GREAT MOBILE WHISKEY WAR, THE
Webb, Samuel L
Determined to enforce Prohibition in the city of Mardi Gras, U.S. District Attorney Aubrey Boyles poised himself for battle with Mobile’s elite. Ultimately his career would be on the firing line.
ON THE MORNINC; OF NOVEMBER 13, 1923, hundreds of bystanders peered anxiously through the iron gates at the entrance of Mobile’s Customs House and Federal Building on St. Francis Street. The crowd grew as reports churned through the city’s rumor mill of raids by federal prohibition agents and the impending arrest of several prominent citizens. Trucks loaded with illegal liquor pulled through the gates, met by laborers who spent hours hauling crates of Scotch, bourbon, rum, and Benedictine into the building. The Mobile Register reported that more than ten thousand quarts of whiskey were eventually carried inside. Izzie Einstein, one of the nation’s most celebrated Internal Revenue agents, reported that he “had never seen such a variety of booze.” U.S. Commissioners worked all day signing warrants, and excitement grew as federal agents hurriedly left the building and returned with suspects in tow. Before the day was over, seventeen establishments selling illegal liquor in Mobile County had been shut down.
When a federal grand jury met in December, guards had to be called in to protect prosecution witnesses, some of whom had received anonymous threats. After deliberating, the grand jury indicted seventy-one individuals for violating the Volstead Act, a federal law that enforced the Eighteenth Amendment’s ban on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. The trial set off a dramatic legal struggle that would last more than three years. Hugo L. Black (future U.S. senator and U.S. Supreme Court justice), Frank W. Boykin (future congressman), and Oscar W. Underwood (U.S. senator), played major roles in the drama. But the lead role fell to Aubrey W. Boyles, the U.S. district attorney who began the investigation and called for the indictments. Boyles challenged Mobile’s elite, and for his audacity paid a severe price.
FEDERAL AND STATE LAWS BANNING LIQUOR had been used before to prosecute Mobilians. Poor blacks, small-time moonshiners, and struggling retailers were occasionally hauled into court to pay fines or receive short jail sentences. But these haphazard attempts at law enforcement did not signify a determination to end liquor traffic. Most Mobilians, including those in power, hated prohibition. Like other southern ports, Mobile had always been lax about cracking down on vice. Without the attraction of alcohol, sailors and other visitors to the city would not venture into town, and the desire of Mobilians to enjoy their own private pleasures was rooted in local traditions in which drinking was an essential ingredient. Mardi Gras, that bacchanalian season of revelry associated with New Orleans, actually originated in Mobile, and every February the city abjured the mundane aspects of life in favor of parades, parties, and fancy costume balls. But the festivities did not end with February, for the Mardi Gras spirit pervaded nearly every aspect of Mobile’s social life.
Until World War I, a “redlight district” operated openly in the city, and prostitutes plied their trade in relative security. Reformers attacked this scandalous situation, and the district lost its protection, but it was common knowledge that prostitutes could still be found in certain areas. Gambling dens flourished, and bets could be placed at any time. Efforts to shut down movie theaters on Sundays and to stop the local professional baseball team from playing on the Sabbath met with no success. Roman Catholics, a quarter of Mobile’s churchgoers, believed private morality was a matter for the church and parishioners, and that drinking and gambling were not major sins if done in moderation. Social activities of the city’s elite, both Protestant and Catholic, revolved around the Mobile Country Club or gentlemen’s clubs headquartered in downtown buildings, where drinks had been part of the daily fare. Leading citizens sipped cold beer on the porch of public bars in plain view on long summer afternoons. No one dared raid these places.
In 1921 when prohibition agents operating out of Montgomery invaded the homes of two of Mobile’s wealthiest men in search of “home brew,” the outery could be heard all the way to the capitol. Although Governor Thomas E. Kilby was a devout prohibitionist, Mobile public opinion forced him to condemn the raids and fire the men who conducted them. When his prohibition chief dissented, the governor sacked him as well.
