“As was said before upon a memorable occasion when the very incarnation of morality was about to be sacrificed, ‘What thou doest, do quickly.’ ”
—Malcolm C. Tarver, a Georgia dry, in the House
of Representatives, December 5, 1932
ON DECEMBER 12, 1928, just five weeks after he learned that his investment in Al Smith’s campaign had not enabled him to purchase a president, John J. Raskob made a simpler acquisition: 14 cases of gin, 7¼ cases of Scotch, and 3 cases of rum. The $1,651 price tag was pocket change for Raskob, but still impressive. In 2009 dollars it worked out to about $70 a bottle, which was presumably enough to provide his bootlegger a reasonable profit after the cost of manufacture, bottling, shipping, transfer from a mother ship to an inshore boat, more shipping, probably another transfer or two, and several bribes, protection payments, and related gratuities along the way. Unless Raskob was a connoisseur with discerning taste buds, it might have covered the cost of counterfeit labels and bottles as well.
“I am not a drinking man. Drinking means nothing to me,” Raskob told the readers of Collier’s a few years later. He was still chairman of the Democratic Party at the time, and still trying to impress upon the voting public that a position against Prohibition was not necessarily a position in favor of liquor. He was equally disingenuous in his attempt to suggest that his vast wealth did not make him any different from anyone else. “Ours are simple pleasures,” he continued, strumming homespun chords. “Sports out of doors, family talks and games indoors, no smoking, drinking or running around at all hours of the night.” Such, apparently, were the earnest days and hearthside evenings Raskob spent at Archmere, his twentieth-century version of a fifteenth-century Italian palazzo on the banks of the Delaware River; at Pioneer Point Farms, his summer estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore (whose manor house he liked to call “Mostly Halls”); at his winter retreat in Palm Beach; or at the Ritz-Carlton in New York, where an entire floor was reserved for his and Pierre du Pont’s use.
But Raskob was in fact a drinking man—he favored dry martinis—and he liked to have his drink close at hand. In Palm Beach “liquor is being sold as openly as ever,” he told a friend in 1924. He sometimes wished he were abroad, he wrote on another occasion, so he could “forget between drinks that there is such a thing as the Volstead Act.” A few years later, he was sharing bootleg connections with his friends and stocking his various yachts with enough cocktail shakers, highball glasses, champagne glasses, cases of tonic water, and containers of cashews to suggest, said a scholar who cataloged Raskob’s voluminous papers, that his boats were “floating speakeasies.”
And why not? Despite a few spasms like the raids Mabel Willebrandt had supervised on the night of Smith’s nomination, by 1929 drinking among the privileged in New York and other major cities was no longer conducted in the closet. (At least not among the publicly wet; Raskob liked to tease his publicly dry pals, auto executives Walter P. Chrysler and Alfred P. Sloan, about the “vintage champagnes, rare old wines and selected brands of old whiskeys” they stored in their club lockers.) A Park Avenue company that rented out bars—“set up right in your home, completely installed for dashing gay usage, gleaming chromium foot rail and all”—advertised unabashedly in The New Yorker. So did speakeasies that had once required passwords, membership cards, and a careful eyeballing through a peephole in the door. Out-of-state visitors to “21” who didn’t trust their providers back home needed only to ask to have the speakeasy’s operators ship their fine goods to them directly. The relatively furtive imbibing at private men’s clubs gradually grew more open, too, and if it ended in the sort of embarrassment that befell the members of the Pendennis Club in Louisville, when a raid on their neo-Georgian mansion turned up enough illegal liquor to fill six Prohibition Bureau vehicles, so be it: although much of the booze had been stashed in members’ private lockers, the only people arrested by the agents were four employees, including the hapless fellow who ran the club’s cigar stand.
At least it could be said of the men of the AAPA that they were not, for the most part, hypocrites. It was true that James Wadsworth, while still a senator, publicly refused to take advantage of his power to name Prohibition agents, yet privately complained that too many of the jobs were going to Democrats. It was also true that the mise-en-scène implicit in Raskob’s self-portrait—a cozy fireplace after some brisk tobogganing, cups of cocoa, maybe a round of Chinese checkers for the whole goshdarn family—was rather at odds with his adventures aboard the Flying Fox (monthly cost of provisions: $1,000) or his inveterate Broadway theater hopping. Still, Raskob, Wadsworth, and their colleagues were willing to venture their reputations when they decided to oppose Prohibition actively and in public. Contrarily, Andrew Mellon, who loathed the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act, was actually in a position to do something about Prohibition enforcement—he was, it was said, “the only Treasury Secretary under whom three presidents served”—but he evidently valued his influence too highly to imperil it. When his son Paul brought some Yale friends home to Pittsburgh one winter, Mellon didn’t stop them from having a blowout drinking party; he just asked them not to throw their empties out the window. After the snow melted, he explained, the neighbors might notice.
