Pioneering woman newspaper reporter Nelly Kenyon of the Chattanooga Times in 1932 snuck onto the private compartment of the passenger train transporting Alphonse “Al” Capone to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary to begin serving his 11-year sentence for income tax evasion and obtained a personal interview of America’s number one gangster.
While Nelly got the interview scoop from Capone from a journalistic perspective little has been printed that it was a young female Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) from California that initiated the legal theory that ultimately led to Capone’s conviction in Chicago.
Mabel Walker Willebrandt (May 23, 1889-April 6, 1963) was born in Woodsdale, Kansas and moved to Los Angeles, California in 1912.
She received two law degrees in night school from the University of Southern California in 1916-1917 while teaching elementary school during the day.
After graduating from law school she became the first public defender for the Los Angeles area and actually handled cases pro bono (free) while a student in law school. One area in which she developed expertise was the defense of prostitutes.
During World War I she handled cases for the Draft Board dealing with soldier eligibility for military service.
In 1921 she was appointed by the Warren G. Harding administration to be only the second woman to serve as an Assistant Attorney General in the United States. In that capacity from 1921-1929 she was the highest-ranked woman in the federal criminal justice system and became the first female head of the Tax Division that would ultimately lead to the downfall of Al Capone.
Enforcing the Volstead Act of 1919 (prohibition) was one of several areas that she headed and had important responsibilities.
Due to division in the country over the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, or the transportation of alcohol for public consumption, she was faced with many problems enforcing the Amendment due to incompetent public officials, public indifference, and the reluctance by many politicians and law enforcement officers when it came to prosecuting the law.
Although she faced strong criticism from both federal and state officials in her commitment to follow the letter of the Volstead Act, she was successful in overcoming many obstacles. During the one-year period from June, 1924 to June, 1925, she obtained 39,072 convictions out of 48,734 cases brought for alcohol-related offenses.
During her tenure as the major prosecutor enforcing the Volstead Act she argued and won 40 cases in the United States Supreme Court that dealt with the prohibition statutes. She prevailed in spite of strong prejudice displayed towards her by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, James C. McReynolds, because she was a woman.
Al Capone, took over control of the crime syndicate in Chicago from Johnny Torrio, who stepped down as crime boss after a near fatal gangland shooting in 1924.
During the era mobsters such as Capone could not be prosecuted for murder or other serious crimes because of the reluctance of witnesses to testify against them. Most of them lived very opulent lifestyles flaunting the display of their illegally gained wealth from prohibition, gambling, prostitution, etc.
Wiilebrandt created the novel idea of prosecuting the high-spending criminals under the federal income tax evasion laws and the United States Supreme Court upheld the legality of such prosecutions in the landmark decision of United States v. Sullivan, 274 U.S. 259 (1927), which she personally argued in the high court.
She was responsible for successfully convicting several prominent bootleggers throughout the country including Capone and Cincinnati crime boss George Remus, who were both prominently featured in the popular 2010 HBO television series, “Boardwalk Empire.” Actress Julianna Nicholson portrayed Willebrandt and her law enforcement career was also featured in the 2011 public broadcasting system series (PBS) “Prohibition by Ken Burns and Others.”
After being rejected by President Herbert Hoover for the position of attorney general she resigned her job and returned to the practice of law in California where she developed a successful legal career. She represented Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Screen Directors Guild of America, as well as movie stars Clark Gable, Gene Harlow, Jeanette McDonald and others.
A fitting tribute was paid to her by her friend and Watergate Federal Judge, John J. Sirica, who stated, “If Mabel had worn trousers she could have been president.”
In the era where few women were in the legal profession, Mabel Walker Willebrandt relentlessly enforced the prohibition laws and earned herself such nicknames as “Prohibition Portia” and “First Lady of the Law” from both foes and supporters of the controversial 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment.
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