Mabel Walker Willebrandt: A Real-Life, Powerful Woman of the 1920s

In my Kinship Historical Mystery Series, Lily Ross serves as Sheriff of Bronwyn County in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio, in the 1920s.

Lily’s character is inspired by Ohio’s true first female sheriff—Maude Collins, who became sheriff of Vinton County in 1925 after her husband was killed in the line of duty. (In real life, there was no mystery behind his death; however, Lily, in The Widows, the first novel in my series, must investigate who murdered her sheriff husband—and why.)

By the opening of The Stills, set in 1927, Lily has been elected sheriff in her own right and has come to accept that she loves her work. Of course, it’s no easy feat for her to balance her job as sheriff with being a widow and a mother of two young children. Fortunately, she has Mama, and a community of friends, to help her.

Prohibition forms part of the backdrop to the first two novels in the series, but in The Stills, it moves to the foreground—driving plot, character motivations, and plenty of twists and turns. And as Lily investigates a sinister bootlegging plot, she must work with an agent from the newly formed Bureau of Prohibition.

The Bureau was preceded by the Prohibition Unit of the Bureau of Internal Revenue in the U.S. Department of Treasury, originally tasked with collecting taxes and similar funds from the sale of alcohol. But with the 18th Amendment in 1919 banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages—and the Volstead Act setting up rules for enforcing the amendment—the function of collecting taxes fell to the wayside. There were few resources for the Prohibition Unit, however, to serve as enforcers. Finally, in 1927, the unit spun off into a separate Bureau.

The Bureau fell under the domain of the U.S. Assistant Attorney General—Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who was the second woman to receive an appointment to Assistant Attorney General (the first served only a few months), and the first to serve an extended term, from 1921 to 1929.

See More: Jess Montgomery Introduces Her Series

Now, Willebrandt was personally opposed to Prohibition. The law was unpopular and the numerous loopholes in the Volstead Act made it hard to enforce. And it should be noted that Prohibition has a complex history—far too complex to explore here, but suffice it to say the law was often winked at, and the issue of being a ‘wet’ versus a ‘dry’ was used as a proxy for other issues.

But Willebrandt—the highest-ranking woman in the federal government in her day—believed in the rule of law. She believed laws should be enforced fully and fairly, and if society did not like a law, well then, rather than flouting the law, the law should be changed through established procedures.

Her virtuous view and insistence on enforcing the law did not win her a lot of friends in the government or in the media. She was nicknamed “Mrs. Firebrand” (particularly taunting, given that she was divorced) and “Deborah of the Drys” and “Prohibition Portia.” Though she had many law enforcement successes, they occurred almost always without much internal government support, and in spite of indifference or roadblocks put in her way of enforcing the very law she was tasked to uphold.

In real life, Willebrandt would occasionally give speeches about the importance of enforcing Prohibition—and certainly, her speaking engagements could easily have taken her to Westerville, Ohio, near Columbus and just north of my fictional Kinship, as Westerville was the home of the Anti-Saloon League, an organization which was at the forefront of anti-alcohol legislation and education—and propaganda.

What’s more, in real life, Willebrandt headed up the prosecution of Cincinnati bootlegger and crime kingpin George Remus—who happens to be the inspiration for George Vogel, Lily’s nemesis and the Kinship series’ over-arching villain.

In The Stills, with Prohibition at the forefront, and Lily going head-to-head with George Vogel, how could I resist bringing in Willebrandt for a cameo? Because they could have met, I did not resist. And I loved putting Lily and Willebrandt—two trail-blazing, strong women, yet from such different backgrounds—in a scene together.

It’s outside of the scope of The Stills, but fascinating to know that before she became one of the most prominent women of her day—regularly making headlines in her fight to enforce Prohibition—Willebrandt put herself through law school and became the first female public defender in Los Angeles, taking on more than 2,000 cases for female sex workers, and demanding that if sex workers were prosecuted for violating the law, then their clients should be too.

Later, disappointed that President Hoover did not promote her to Attorney General, Willebrandt resigned her post in 1929 and returned to private law practice with offices in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles—and one of her first clients was California Fruit Industries, which supplied compressed grapes for the home winemaker, taking advantage of one of those Volstead Act loopholes.

Willebrandt went on to pioneer law practice in the relatively new industries of aviation and movie-making. She represented the Screen Actors Guild, serving as the defense against McCarthyism’s Red Scare era of the 1950s. Willebrandt remained active in her law practice up until a year before her death in 1963, at the age of 73 from lung cancer. After her passing, she fell largely into obscurity, though she had once been one of the most famous women of her day. With the television series Boardwalk Empire, she became better known as she was the inspiration for the series’ character Assistant U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph.