PAULINE SABIN HAD been among those wet and wealthy Republicans who had stayed loyal to Hoover during the 1928 race. Many of them either had not yet placed Prohibition ahead of other issues at play in the campaign or had chosen to believe that a man as worldly and as educated as Hoover couldn’t possibly be a genuine dry. In June 1928 Sabin had announced her leap to the wet side in a magazine article headlined “I Change My Mind on Prohibition.” Sabin explained the reasoning behind her switch, and went on to criticize dry women blinded by their devotion to this one cause. She could not understand how they could support a dry candidate for, say, the Senate “without taking enough interest to question his stand on other matters of vital importance to our country.” Her loyalty to Hoover throughout the campaign demonstrated that she was not guilty of the same transgression. His favorable words about Prohibition at the Republican convention in August (“noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose”) did not loosen her faith. She put together a group of “wives of financiers” to raise money for the campaign, and at a rally of Republican women she hosted at Bayberry Land early in September, she fell into a virtual swoon, calling Hoover “the greatest humanitarian of this age.” Following his victory she continued to believe this humanitarian spirit would manifest itself in an enlightened approach to the Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment.
Then, on March 4, 1929, Hoover shredded her hopes. Standing on the East Portico of the Capitol, his face spattered by a constant rain, the new president opened his inaugural address with the usual formal niceties. Then, in the clipped diction that made his public remarks seem even sterner than he likely meant them to be, Hoover leapt into the Prohibition wars by declaring that “disregard and disobedience of law” was the “most malign” of any danger facing America. This was followed by a rapid series of rhetorical blows that would have caused even the most moderate wet to yelp in pain. Hoover assailed states that did not take their responsibility for concurrent enforcement seriously; he castigated otherwise law-abiding citizens for patronizing criminals; and he effectively declared that anyone who looked the other way when Prohibition laws were being violated was personally responsible for the breakdown in law enforcement. “The worst evil of disregard for some law,” the new president proclaimed, “is that it destroys respect for all law.” And then he revealed his plan to address this vexing problem: he was going to appoint a commission to look into it.
Pauline Sabin, unable to discern in the president’s speech even a suggestion that there might be something wrong with the law itself, was stunned. The next day she resigned from the Republican National Committee. A few days after that, she gathered with eleven other socially prominent women, none of them any more accustomed to political agitation than they were to mopping floors. “We had no name for our organization,” Sabin wrote years later. “We had no definite platform. All that we had was youth, strength, and conviction.” And, she might have added, money, stature, brains, and a determination not to reform Prohibition but to abolish it.
JAMES CANNON JR. was immeasurably gratified by the thoroughness of the Republican victory in 1928. “The enemies of the Eighteenth Amendment have been ignominiously routed,” the bishop declared in triumphant glee. The Smith-Raskob attempt “to place the national government in the hands of the wet sidewalks of our cities” had failed. So, of course, had Cannon’s ungainly syntax, but that didn’t slow him down. He kept his Conference of Anti-Smith Democrats alive well into 1929, another regiment of reinforcements for the crusade he was about to commence.
Cannon and his allies read the election of 1928 as a signal to assault wet resistance and stir dry complacency. Emboldened by what they insisted was a great dry victory, they pursued an agenda more extreme than anything Wayne Wheeler had ever attempted. Where Wheeler had avoided committing the Anti-Saloon League to openly xenophobic positions, Cannon campaigned for a constitutional amendment that would have removed noncitizens from the tallies that determined the size of congressional districts. He called as well for a radical increase in the Prohibition Bureau budget, “even if it should require $100,000,000.” Wheeler, of course, had always avoided this red-hot wire, aware that many congressional Republicans would sooner tolerate the bad joke that was Prohibition enforcement than they would abide the expenditure of another federal nickel.