Many port city residents considered it distressing that Mobile was even part of Alabama. In the rest of the state Catholics were scarcer than Republicans, but Baptists and Methodists grew like kudzu, and their battle with the devil was real and earnest. Between 1900 and World War I, Protestant zealots in the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union fought to wipe out liquor. Combining forces, these groups made alcohol the state’s leading political issue. In the 1906, 1910, 1914, and 1918 Democratic primaries, the race for governor featured fights between those favoring statewide prohibition and those who wanted the matter left up to local communities. In each election Mobile’s citizens rejected the prohibitionist candidate by a two-to-one margin. In 1909, when “drys” tried to put prohibition in the state constitution, eighty percent of Mobile’s white citizens voted against it, the largest negative percentage of any Alabama county. Local law enforcement officers and prosecutors, dependent on local sentiment, took note.
Prohibitionists got help from a revived Ku Klux Klan, which was so intertwined with Alabama’s Anti-Saloon League that it was impossible, said one observer, to tell “where one ended and the other began.” Racism and anti-Catholic bigotry motivated Klansmen, but the fanatic organization also enforced private morals. One of their top priorities was to protect the Eighteenth Amendment from repeal and support its rigorous enforcement. Sometimes the Klan took the law into its own hands and actually raided Birmingham bars and restaurants. Mobile, with its large Catholic population and open bars, was considered a cesspool by the hooded order. Prohibitionist groups and the Klan were weaker in Mobile than in other Alabama cities, but by 1923 the city felt their pressure. Alabama prohibitionists believed Mobile was their greatest problem. Rum runners operating from Cuba and the Caribbean islands plied Gulf waters and Mobile Bay, and thousands of gallons of liquor flowed into the city, up nearby rivers, and into the rest of the state. In 1924, the year Aubrey Boyles put the “Whiskey Ring” on trial, state officials destroyed 1,204,480 bottles of beer; 13,781 gallons of whiskey; 1,754 gallons of wine; 6,587 bottles of home brew; and they confiseated 165 automobiles, ten trueks, twelve wagons, nine horses, and seven mules used in transporting alcohol. Mobile’s institutions and traditions encouraged this epidemic of lawlessness, and Justice Department officials in Washington wanted it stopped.
IN THE SPRING OF 1923, U.S. DISTRICT ATTORNEY Aubrey Boyles attempted to oblige them. A native of Crichton in Mobile County, Boyles had played football for the University of Alabama in 1900 and 1901, and earned a law degree at that school in 1904. After graduation he practiced law and sold real estate in Mobile, and joined Governor B. B. Comer’s prohibition crusade. When Comer got a statewide “bone dry” law through the 1907 legislature, Boyles served briefly as special prosecutor in state prohibition cases. He took special delight in closing down a Mobile brewery operated in open defiance of state law by the politically powerful Lyons family. The family did not forget, and in 1918 Boyles was defeated for the legislature in the Democratic primary. By 1920 he had joined the Republican party, and when Warren G. Harding was elected president Boyles sought the job of United States District Attorney for Alabama’s Southern District. Some GOP leaders opposed him, but therewere few Republican attorneys in south Alabama. When the state party chairman endorsed Boyles, Harding sent his name to the Senate, where he was unanimously confirmed.
As the newly appointed U.S. district attorney, Boyles immediately turned up the heat on liquor dealers. During one raid they arrested a down-and-out woman who made and sold beer at home. “Why are you prosecuting us poor devils,” she asked, “when the big fellows are running wild?” Learning that there was a larger, more lucrative operation in Mobile, agents raided businesses there and discovered that retailers were paying local wholesalers who imported the liquor. These wholesalers, the real kingpins of the alcohol trade, collected and paid protection money to law enforcement officers. Eventually, one wholesaler brazenly suggested to Boyles that the prosecutor could make a lot of money by simply leaving the liquor business alone. Calling on Washington for help, Boyles won support from Mabel Walker Willebrandt, head of the Justice Department’s prohibition enforcement division. Together they planned an attack on Mobile’s liquor traffic, but they would have to go after the city’s financial and political elite in order to succeed.
