American Lawyers and Liquor Prohibition, 1900-1933

Prohibition's Portia: Mabel Walker Willebrandt

by Jehad Badr and Mark Weir


Mable Walker WillebrandtThe passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act touched many lawyers' private and public lives. Mabel Walker Willebrandt, as Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929, was one of those lawyers. She became identified with the anti-liquor crusade in the public's eye and devoted much of her career in the government to seeing that prohibition was efficiently enforced. Willebrandt's connection with prohibition came through her government position -- when she left government office she left anti-liquor advocacy behind.

Willebrandt was born on May 23, 1889 to Myrtle and David Walker. Living her first years on the plains of southwest Kansas, she developed a close knit relationship with her family, which shaped her life. Between 1888 and 1918, Willebrandt's family moved from state to state seeking -- but never finding -- financial stability. As both her parents were teachers who understood the importance of education she was guided towards a taking a teaching proficiency test, as the first step toward entering the teaching profession. After passing this exam, her family moved to Michigan. Willebrandt became a teacher and soon married her school's principal, Arthur F. Willebrandt.1

Soon after the early 1910 marriage, the newly wed couple relocated to Arizona, hoping the climate would help Arthur's respiratory condition. While working toward advanced teaching degrees at the University at Tempe, Willebrandt suffered an miscarriage which left her sterile. Fleeing the site of this tragedy, the Willebrandts relocated to Southern California. They both entered the night division of college of law at the University of Southern California. While the couple had agreed to take turns working full time and attending school full time, this plan broke down. At first, Arthur attended classes full time and Mabel supported him, while attending law school on a part time basis. But he did not keep up his end of the bargain when she entered school full time. This failure led the couple to separate in January 1916.2

Willebrandt persisted in law school and in her last year she was offered and accepted a job as assistant in the office of police court defender. Willebrandt used this office to combat the double standard in sex crime prosecutions. Prior to her coming to the office the male customer of female prostitutes were routinely freed while the woman prostitute was fined. Through Brown's efforts, offenders of both sexes were forced to answer charges in Los Angeles. After she had passed her bar exam she opened a practice with two of her friends. As the practice languished Willebrandt thought about seeking political office as a way to boost her legal career. She was appointed to several minor positions -- including that of member of the Selective Service Board, where she was in the majority rejecting Arthur's appeal for exemption. (The couple never reconciled and they quietly divorced in 1924.) Her political interest was well timed, as women suffrage became a reality 1920 and leading progressive Republicans took note of Willebrandt's recent success at law and her interest in politics.3

In 1921, President Warren G. Harding named Willebrandt Assistant Attorney General. She held that post for eight years, first under President Harding and then under President Calvin Coolidge. Willebrandt was responsible for managing federal prisons, for all federal income tax litigation (her briefs submitted before the Supreme Court on the income tax helped set the basic interpretations on the scope of the tax system), and for prosecuting violations of the Volstead Act.4

She was responsible for overseeing the prosecutions liquor law violators arrested by a federal agents working in any agency, as all prosecutions were funneled through local U. S. Attorneys of the Justice Department. The numbers were staggering. By 1924 Willebrandt reported that the federal courts were overwhelmed by the number of liquor cases. At the end of that fiscal year there were over 22,000 prohibition related cases, still pending.5

Willebrandt undertook a number of steps to rationalize federal prosecution of the prohibition laws. She instigated a "flying squad" of special prosecutors for use when federal attorneys "proved inept or untrustworthy" Similarly, in 1924, under the direction of Attorney General Harlan Fisk Stone, she compiled a statistical analysis of prohibition prosecutions of each of the U. S. Attorneys' offices. Stone used this information to pressure attorneys either to prosecution more cases or to resign. Though limited by the intricacies of political patronage, which dominated US attorney appointment, Willebrandt's actions represented a significant attempt to bring bureaucratic order to federal prosecutions. A mark of her success in bureaucratic terms can be seen by the growth of her staff. She began where work with a staff of only three and ended it with a staff of over one hundred.6


