Kentucky Congressman John W. Langley Is Convicted of Violating the Volstead Act

U.S. representative John W. Langley was convicted of conspiring illegally to transport and sell liquor. While appealing his conviction, he ran for reelection and was returned to the House, but he was forced to resign before he could serve another term.

Summary of Event

John W. Langley was born in Floyd County, Kentucky, in 1868. He attended law school in Washington, D.C., and was elected to Kentucky’s House of Representatives in 1886. In 1906, he was elected to represent Kentucky’s 10th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until he was forced to resign in January, 1926, because of his conviction for conspiring to transport and sell whiskey. His crime was emblematic of a change in the type of crime that plagued the 1920’s during Prohibition, when the manufacture, transportation, and sale of liquor were outlawed. [kw]Langley Is Convicted of Violating the Volstead Act, Kentucky Congressman John W. (May 12, 1924)
[kw]Volstead Act, Kentucky Congressman John W. Langley Is Convicted of Violating the (May 12, 1924)
Volstead Act of 1919
Langley, John W.
Volstead Act of 1919
Langley, John W.
[g]United States;May 12, 1924: Kentucky Congressman John W. Langley Is Convicted of Violating the Volstead Act[00340]
[c]Corruption;May 12, 1924: Kentucky Congressman John W. Langley Is Convicted of Violating the Volstead Act[00340]
[c]Government;May 12, 1924: Kentucky Congressman John W. Langley Is Convicted of Violating the Volstead Act[00340]
[c]Politics;May 12, 1924: Kentucky Congressman John W. Langley Is Convicted of Violating the Volstead Act[00340]
[c]Law and the courts;May 12, 1924: Kentucky Congressman John W. Langley Is Convicted of Violating the Volstead Act[00340]

Prohibition in the United States lasted thirteen years, from 1920 to 1933. The temperance movement, which advocated restrictions on the sale and use of alcohol, had been a presence off and on in the United States since the American colonial period. However, during the 1850’s, the movement became much stronger and better organized. Temperance laws were supported mainly by religious organizations and women who argued that drunkenness and chronic alcohol use caused poverty, unemployment, and domestic violence, all of which hurt not just the drinker but also his (or her) family and society. By 1855, thirteen states, mostly in New England, had passed some form of temperance legislation restricting the sale of alcohol. These states were called dry states; states in which alcohol was legal were called wet states.

Led by organizations such as the Prohibition Party and the Anti-Saloon League, temperance advocates began to pressure politicians to pass a federal temperance law that would make the entire nation dry. This pressure increased when temperance advocates claimed that brewing beer and hard liquor diverted grain needed as food for the troops in World World War I[World War 01] War I. Concurrently, improvements in brewing technology made it possible to sell beer by the glass rather than by the bottle, and the number of establishments selling alcohol increased substantially.

Alcohol consumption had become a clear problem, leading, in 1917, to a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban alcohol. This amendment, the eighteenth, prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” within the United States and its territories.

The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified by the required thirty-six states in 1919, becoming effective on January 16, 1920. The National Prohibition Enforcement Act, more commonly known as the Volstead Act, was passed in 1919 to permit criminal prosecution of violators. The Volstead Act was the law that Langley was accused of breaking.

Langley’s troubles started almost incidentally in early 1924 during a Chicago grand jury investigation of a conspiracy in the Veterans’ Bureau[Veterans Bureau] Veteran’s Bureau to defraud the federal government. During the investigation, which involved Bribery bribes and kickbacks from contractors to Veterans Bureau employees, a link was made to the behavior of two U.S. representatives, Langley and Frederick N. Zihlman Zihlman, Frederick N. of Cumberland, Maryland. Zihlman was never convicted of a crime, although the House investigated his activities. However, on March 27, Langley was arrested for bribing government officials in connection with the illegal transportation and sale of whiskey. A conviction would bring two years in federal prison and a ten thousand dollar fine. Langley and his lawyers immediately proclaimed his innocence, requested a quick trial, and posted five thousand dollars for his bail. (To put these sums in perspective, Langley’s annual salary as a member of the U.S. Congress in 1924 was ten thousand dollars.)