Boyles should have known that city and county law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors, municipal officials, state legislators, members of the bar, and even his own staff, might oppose him. Mobile County District Attorney Barton B. Chamberlain had been an outspoken opponent of prohibition while serving in the legislature. Operating as part of Mobile’s political machine, men like Chamberlain had protected local traditions for so long that cooperating with those who would undermine them was inconceivable. Boyles’s only support came from federal prohibition officers, Justice Department officials, a few Protestant ministers, and Mobile Register newspaper publisher Frederick I. Thompson. Although a prohibitionist, Thompson argued that the most serious problem was not liquor, but whether law enforcement officers would do their sworn duty.
In the spring of 1923, Mabel Willebrandt dispatched veteran federal agents to work with Boyles in breaking up the “Whiskey Ring.” Setting multiple traps, lawmen engaged in practices familiar today but believed to be illegal or dishonorable in 1920s Mobile. Agents eavesdropped on private conversations, solicited bribes from liquor dealers, set up phony liquor operations to entrap the unwary, and hired some of the city’s most unsavory characters to help reel in big operators. They carried out I their investigation without the assistance of the local sheriff or police chief, and actually misled them about what was going on, because the two men were prime suspects. Boyles alerted Justice Department officials of his every move, hut he made serious mistakes. Instead of confining his role to courtroom prosecution, he met personally with liquor dealers and fooled them into believing that he, too, could he paid off. Those he ensnared were among the city’s most powerful people, and they did not forget his deception. The U.S. attorney also employed a shadowy and corrupt former law enforcement officer named Harry French, who was under indictment for murder in an unrelated case, to solicit bribes from those selling booze. Acting as Boyles’s “bag man,” French informed the prosecutor about money he received from bootleggers. Instead of impounding the money as evidence or turning it over to the government, Boyles let his slea/y undercover man keep it, explaining it was the best way to get him to do his job. Mobile’s establishment later made the most of this indiscretion.
On December 15,1923, federal grand jury indictments rocked Mobile. Among those indicted were state representative William C. “Willie” Holcombe, a former sheriff who remained in de facto control of the sheriffs office while serving in the legislature, and his brother Robert, the city’s reputed political boss. Also charged were Mobile’s police chief; the county sheriff, the chief deputy sheriff, and three other deputies; the chairman of the county Democratic party; and local attorney Percy Kearns, the reputed collection and distribution agent for liquor wholesalers. Frank W. Boykin, a wealthy businessman believed to be the chieftain of the local lic]iior trade, was also arrested. These important defendants were charged with being part of a gigantic conspiracy to violate the Volstead Act. Boykin, state representative Holcombe, and attorney Kearns were additionally charged with conspiracy to bribe. Most defendants readily surrendered to federal agents and made bond, but Mobile Police Chief Patrick O’Shaughnessy had other plans. After learning of the impending indictments, he drove to a nearby town and caught a train for New Orleans. O’Shaughnessy’s wife and family knew nothing about his little trip, but agents who arrested the chief in New Orleans believed he intended to take the first available boat to South America. He was “just driving around,” O’Shaughnessy explained, and decided to “take a train” to New Orleans, “where he could have a drink.”
On the day of the indictments, Aubrey Boyles told the press that “fixers” from liquor and gambling interests offered him $150,000 if he would “slow up the work” of his office. He also said that leading liquor wholesalers, including Robert Holcombe and Frank Boykin, attempted to involve him in an effort to restrict the sale of liquor in Mobile to about twenty persons. The covert way in which the investigation had to be conducted, said Boyles, was “distasteful” to him because he hated to betray “even a bootlegger.” Local officials believed they had been hoodwinked, and their response was not long in coming.
The day after the federal indictments, Mobile District Attorney Bart Chamberlain arrested Aubrey Boyles, charging him with trying to illegally influence two state law enforcement agents. In Montgomery, Alabama’s prohibition enforcement chief A.W. Hargett angrily charged that Mobile officials were engaged in a “gigantic frame-up” of Boyles. “The vigorous policy Mr. Boyles has pursued in his fight on the liquor interests,” Hargett went on, “has made him decidedly unpopular among the element that is defying federal law in and around Mobile.” The Mobile Register accused local officials of trying to “neutralize or nullify the activities of federal authorities.” Boyles was forced to temporarily step down from office until cleared of the charges. This meant he would not participate in the trial of the “Whiskey Ring” cases. Mabel Walker Willebrandt appointed Birmingham attorney Hugo L. Black as special prosecutor and named two Mobile attorneys to assist him. Black had already gained a reputation for opposing the liquor trade. In 1916, while serving as Jefferson County’s solicitor, he used state prohibition laws to stop Birmingham newspapers from advertising liquor, and he also successfully prosecuted organized bootleggers in Russell County. When he accepted the Mobile appointment, Black was already a Klan member.
