Ten Days When the Federal Government’s Biggest Office was on North Main Street: 1919

There was a big day in our history—our local history and our American history—when the entire nation focused its attention on Mansfield.  The name of our city was literally inked onto the front page of hundreds of newspapers across the country.

The date was November 12, 1919.  That was the day when the President of the United States made one of the most anticipated appointments, to fulfill a critical role in American government: he named the man who was to be in charge of enforcing new laws that made alcohol illegal in the US. 

The new Federal Prohibition Commissioner was John F. Kramer from Mansfield, Ohio.

The notion of outlawing alcohol had been hotly debated for generations; but in 1919 the US finally voted to actually change the Constitution and ban drinking.  New laws were written whereby the manufacture and sale of alcohol would be prohibited, so the adventure was known as Prohibition. 

Everyone could see it was a daunting task; perhaps impossible.  Whoever the president appointed to head the Prohibition experiment faced a thousand angry mob leaders; ten thousand cunning rum-runners; a hundred thousand bootleggers; and millions of grumbling folks whose favorite saloon was not allowed to sell cocktails anymore.

Who could possibly shoulder that responsibility? It had to be someone who could take guardianship of millions of gallons of beer, wine, and whiskey, and keep it off the black market; someone who could face corruption on an epic scale with incorruptible integrity.

There were billions of dollars in play: legally and illegally.  There were millions of bullets to be spent in organized crime.  There were too many disgruntled drunks to imagine.

It would require someone of impeccable integrity and iron-willed determination.  President Wilson was handed a short list of names from around the country, and he narrowed it down to one man: an attorney from Mansfield, Ohio whose nickname, in town and around the state, was “Honest John.”

John F. Kramer (1869-1956) was 50 years old when he took center stage in US history, but  he lived nearly his entire life in Richland County.  He worked his father’s farm, graduated from high school in Bellville; went to Ohio Northern University before becoming Superintendent of various Richland school districts for 7 years.  At age 30, he moved to Columbus so he could get a law degree at OSU; and back in Mansfield he was elected 1913-17 to two terms in the Ohio Legislature.

After returning from his Prohibition gig in Washington DC, he had various roles in Mansfield: on the Board of Education and as Director of the YMCA.  He practiced law up until the last days of his life, being the oldest attorney ever in the city’s courts.

November 12, 1919, New York Tribune.

November 12, 1919, The Chicago Herald.

The Multitude

Subsequently, there were ten days in the 20th century when the only office of the largest federal agency was not in Washington DC, but in Mansfield, Ohio. 

John Kramer was appointed in November 1919, so for ten days in November the office of the Federal Prohibition Commissioner was located on the second floor of the Walk-Over Shoe Store at 74 ½ North Main Street in Mansfield.

Every eye in the country was watching Kramer closely—both drinkers and non-drinkers; wets and drys—because he was tasked with bringing an end to the true American pastime: drinking.

Speculation across the nation was high, tense, and nervous about just how this law enforcement was going to unfold; so reporters from every major city swamped Union Station on North Diamond Street, and headed for 74 ½ North Main.  High powered newspapermen from major papers set up camp in the VonHof Hotel, so they could keep their eye on Kramer.  Top ranking lawyers from all over America converged on Mansfield, to consult with Kramer and scramble for a seat at the table.

For two weeks, while John Kramer packed his brief case, the US Government waved its bureaucratic wand over North Main Street to create some kind of miracle that could pull this Prohibition rabbit out of a hat.

In December, he moved his paperwork to 1330 F Street in Washington DC, to spend his every waking erg of energy on finding ways to materialize the National Prohibition Enforcement Bill, known the world over as the Volstead Act.

The first Prohibition enforcement office in the United States was located on North Main Street above the Walk Over shoe store: the sign can be found in the center of this photo.  The site today is in the Municipal Parking Lot.

JFK’s Federal Service

America’s 18th Amendment went into effect Jan 16, 1920; and on the last wet night Kramer announced to the nation that alcoholic beverages would be neither manufactured, “nor sold, nor given away, nor hauled in anything on the surface of the earth, nor under the sea or air.”  It was a boast that came back to haunt him, as it set in motion the new national sport of finding ingenious ways to transport, manufacture and consume every kind of alcohol.