Most likely, a male Assistant Attorney General with Willebrandt’s Prohibition-enforcement achievements would have gone on to other political appointments, a career as a politician, or powerful positions in corporations. Fighting against bias and misogyny, Willebrandt had to seek a different path. She’s a fascinating figure to me, and I believe she would have appreciated Sheriff Lily Ross’s trailblazing work in her own pocket of Appalachia.

 

Links to learn more:

About the ATF and the history of ATF badges:

Mabel Walker Willebrandt:

The Anti-Saloon League:


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The Stills Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/mabel-walker-willebrandt-a-real-life-powerful-woman-of-the-1920s/ beginning at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) March 5, 2021. Sweepstakes ends at 1:59 p.m. ET March 19, 2021. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 120 Broadway, New York, NY 10271.

Comments

  1. Sherie Lundmark

    Would love to read. In my town ther e was a big alcohol underground including tunnels under the river to our neighbor city, which was known for its ties with mob, gambling and booze running.

  2. Angela

    I am looking forward to more books by Jess Montgomery! The historical aspects of her books are well thought out.

    • Jess Montgomery

      Thank you so much, Angela! It’s kind of you to say so, and I appreciate hearing that!

  3. Wilna wheeler

    I would love to win and read this!

    • Jess Montgomery

      Good luck, Wilna! If you get a chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it!

      • Emily Cheang Catan

        I always love to read/to watch crime/police procedure thrillers, and strong female protagonists always uplift my spirit! Thank you for the opportunity to know about Mabel Walker Willerbrant, and thank you for the giveaway.

  4. Mary Beth

    Wow, I’ve never heard of Mabel Walker Willebrandt. She sounds like a fascinatingly modern and strong woman (and beautiful too!), paving the way for future generations of women – just like Maude Collins. Thank you for introducing us to these two women and their inspirational stories!

    • Jess Montgomery

      I hadn’t heard of Mabel, either, until I started digging into Prohibition history, specifically in 1927, for THE STILLS. She’s really fascinating. I hope someone writes a bio of her! And thank you for your kind comments–it’s been such a pleasure to research and write these novels!

  5. MaryC

    I find it fascinating to read about women who hold/held positions of power.

    • Jess Montgomery

      Thank you, Mary! I do too, and that’s also why I love to write about them.

  6. Joyce Benzing

    Sounds very interesting, thanks for the chance to win!

    • Jess Montgomery

      Thank you, Joyce! I do try to mix history with compelling storylines!

  7. MARY j PRIMORAC

    On my TBR list!

  8. Vesna Dan

    This sounds like a very interesting read!

  9. Sara Dunn

    She sounds like a fascinating woman! Thank you for the chance to win.

    • Jess Montgomery

      She really is! Perfect for an appearance alongside Sheriff Lily!

  10. Elaine Harper

    I am completely fascinated – can’t wait to read this!

  11. Cheryl Timmons

    I can’t imagine the fortitude she had to do a job she believed in and to try to do it correctly. Thanks for shariing…

  12. Caryl Kane

    Sounds fascinating!

  13. Lindsay Fairbrother-Henige

    Sounds really interesting. I’m a big fan of historical fiction!

    • Jess Montgomery

      Thanks, Lindsay. I am too–it’s fascinating to see the echoes of past problems in today’s world.

  14. Judith Kahn

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  15. Tiffany

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  18. carloshmarlo

    It’s really fascinating to read about the background of that era and the characters in it. Makes me want to read The Stills even more. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.

  19. Toni NYLANDER

    I am definitely going to read this book……even if I don’t win it! 🙂 It sounds fascinating!

  20. Athena Sheppard

    Wow! I would Love to read this book. I grew up in Ohio and this sounds great.

  21. Pam Walrath

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  22. Jackie Mungle

    I’d love to read this book

  23. Tiffany Thomas

    Sounds intriguing!

  24. Pati Yarian

    Would love to read this! I can remember, and too long ago, when I joined the sheriff dept as the DV officer (was before law passed for automatic arrest for DV)–the first couple years were very difficult. .but persevered. .so,yes! I would love to read this- I have the others. .–P/

  25. Karen Mikusak

    Looks like a great read. Would love to win!

  26. Richard Dominguez

    Sounds great

  27. Lana Maskus

    Love books about this era in the USA’s history. Thank you for a great giveaway.