The federal liquor trials opened on April 3,1924, with Black acting as chief prosecutor and Judge Robert T. Ervin presiding. Appointed to the federal bench by President Woodrow WTilson in 1917, Judge Ervin was a Democrat and member of the Mobile bar since 1883. He had longstanding social or professional ties to most of the defense attorneys and was known for assessing lenient sentences in prohibition cases. During the trial he acted in an evenhanded manner, imposing discipline and order on the proceedings, but in time he, too, would turn on Boyles.
The first trial was of Mobile attorney Percy Kearns, charged with collecting payments from bootleggers for law enforcement protection. If the charges proved true, he would have intimate knowledge of the workings of the “Whiskey Ring,” and prosecutors might be able to persuade him to turn state’s evidence for a more lenient sentence. But the jury could not agree on a verdict, and the case ended in a mistrial. Prosecutors then changed tactics. Black put every defendant, including Kearns, on trial together on the single count of conspiracy to violate the federal prohibition act. The conspiracy trial opened on April 28, 1924, in a courtroom overflowing with defendants and lawyers. Why Black put so many people on trial at once remains a mystery. He had insufficient evidence to convict many of them and probably hoped that the prospect of a trial would force more to plead guilty or turn state’s evidence. Several lesser members of the “Whiskey Ring” did so.
In his opening statement, Black made a sensational charge about local businessman Frank W. Boykin’s connections to the Harding administration. President Harding had died the previous year, but revelations about corruption in his cabinet surfaced, and among those indicted was Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Black argued that Boykin’s influence reached into the Justice Department, to Daugherty’s close associates. The flamboyant Boykin had flaunted telegrams he received from Daugherty’s friends. The director of the liquor ring, said Black, was Robert Holcombe, but Boykin played a major role in providing protection. Sheriffs deputies and the police chief, said Black, forced retailers to buy their product from a small group of wholesalers or else lose law enforcement protection. Prosecutors introduced a codebook taken from one defendant that tied Mobile’s bootleggers to larger national and international liquor dealers. Testimony from federal agents and from Boyles’s undercover man Harry French dominated the prosecution’s case. The defense countered by exposing shady tactics used by federal officials. Agents admitted telling bootleggers they could continue operating if they paid Boyles, and several thousand dollars in bribes were given to agents. These activities and others, defense attorneys argued, constituted illegal entrapment.
As the trial proceeded, palpable tension pervaded the courtroom, punctuated by a series of colorful events. Harry French stopped his testimony at one point, turned to state representative William Holcombe, and said, “Don’t you cuss me Willie Holcombe.” French told the court that Holcombe had aimed a “vile epithet” at him. When the court reporter said he also heard the remark, Judge Ervin declared Holcombe in contempt and fined him $250. On another occasion two defendants got into a fist fight in the hall just outside the courtroom. Ervin fined them and gave both ten days in jail. When the jury asked to see the city jail in order to illuminate some testimony, Ervin sent them over with a U.S. marshal, only to learn that the panel had been greeted at the jail and led on the tour by William Holcombe and sheriff Paul Cazalas, who was also a defendant. During one trial recess, Hugo Black sought additional evidence, reconvened the grand jury, hauled two Mobile city commissioners before the panel, and grilled them about whether they raised campaign money or took bribes from liquor interests. Both men shrewdly and correctly refused to incriminate themselves.
After the prosecution rested, Judge Ervin dismissed charges against ten defendants, including Frank Boykin, who always seemed to be a bystander in the liquor transactions. No evidence directly implicated him, and Hugo Black produced no witness to substantiate his claim that Boykin protected bootleggers through Justice Department connections. (According to one story not reported in the press, but often repeated since that time, Boykin kept one telegram he received from Washington out of evidence by eating it in the courtroom.) Despite his acquittal in this trial, Boykin still faced the separate charge of conspiracy to bribe, and Aubrey Boyles was not through with him.