Neither the apportionment amendment nor the budget increase got very far. But Cannon soon alit upon a single instrument that would make use of the huge dry majorities in Congress, demonstrate the wrathful intent of the dry vanguard, whip the federal judicial system into line, and not cost any meaningful money. The legislation Cannon devised became known as the Jones Law, after its nominal sponsor, Wesley L. Jones of Washington, who had spent much of the decade carrying the ASL’s water on the Senate floor. It was a vehicle built for punishment, and so severe it seemed powered by vengeance. The Jones Law turned most Volstead violations, which had been misdemeanors, into felonies. First offenders were subject to five years’ imprisonment plus a fine of ten thousand dollars. For the first time, purchasers—even witnesses to the sale or transport of liquor—could be considered violators, since failure to report a felony was now itself a felony and could send the bystander to prison for three years. Any citizen unable to pay a Jones Law fine could work it off at a rate of a dollar per additional day spent in prison, while aliens were subject to deportation. The Jones Law passed the Senate by a vote of 65–18 and carried the House 284–90.
It may have been the biggest mistake the ASL ever made. Cannon and his associates had been blinded by fog. Reading the 1928 election results as definitive when they were in fact deceptive, they perceived a national mandate that didn’t exist. Although the Jones Law did allow judges some discretion in sentencing—they were allowed to make the distinction between “casual” violators and participants in a “commercial” enterprise—what stuck in the public mind was the idea that the bartender at the local speakeasy, or the widow who ran the mining-camp rooming house, or the farmer who made a few extra dollars peddling hard cider could conceivably be sentenced to five years in federal prison for a single infraction. The original maximum for a first offense had been six months and a thousand dollars. Under the Jones Law, not only had both penalties increased tenfold, but if you couldn’t come up with the cash and instead wanted to work off a ten-thousand-dollar fine at a dollar a day, you could theoretically spend another twenty-seven years behind bars.
The ASL’s rising thirst for retribution provoked the public’s plunging tolerance for it, abetted by the most influential man in American journalism. Motivated either by a genuine conversion—he had begun the decade as a dry—or by a newspaper peddler’s feel for the tilt of public opinion, William Randolph Hearst called the Jones Law “the most menacing piece of repressive legislation that has stained the statute books of this republic since the Alien and Sedition laws” of 1798. Around the same time he launched his version of William C. Durant’s essay-writing competition. In the Hearst contest, however, the object was not to make Prohibition work, but to address the troubles it had provoked. It generated more than seventy thousand entries, including one from a New York lawyer who lamented the change in social habits wrought by Prohibition. Before, he wrote, young women wouldn’t dance with young men who had liquor on their breath; now, though, “they follow the breath to the flask.” The winning entry called for the immediate legalization of beer and wine through revision to the Volstead Act.
During the weeks before and after enactment of the Jones Law, and against the backdrop of the campaign Hearst conducted on the front pages of his twenty-eight daily newspapers, excessive or misguided enforcement efforts also won the attention of an increasingly disapproving public. The Chicago Tribune was particularly aggressive in its coverage of dry malfeasance. Customs agents, said the Tribune, employed “terroristic enforcement methods,” including the boarding, in New York harbor, of a private yacht belonging to the family of railroad tycoon Stuyvesant Fish. The paper terrified (or titillated) its readers with a report on a twelve-year-old girl, accompanied in court by neither a lawyer nor any friend or family member, who was nevertheless sentenced to thirty days’ imprisonment for carrying a quart of liquor across a street in Greenville, South Carolina.
An incident that took place just forty miles west of Chicago provoked the Tribune’s editors to indulge in an orgy of coverage that in its frequency, its prominence, and its amplitude suggested that Armageddon was at hand. In the town of Aurora, local officers handed the Tribune (and the dozens of papers nationwide that glommed on to the episode) a story it rode for months. In “the peaceful green valley of the Fox River,” the Tribune sighed, Mrs. Lillian DeKing “lay bleeding to death in the kitchen of her home.” She had been shot “over a few bottles of liquor in the DeKing basement,” the paper added. If her husband was indeed a small-time bootlegger, his were hardly the sort of crimes that should bring to the family doorstep “six officers of the law, armed with sawed off shotguns, pistols, machine guns, bulletproof vests, and tear bombs.”
