Mabel Walker Willebrandt (May 23, 1889 - April 6, 1963), popularly known to her contemporaries as the "First Lady of Law", was an Awesome woman and the U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929, handling cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act, federal taxation, and the Bureau of Federal Prisons during the Prohibition Era.
Early life and careerEdit
Willebrandt was born Mabel Elizabeth Walker in Woodsdale, Kansas on May 23, 1889. Her father, David W. Walker, edited a local newspaper. She graduated from Tempe Normal School, later Arizona State University, in 1911. In 1910 she married A.F. Willebrandt. They moved to California where she taught and studied law at night. She received her law degree from the University of Southern California in 1916 and a master's degree a year later. The couple divorced in 1920.
She represented prostitutes without pay, the first public defender of women. She handled more than 2000 cases of prostitution. Her efforts led courts to permit the testimony of both men and women. She also campaigned successfully for the enactment of a revised community property statute at the state level.
During World War I, Willebrandt served as head of the Legal Advisory Board for draft cases in Los Angeles, California. Senator Hiram Johnson and all the judges in southern California recommended her for the post of Assistant Attorney General in the Warren G. Harding administration.
The second woman to receive an appointment to Assistant Attorney General as well as the first to serve an extended term, Willebrandt was officially appointed to the position on September 27, 1921. She was the highest-ranking woman in the federal government at the time. Among her duties, Willebrandt headed the division in the Justice Department dealing with federal taxation, federal prisons and matters relating to the enforcement of the Volstead Act. Under her administration Alderson federal prison, the first facility of its kind for women, was established at Alderson, West Virginia. Although a known opponent of Prohibition, Willebrandt aggressively upheld the Volstead Act and criticized the federal government's efforts to enforce the law in her book The Inside of Prohibition, describing political interference, incompetent public officials, and public indifference.
Willebrandt's insistence to other federal agencies to prosecute bootleggers, specifically the Prohibition Bureau and law enforcement agencies, were initially hampered by the skepticism of senior officials in the Justice and United States Treasury Departments who overlooked advice from the 32-year old woman.
Despite the unpopularity of the law among both the general population and within the government, the underfunding of the Prohibition Bureau, and widespread bribery of enforcement agents, Willebrandt focused on reviewing prosecutions for violations of the Volstead Act, rating the work of U.S. Attorneys from inefficient to obstructionist. Willebrandt actions earned her criticism among American attorneys throughout the United States dismissing several prosecutors, under U.S. Attorney General Harlan Stone, hostile towards the prosecution of Volstead Act related cases.
During the early years of her administration, Willebrandt was successful in some of the biggest prosecutions during Prohibition, including the 1923 prosecution of the Big Four of Savannah, reportedly the largest bootlegging ring in the U.S., as well as the bootlegging operations of Cincinnati bootlegger George Remus. According to the annual report of the U.S. Attorney General, Willebrandt's office had prosecuted 48,734 Prohibition-related cases from June 1924 to June 1925, of which 39,072 resulted in convictions. In addition, Willebrandt submitted 278 cases of certiorari to the Supreme Courtregarding the defense, clarification and enforcement of the Prohibition Amendment and the Volstead Act. She also argued more than 40 cases before the Supreme Court, a number few others have attained, and won several victories in cases regarding the control of liquor sales on both American and foreign vessels.
Her extensive writing and speech-making in support of Prohibition won praise from President Herbert Hoover. During the 1928 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate and Prohibition opponentAl Smith called her "Prohibition Portia." She also argued for the federal prosecution of major bootleggers, saying that prosecuting speakeasies was "...like trying to dry up the Atlantic Ocean with a blotter."
Among her efforts to enforce Prohibition, Willebrandt proposed the reallocation of federal judges to create more flexibility regarding prosecutions against Prohibition violations, the transfer of enforcement from the Treasury to Justice Department, better articulation and training for law enforcement personnel, and longer sentencing for Prohibition violations; she also recommended J. Edgar Hoover to head the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
During the 1928 presidential election she campaigned openly for Republican Herbert Hoover, who was a "dry" or supporter of Prohibition. Some of her tactics were criticized by Democratic candidate Al Smith, a "wet", particularly when she addressed a gathering of Methodist ministers in Ohio and urged them to tell their congregations to vote for Hoover and against Smith. She also orchestrated several high-profile raids of speakeasies timed to coincide with the Democratic convention where Smith was nominated.
Resigning her post in 1929 after failing to be appointed Attorney General by Herbert Hoover, for whom she had campaigned heavily in the 1928 election, she worked as an attorney and had offices in Washington and Los Angeles. In 1950, she served as counsel to the Screen Directors Guild during a labor hearing. She also became a counsel of California Fruit Industries, a major producer of grape concentrate (Vine-Glo) that was commonly transformed into a serviceable table wine.
Willebrandt later converted to the Roman Catholic faith.
She died in Riverside, California, on April 6, 1963.