal connection with his flabby, backslapping Prohibition commissioner was hard to discern, the philosophical bond between Mellon and Haynes was nonexistent. In fact, that Andrew W. Mellon was secretary of the treasury to some extent revealed how little Harding and his inner circle must have cared about enforcing the Volstead Act. Mellon drank and didn’t apologize for it. He made no apparent effort to hide his disapproval of the law and the amendment that had spawned it. He loathed the income tax and believed that the best means of supporting what he believed should be very limited government were the sharply regressive excise taxes of the sort that had once been levied on liquor, beer, and wine. He even owned, with his brother Richard, a company that was the pride of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, where the Whiskey Rebellion had begun in 1794: the Old Overholt rye distillery.
Mellon had purchased his original one-third interest in Old Overholt from his friend Henry Clay Frick in 1887 (Frick’s maternal grandfather Abraham Overholt, né Overholtzer, had founded the distillery in 1810). The transaction could only have been an act of sport or love; the $25,000 that Mellon had paid Frick for his shares was small change for the Mellon family. To the drys, though, it was palpable evidence of Mellon’s unfitness for running the federal department responsible for implementing the Volstead Act. When Mellon’s impending appointment first became known, William H. Anderson, the ASL’s New York state superintendent, sent out alarmed notice of his involvement in Old Overholt to hundreds of daily newspapers. Senator Matthew M. Neely of West Virginia said that “a thief will never enforce the law against larceny; a pyromaniac will never enforce the law against arson; a distiller will never enforce the Volstead Act.” But for once even Wheeler was unable to persuade Harding to cleave to the ASL catechism.
ANDREW MELLON CERTAINLY didn’t set out with great enthusiasm to apply the law. Even apart from his personal distaste for Prohibition, he considered the Volstead Act extreme, impractical, and essentially unenforceable. The odd thing was that Roy Haynes, his unlikely lieutenant, didn’t entirely disagree. Yes, the hymns he sang about increased churchgoing and other examples of post-Volstead moral uplift may have been filled with assertions about the decline of drink. But how could he justify keeping a force of twenty-five hundred men in the field if there was no booze to chase down? Nobody may have been drinking it, Haynes seemed to say, but for some reason there was plenty of stuff out there.
The force Haynes commanded was inept and venal. Dry politicians had all but guaranteed this when they exempted enforcement agents from the job protections provided members of the civil service, asserting that it would be all too easy for a wet applicant to pass a civil service examination and then, once hired, subvert the law. Unflinching sympathy with the Volstead Act, drys insisted, was the most important qualification, both for getting an agent’s job and for keeping it. The real sine qua non for any aspiring agent was endorsement by the ASL, which had added to its other assets the ripe fruits of political patronage. In most of the country hiring power effectively belonged to the ASL, in league with its congressional allies. The more upstanding national officers and state superintendents of the ASL may have earnestly desired a skilled national police force that would enforce the law, but earnestness (compounded by naïveté) was easily snuffed out by expedience. The league used enforcement jobs to reward their faithful troops; dry politicians went along to ensure their own incumbency; and together they guaranteed the bureau’s corruption and incompetence.
Some prohibitionists did keep their hands clean. Senator George Norris of Nebraska, whose dryness was a direct extension of his righteously progressive principles, recognized the perils of a politicized appointment process and refused to have anything to do with selecting agents. Andrew Volstead claimed a similar position. But when Attorney General Daugherty (who also happened to be the president’s chief political operative) declared that the civil service was a “hindrance to the government,” as he told Congress in 1922, the signal was unmistakable. In the increasingly corrupt Harding administration, where political exigency was holy writ, the Prohibition Bureau became, as one historian of the civil service would describe it, “a chaos of spoils.”
George Norris’s Senate colleague John W. Harreld of Oklahoma was typical of congressional drys. Harreld openly admitted that his reelection prospects were directly tied to his ability to appoint the enforcement agents in his state, and he acted accordingly. But this was not a moral defect that afflicted only the drys. Many wet members of Congress were just as craven, as they took their all-you-can-eat turns at what the despairing Norris called “the political pie counter.” Drys charged that the very wet representative Fiorello La Guardia of New York presided over appointments in his city, and the all-wet senatorial delegations from saturated New Jersey and soaking Maryland handed out enforcement jobs to the like-minded. An officer of the National Civil Service League suggested that, at least on this issue, wet and dry could come together not as enemies but as coconspirators: “The plain fact is that the congressmen wanted this plunder,” he said.
