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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Wheeler was a small man, 5-foot-6 or 7. Wire-rimmed glasses, a tidy mustache, eyes that crinkled at the corners when he ventured one of the tight little smiles that were his usual reaction to the obloquy of his opponents—even at the peak of his power in the 1920s, he looked more like a clerk in an insurance office than a man who, in the description of the militantly wet Cincinnati Enquirer, “made great men his puppets.” On his slight frame he wore a suit, a waistcoat and, his followers believed, the fate of the Republic.

Born on a farm near Youngstown, Ohio, in 1869, he was effectively born anew in 1893, when he found himself in a Congregational church in Oberlin, Ohio, listening to a temperance lecture delivered by the Rev. Howard Hyde Russell, a former lawyer who had recently founded an organization called the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). Wheeler had put himself through Oberlin College by working as a waiter, janitor, teacher and salesman. Now, after joining Russell in prayer, he signed on as one of the first full-time employees of the ASL, which he would turn into the most effective political pressure group the country had yet known.

It was, in fact, Wheeler who coined the term “pressure group.” When he teamed up with Russell in 1893, the temperance movement that had begun to manifest itself in the 1820s had hundreds of thousands of adherents but diffuse and ineffectual leadership. The most visible anti-alcohol leader, Frances Willard of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), had diluted her organization’s message by embracing a score of other issues, ranging from government ownership of utilities to vegetarianism. The nascent Prohibition Party had added forest conservation and post office policy to its anti-liquor platform. But Russell, with Wheeler by his side, declared the ASL interested in one thing only: the abolition of alcohol from American life.

Their initial objective was a law in every state banning its manufacture and sale. Their tactics were focused. A politician who supported anti-liquor laws could count on the league’s support, and a politician who did not could count on its ferocious opposition. “The Anti-Saloon League,” Russell said, “is formed for the purpose of administering political retribution.”

Wheeler became its avenging angel. Years later he said he joined the ASL because he was inspired by the organization’s altruism and idealism. But despite all the tender virtues he may have possessed, none was as essential as a different quality, best summarized by a classmate’s description: Wayne Wheeler was a “locomotive in trousers.” While clerking for a Cleveland lawyer and attending classes at Western Reserve Law School, Wheeler worked full time for the league, riding his bicycle from town to town to speak to more churches, recruit more supporters. After he earned his law degree in 1898 and took over the Ohio ASL’s legal office, his productivity only accelerated. He initiated so many legal cases on the league’s behalf, delivered so many speeches, launched so many telegram campaigns and organized so many demonstrations (“petitions in boots,” he called them) that his boss lamented that “there was not enough Mr. Wheeler to go around.”

Soon Wheeler and the ASL had effective control of the Ohio legislature. They had opposed 70 sitting legislators of both parties (nearly half the entire legislative membership) and defeated every one of them. Now the state could pass a law that had long been the league’s primary goal: a local-option bill that would put power over the saloon directly in voters’ hands. If Cincinnatians voted wet, Cincinnati would be wet; if Daytonites voted dry, they would be dry.

After different versions of the measure had passed both houses of the legislature, Gov. Myron T. Herrick persuaded members of the conference committee to adopt some modifications he deemed necessary to make the law workable and equitable. To the league, this was heresy. After Herrick signed the amended bill into law in the election year of 1905, Wheeler, playing for stakes greater than the ASL had ever risked before, took him on directly.

The governor was no easy target. A lawyer and banker from Cleveland, he was the political creation of Senator Mark Hanna, the Republican Boss of Bosses. In 1903, Herrick had been elected governor with the largest plurality in Ohio history; for the 1905 campaign, he had substantial campaign funds, as well as the goodwill of many a churchgoer for having vetoed a bill that would have legalized racetrack betting. And Ohio Republicans had lost only one gubernatorial election in almost two decades.

Wheeler and the ASL sponsored more than 300 anti-Herrick rallies throughout the state and mobilized their supporters in the churches by suggesting that the governor—“the champion of the murder mills”—was a pawn of the liquor interests. When the Brewers’ Association sent out a confidential letter urging its members to lend quiet but material support to Herrick (his Democratic opponent was a vocal temperance advocate), Wheeler said he “got [a copy of the letter] on Thursday before election, photographed it and sent out thousands of them to churches on Sunday.” In a race that drew what was at the time the largest turnout for an Ohio gubernatorial election, every other Republican on the statewide ticket was elected, but Myron Herrick’s political career was over.

“Never again,” Wheeler boasted, “will any political party ignore the protests of the church and the moral forces of the state.” Nor, in a word, would they ignore Wayne B. Wheeler.


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