Langley was specifically accused of participating in a conspiracy to illegally remove fourteen hundred cases of whiskey from the Belle of Anderson Distillery near Lawrenceville, Kentucky, with the intention of selling them. Prosecutors claimed that Langley accepted money to use his political influence to get Sam Collins, the federal prohibition director for Kentucky, to authorize permits to allow the whiskey to be transported by truck. Other conspirators were accused of bribing additional government employees.

Langley’s trial was held in federal court in Cincinnati, Ohio. The main evidence against Langley came from Elias Mortimer Mortimer, Elias of Washington, D.C. Mortimer was thought to be the link between the Veterans Bureau investigation and Langley’s involvement in illegal transport of whiskey. Mortimer testified that he had paid Langley bribe money several times and had been present at conferences between Langley and the other conspirators at which the illegal whiskey scheme was discussed. Fields, William J. William J. Fields, the governor of Kentucky from 1923 to 1927, testified as a character witness for Langley. Despite this, Langley and three others, Lipschutz, Milton Milton Lipschutz, Cary, Walter E. Walter E. Cary, and Huth, M. E. M. E. Huth, were convicted on May 12. Langley was sentenced to two years in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, and fined ten thousand dollars. He immediately appealed his conviction.

While the appeal was making its way through the courts, Langley ran for reelection to the House and was overwhelmingly reelected by his (dry) district. During this time, he was also arrested at least twice for public drunkenness. Langley never did serve his final term in the House. On January 11, 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his final appeal, stating that he must immediately begin serving his prison sentence. Langley formally resigned from the House the same day. His wife, Katherine G. Langley, was then elected to his seat in November, becoming the first female congressperson from Kentucky.

Langley served only eleven months of his two-year sentence and was later pardoned by U.S. president Coolidge, Calvin Calvin Coolidge. Upon his release from prison, he returned to his law practice in Pikesville, Kentucky, and self-published a book called They Tried to Crucify Me (1929), in which he proclaimed his innocence and claimed he was a victim of a government conspiracy that had driven him into poverty. Langley died a few years later, in 1932, before the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.


Corruption in government is nothing new, but Americans were shocked when Langley, an elected official who was also a lawyer, knowingly conspired to violate a federal law, and did so with little remorse. Langley’s actions were particularly surprising because he came from a dry district and had voted for Prohibition. That he was reelected by a dry district with strong religious traditions after having been convicted of conspiring to illegally sell alcohol showed just how fragile the public sentiment for Prohibition was less than five years after it was instituted.

Ultimately, Prohibition proved to be an unworkable concept. People were unprepared for the consequences. Thousands of brewery workers, haulers, and saloon owners lost their livelihood. Meanwhile, gangsters such as Al Capone found illegal liquor sales to be very profitable and developed a network of bootleggers and clandestine speakeasies to meet the public demand for liquor. Crime soared nationally and violence soon followed. Prohibition turned out to be a costly mistake for the country. In 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. With the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, alcohol manufacture and sale were no longer illegal under federal law, although states and individual communities retained the right to regulate liquor sales. Volstead Act of 1919
Langley, John W.

Further Reading

  • Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade, 1997. An analysis of the corruption and dishonesty of the Roaring Twenties as told through the story of bootlegger George Remus, who developed a massive scam claiming that whiskey was a medicine.
  • Howes, Kelly King. The Roaring Twenties Biographies. Detroit, Mich.: U*X*L, 2006. Biographies of people who made important contributions to American life during the 1920’s.
  • Langley, John W. They Tried to Crucify Me. Pikesville, Ky.: J. W. Langley, 1929. The self-published story of Langley’s conviction and sentencing for illegal liquor sales during Prohibition. Claims he was framed by the federal government.
  • Lieurance, Suzanne. The Prohibition Era in American History. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2003. A book for younger readers that outlines the years 1920 to 1933, when liquor was outlawed in the United States.
  • United States Congress. House Select Committee to Investigate Charges Against Two Members of the House of Representatives. Charges Against Two Representatives in Congress. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1924. Transcript of the investigation of Langley for bootlegging liquor during Prohibition.

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