A two-hour-and-fifteen-minute lecture to the jury by Judge Ervin angered both defense and prosecution. Attorneys constantly rose to their feet with objections as Ervin not only informed the panel about the law but gave his own impressions of the evidence. He told the jury that there was sufficient evidence to convict several defendants, including Chief O’Shauhnessy and state legislator William Holcombe, but then added that he would not believe Harry French under oath. The jury deliberated for two hours, then spent the night before reaching a verdict the next morning. Eleven men, including six major wholesalers, attorney Percy Kearns, and Police Chief O’Shaugnessey, were convicted, while thirty-three defendants were released. Among those acquitted were the two Holcombe brothers and the county7 sheriff. Other defendants either pleaded guilty or had their cases dismissed by prosecutors.
Meanwhile, charges that Aubrey Boyles tried to illegally influence two state law enforcement officers were still pending. A week after the verdict in the federal liquor cases, Judge Ervin complied with a request by U.S. Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone to move the Boyles case from Mobile County circuit court to federal court. Mobile District Attorney Bart Chamberlain then mysteriously postponed the case on several occasions, presenting a variety of excuses. Over the strenuous objection of Boyles, who demanded a trial on the charge against him, the case was eventually dismissed on technical grounds. On August 9, 1924, nine months after the original indictments in the prohibition cases, Boyles was reinstated.
The acquittals of Frank Boykin and state representative William Holcombe made the outcome of the trials bittersweet for Aubrey Boyles, but in the fall of 1924 he went after them again. The two men remained under indictment for conspiracy to bribe federal law enforcement officials, and a newly empaneled grand jury charged both with outright bribery. Boykin’s brother Charles was also indicted for failure to pay the tariff on illegal liquor. Evidence would be easier to produce this time because many of the liquor wholesalers and attorney Percy Kearns were headed for federal prison. They could be induced to testify against Holcombe and Boykin in exchange for lighter sentences. Because of objections raised by defense attorneys against Judge Ervin during the first trial, he refused himself from presiding over the second group of whiskey cases, and the U.S. Court of Appeals appointed Birmingham Federal Judge W. I. Grubb to replace him.
Hugo Black returned as special prosecutor. Putting Frank Boykin and William Holcombe on trial together on February 10,1925, Black presented more formidable evidence against both defendants than the last time. Multiple witnesses offered accounts of how liquor came through Mobile Bay in pine tar barrels, was shipped up the river to Mcliitosh, and stored in Charles Boykin’s warehouse. Frank Boykin, said witnesses, was paid a dollar and a half per barrel for storing the booze, kept thousands of dollars in the bank to pay off law enforcement officers, and sent people to pay off federal agents. Boykin and other wholesalers were given five dollars a case over and above the normal price of liquor for protection. One witness recalled that Boykin claimed to be raising money from other bootleggers to help pay off the debt of the Republican National Committee. Aubrey Boyles testified that he solicited bribes from Boykin and others with the full cooperation of the Justice Department. Defense attorneys claimed illegal entrapment, but the judge advised the jury· that if the intent of the defendants was to offer a bribe, it did not matter whether Boyles solicited it. The court found Boykin and Holcombe guilty of bribery, sentencing each to two years in prison and assessing a five-hundred-dollar fine. They were released on bond while their cases were appealed.
EVENTS SEEMED TO VINDICATE AUBREY BOYLES. State Attorney General Harwell Davis brought impeachment charges against Mobile County Sheriff Paul Cazalas, who had been acquitted in the first group of whiskeytrials. This time, rather than face trial again, the sheriff resigned. District Attorney Bart Chamberlain also dismissed murder and all other charges against Harry French. But for Boyles these victories were short-lived.
In February 1926 the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the bribery convictions of Holcombe and Boykin. Despite the evidence against the two men, the court claimed the wording of the indictment “was so vague and indefinite that it failed to inform the defendants of the charge against them.” Later that spring, when Boyles sought reappointment to another term as district attorney, he met with the full fury of Mobile’s legal establishment. Members of Mobile’s bar not onlytried to remove him from office, but also tried to destroy his career and reputation, and they got help from Alabama’s senior U.S. senator.