ASK CONSUMERS OF popular culture who came of age in the middle of the twentieth century what the term “Prohibition agent” connotes, and most will conjure up an image of actor Robert Stack as Special Agent Eliot Ness, from the 118 episodes of The Untouchables that ran on ABC Television between 1959 and 1963.* The real Eliot Ness was named after the novelist George Eliot, had almost nothing to do with the conviction and imprisonment of Al Capone, once ran for mayor of Cleveland (losing by a two-to-one margin), and died a semidrunk in 1957.
Asked the same question, the parents of those who grew up watching The Untouchables would likely recall the real-world New York duo of Isidore Einstein and Moe Smith. As early as 1922 this picaresque pair was so well known that headlines in the Timescould refer to the corpulent Einstein and the lumbering Smith solely by their nicknames (“izzy and Moe raid thespian retreat”; “Izzy and Moe Pour Whisky Into sewer”; “sees Izzy and Moe, Bartender Faints”). That Izzy and Moe spent only four years in the Prohibition Bureau before they were fired in 1925 did not obscure their accomplishments or lessen their renown.
Ness, Einstein, and Smith were not the only agents who achieved fame through the popular media. During the 1920s and early ’30s tabloid newspapers in particular amplified the mythmaking by coining dramatic epithets for publicity-friendly members of the Prohibition service. M. T. Gonzaulles became celebrated as “the Lone Wolf of Texas,” William R. Hervey was “the Kokomo Schoolmaster,” and Samuel Kurtzman, working the Canadian border, was “the Plague of the North.” Al “Wallpaper” Wolff, in Chicago, got his nickname from the thoroughness of his raids: “We’d get a warrant, go in and arrest them, call the trucks and move ’em out. We’d move everything but the wallpaper.” Female agents made especially good copy. “Tall and slender” Daisy Simpson was “the Woman with a Hundred Disguises,” who feigned illness outside illegal establishments and busted proprietors when they offered her a restorative sip of brandy.
Less well known, at least until they began showing up in court on the wrong side of the witness dock, were the agents, officers, regional directors, and all the other functionaries low and high who joined the service out of loyalty to something more negotiable than Volsteadian orthodoxy. Some, like “Stewart McMullin”—the name turned out to be as fraudulent as his stated credentials—were simply goons. The first agent to kill a suspected bootlegger in the line of duty, McMullin turned out to have killed another man when he was fourteen, had served one prison term for altering checks and another for armed robbery, and at the time he was given his badge was still incarcerated at Dannemora State Prison in upstate New York. S. Glenn Young, who as a marauding vigilante in southern Illinois eventually wrote his way onto the front pages with a submachine gun, was a wife beater, a hireling of the Ku Klux Klan, and an uncontrollable bully. In Norfolk, Virginia, agent Layton H. Blood tried to open what he called “a pool room in the nigger part of town,” funded by the ASL and designed to entrap black bootleggers. “By the way,” Blood asked his supervisor in Washington, “does the Treasury Department have any appropriation for fumigating their representatives? You know our colored brethren have a smell all their own [and] I’ll need delousing more than any bird you ever saw.”
But one didn’t need to explore McMullin’s murderous mind, Young’s deep thuggishness, or Blood’s loathsome racism to locate the rotten core of the Prohibition Bureau in its early days. That could be found, as the hallowed phrase would later have it, where the money was. Emory Buckner, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the $1,800 a year paid to Prohibition agents was not a living wage in his jurisdiction, yet “men clamor for the jobs.” It was as if the willingness to accept a meager salary (equivalent to slightly more than $20,000 in 2009) guaranteed you the lucky number in a fabulous sweepstakes. The universal prize: a piece of the millions upon millions of dollars in bribes and blackmail that even a moderately adept agent could extract from the lawbreakers operating within his jurisdiction. New York editor Stanley Walker said most Prohibition agents “were fairly decent fellows, and their demands . . . were never extortionate.” They didn’t need to be; there was enough dirty money for everybody.
So evident was the corruption that saturated the Prohibition force from the very beginning that President Harding was moved to say, “There are conditions relating to [the Volstead Act’s] enforcement which savor of nation-wide scandal. It is the most demoralizing factor in our public life.” Coming from Warren G. Harding, this was saying quite a lot.