  28. Barbara Fish

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  29. Jennifer Alaggio

    I would absolutely love to read this novel. It sounds so fascinating!

  30. Peggy Russo

    Sounds like a fascinating read. Thanks for the chance to win a copy!

  31. Shirley Freund
  32. Christine

    I always like finding new authors to read and this sounds interesting.

  33. brianna Hopkins

    This sounds like a great read!

  34. Cindi Hoppes

    Yesterday was International Women’s Day! I enjoy historical accounts of powerful women. The cover of her book is thought provoking. Thanks for this opportunity…
    Cindi

  35. Melissa J Sands

    This sounds like a fantastic book and I can’t wait to read it. A perfect release for Women’s History Month.

  36. Sarah Bowe

    Would love to win! The cover is beautiful and the story sounds great!

  37. Diane Steiger

    This book sounds great. It takes place in a time when women did not take on a job like that but she did it. Would love to read it.

  38. Elly Craig

    Can’t wait to read!

  39. Jana

    This is an interesting time period.

  40. Warren Bull

    There are so many fascinating events few know about in history

  41. Leslie Gudermuth

    Sounds like a great read. Hope I win a copy!

  42. Sharon Person

    Sounds like an amazing women that needs to be heard about! Thanks for the chance!

  43. Anne

    A captivating ans fascinating novel which I would enjoy greatly.

  44. Marlene Ezell

    This sounds so interesting. You can be sure that it will be added to my TBR list.

  45. Laini Pearl

    This intriguing story and the era are all enthralling. Many thanks for this feature.

  46. Barbara Bibel

    Sounds like a great historical mystery. It will be fun to read.

  47. Teresa

    Thank you for the opportunity to win your book! Would love to read.

  48. Renee Morgan

    I would love to read this!

  49. Terrie Faria

    Sounds so interesting, love to win!

  50. Sara Lontcoski

    This sounds like a great book.

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    sounds so interesting! thanks for the chance to win!

  52. John Q. Wilson

    The history of women in government in the U.S. is fascinating. However, none served in the Cabinet until FDR appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor.
    I would love to win the book. Thanks for the opportunity. All the best, John Q. Wilson

  53. RD

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  54. Susan Porter

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  55. elvinoray

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  56. Pat Dupuy

    That was an interesting but difficult period in our history. I’m familiar with the landscape as we lived in Ohio 18 years.

    • Jess Montgomery

      Definitely true. And that part of Ohio is gorgeous, but also challenging.

  57. vicki andrew

    sounds like an interesting read, I enjoy mysteries with a historical theme

    • Jess Montgomery

      Good to hear; I love reading (and writing) historical mysteries, and including interesting facts in with my fiction.

  58. CherieBradley

    I love true stories

  59. Deborah D

    Sounds like a book I would read in one setting.

  60. Daniel M

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  61. Paul Gada

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  62. Joanne Mielczarski

    Thanks for the giveaway chance. I look forward to the opportunity to read your book. Stay safe and healthy.

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    She sounds like Eliot Ness…awesome!

  64. Richard Brandt

    A welcome reminder of oft-neglected chapters of our history.

  65. Geraldine Marshall

    Entering for a great read. An interesting subject—much history of such also in western Kentucky!

  66. Nissa Evans

    Would love to read this next book in the series. I’ve already read the other two books, The Widows and The Hollows.

  67. paul klumbach

    History doing Women right

  68. Seana Graham

    Sounds great and in many ways timely, as we are still learning how to put women in positions of power.

  69. Emily Cheang Catan

    I always love to read/to watch crime/police procedure thrillers, and strong female protagonists always uplift my spirit! Thank you for the opportunity to know about Mabel Walker Willerbrant, and thank you for the giveaway.

  70. Emily Catan

    I always love to read/to watch crime/police procedure thrillers, and strong female protagonists always uplift my spirit! Thank you for the opportunity to know about Mabel Walker Willerbrant, and thank you for the giveaway.

  71. vickie dailey

    this sounds like a great read – St. Paul, MN had lots of 30’s era crime with all the caves and it was spot a lot of the gangsters hung out in – https://www.mnopedia.org/event/gangster-era-st-paul-1900-1936

  72. Lori Byrd

    I would love to win this incredible book by this incredible author.

  73. Peggy Miller

    Your series has really piqued my interest. I will be checking for the first book in the series and would love to win a copy of The Stills. Mabel Walker Willebrandt was an interesting woman. I plan to look for a biography of her too.

  74. susan beamon

    I’m in favor of historical novels based on real events. It seems that in some quarters that’s the only way history is learned. So many books, so little time.

