Politics

That Time Congress Debated Prohibition and Used Beer Bottles as Props on the Floor

Way before the era of CSPAN-ready props, members brandished empty beer bottles

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Empty beer bottles sit on the ledge of a Longworth Building balcony during a reception in 2015. One hundred years ago, beer bottles served as key props for members of Congress debating Prohibition. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s undeniable that members of Congress love props. Aside from the run-of-the mill posters and charts, members have presented everything from cans of tuna to containers of laundry detergent pods on the floor. But the residents of the Capitol have had a flair for the dramatic since long before their antics showed up on TV.

A century ago, as states were in the midst of ratifying the 18th Amendment, Congress was fiercely divided into the prohibitionists, the “dries,” and their opponents, the “wets.” These legislative ancestors had a lot in common with the current inhabitants of the House — they were quick to refute negative press coverage and relished a good tale.

After passing Congress in December 1917, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution — prohibiting the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcohol — was ratified Jan. 16, 1919, and enforcement began a year later. 

Since the temperance movement emphasized the consumption of alcohol as an immoral act, the dries were keen to keep their prohibitionist records clean, at least in public. (The famous Capitol Hill bootlegger George Cassiday estimated that at least 80 percent of Congress broke the law after prohibition was enacted.) And no representative needed to keep his name dry more than Charles Hiram Randall of California, the only member of the Prohibition Party to ever be elected to Congress.

In the summer of 1918, the Washington Times had been running an ongoing investigation into “the liquor conditions at the House Office building.”

On June 4, the Times reported that Randall and a journalist from the Times had found 26 empty beer bottles in a storeroom, along with an empty quart of wine. The reporter then apparently followed a number of House-employed janitors and porters as they carted large crates to junk shops, only to find that one crate contained more than 200 empty liquor bottles.

The Times reported that one anonymous member said there was no point in the House investigating the stash because “every man who has eyes can plainly see that many members, who are loud in their arguments for a ‘bone dry’ city are themselves not adverse to taking a drink.”

Shortly after the House convened on the day after the article ran, Randall stormed the floor and asked to be recognized, though many skeptical members objected.

Randall stated that the Times had erroneously implied that he cooperated with the reporter in trying to find the bottles, and he wanted to set the record straight.

This caused even more commotion among the members. Some suspected that he wanted to make sure the ordeal would not impact his re-election, while John Nance Garner, a “wet” Texas Democrat known as “Cactus Jack,” objected to proceeding because he believed that “it is not the business of the Times or of anybody else as to what gentlemen do when they do not violate the law.”

Eventually, the speaker brought the chamber to order, and Randall was allowed to continue. Randall’s version of events was that the reporter came to his office and asked the congressman to join him in discovering some bottles, and that he refused the offer until the reporter figured out the exact location of the offending glassware.

He implied that he was skeptical of the investigation from the beginning and that the reporter only feigned looking for any bottles until they came upon a hidden parcel in the attic of the House Office Building, known today as Cannon Building.

At this point Randall paused to exhibit one of the found bottles on the floor, to cries of, “What brand is it?” from “wet” members.

The congressional Sherlock concluded his case against the Times with two pieces of evidence.

First, the box was clean in the dusty attic, so it must have been “freshly placed” up there.

Second, Randall stated that he had “examined the bottles carefully” and found that the labels showed it was “the Faust brand of beer, the notorious brand of St. Louis, ‘Alcohol 4.5 percent.’”

With what we can only imagine was the tipping of a deerstalker hat, the congressman concluded that because the alcoholic content of beer had been limited to 2.5 percent since December of 1917, and the box was free of dust, the bottles must have been “bought at some junk shop and placed there very recently in order to bolster up this cheap slander which the Washington Times is conducting against the House of Representatives.”

The chamber broke into applause, and having made his point, Randall left the floor.

Despite Randall’s use of a compelling prop and his riveting testimony, his defense of Congress would not stand the test of time.

Just two years later, George Cassiday would secure a basement office in the House Office Building, out of which he could run his bootlegging operation. After being arrested by Capitol Police with alcohol in his briefcase in 1925, according to the House Office of the Historian, he did “as many who have left the House in one capacity or another have done” and “found employment on the north side of the Capitol building,” running a bootlegging operation out of the Senate Office Building until 1930.

The 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealed the 18th Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933, the only amendment to the Constitution to be repealed. 

So let’s raise a glass to props on the floors of Congress, making legislative proceedings a bit more interesting for over a hundred years.

Watch: Election Season Drags to a Close at DC High Heel Run

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.