First Draft Follies: The “Dry” Assault On American Brewers, 1916. Part 2

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Welcome to First Draft Follies, an ongoing series here at the blog. All of the previous entries are available by clicking on “First Draft Follies” in the index. The material is presented “as is” from the first draft of the manuscript that became the book Ambitious Brew. In a few places I added one or two words in brackets — [like this] — for clarification. Whenever the excerpt is long, I’ve broken it down into several “parts.”

This edition concerns the early twentieth century prohibition movement, which eventually produced the 18th Amendment and constitutional Prohibition.

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On February 3, E. Lowry Humes, a United States District Attorney assigned to the Western District of Pennsylvania, issued eight subpoenas to officers of the United States Brewers Association (USBA), the Pennsylvania Brewers’ Association, and the Western Pennsylvania Brewers’ Association. The documents requested the men’s presence at a grand jury that would convene the following Monday to investigate possible violations of corporate tax law and the federal corrupt practices act.

Behind the subpoenas lay revenge. Humes hailed from a long line of Democratic politicians. Before coming to the D. A.’s office, he had served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. There he “brushed up against” and developed a loathing for the “great lobby” operated by the state’s brewers on behalf of the state’s Republicans. (*4) Loathing turned to hatred in 1914, when A. Mitchell Palmer, Pennsylvania Democrats’ party boss and a member of Congress, ran for Senate, a move intended to place him one step closer to the White House.

Palmer marched into the contest dressed in the armor of a corruption-fighting progressive. His opponent, Boies Penrose, limped into the ring burdened with a stinking train of bribes, graft, and election fraud.

Palmer should have won. He did not. Lowry Humes, who hoped to ride Palmer’s coattails to Washington, blamed the defeat on one factor: brewers who had “dumped a large sum of money” into the campaign. (*5)

Now District Attorney Humes (an appointment arranged by Palmer) planned to discredit, demolish, and destroy his enemy, and the public was in for a treat: A courtroom battle between good and evil, with the men in white armed with artillery “of a most sensational nature.” (*6)

Humes himself refused to say much. “I never try cases out of court or in the newspapers,” he sniffed.

So he said. In fact, Humes wanted Pennsylvanians to supply his office with ammunition and his minions leaked several columns worth of newsprint before the jury opened its first session. (*7)

The publicity paid off. Concerned citizens deluged Humes’s office with stacks of letter–some signed, some not–“containing enlightening facts about liquor money in politics.” The D. A. shared a typical example with reporters: a signed missive whose author “offered to prove” that local brewers had spent twenty-five dollars on “every election . . . in the county.” (*8)

Truth be told, the effluence of altruism represented an organized effort on the part of Pennsylvania’s prohibitionists. An unnamed member of the ASL explained that he and his comrades possessed an “‘abundance of interesting information on this subject,’” including evidence that Pennsylvania brewers “‘dominated’” state politics, provided “‘financial support’” to candidates, and in some cases even “‘named’” the winners in many elections. (*9)

Knew in other words, that brewers had been engaged in the same “pressure politics” for which the Anti-Saloon League was famous. (*10)

Ah, but in Pennsylvania, as in Texas, the difference between the brewers and the ASL boiled down to a legal technicality: the brewers, whether as owners of breweries or as members of trade associations, acted through the vehicle of an incorporated body. The ASL had never incorporated at either the national or state level, and was free to engage in as much electioneering and blackmail as it pleased.

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Sources:

*4: “How Keller Aided Liquor Interests,” Indianapolis News, May 24, 1917, p. 1.

*5: “How Keller Aided Liquor Interests,” Indianapolis News, May 24, 1917, p. 20.

*6: “Humes to Call Big Politicians in Liquor Probe,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, February 5, 1916, p. 2.

*7: Ibid.

*8: “Citizens Give Evidence in Brewery Case,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, February 8, 1916, p. 1.

*9: “Brewers Owe U. S. Millions, Is Reported,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, February 7, 1916, p. 7.

*10: Peter H. Odegard, Pressure Politics: The Story of the Anti-Saloon League (New York: Columbia University Press, 1928).

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