IT’S UNCLEAR WHETHER Mabel Willebrandt, assistant attorney general of the United States from 1921 to 1929, began the practice of starting her day with an ice-cold bath before or after she left her husband. That happened in 1916, around the time she determined that unhappy marriages resulted from “letting the whole relationship just drop to a dead level of bodily contact.” Though she was not without suitors, including one wealthy man known as “the Alaskan Reindeer King” and another who built Hollywood’s glamorous Chateau Marmont, Willebrandt never married again. But after she became, without question, the most powerful woman in the nation, Willebrandt did adopt a two-year-old girl. The child learned to endure the daily ritual in the icy bathtub in Willebrandt’s home in the Columbia Heights section of Washington, D.C., just as she learned to sleep outdoors, protected only by a tent, even in the Washington wintertime. “Life has few petted darlings,” Willebrandt said, and as her biographer, Dorothy M. Brown, wrote, her daughter “would not be one of them.”
Of course not. Mabel Willebrandt, aka “the Prohibition Portia,” possessor (said the New York Times) of “one of the keenest legal minds in the United States,” did not achieve her eminence by being soft. Born in a sod hut on the lonely plains of southwestern Kansas, she eventually found her way in the early part of the twentieth century to Southern California. When she applied for a position as a schoolteacher in South Pasadena, she reported that she’d studied “trigonometry, physics, chemistry, Greek, rhetoric, elocution, public speaking, European history, ethics, sociology, political science, physical science, physical culture, commercial law, commercial geography, freehand drawing, domestic science, household economy, clay modeling, and gymnastics.” The courses she was qualified to teach included “English language, grammar, American history, modern history, civics, geography, arithmetic, and nature study.” If needed, she indicated, she also stood ready to teach “algebra, geometry, botany, zoology, biology, physiology, physiography, Latin, English literature, English composition, pedagogy, penmanship, and public school music.” And baseball.
Is it a surprise that barely ten years later, this protean individual attained the highest position any woman had yet reached in the federal government, and that she did it before her thirty-third birthday? Not to anyone who would watch Willebrandt inscribe her name across the history of the 1920s. “Who is the outstanding woman in American political life today, among those holding appointive positions?” Better Homes and Gardens wondered in 1928. “I have asked dozens of women all over the country,” the writer said. “Dozens of men, too, for that matter! And the answer in every case has been the same . . . Mabel Walker Willebrandt.”
Mabel Walker Willebrandt? Eight decades later it’s a name that’s utterly obscure. But Willebrandt was as well known in her time as Wayne Wheeler, and if she was just as quickly forgotten, it wasn’t because she hadn’t left her mark. Had the Better Homes and Gardens question used “most important” or “most influential” instead of “outstanding,” the dozens who offered Willebrandt’s name could as easily have been thousands. For eight years under Warren G. Harding and his two immediate successors, Willebrandt served as the assistant attorney general responsible for Prohibition enforcement policy, for the prosecution of Volstead Act violations, and for the defense of the act before the Supreme Court. If the government’s battle on booze had a face, it was Mabel Willebrandt’s—“the delightful luncheon companion,” said the Atlanta Constitution, “who neither paints, powders, nor uses lipstick.”
Willebrandt said she hated “that girly-girly stuff”—the strongly scented garlands of prose inevitably draped on the few women in public office during the 1920s. The Constitution commented on her blue eyes, while the New York Times described them as “wide, earnest, truthful [and] brown.” Frances Parkinson Keyes, on the brink of her long career as a popular novelist, said Willebrandt’s “invariable costume during the day is a strictly tailored suit, worn with a simple and immaculate blouse.” But Keyes hastened to point out that at home, Willebrandt favored “dainty and exquisite dresses . . . with a flower at waist or shoulder.” For readers of the era’s women’s magazines, that was a much more appealing image than any strictly tailored suit.