Only the second man in American history to have been his party’s leader in both houses of Congress, Oscar W. Underwood opposed the Eighteenth Amendment on states’ rights grounds and grew bitterly hostile to prohibitionists after the Anti-Saloon League and the WCTU opposed him in the 1920 Democratic primary. His narrow victory that year and the certainty that these groups, as well as the Klan, would oppose him again, led the senator to announce his retirement. It was his last year in the Senate, and the Boyles matter was the last controversy of his career. Underwood had great affection for Mobile, where he won by large margins in both his Senate campaigns, and wealthy port city lawyers were among his most avid supporters. None of this boded well for Aubrey Boyles.
President Calvin Coolidge renominated the Mobile prosecutor despite vicious opposition from Mobile. When the Senate judiciary committee opened hearings on the Boyles nomination on April 26, 1926, they had before them a “brief opposing the reappointment, signed by forty of the sixty members of the Mobile Bar Association. Several signers had represented defendants in the “Whiskey Ring” cases, but none had opposed Boyles when he was first appointed in 1922. Five Mobile attorneys, the clerk of the U.S. District Court in Mobile, Judge Robert T. Ervin, and Boyles’s own top assistant Joseph Johns, paid their own way to Washington to appear before a Senate subcommittee in opposition to Boyles. (It later became apparent that Johns was seeking the U.S. Attorney’s job himself.) Boyles was represented at the hearing by a Washington attorney who was national counsel for the Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan, and by Mobile attorney Nat Miller, a reputed Klan member.
The Mobile delegation raised all the old questions about Boyles soliciting and collecting bribes from bootleggers, and also argued that he had committed perjury in legal documents filed as part of a real estate transaction. Testimony before the Senate demonstrated that the latter charge was not only dubious, but perhaps contrived. Ervin said that Boyles never did anything but chase bootleggers, and while he admitted that he had done a good job of that, he charged that the prosecutor was incompetent. The judge offered a rambling and vague testimony, but his appearance was a personal blow to Boyles. Some senators noted that the only people from Mobile objecting to Boyles were anti-prohibitionists, while those supporting prohibition, including the Anti-Saloon League, maintained strong support for him. Despite the negative testimony, the Senate judiciary committee voted the nomination out of committee favorably. Then Oscar W. Underwood went to work.
Alabama’s senior senator informed colleagues privately that Boyles’s nomination was “personally obnoxious” to him, invoking the unwritten rule of senatorial courtesy. This meant that if a state’s two senators objected to a nomination in their home state on grounds other than mere partisanship, the Senate would normally reject it. But prohibitionists were determined and the Anti-Saloon Leaguers informed Alabama’s other senator, J. Thomas Heflin, that the organization would consider it a major setback for prohibition if Boyles were defeated. But Heflin, a Klan favorite, was offended when Boyles submitted into the record of the judiciary committee letters indicating that Underwood was supported by Mobile bootleggers. His surprising opposition sealed Boyles’s fate. Even so, some Republicans defended Boyles and a debate began on the Senate floor on May 20, 1926. Underwood moved that the vote on the nomination be secret and that the Senate go into executive session, shutting its doors to the press and public. The motion carried, and no one knew what transpired on the floor or how individual senators voted, except that the final vote was 52 to 22 against Boyles.
An infuriated Boyles returned to Mobile, told the press that he had “just begun to fight,” and charged that Judge Ervin was siding with a bunch of “disgruntled lawyers” and convicted criminals. The remark provoked a quick response. On May 24, just three days after the Senate vote, Ervin issued an order ousting Boyles from office and naming Joseph Johns as his temporary successor. The judge then organized a grand jury to investigate the conduct of Boyles’s office, blocked an assistant U.S. attorney friendly to Boyles from entering the grand jury room, and requested that the prosecutor “show cause” why he should not be barred from practicing law in federal courts. The Justice Department quickly sent a special prosecutor to replace Johns and requested that Ervin recuse himself in the matter.
