Challenging Prohibition: The Legend of “Johnfillup”

I am posting a bit early this time as I will be in a place soon for the next few days that I’m not sure has a stable internet connection.

Prohibition was one of America’s grand social experiments, and like many grand social experiments, there were many who opposed it. Certain cities never accepted Prohibition, among them Chicago and Baltimore. In 1920, the latter elected to Congress the perfect representative for their tastes: Republican John Philip Hill (1879-1941). Hill had as an attorney advised the American Express Company in 1914 that the Webb-Kenyon Act was constitutional as it was sufficiently respectful of state’s rights in providing Federal support for individual state decisions on alcohol regulation. This being said, he thought Prohibition went way too far. Hill became known in Congress as “the wettest wet” for his opposition to anything that furthered or could serve to further Prohibition. He was a major publicity hound in his cause as well. Correspondent Clinton W. Gilbert wrote of Hill, “He lives by headlines. If newspapers were abolished, he would curl up and die. I know he will read this with delight and paste it away in his scrapbook. That’s why I am writing it” (TIME). He regularly ridiculed Wayne A. Wheeler and his Anti-Saloon League to the delight of his constituents. Hill was also unafraid to take unpopular stances, two examples being his vote against the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Act in 1921, the popular support which had pushed many rock-ribbed conservatives into voting for, and against the Immigration Act of 1924 that established national origins quotas for immigration. His opposition to Prohibition would go beyond voting against measures furthering it, however.

Hill decided to provide a legal challenge to Prohibition in 1923. He saw the law as unfairly discriminating in favor of farmers given an allowance for them to grow “nonintoxicating” fruit beverages while people in the cities lacked the same allowance on their properties. Hill thus decided to grow grape vines and apple trees in his backyard and called it “Franklin Farms”. In 1924, he threw a party with 500 in attendance in which in his Baltimore basement they drank his cider. That year, Hill was indicted under the Volstead Act for the production of “intoxicating” liquors. Before his trial ended, however, traditionally Democratic Baltimore reelected him with over 60% of the vote. At the trial, numerous witnesses came forward stating that they hadn’t been intoxicated from drinking Hill’s wine and cider. He had also never sold any of his product, and he was acquitted. The result of the trial was a success for him and the foes of Prohibition. This verdict established that people could make wine and cider on their own property as long as they dubbed it a “farm” and that the definition of “intoxicating” liquors was dependent on opinion. There was even a poem written celebrating his acquittal,

“Twelve honest men and true the court did choose
To try Johnfillup for his jest with booze,
Twelve honest men heard learned doctors Say
A single drop of wine will make you gay,
Twelve honest men discussed for weary hours
The arrant nonsense of the Volstead powers.
Twelve honest men who knew the strength of thirst,
Gave their opinion and were then dispersed.
They ruled a townsman, and a farmer too,
Were not intoxicated by home brew,
A simple wine, of merely ten per cent,
Was just and fair and was the law’s intent.
My flat is tiny, there’s no home brew space,
But if some friend will Send to me a case,
An ancient beaker to the brim I’ll fill
And drink the glory of Johnfillup Hill” (Lewis).

In 1925, Hill wrote an article condemning the Volstead Act, regarding it as a failure given its increasing number of busts of illegal distilleries and distilling apparatuses, implying that more were created as a consequence of Prohibition than there had been before. He also held that based on the verdict of his trial, the Volstead Act “…establishes a definition for “intoxicating liquors” which is artificial and untrue. It prohibits beer with one-half of one per cent, of alcohol, but permits cider and home-made wine with as much alcohol in them as the individual jury may consider non-intoxicating in fact” (Hill, 639). He proposed a substitute, which respected state’s rights to define what beverages were “intoxicating” and have the Federal government support whatever each state decided on the question.

In 1926, Hill ran for the Republican primary for the Senate, but lost to incumbent Ovington Weller, who would lose reelection to wet Democrat Millard Tydings. His political career would only slide down from there. In 1928, Hill lost a bid to return to Congress by less than a point. His 1930 bid went worse with the Great Depression, losing by eight points. Hill attempted one more time in 1936, losing by over 20 points. By this time his signature issue of Prohibition was resolved in his favor, and thus the motivation of Baltimoreans to vote for him was largely gone. He then moved to New York City to practice law. In 1937, Hill’s wife divorced him, asserting that he had left her in 1932. Hill died four years later on May 23, 1941. No Republican has represented Maryland’s 3rd district since he departed Congress in 1927, but his legend lives on.


Hill, J.P. (1925). A State’s Rights Remedy for Volsteadism. The North American Review, 221(827), 635-640.

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Lewis, W. (1961, June). The Battle of Franklin Farms: John Philip’s Jest With Booze. The Atlantic.

Retrieved from

Prohibition. U.S. House of Representatives.

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Prohibition: Not Guilty. (1924, November 24). Time Magazine.

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