A Tribune editorial headlined “The Massacre in Aurora” fretted that “we have become accustomed to outrageous excesses” in enforcement, but “the cold-blooded cruelty described in this case” was beyond comprehension. Another story claimed that Mrs. DeKing had been shot “while she was telephoning a lawyer to protest against the raiders’ invasion of her home.” The paper capped its coverage with the creation of that tried and true guarantor of public sympathy, a fund for the education of twelve-year-old Gerald DeKing. Not only had little Gerald witnessed the tragic events, he had heroically grabbed his father’s revolver and returned fire, hitting a deputy sheriff in the leg. Concerned Chicagoans responded to the Tribune’s organ music, and the paper saluted them by publishing their names and the sums they had donated (“V. E. Healy and friends, $200 . . . W. P. Cooney, $10 . . . ‘Disgusted Citizen,’ $2”).
But the case that drew the most intense response, in Chicago and elsewhere, unspooled in Lansing, Michigan, just miles from the state capitol building, where dry legislators had outdone Congress with a law mandating a life sentence for a fourth violation of the liquor laws. A couple of men had already been imprisoned under this draconian statute, but the arrest, conviction, and sentencing of Mrs. Etta Mae Miller—all of which occurred while Wesley Jones was carrying Bishop Cannon’s pet bill through Congress—became the apotheosis of enforcement excess. Mrs. Miller was forty-eight. She had ten children. Her husband was already serving time on a Volstead conviction. But her fourth violation was her fourth violation, and the state law requiring a life term was indifferent to the fact that Etta Mae Miller’s crime was the sale of two pints of liquor to an undercover cop.
Three comments—two made directly in response to the Miller case, one uttered around the same time in reference to the general state of the Prohibition laws—embodied the general reaction. Time magazine said, “In the same court on the same day” that Miller was sentenced to prison for the rest of her natural life, “a bellboy had pleaded guilty to manslaughter [and] had been fined $400 and freed.” Dr. Clarence True Wilson of the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals said, “Our only regret is that the woman was not sentenced to life imprisonment before her ten children were born.” And the new president, just one month into his term, told a group of editors that if a law is appropriate, “its enforcement is the quickest method of compelling respect for it.” But Herbert Hoover also said, “If a law is wrong, its rigid enforcement is the surest guarantee of its repeal.”
IN MOST RESPECTS the Jones Law and the other harsh statutes failed. Designed either to intimidate large-scale bootleggers or to lock them away for meaningful prison terms, the laws had the opposite effect. A sentence like the one imposed on Etta Mae Miller was more likely to scare away amateurs than to disrupt the transnational commerce of the criminal syndicates, which had large complements of lawyers, cops, judges, federal Prohibition officials, and other useful associates on their payrolls. In some jurisdictionsprosecutors didn’t even bother to bring cases under the law, and in others they saw juries shrink from convicting when they considered the severe penalties that would result. “In attempting to strengthen enforcement,” wrote historian Norman Clark, “the ASL had turned it into an absurdity.”
Herbert Hoover was only barely more effective than the Jones Law. In his inaugural address he had identified “a dangerous expansion in the criminal elements” who were threatening the public welfare, and he acknowledged that the menace was rooted in the liquor trade. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, which left seven gangsters dead on the floor of a Chicago garage just three weeks before Inauguration Day, was vivid evidence of an escalation in violence. Three months later the Atlantic City “peace conference” of mobsters from five cities signified the new level of sophistication that criminals had attained.
Unlike Harding, some of whose highest officials actively abetted the bootlegging industry, and unlike Coolidge, whose lack of interest in enforcement was commensurate with his lack of interest in government activity of any kind, Hoover tried to do something about it. Because he was an engineer, he believed that all problems had solutions; because he was a progressive, he considered an efficient, systematized approach to government reform an article of faith. The earnestness of these convictions, which had won him the derisive nickname “Wonder Boy,” inspired Hoover to appoint the investigative commission whose creation pushed Pauline Sabin into the wet camp. Chaired by former attorney general George W. Wickersham, it came to conclusions so mushy and indistinct that neither wet nor dry knew whether the commission’s final report was a victory or a defeat for their respective positions. Still, Hoover’s belief in rational government did lead to some positive initiatives, including placing enforcement responsibility in the hands of professional managers free of the contaminating influence of the Anti-Saloon League. He also made an effort to remove U.S. attorneys who were not fully committed to Prohibition enforcement. But in one moment of despair, when he concluded that the unchecked lawlessness in Detroit indicated “a complete breakdown in Government,” Hoover briefly considered sending in the army or the marine corps.