One day after the grand jury was empaneled, the Mobile Bar Association held what one reporter described as a “stormy and sensational hearing” on whether to bring ethical charges against Boylcs. Shouting matches and charges of lying marked the session, with fist fights barely averted. A resolution to refer disbarment proceedings to the state bar association passed by a vote of 34 to 17. One of the three bar members appointed to argue the case before the state bar grievance committee was Harry H. Smith, who had represented Frank W. Boykin in both whiskey trials, and the other two men had also been defense attorneys in the cases. They charged Boyles with “gross misconduct in violation of the ethics of his profession” and complained that he had improperly used the Mobile Ministerial Association (Protestant ministers), the Mobile Register, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Ku Klux Klan to influence the U.S. Senate and intimidate local lawyers.
On May 30, five days after the local bar proceedings, the federal grand jury indicted Boyles on the ironical charge that he had illegally possessed three quarts of whiskey. Three years earlier Boyles had removed the whiskey from the federal building, said the grand jury, and delivered it to “persons unknown.” Directly contradicting statements made by previous grand juries, the new panel also charged Boyles with inefficiency, incompetence, indiscretion, and a lack of “sound judgment.” Boyles resigned, but made it plain that he would fight the criminal charges, and requested Ervin’s récusai from the case. Ervin did step aside, and the U.S. Court of Appeals assigned District Judge W. I. Grubb of Birmingham to replace him.
On July 26, the show-cause hearing got underway in federal court with Boyles represented by three Birmingham attorneys, two of whom were associated with the Klan. Judge Grubb was placed in a difficult situation when Judge Ervin became a lead witness against Boyles. A ruling on behalf of Boyles could have been interpreted as an affront to a fellow federal judge. Testimony centered on Boyles’s financial relationship with Harry French and the fact that the undercover man was allowed to keep money paid him by bootleggers. No evidence showed that Boyles got any money, and he testified that he did not know what to do with money French collected. Grubb stated that Boyles had usually done what he thought was right and that this should mitigate his punishment, but he ruled that Boyles’s financial relationship with Harry French offered sufficient cause to disbar him from practice in federal court for two years.
Boyles successfully pleaded the statute of limitations in the liquor case against him, and the Alabama Bar Association refused to disbar him. In 1926 he accepted the Republican party’s nomination for Congress from the Mobile district, but had little chance to defeat the incumbent Democrat. He lost overwhelmingly. He practiced law in Mobile until 1933 and then moved to New York City, where he died in 1954.
Whatever one may think about prohibition, Boyles’s connection to the Klan, or the methods he used in fighting bootleggers, it is clear that Mobile’s elite tried to destroy him because of his zeal for enforcing the law. The criminal charges against him had little substance and were ultimately dismissed. Only his dealings with Harry French damaged him. Prohibition had threatened Mobile’s culture and traditions, and the city’s political machine could not allow Boyles to succeed. Historian Michael Parrish argues that the federal government had no chance to enforce prohibition against “united local resistance” unless it was willing to “employ to the fullest its own fiscal and coercive resources” or “gain the support of important local elites” for its program. The Mobile story illustrates the accuracy of that statement.
In 1926 Hugo Black defeated four candidates in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by retiring Senator Oscar W. Underwood, but Black got only nineteen percent of Mobile County’s vote and finished in third place there. He won re-election in 1932, served in the Senate until 1937, and was then appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President Franklin Roosevelt, where he served until his death in 1971. Frank W. Boykin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1934 and re-elected thirteen times. Defeated in 1962, he was convicted of racketeering the next year at age seventy-eight, and sentenced to the federal penitentiary. But Boykin still had friends in the Justice Department. Attorney General Robert Kennedy requested that President Lyndon B. Johnson grant a full pardon to Boykin, and it was done. Boykin died a year later. William Holcombe was defeated for re-election to the Alabama legislature in 1926 but elected sheriff in 1930. His brother Robert was elected sheriff in 1934, and William won the office again in 1938, 1942, 1946, and 1950. Neither Boykin nor the Holcombes ever served a day in jail on prohibition charges, and their successful political careers after the trial made it clear that a majority of Mobile’s citizens either did not believe the charges against them or despised prohibition so much it did not matter.
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