– Mabel Walker Willebrandt
by Spencer Howard
For much of the Prohibition Era (1920-1933), the most prominent Prohibition enforcement official was also the highest ranking woman in three presidential administrations — Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt. Appointed by President Harding in 1921, Willebrandt prosecuted Prohibition cases and tax fraud, and oversaw Federal prisons. In her eight years on the job, Willebrandt became the byword for zealous enforcement of Prohibition, the shining Joan of Arc for the “dry” forces throughout the country. A 1924 article in Collier’s noted, “I know a way to make a ‘wise’ bootlegger in the United States shiver in his boots. How? Easy! Just slip up behind him and whisper, ‘Mrs. Willebrandt is after you.'”
Ironically, she did not personally support Prohibition, but once assigned to the task, she worked tirelessly for enforcement. Beginning with three assistants, she eventually built a staff of 100. Much of the enforcement activity throughout the country, especially at the state and local levels, focused on the final suppliers of illegal drinks – speakeasies, backyard distilleries, or the rum-runners’ delivery boys. Willebrandt believed that the more effective approach was to go after the bootlegging rings and organized crime that supplied the lion’s share of the illegal booze. In 1927 she successfully argued before the Supreme Court that income from illegal activities should be subject to income tax, which opened the door for tax evasion cases against some of the biggest gangsters, such as Al Capone. Despite numerous well-publicized successful prosecutions, Willebrandt felt hamstrung by lack of resources and lack of coordination with law enforcement agencies.
In the 1928 campaign, Willebrandt backed then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover for President. Hoover was viewed skeptically by both “drys” and “wets” for refusing to commit to either stronger enforcement or repeal of Prohibition (he promised to create a commission to study the issue), and Willebrandt’s endorsement was crucial for securing “dry” votes throughout the country. Exasperated with the status quo, she hoped Hoover would consolidate all Federal agencies for Prohibition enforcement under one roof, perhaps under her leadership. But her real ambition was to be appointed to a Federal judgeship and retire from the Prohibition limelight.
Upon entering the White House in 1929, President Hoover received hundreds of letters urging him to retain Willebrandt, or to increase her Prohibition enforcement powers. One woman, writing from New Jersey, exclaimed, “There are millions of law abiding citizens who…pin their faith to Mabel Walker Willebrandt.” There was even talk that she should be Attorney General (which would have made her the first woman to hold a cabinet post – that distinction would later go to Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor) but her prominent association with such a politically divisive issue made that impossible. Instead, Hoover appointed former Solicitor General William D. Mitchell, a brilliant lawyer with no overt connection to either the “wets” or the “drys.”
Hoover retained Willbrandt as an Assistant Attorney General, but she did not want to stay on the job and repeatedly offered to resign. It was clear that there would be no major reorganization of Prohibition enforcement until Hoover’s Prohibition commission (chaired by George Wickersham) completed its work. She was also unhappy working under Mitchell, who she thought was a poor administrator, and her political notoriety made a judicial appointment from President Hoover unlikely. In May 1929 she was offered a lucrative position as legal counsel for the Aviation Corporation (a precursor to American Airlines) and again submitted her resignation. Hoover accepted her resignation with a public statement of regret and lofty praise for her “distinguished success” and “real courage.”
A few weeks later, Willebrandt wrote a series of articles that were carried in major newspapers throughout the country (and later published as a book) under the heading “The Inside of Prohibition.” Her tell-all memoir of Prohibition enforcement was intended to persuade the nation that effective Prohibition enforcement was possible with better policies and more resources. Instead, her account added fuel to the political fire, persuading “wets” that Prohibition had spawned a wasteful and corrupt bureaucracy, and was fundamentally unenforceable at the Federal level.
After retiring from the Justice Department, Willebrandt enjoyed a successful 30-year career in private practice. She remained on friendly terms with President and Mrs. Hoover and with many of her former Washington colleagues, and continued to advocate publicly for more effective enforcement of Prohibition. With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the one-time “First Lady of the Law” and most powerful woman in Washington faded, with some contentment, into obscurity.