He could have chosen an easier target. Gun violence had turned the Detroit River into a combat zone. “Indiscriminate shooting on the river” caused a group of local yachtsmen to make a formal protest to Congress. At any given hour, as many as fifteen hundred boats were dashing one way or another along its eighteen miles, either laden with illegal cargo or returning to the Canadian side for more. During one of the periodic crackdowns that the government bestirred itself to conduct, customs officials somehow managed to seize 366 rum-running boats; 365 of them were subsequently stolen from the government storage facility. The notorious goons of the Purple Gang moved into new enterprises, including a protection racket that erupted into an epidemic of bombings and murders. A breakaway faction that came to be known as the Little Jewish Navy moved in on the Purples’ smuggling business. The violence escalated. Had Hoover gone ahead with his plan to send in troops, it would have demonstrated the utter failure of the law; his decision not to do so suggested the utter helplessness of government itself.
An article in Outlook was headlined “War on the River.” The New York Times elaborated: “Rum War Forces Amass on the Detroit Front.” None of this was helpful to the drys. The depredations of the big-city mobsters became so well known that any doubt about Prohibition’s impact on the spread of violent crime had melted away. This was especially true once the Chicago newspapers, overwhelmingly wet, latched on to the perfect protagonist for the cops-and-bootleggers saga that had gripped urban America. “Alphonse Capone is, without a doubt, the best advertised and most talked of gangster in the United States,” a federal agent would write, and no one deserved more credit for that than Capone himself.
Referring to the way his organization provided “the light pleasures” to the people of Chicago, Capone once said, “Public service is my motto.” He might as readily have said “public relations.” He made himself endlessly available to the newspapers, feeding them quotable material. When he didn’t have anything particularly interesting to say, he seemed willing to let the newspapermen be his ghostwriters. “When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging,” either Capone or one of his amanuenses said. “When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it’s hospitality.” It was a recurrent theme, this shrugging disavowal of evil intent: “Ninety percent of the people of Cook County drink and gamble,” he said at another time, “and my offense has been to furnish them with those amusements.”
To the tabloid press Capone was known as “Scarface.” Inside the mob community he was “the Big Fellow.” To his friends, he was known by the substantially less imposing nickname “Snorky,” a slang term roughly equivalent to “spiffy.” Press photographers couldn’t resist the silk robes and pajamas Capone bought by the dozen from Sulka, the camel-hair coats, the popsicle-colored suits, and all the other lush plumage he favored. Through his avid cultivation of the press, and through the press’s equally avid exploitation of his avidity, wrote Alva Johnston, “Al Capone was a world figure at an age when Napoleon was still a wretched shavetail.”
There should be no doubt: Al Capone was a very bad man. He had a violent streak of terrifying intensity, and he helped establish the ethos of an industry that countenanced murder as a way to end a negotiation (or, in some instances, to begin one). In the brief period he ran Chicago, gunfights and bombings were almost as dependable as sunrises. His racketeers nurtured scores of illegitimate businesses and crippled or devoured legitimate ones. They corrupted labor unions by the dozen and politicians and police officials by the hundreds. The beer the Capone trucks delivered to Chicago speakeasies every Tuesday and Saturday morning wasn’t any good—“lousy was the word” for Capone’s stuff, a competitor said. Capone’s men just happened to excel at a certain kind of violent salesmanship.
In fact, though, the gorillas and gunsels of the Purple Gang were probably more murderous than Al Capone’s thugs. Boo Boo Hoff’s Philadelphia-based industrial liquor empire covered more territory than Capone’s operation. And the Lansky-Luciano combine in New York certainly outdid the Chicago mob in its sophistication and, it would turn out, its longevity. But Capone topped them all in his desire for publicity and his knack for getting it. All those fawning stories, all those bloody headlines, all those wire-service photos of the thick-lipped, jowly, 235-pound Snorky dolled up in outfits that made him look, as a New York reporter once wrote, “like an overstuffed capon”—all of this was very bad for the drys.
“Due to free advertising in the newspapers,” an IRS agent wrote during the government’s investigation of Capone for income tax evasion in 1931, “he became the ‘Big Shot’, Capone the immune, Capone the idol of the hoodlum element.” And, he might have added, “Capone the creature of Prohibition.” Without the one, more and more Americans had come to believe, you couldn’t have had the other.
