Wayne B. Wheeler: The Man Who Turned Off the Taps

Prohibition couldn’t have happened without Wheeler, who foisted temperance on a thirsty nation 90 years ago

This Detroit scene was repeated across the nation, January, 16, 1920, as shoppers stocked up on the last day before Prohibition took effect. (Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)
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Not seven years after Prohibition took effect, on January 17, 1920 (the amendment had stipulated it would go into effect one year after ratification), Wayne B. Wheeler died. He had taken a rare vacation on Lake Michigan when his wife was killed in a freak fire and his father-in-law thereupon was felled by a heart attack. Wheeler had been in ill health for months; the vacation that he had hoped would restore him instead led to his own death by heart failure just three weeks after the fire.

Until virtually the end, Wheeler remained as effective as he had been in the years leading up to the passage of the 18th Amendment. He was intimately involved in the drafting of the Volstead Act, which specified the means of enforcing the Prohibition amendment. All subsequent legislation refining the liquor-control laws required his imprimatur. He still determined whether candidates for Congress would receive the ASL’s endorsement. And he underscored his authority by supervising a gigantic patronage operation, controlling appointments to the Prohibition Bureau, which was set up to police the illegal liquor trade.

But for all his political might, Wheeler could not do what he and all the other Prohibitionists had set out to do: they could not purge alcoholic beverages from American life. Drinking did decline at first, but a combination of legal loopholes, personal tastes and political expediency conspired against a dry regime.

As declarative as the 18th Amendment was—forbidding “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”—the Volstead Act allowed exceptions. You were allowed to keep (and drink) liquor you had in your possession as of January 16, 1920; this enabled the Yale Club in New York, for instance, to stockpile a supply large enough to last the full 14 years that Prohibition was in force. Farmers and others were allowed to “preserve” their fruit through fermentation, which placed hard cider in cupboards across the countryside and homemade wine in urban basements. “Medicinal liquor” was still allowed, enriching physicians (who generally charged by the prescription) and pharmacists (who sold such “medicinal” brands as Old Grand-Dad and Johnnie Walker). A religious exception created a boom in sacramental wines, leading one California vintner to sell communion wine—legally—in 14 different varieties, including port, sherry, tokay and cabernet sauvignon.

By the mid-’20s, those with a taste for alcohol had no trouble finding it, especially in the cities of the East and West coasts and along the Canadian border. At one point the New York police commissioner estimated there were 32,000 illegal establishments selling liquor in his city. In Detroit, a newsman said, “It was absolutely impossible to get a drink...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.” Washington’s best-known bootlegger, George L. Cassiday (known to most people as “the man in the green hat”), insisted that “a majority of both houses” of Congress bought from him, and few thought he was bragging.

Worst of all, the nation’s vast thirst gave rise to a new phenomenon—organized crime, in the form of transnational syndicates that controlled everything from manufacture to pricing to distribution. A corrupt and underfunded Prohibition Bureau couldn’t begin to stop the spread of the syndicates, which considered the politicians who kept Prohibition in place their greatest allies. Not only did Prohibition create their market, it enhanced their profit margins: from all the billions of gallons of liquor that changed hands illegally during Prohibition, the bootleggers did not pay, nor did the government collect, a single penny of tax.

In fact, just as tax policy, in the form of the income tax amendment, had paved the way for Prohibition, so did it shape Prohibition’s eventual death. Rampant criminality, epidemic disrespect for law and simple exhaustion had turned much of the country against the 18th Amendment by the late ’20s, but the arrival of the Great Depression sealed the deal. As income tax revenues plummeted along with incomes, the government was running on empty. With the return of beer alone, Franklin Roosevelt said during his 1932 campaign, the federal treasury would be enriched by hundreds of millions of dollars.

On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment and Prohibition came to an inglorious end. That was a little more than six years after the death of the man who had brought it to life. In a posthumous biography written by a former colleague, Wayne B. Wheeler was described as a man who “controlled six Congresses, dictated to two Presidents...directed legislation...for the more important elective state and federal offices, held the balance of power in both Republican and Democratic parties, distributed more patronage than any dozen other men, supervised a federal bureau from outside without official authority, and was recognized by friend and foe alike as the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States.”

And then, almost immediately, he was forgotten.

Copyright © 2010 by Last Laugh, Inc. From the forthcoming book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent, to be published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.


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