Willebrandt also sought to enlist the greater public in the enforcement efforts. She worked closely with both the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League to build public support for the federal efforts. She also used liquor prosecutions to generate headlines. A number of times, Willebrandt sat in the courtroom while one of her assistants pressed a case. Since women government lawyers were quite a novelty in the 1920s, her actions generated press coverage. Similarly, she focused much of her action of corruption cases that grew out of the violation of prohibition, again headline grabbers. She did not seek press notice gratuitously, but as part of a Justice Department campaign to showcase prohibition enforcement activity and to make a case to the public for cleaner government. Willebrandt published, first in syndicated newspaper column form and then as a book (The Inside of Prohibition), her vision for effective prohibition law enforcement. She called for clean government, greater coordination between national and local officials, and especially for common people to take responsibility for seeing the laws enforced.7

While her public relations efforts dominated news coverage, routine prosecutions brought results. Thanks to high rates of plea bargains and dropped charges, the percentage of convictions in prohibition cases from 1922 to 1933 averaged over 82 percent. The rates remained high even after the Jones Act of 1929 stiffened federal penalties for violators. Thus many violators of national prohibition did end up in federal custody. Yet even with this record, prohibition was perceived as an "unenforceable law." No matter how many people were jailed many more violated the liquor ban. The constant violations eroded public support.8

Prohibition also remained a political issue. And on the political front Willebrandt undid much of the work she had done through effective law enforcement. Willebrandt's commitment to the cause of prohibition blinded her to how politically unpopular it was in parts of the nation. Thus, when Herbert Hoover was running for president, Willebrandt ordered enforcement raids in New York City, to embarrass the Democratic candidate Al Smith. Moreover, she went on the stump to campaign for Hoover with her prohibition allies. Before the conference of Bishops of the Methodist Church she told them that they held the key to victory -- if they would mobilize their voters, especially in the Democratic South, against the wet, Catholic, corrupt Smith they would win the election for Hoover, prohibition, and Protestantism. Willebrandt even went so far as to cooperate with the Ku Klux Klan in its anti-Smith work.

All this made her quite controversial and a popular target for Democrats. Indeed the most strident attacks on her from this period came from the Democrats who rhetorically asked why they were being lectured on morality by a divorced woman. Willebrandt seemed oblivious to the controversy and thought that her political work would result in her being nominated for a federal judgeship. While her work helped secure the temperance vote for the Republicans, it also further politicized the issue and came at too high a price. Not surprisingly, the new President Herbert Hoover did not appoint her to a judgeship. In response, in June 1929, she resigned her government position and returned to both California and to private law.9

If Willebrandt had been a man, no doubt she would have been offered a position in a Wall Street law firm. After all she had been one of the architects of federal tax regulations. But in the 1920s and 1930s women were not accepted in the exclusive circle of Wall Street firms. Yet, Willebrandt brokered her expertise learned from the government into a private law career. Her first client was California Fruit Industries. This company specialized in supplying grapes for the home wine maker -- under the Volstead Act families were allowed to make 200 gallons of wine per year for domestic consumption. They hired Willebrandt because they wished to expand the provisions of federal enforcement code to allow the shipment of grape concentrate for making into wine. While her temperance supporters were shocked by her reversal of position, Willebrandt's transformation from dry enforcer to wet lobbyist typified the experience of many government lawyers who left for private practice, they quickly turned to representing the interests that they had regulated. Willebrandt's legal practice soon expanded to the new fields of aviation and movie industry law and her connection with prohibition ended even before the ending of national prohibition in 1933.10


1Dorothy Brown, Mabel Walker Willebrandt: A Study of Power, Loyalty, and Law (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984), 3-19. back

2Brown, Willebrandt, 19-33. back

3Brown, Willebrandt, 34-37, 39-48; for the context of Willebrandt's action see Mary Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995). back

4Brown, Willebrandt, 49-108. back

5Willebrandt quoted in Lawrence M. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History (New York: BasicBooks, 1993), 266. back

6Brown, Willebrandt, 54, 72-75. back

7Brown, Willebrandt, 56-66, 68-70; Mabel Walker Willebrandt, The Inside of Prohibition (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1929). back

8Rate derived from Edward Rubin, "A Statistical Study of Federal Criminal Prosecutions," Law and Contemporary Problems 1 (1934): 494-508, 507; see also Friedman, Crime, 339-341. back

9Brown, Willebrandt, 66-67, 149-173. back

10Brown, Willebrandt, 179-228; Kenneth D. Rose, American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 124-127, 131-132; Virginia G. Drachman, Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). back

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