IN SO MANY WAYS, 1929 turned out to be a rotten year for the drys. Over-confidence had led to legislative overreaching and, at the same time, had provoked the smug complacency that accrues to the self-satisfied. Henry Ford, for instance, imperiously declared he would close his factories if drink ever came back. The more the drys preened, the more material they provided to a growing circle of influential cynics and satirists. It was one thing for The New Yorker to dispose of Ford’s arrogance with mockery (“It would be a great pity to have Detroit’s two leading industries destroyed at one blow”). But when the women of the WCTU, confident of their final victory over alcohol, declared war on Coca-Cola, derision came from the formerly friendly. Wrote the ex-dry William Allen White, “At the spectacle of men returning home, sodden with Coca-Cola, to beat their wives, [or] the sight of little children tugging at their fathers as they stand at the Coca-Cola bars long after midnight . . . we remain unmoved.”
The high-riding drys of 1929 may have been immune to sarcasm; they may not even have recognized it. But the increasingly wet daily press was influential and vigilant, igniting fireworks that illuminated a sustained streak of corruption and dry transgressions. A fairly large rocket had gone up in August and September of 1928, during the presidential campaign, when a Philadelphia grand jury, supported by a dry mayor, revealed a police conspiracy so vast it had engulfed the entire force and so lush it caught the attention of newspapers across the country. Upon taking office earlier in the year, Mayor Harry A. Mackey had sought to separate the corrupt members of the police department from their accustomed rackets by scrambling their assignments; in one stroke 3,800 of the city’s 4,500 cops were transferred from one part of town to another or moved from headquarters duty to the streets, or vice versa. Ensuing investigations turned up some ranking captains and inspectors who, on annual salaries ranging from $2,500 to $4,000, had amassed bank accounts approaching $200,000. Asked to explain his wealth, one cop said he was lucky at craps and poker. Another said he got rich raising “thoroughbred dogs,” another by “building bird cages for the retail trade.” The most audacious explanation came from the officer who said he had lent money to grateful saloonkeepers who had then died, leaving generous bequests in their wills. One mob operation had become so blasé about bribes that its bookkeepers didn’t bother to disguise a payable they recorded in their ledger book: “Cops, $29,400.”
As detailed as it was, the Philadelphia story was really just a somewhat richer account of the official venality that had been Prohibition’s symbiotic relative since its inception. But 1929 was different, bringing a fistful of stories exposing the hypocrisy of dry politicians sipping—or guzzling—cocktails while voting to slam the pathetic likes of Etta Mae Miller into prison cells. A broad account of this phenomenon appeared in Collier’s in February, under the headline “Bartender’s Guide to Washington.” This romp through a city “so wet that it squishes” chronicled a liquor trade so pervasive, so widely accepted, and so essential to the lives of politicians and federal bureaucrats that the author felt it necessary to assure his readers that “there are, of course, Washingtonians and legislators who do not drink.” Not many, apparently; one senator noted that a Scotch importer had provided the capital’s embassies, which were not subject to American law, with thirteen thousand quarts of “diplomatic whisky” in a single three-month period—the equivalent of twenty quarts for every diplomat, diplomat’s relative, or embassy staff member in town. A prominent Washington bootlegger said that “when Congress recessed and the members returned home, the bottom fell out” of the local market.
One of those who claimed to be a lifetime abstainer made Washington’s first post–Jones Law splash in late March. Congressman William M. Morgan of Ohio represented a district drier than burnt toast. He stuck by his position even after he was apprehended by customs officers in the port of New York on returning from the Canal Zone with his wife and several other couples. The officers said they’d found two bottles of whiskey and two bottles of champagne in Morgan’s bags. They also testified that he had tried to intimidate them, before trying to cajole them, before finally admitting he was bringing the goods back (under the “freedom of the port” granted to members of Congress) as a gift for his father-in-law, a Civil War veteran. When an enterprising reporter reached the old man in Logans Ferry, Pennsylvania, he was of little help to Morgan. “If there was any liquor brought for me,” said eighty-seven-year-old Hugh Logan, “I haven’t seen any of it around here.”