Unlike Wheeler, who devoted his life to a single issue and spent what little leisure time he allowed himself among a tightly circumscribed set of associates, Mabel Willebrandt got around. Her closest female friend may have been Andrew Volstead’s daughter Laura, but she had unlikelier pals as well, among them the record-breaking aviator Jackie Cochran, and the man who “will do most anything for me,” motion picture baron Louis B. Mayer. But her tilt toward Hollywood shouldn’t suggest that Willebrandt had turned frivolous. She especially enjoyed dinner parties at the home of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, she wrote, because at the Brandeis table, “the conversation is guided into stimulating excursions of research. The guest partakes of the eager enjoyment of pursuing truth at intellectual frontiers.” Willebrandt was instrumental in launching the career of a young lawyer named John J. Sirica, who would confirm her faith in him half a century later as the presiding judge in the Watergate trials. Her most notable friend might have been the fellow she urged Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone to name as director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of investigation in 1924—Laura Volstead’s old law school classmate, twenty-nine-year-old J. Edgar hoover.*
Mabel Willebrandt did not win her position in the Harding subcabinet through passionate commitment to the Eighteenth Amendment. In fact she hadn’t particularly supported its passage. She openly acknowledged she’d been a social drinker before 1920, when she was still working as a public defender representing women dragged into Los Angeles police court. (She had indeed won that teaching job in South Pasadena, but all those academic skills were deployed only to keep her afloat financially while she completed night law school at the University of Southern California.) Her police court clients were a collection of prostitutes and drunks who might have offended Willebrandt’s lingering Victorian sensibilities had they not excited her blossoming progressive impulses. Senator Hiram Johnson, the shining knight of California’s dry progressives, heard about Willebrandt from one of her law school professors. This was around the time that the new Harding administration, nodding in the direction of recently enfranchised women, began casting about for a symbolic appointee. Johnson, who especially liked the fact that Los Angeles conservatives deprecated Willebrandt’s progressive fervor, sponsored her ascension.
When Willebrandt took her oath of office in 1921, one might have gauged the depth of the Harding administration’s commitment to the Eighteenth Amendment by examining the bona fides of the men alongside whom she was expected to lead the war on liquor: a secretary of the treasury (Andrew Mellon) who loathed Prohibition, an attorney general (Harry Daugherty) who flouted it regularly, and a Prohibition commissioner (Roy Haynes) who was a punch line. For chief prosecutor of Volstead violators, a thirty-two-year-old woman only five years out of law school probably seemed just right.
What happened next, of course, was something devotees of dime novels, fairy tales, or other ritualized clichés could have predicted: she became a terror. The division of authority spelled out in the Volstead Act was based on longstanding protocols arising from the enforcement of the tax code. The treasury secretary, through the director of Prohibition, was responsible for a field force of agents who uncovered violations of the law; they, in turn, handed the offenders over to the Justice Department—to Willebrandt and the U.S. attorneys in every federal judicial district—for trial. The nicest thing she had to say about the risible Haynes was that he was “a politician in sheep’s clothing.” She felt those Harding appointees who actually believed in the idea of a dry America were no better. They comprised “a regime of preachers,” she said. “Many of them are well-meaning, sentimental and dry, but they can’t catch crooks.”
Then there were the Prohibition department’s own home-grown crooks, the grafters, extortionists, and thieves in the agent force who would lead Willebrandt to say, “I refuse to believe that out of our one hundred and twenty million population . . . it is impossible to find four thousand men in the United States who can not be bought.” And she said that after eight years of trying.
THE BATTALION OF moralizers and malefactors that Roy Haynes led and Mabel Willebrandt suffered did not bear the burden of policing Prohibition violations alone. The peculiar second clause of the Eighteenth Amendment, assigning “concurrent” enforcement power to the federal government and to the states, mandated (or at least encouraged) armies of cops across the nation to stand shoulder to shoulder in the booze wars. The relative strength of the Anti-Saloon League in various parts of the country could be measured by the proliferation of state laws designed to be “concurrent” with the federal strictures. Anyone arrested for insobriety in Vermont was subject to a mandatory jail sentence if he failed to name the person from whom he acquired his liquor. At one point Indiana vested train conductors and bus drivers with the authority to arrest passengers carrying alcohol and made it illegal for retailers to put flasks or cocktail shakers in their shop windows. Mississippi decreed debts related to the acquisition of intoxicating beverages uncollectible. Iowa banned the sale of Sterno, from which alcohol could be extracted by filtering it through a rag or, among drunks with better table manners, through a loaf of bread.