  75. tarynwithat

    Sounds like a lovely, interesting read, right in my wheelhouse!

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    This sounds so interesting. I really had no clue about any of this. I would love to read more!

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  80. Robin W

    Cool! Sounds like fun!

  81. Carlyn Kline

    .

  82. Susan Coster

    Sounds perfectly celestial and suspenseful!

  83. Jennifer L.

    Sounds so good! I love books set in different historical times so I can learn more about them. And I love mysteries and suspense novels.

  84. Linda Peters

    This would be an interesting read of history made.

  85. jennifer galindo

    I love the suspense you can feel from the cover alone. The excerpt is well written and inticing. I’d love to get my hands on it to start reading it.

  86. Storyteller Mary

    Fascinating . . . we need strong woman stories. <3

  87. Rhonda D

    Sounds interesting!

  88. Corine Prezioso

    Love a Good Suspense and Thriller Book….Sounds like one you won’t be able to put down! Thanks so much for the opportunity !

  89. sue weatherbee

    This sounds very good & is now on my TBR list!

  90. Kittie McIntire

    I’ve not read anything by Jess Montgomery yet. This looks like a great place to start.

  91. readingtheclues

    Really enjoying this series and looking forward to reading this.

  92. Karen H.

    Sounds like an interesting concept! Would love to read it.

  93. Deb Philippon

    This is an era that’s always fascinated me. I’m looking forward to reading the book.

  94. Leigh Paulk

    Fascinating story, Jess! I love finding out about women who were “missed” by the history books in school. It’s interesting that she was personally opposed to prohibition, like Eliot Ness. Can’t wait to read The Stills!

  95. Lori P

    Very interesting. Also, must move Boardwalk Empire higher up on my to-watch list, which will be all the more interesting because of this real-life connection!

  96. Jackie Wisherd

    Sounds like a good story about an Era in our history which I enjoy reading about.

  97. Natalie Amos

    Sounds good! Would love to read it.

  98. Melba Worley

    Sounds like an interesting & intriguing read, sure hope I win. Thanks for the opportunity, and good luck to all the entrants.

  99. Zarak Ortega

    Looking forward to this read!

  100. Mallory

    As an Ohio resident myself and a lover of novels on strong women in history, I can say that this one is definitely being added to be TBR list!

  101. Joy Isley

    I am always looking for new authors to read. This book sounds like the kind I enjoy reading

  102. sandra burns

    Have always been interested in this time period. The Untouchables, gangsters, etc.

  103. Steve

    This sounds like a very interesting story and time period.

  104. snapper

    I like reading stories from long ago especially when it has a true element to it

  105. MarkPumphrey

    I had no idea Lily was based on a real female sheriff, Maude Collins!

  106. rmarcin

    I would love to read this novel that has a no-nonsense woman as the central figure!

  107. Patricia Bradley

    So glad the lives and work of extraordinary women in our past are finally being brought out to shine in today’s sun. Thank you!

  108. Robin Brock

    This sounds so good!! I haven’t read her before but intend to rectify that!

  109. SeattleReader

    Fascinating post. Strong women rule! Thanks for the chance to win.

  110. Phoenix

    Always interested in historical books with strong female leads.

  111. Robert Grieco

    Finally a book that looks as if it will mean something.

  112. MaryLynn Hayes

    This sounds like an interesting read, thanks for the chance

  113. Toni Tuve

    This sounds like a fun interesting read, thanks for the chance to win

  114. Cheryl Kula

    Sounds intriguing. Looking forward to the read! Living in WV, I have family members who were bootleggers — I had a great uncle who cut timbers and would hide the booze in the middle of a load. My grandfather, a “dry,” could never get a job with the uncle.

  115. Michelle Willms

    This sound like an amazing book, based upon a strong, brave, female character. Prohibition was a very unpopular law, and I cannot imagine being tasked with its enforcement.

  116. Doreen Moran

    Love this backstory and looking forward to reading the book.

  117. Phillip

    Nothing fights male supremacy like wearing a badge and gun, fighting resistance from every man you encounter.

  118. Trittipo

    this is so interesting, I love learning and reading about history, this story sounds fascinating.

  119. Trittipo

    This is so interesting, I love reading history and stories based on history.

  120. Darcia

    This series sounds fantastic! I love historical novels that feature strong, independent women. Adding all three books to my list right now!

  121. moviemama

    I love reading historical fiction, strong female characters, women who go against the norms of society…sounds like the perfect book for me. I’d love to win, and am adding these books to my TBR list right away.