Morgan continued to deny the customs officers’ assertions. But while his story was still unreeling in the papers, another dry Republican, M. Alfred Michaelson of Illinois, earned headlines with similar adventures in the importing business. On a railway platform in Jacksonville, Florida, two trunks Michaelson had brought back from a different trip to the Canal Zone sprang leaks. These bags, like Morgan’s, had also enjoyed freedom of the port; as Time explained it, “many a Congressman during recesses of Congress goes to Panama (wet) for a vacation, pretending to make an official study of the Canal Zone, and thus becomes eligible for ‘free entry’ on return.” According to the indictment, one of Michaelson’s trunks contained six quarts of whiskey, two of crème de menthe, one each of several other liqueurs, and a whole keg of something the indictment identified as “plum barbacourt,” which was almost certainly Rhum Barbancourt, from Haiti. Like Morgan, Michaelson employed the in-law defense. Upon the guilty plea of his brother-in-law, a Chicago coal dealer who had taken part in this important fact-finding trip to inspect the bolts on the Panama Canal, or maybe the water temperature, the presiding judge addressed the man’s lawyer: “I have no desire to punish him for the faults of the escaped congressman—one of those who votes dry and drinks wet,” the judge said. The brother-in-law got off with a one-thousand-dollar fine; the congressman declared himself vindicated.
Michaelson’s was not the last of the leaking luggage cases, or even the one that provided the wet press with the most piquant opportunity to indulge its appetite for exposing dry deceit. That honor went to the case of Representative Edward E. Denison of Illinois, who had demonstrated his aptitude for dry constituent services back in 1924, when he persuaded Roy Haynes of the Prohibition Bureau to deputize the Klan-affiliated vigilantes who had been terrorizing the Italian-American mineworkers of Williamson County. Denison’s imports from Panama—eighteen bottles of Scotch, six of gin—made it all the way to his office in the Capitol Building. According to the New York Times, “he explained [to Prohibition agents] it was not liquor but a set of dishes from Panama that was in the trunk. The agents were skeptical.” It was liquor, all right, and only the adroit maneuvering of Denison’s lawyer kept him, like Morgan and Michaelson, from conviction under the Jones Law—which all three had voted for.*
Each time a prominent dry was dragged dripping into court, the wet press reveled in it. Each time the accused dodged the law’s bullet, the wet press vented. When George L. Cassiday, a bootlegger known as “the man in the green hat,” was arrested inside the Senate Office Building, reporters suggested that the ensuing prosecution would reveal a lengthy list of drys among his Capitol Hill customers, and they were crushed when it didn’t. But the case of dry errancy that most excited the wets, most thoroughly discombobulated the retreating drys, and most rewarded the scandal-hungry press, didn’t involve liquor at all. This was the furor that brought down the Anti-Saloon League’s most potent operative, James Cannon Jr. In the summer of 1929 the Lynchburg News in Virginia, which was owned by Senator Carter Glass, charged that while Bishop Cannon was principal of the Blackstone Female Institute during World War I, he had been guilty of . . . hoarding flour.
On its own, the charge didn’t make for the most exciting reading. According to the paper, Blackstone had secured an allotment of 425 barrels of flour for its 385 students, while nearby Randolph-Macon Women’s College had needed only 175 barrels for 806 students. Similar figures from five other women’s schools established that each young lady at Blackstone had enjoyed 309 loaves of bread per year, while the average at the other colleges was a mere 48. The Blackstone women did not look overfed, so the flour under Cannon’s control must have ended up elsewhere—presumably converted to cash and deposited in Cannon’s pocket.
Carter Glass was every bit as dry as Cannon, but for twenty years he had been the bishop’s sworn rival for control of the Democratic Party in the Commonwealth, and in 1928 he had remained loyal to Smith and the national Democrats. Glass had been husbanding the flour-hoarding information for a decade when Cannon’s pious image was defaced in June 1929 by the New York World. The paper revealed that the bishop was a hard-core stock speculator. Stolen documents that the World had purchased for $4,000 established that over the course of two years, Cannon had traded nearly $500,000 worth of securities through a fraud-riddled brokerage firm whose principals were on their way to jail.* To the devout among Cannon’s followers, market speculation was gambling and therefore sinful. The flour-hoarding accusation confirmed the taint of greed that was settling around Cannon, and, worse yet, it allowed his enemies to label him unpatriotic.
Finally, followers of this unfolding catalog of sins arrived at the clincher: lust. Cannon and his second wife had conducted an illicit affair in New York’s Union Square Hotel before his first wife’s death. A sort of clubhouse for actors, producers, and other figures in the Yiddish theater, the Union Square was the perfect venue for Cannon’s trysts, a friend believed, for there were few places in New York where the bishop and his paramour were less likely to be recognized.