Once it was officially illegal, drinking became the most popular entertainment among folks who never really did it much before.  The 13 years of Prohibition became one long binge spree.

John Kramer was truly at the forge of history, pounding out new methods of law enforcement never tried before.  It sounds dashing, powerful, even kind of romantic: the Commissioner in charge of T-Men “Prohees.”  It was all of that and more: he had the largest staff of any bureau in Washington and, even though the laws of Prohibition were left to individual states to enforce, they all ultimately reported to Kramer.  So, in effect, he stood at the head of a dry army of 50,000 vice squad cops.

February 3, 1921, The Boston Post.

When you see those Feds flashing their IDs in Prohibition gangster movies, a close look at the small print reveals the signature of John Kramer at the bottom.

His Most Lasting Legacy (unattributed)

John Kramer was responsible for the historic launching of Prohibition, yet he is mostly passed over in popular remembrance of that era of American history, because he was in office only about a year and a half.  He had been appointed by a Democratic President, and as soon as the next administration took power in 1921 under Republican Warren Harding, the Commissioner of Prohibition was replaced as a matter of political shuffling by a man to whom Mr. Harding owed a favor.

Yet, even though the Prohibition Commissioner most often cited in stories of the 1920s is the man who replaced Kramer, it is a matter of record that all of the standards and strategies of law enforcement that became part of the Roaring Twenties legends were imagined and instituted by the attorney from Mansfield.

There is one particular policy of Kramer’s that spawned unintentional American doggerel which survives intact to this day in popular culture.  It happened like this:

According to Commissioner Kramer, there were certain methods by which the American public could obtain alcohol quite legally: if it was prescribed by a doctor.  Presumably, certain afflictions like depression, cancer, and anxiety could be powerfully addressed through careful administration of medicinal rye whiskey, scotch and gin. 

According to the Kramer dictates, a household could receive up to four cases of “medicinal beer” within a certain period of time; and under a “doctor’s supervision,” would be rationed 4 x 24 doses until the next prescription date rolled around.  From this system evolved a certain song we all know; and if you have ever enjoyed singing it, you owe your fun to John F. Kramer of Mansfield, Ohio.

It begins like this: “Ninety-six bottles of beer on the wall, Ninety-six bottles of beer…”

John Kramer’s office of Prohibition Enforcement issued special permits to doctors and pharmacies by which they could write prescriptions for booze–in this case “Spiritus Frumenti,” otherwise known as whiskey (from “Spirit of Grain.”)

In Retrospect

The greatest number of popular Prohibition heroes to survive 20th century memory were criminals and gangsters and everyone who defied the law…much less the figures who believed the law could be followed, or that sobriety might be best for the nation.  Our country ultimately came to embrace a more fun-loving counter-culture of misbehaving, which might help to explain why John Kramer sort of disappeared from history.

In Mansfield, and in Ohio, the newspaper and magazine stories of 1920, refer to him as “Honest John;” but in the speakeasies of America, Kramer was known as “Old Killjoy.”

When Prohibition was initiated, Kramer insisted, “It is the law of the land.  It is not going to change—it is irrevocable.  What we need is not how to evade the law, but how to obey it.”

Turns out he was wrong.  The Constitutional Amendment was revocable: it was repealed in 1934.
He was a noble hero who never achieved honor and recognition because he fought in a war that the nation lost.  America has never been graceful about losing wars.  When Prohibition was dumped in 1934, people didn’t want to spend any further energy thinking about what a failure it had been, and what a spectacular waste of bullets and blood and resources.

Picture the Roaring Twenties, and gang fights and speakeasies, and the whole glamor culture that America embraces as its legacy of a golden era of misbehaving; and then read John Kramer saying, “It will take 2 or 3 years for Prohibition to be permanently established in the country.”

It is a marvel to see how naïve Kramer could have been to think that the whole country would just give up drinking, simply because it was a law.

Yet it is this belief in the inherent goodness and perfectability of his fellow citizens however, that makes the legacy of John Kramer valuable.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s