Prohibition brought about many developments in the United States, one of which was hypocrisy on a grand scale. It was an all-too common story that legislators who toed the dry line were themselves drinking. Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi, who struggled throughout his life with alcoholism, voted for Prohibition despite personal opposition to it because his people wanted it. President Warren G. Harding, who as a senator from Ohio had voted for the Prohibition Amendment, was stocking liquor and drinking it at parties. The men who were perhaps best representative of this sheer hypocrisy were Congressmen M. Alfred Michaelson and Edward Denison of Illinois, John Langley of Kentucky, and William Morgan of Ohio.
M. Alfred Michaelson
Republican Magne Alfred Michaelson (1878-1949) was elected to Congress in 1920 after defeating wet Niels Juul for renomination, making him the only representative from Chicago who supported Prohibition. He was also a bit of a populist, being one of only eleven House Republicans to vote against the Mellon tax cuts and he condemned the American Legion as being bought and paid for by Wall Street. Michaelson also was a strong backer of Mayor William Hale Thompson and the veterans bonus bill.
In January 1928, Michaelson was arrested under the Volstead Act for bringing back six trunks full of whiskey, brandy, and rum from Cuba and Panama. A bottle in one of his trunks had broken, causing the trunk to leak, and he had evaded arrest for three days. Although acquitted by the jury as his brother-in-law took the fall and was fined $1000, the Republican voters of his district didn’t acquit him. The Great Depression combined with his hypocrisy brought his defeat for renomination in 1930. Michaelson never returned to politics and died in 1949.
Republican Edward Denison (1873-1953) of Illinois served from 1915 to 1931 and had a moderately conservative record, was a supporter of organized labor and veterans’ bonuses, and a 100% dry record. However, in December 1928 he returned from a junket to Panama and a few weeks later, U.S. Marshals found a trunk identified as the property of a “B.B. Dawson” in his quarters of the House Office Building. This trunk contained 18 bottles of Royal Sprey Whiskey and six bottles of Gibley’s dry gin (Time, Real Sentiments). This was an act that he had voted to make a felony! This incident resulted in an indictment under the Volstead Act and his loss of reelection in 1930 to Democrat Kent Keller, a wet. Denison was acquitted after Senator Otis Glenn (R-Ill.) and four representatives vouched for his character and the jury bought his story that his trunk was mixed up with his nephew’s while on the steamship back to the United States.
John Langley (1868-1932) was a moderate conservative who became known for bringing home the bacon as a representative to the degree that he was known as “Pork Barrel John”. His constituents greatly appreciated this and regularly reelected him. They also supported his position in favor of Prohibition, which was staunchly dry. In 1924, however, Langley attempted to sell 1400 bottles of whiskey and buy a Prohibition officer’s silence. He was indicted for violations of the Volstead Act and convicted. His appeal to the Supreme Court failed in January 1926. Langley was succeeded by his wife Katherine, who claimed that he had been the victim of a political conspiracy.
Despite his time in jail, many of his constituents continued to think of him fondly; failure to sufficiently defend Langley contributed to a reduced enthusiasm for reelecting Senator Richard Ernst in 1926, who was defeated by Congressman and future Vice President Alben W. Barkley. Langley was the worst case of the group, as he had attempted to engage in trafficking liquor in the United States whereas others appeared to be smuggling for personal consumption. On December 20, 1928, at the urging of Congresswoman Langley, President Coolidge pardoned him on the condition that he not run for office again. John Langley nonetheless sent out a letter claiming that he was going to be running for office again, but his wife nixed this plan when she announced that she would step down from office for no one. He maintained his innocence until his death from pneumonia in January 1932.
Republican William Morgan (1870-1935) of Ohio served from 1921 to 1931 and was moderately conservative, pro-organized labor, a supporter of veterans’ bonuses, and 100% dry…in voting, that is. In March 1929, he managed to use his authority as a member of Congress to get four quarts of whiskey past customs, an act that he had voted to make a felony! Morgan claimed to be so blunt about it to cover for the wife of an unnamed member of Congress and was arrested. Although he didn’t end up serving any time, his constituents were not amused, and he lost reelection in 1930 to wet Democrat Charles West.
This phenomenon of course extended considerably beyond these four. Senator Frederick Gillett (R-Mass.), who had served as House Speaker from 1919 to 1925, said in 1929 that he had witnessed many instances of members legislating under the influence and went on to state that if all members who drank in the Capitol were censured that it would take up most of the legislature’s time. He stated, “It was obvious to those who were there, but to the great American public…it was secret” (U.S. House, Liquor). Representatives Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) and Manuel Herrick (R-Okla.) also reported extensive alcohol consumption among fellow legislators.
In 1931, freelance journalist William H. Crawford polled a random assortment of 200 senators and representatives. Of these he found 157 identified as dry and 43 identified as wet. Of these, he found that if released from political considerations, 61 would still vote dry, 70 would vote to loosen the Volstead Act, and 69 would vote for repealing the 18th Amendment. Crawford extrapolated this figure to the whole of Congress and determined that there over 150 members who voted dry but thought or acted otherwise (Prohibition: Real Sentiments). Hypocrisy among legislators was one of the numerous factors that built up support for repealing Prohibition.
Langley, Katherine Gudger. U.S. House of Representatives.
Legislating the Liquor Law – Prohibition and the House. U.S. House of Representatives.
M. Alfred Michaelson (U.S. Government Printing Office. 1922. Congressional Directory, Volume 67. Page 23)
Prohibition: A Dear Friend. (1929, May 20). Time Magazine.
Prohibition: Drinks For Drys. (1929, April 8). Time Magazine.
Prohibition: Real Sentiments (1931, March 23). Time Magazine.