The revelation of sexual errancy was juicier than flour hoarding. William Randolph Hearst waved the bloody flag in his newspapers. A group of Methodist clergymen, including the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, accused Cannon of “gross moral turpitude and disregard for the first principles of Christian ethics.” The College of Methodist Bishops convened a formal tribunal to investigate the charges. Newspapers in two Georgia cities compared Cannon to Al Capone. In the end, even though neither civil nor ecclesiastic authority convicted Cannon of anything, the public humiliation of the nation’s most prominent Prohibitionist was complete. Discredited by the wets and disowned by the drys, James Cannon was through. The man H. L. Mencken had once called “the most powerful ecclesiastic ever heard of in America” had become, wrote historian Michael S. Patterson, “a non-entity both to his church and to the general public.”
THREE OTHER CRACKS threatened the once-sturdy walls of the dry fortress in 1929. The first, which passed by with surprisingly little notice, showed up early in the year, when Congress finally got around to addressing the nagging little matter of reapportionment. More than eight years had passed since the last census, eight years during which rural (i.e., largely dry) representation had remained inflated out of proportion to rural population. The Senate sponsor of the successful reapportionment bill, Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan (his state would pick up four seats), noted that not only were twenty-three seats in the House misallocated, but in the next presidential election this would place twenty-three electoral votes in undeserving hands as well. Failure to reapportion, said Vandenberg, would not only “taint the validity of Congress, it taints the validity of the Presidency itself.”
Cotton Tom Heflin did not miss his cue, invoking the “refuse of foreign countries” who would take over Congress if the reapportionists had their way. His Alabama colleague Hugo L. Black, infinitely more civilized but no less protective of his state (and, by extension, of the dry laws both men supported), called reapportionment “unjust and unrighteous,” for favoring the cities over the countryside. But by this point it was no longer tenable to resist the arguments for its passage, including an especially provocative one offered by retired admiral William W. Kimball in a letter to the Washington Post. Taking Vandenberg’s argument one unsettling step further, Kimball maintained that any action taken by a constitutionally malapportioned Congress was itself, by definition, unconstitutional. Regarding the similarly deformed Electoral College, Kimball wrote that Herbert Hoover “has been formally elected . . . as the de facto president of something, perhaps of the de facto nation with a de facto government occupying the territory of what was the United States.”
At the same time the apportionment bill was up for debate, a tremor shot through the executive branch: Herbert Hoover fired Mabel Willebrandt. Newspaper reports indicated that “the professional drys” had been lobbying to get Willebrandt appointed “Prohibition generalissimo,” with authority over not only the Justice Department prosecutors but over the Prohibition Bureau agents (and possibly the customs officials, coast guardsmen, and other enforcement troops) who remained under the nominal control of the loathed Andrew Mellon. To drys who had misread the 1928 election results, Willebrandt’s dismissal should have been evidence that the president did not feel he owed his election to the Anti-Saloon League.
Reapportionment wouldn’t by itself turn Congress around. The departure of a dry partisan from a position as critical as Willebrandt’s should not have weakened enforcement, at least not in the administration of a man who had based his presidency on “respect for all law.” It was only the last of the batterings that Prohibition endured in 1929 that truly signaled its impending collapse. The devastating stock market crash in October may not have caused the Great Depression, but it certainly sounded the alarm that terrible economic times were around the corner. (The alarm didn’t awaken everybody; Andrew Mellon’s diary entry for Black Thursday read, “Stock market crash in New York. Dinner Belgian Embassy.”) When the Depression did arrive, bringing with it massive unemployment, diminishing respect for the federal government, a dizzying collapse in federal tax collections, and wide distaste for the Republican Party, Prohibition was on the ropes. No constitutional amendment had ever been repealed, but the Eighteenth—already threatened by the excesses of its supporters, the resources of its opponents, and the disillusion of virtually everyone else—was beginning to look like a candidate.
* Denison’s testimony about swapped luggage, misplaced keys, inept shipping clerks, and the malevolent intent of investigators could have provided a plotline for a stage farce. “You’ve got a fairy story in this case,” the frustrated young prosecutor shouted during closing arguments. “It’s the fairy story of those dishes!” The prosecutor was Mabel Willebrandt’s friend, the future federal judge John J. Sirica.
* One of them, Harry Goldhurst, né Herschel Goldhirsch, emerged from his five years’ imprisonment for mail fraud under yet another name. More than twenty years later, as Harry Golden, he published the huge bestseller Only in America, a collection of columns from his weekly paper, The Carolina Israelite.