Yet some local police departments that wanted to make meaningful attempts to enforce Prohibition found temptation too tasty to resist. In Indiana this did not take long: in a series of missives that became known as the “Dear Jerry Letters” after they were leaked to a newspaper in 1921, the newly installed federal Prohibition director for the region instructed Indianapolis police chief Jeremiah Kinney to distribute any confiscated liquor to the director’s associates. In Chicago a brief spasm of serious enforcement efforts collapsed shortly after the revelation—by the city’s mayor, no less—that an estimated 60 percent of the city’s police force was in the liquor business.
When Mabel Willebrandt charged that these nonfederal policing efforts were beset by “sleeping sickness,” she may have been referring to the states’ stuporous response to funding requirements. Only eighteen states bothered to appropriate as much as a dollar for enforcement. In some jurisdictions this reflected a distaste for the whole business; New York repealed its state enforcement code in 1923, and Maryland never even bothered to enact one. An ASL publication solemnly declared, “Any state that fails to . . . pass enforcement legislation [should] become a ward of the nation, and be considered one of the backward states in loyalty to the Union.” New Yorkers and Marylanders seemed to bear the obloquy without much pain.
Some of the demurring legislatures that chose not to support the enforcement effort were not necessarily motivated by wet sentiment. Even where ASL-backed officials were in the majority, dry passions were usually not as intense as the tightfistedness that shaped the era’s fiscal policies. In a decade that witnessed the overnight evaporation of alcohol-derived excise taxes; suffered a drastic plummeting of income tax rates following the end of World War I; and endured the prevailing government parsimony that hovered like a scowl over the administrations of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover—in such a time, legislatures did not appropriate public funds eagerly.
In some states, notably Pennsylvania, the disconnect between the laws and the means to enforce them approached the surreal. The state’s dominant Republican Party was divided into an archconservative (and hence largely wet) faction controlled by the wellborn, wealthy, and imperious senator Boies Penrose, and a progressive (and thus mainly dry) bloc led by the wellborn, wealthy, and crusading Gifford Pinchot. Penrose, in state politics a confederate of Andrew Mellon, led a powerful political machine built on a dazzling use of patronage and a belief that government was a weapon to be wielded in the interests of the moneyed classes. (He once said, “I’d rather dictate to damned fools than serve them.”) Pinchot, a member of Theodore Roosevelt’s inner circle who had first attained prominence as the conservation-minded director of the U.S. Forest Service, was a progressive who believed government was an implement designed to improve the lot of the people, whether or not they wanted their lot improved.
When Penrose died in 1922, Pinchot took advantage of disarray within the state party to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Elected in November, he pledged to bar liquor from the governor’s mansion (itself a startling proposal), to appoint only those judges who swore fealty to the Eighteenth Amendment, and to lead “the first honest-to-God attempt made in this state” to bring Pennsylvania into line with the Volstead Act. Pinchot detested Andrew Mellon and, according to one Mellon family biographer, gave credence to preposterous rumors that the Mellon-controlled Gulf Oil Company had been importing liquor in oil drums and parceling it out from roadside gas stations.
Pennsylvania’s first federal Prohibition director, a former state senator named William C. McConnell, was a soldier in the Penrose army who after less than a year in office was implicated along with forty-six associates, including sixteen enforcement agents on his staff, in a four-million-dollar corruption scheme. Pinchot could not have been pleased when the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting McConnell was fired, or when all the evidence in the case miraculously disappeared. He may not have been surprised, either. “Politics first, law enforcement second, has been the order,” Pinchot said of the Penrose hegemony. McConnell had done what was “expected and intended by the power to which his appointment was due.”
Pinchot expected and intended something altogether different. Confident, efficient, blessed with the mien and manner of a noble warrior—historian Patricia O’Toole wrote that his face “had features so fine he could have modeled for coinage”—Pinchot did not pause before beginning his “honest-to-God” effort to dry up Pennsylvania. In his first month in office he turned the state police into a commando army. A single week saw raids on illegal liquor operations in eighteen counties. Reminding Republican legislators that he was now head of the party, that he had led them to victory at the top of the ticket in November, and that they had pledged their support to his legislative program, Pinchot got all the laws he wanted. Swollen with the pride of a triumphalist, gleaming with the righteousness of a reformer, Pinchot announced that he had achieved his legislative success without making a single promise in exchange for a vote. “This is an unbought victory,” he proclaimed, “and ten times as valuable on that account.”
Unbought, perhaps, but unfunded as well. After Pinchot’s glorious moment had passed, the legislators who had gone along with his program stiffened. It was one thing for the Pennsylvania legislature—any legislature, really—to give militant drys the laws they wanted, but quite another to provide the funds necessary for their enforcement. As a result, the legislators decided that the total appropriation for Pinchot’s ambitious program should amount to precisely . . . zero.
FOR THE DRYS, it never got that bad on the federal level. But Wayne Wheeler, familiar as he was with every hillock and valley on the political landscape, had early on recognized the prevailing resistance to government spending. In 1920 Wheeler told Morris Sheppard that five million dollars would be a sufficient appropriation for all federal enforcement of Prohibition (by way of comparison, the sum wouldn’t even have covered the payroll of Columbia University that year). It is difficult to believe that Wheeler truly thought you could patrol a nation so vast, with its borders so porous and its angry wets so thirsty, on such a minuscule budget. It is not difficult to believe that he knew it was a fool’s errand to risk defeat by demanding sizable appropriations from a Congress dominated by cheeseparers. A Republican Congress in the 1920s was more likely to sing a few choruses of the “Internationale” than issue large checks for government activities. Roy Haynes tried to pry some money loose by boasting that the sum of fines, assessments, and taxes collected from Volstead violators was substantially greater than the government’s enforcement expenditures, but Congress ignored the hint and chose not to invest any further even in so profitable a venture.
Consequently, in the first several years of Prohibition, the drys got only as much enforcement as they were willing to pay for. The staff of Roy Haynes’s Prohibition Department initially consisted of only 1,500 ill-trained field agents and 1,500 office personnel tucked into the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The other main component of the federal enforcement effort was the Coast Guard. If Haynes’s 1,500 field agents seemed a thin detachment to spread across the entire country, consider the armada charged with patrolling the nation’s 4,993 miles of coastline: in 1920 the entire Coast Guard fleet consisted of twenty-six inshore vessels, some converted tugboats, and twenty-nine cruising cutters, one of which was based in Evansville, Indiana. Congress did not hand any meaningful additional appropriations to the Coast Guard from the time the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified until 1925, five years into its teetering reign.
Underfunded, ill-staffed, overseen by the indifferent Mellon and the incompetent Haynes, the federal enforcement effort was orphaned by the Harding administration. Dauntless Mabel Willebrandt—the only high-ranking government official who seemed to believe that federal laws were meant to be enforced—did her best. Federal district judges frustrated by overcrowded courts and underenthusiastic prosecutors were adopted as her pen pals and pelted with pep talks. U.S. attorneys who did not commit wholeheartedly to pursuing lawbreakers found themselves threatened with dismissal. She also decided to use other parts of the federal code—tax laws, tariff laws—to broaden her authority beyond the limits of the Volstead Act, which she dismissed as “puny” and “toothless.”
Willebrandt’s was one method of overcoming administrative inertia or legislative inaction. Gifford Pinchot, in Pennsylvania, devised a different one. After the fair-weather drys of the Pennsylvania legislature refused to fund his enforcement program, Pinchot turned toward the WCTU. State Chapter President Ella George of Beaver Falls accepted the governor’s challenge and persuaded the Pennsylvania WCTU to donate to his enforcement effort 60 percent of the money the legislature had denied him.
The virtuous governor Pinchot did not let this generosity go unremarked. He may have been an idealist, but he was not an ingrate. Apparently having learned a thing or two from his adversaries in the Penrose machine, or perhaps from the ASL, he thanked Mrs. George by granting her the right to pass on all political appointments in Beaver County.
* For a man who had been severely crippled at eighteen, this particular nickname was less counterintuitive than it might have appeared. According to one contemporary account, Upshaw possessed an uncanny ability to “move about without assistance when carried away while speaking by bursts of strong emotion and temper.”
* Stack was the star of the show, but over its four-year run The Untouchables featured a collection of actors that could have stocked two decades of Emmy broadcasts. At various times the cast included Peter Falk, Martin Landau, Lee Marvin, Carroll O’Connor, Jack Klugman, Harry Dean Stanton, Rip Torn, Ed Asner, Telly Savalas, Darryl Hickman, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, and Harry Guardino. As there were few roles for women in a show about Chicago mob wars, the high point for actresses was undoubtedly Barbara Stanwyck’s two appearances as Lieutenant Aggie Stewart.
* Willebrandt told Stone that her friend Edgar was “honest and informed” and “operated like an electric wire, with almost trigger response.”