  122. Susan Morris

    Fiction based on facts have always been one of my favorite genres. History can also be fascinating when we look back and see the strong men and women who forged our country and laws.

  123. Debra Patton

    I love historical fiction with strong female characters.

  124. Saundra K. Warren

    This book is certainly going on my TBR list!!

  125. Saundra K. Warren

    Definitely going on my TBR list

  126. C

    I have been wanting to read this ever since I first heard of it!

  127. rick mcmahan

    An interesting premise and interesting to bring light on historical to figures we normally may not hear about.

  128. Damita Underwood

    I would love to win a copy. I am always looking for another great series to promote.

  129. Sheri Newell Anderson

    This sounds so fascinating to me, would love to read and hoping to win a copy, thanks!

  130. Kimberly Gross

    I’ve never taken the time to “really read”. I’m excited to begin reading this. What a great read! Very interesting!

  131. Sheila M Groom

    I’m so intrigued! This sounds like a really engrossing read.

  132. Victoria A Hamel

    Thanks for doing this giveaway, this book sounds like a good read!

  133. JULES M.

    sounds like a great read!

  134. Colleen

    Sounds like an amazing woman and good book. Would love to read it.

  135. Sally Schmidt

    This is a great series, and what a fascinating look into a woman in history and the struggles she faced.

  136. downeaster

    I really want to read this book now

  137. Lisa Mitchell

    I really would love to win, read and review this book! Thanks for the chance!

  138. Ivy Pittman-Outen

    This sounds like a engaging read! Thanks.

  139. Beth Talmage

    She sounds amazing. And if she’s anything like the women of the era I’ve known in my life, she would’ve shrugged off that compliment as being silly and over the top and say she was just doing what needed to be done. We stand on the shoulders of women like her, and have a lot to live up to.

  140. Angela Ulrich

    I’m very interested in reading this. I recently retired and moved back to my hometown in Ross County, Ohio, to be closer to my aging parents. A story based on someone from Vinton County really sparks my interest!

  141. [email protected]

    Having lived in Cincinnati, I never heard of Mabel Hillebrandt, A woman of principle who upheld the law even when she personally disagreed with it. This sounds like a great book based on her

  142. Scott Leonard

    Thank you for the opportunity fellow Buckeye!

  143. Christine White

    The book sounds fascinating! Would love to read it!

  144. teresa sopher

    I went ahead and ordered the first 2, so I really need this win!

  145. Lisa Garrett

    I am enthralled already! The tunnels are intriguing.

  146. Linda Block

    It looks like a great book club discussion, we’d love to read this book.

  147. KT

    Would love to read this!

  148. KateT16

    Sounds like an interesting book! Would love to win!

  149. ReadIt40

    Looking forward to reading this one.

  150. Alexandria Rose Rivera

    wow would love a copy of The Stills it looks like a great and mysterious book !! thank you & stay safe !!

  151. Desmond Warzel

    Sounds awesome

  152. Laura Earickson

    I would love to win and read this book!!

  153. Susan Smith

    Sounds like a great book!

  154. Jessica Brunhoefer

    Thank you for the chance to win!

  155. kybooks

    This sounds like a good book for a History major and a mystery lover. It is a perfect book for March.

  156. Wendy Barker

    This is such a great series. I learned something in each of the two previous books and have already learned something just from reading this article. I recommended The Widows to a couple of friends from Ohio who live generally in the same area where these books are set and one them has already read it and looking forward to The Hollows. Now I’ll have to tell her about the third.

  157. Carolyn Moye

    I look forwarding to reading this as it sounds intriguing. I will enjoy reading about the real life experiences in a historical setting.

  158. Julie Parrish

    Cant wait to read this! I love reading stories on real life events and this book will be on my tbr stack!

  159. LeMinou

    Sounds like a fascinating book. I love historical novels, especially during this time period. Thanks for the chance.

  160. Lorrie L Montgomery

    Very interesting article. Thank you for the chance to win your book!

  161. Christal M

    Would love to read!

  162. rmarcin

    I haven’t heard of her before, but I am inspired to read about a strong woman!

  163. sskrout

    Sounds like a compelling book. I love history and reading about this woman’s story would deepen my understanding of that era. Thank you for the opportunity!

  164. amweeks

    I love this time period! And I love when folks discover that women really were not all “in the kitchen” before the 1970s…that there have always been smart, go-getting women bent on success no matter what time in history! This book is definitely one I’d like to read!

  165. hanquist

    Sounds very interesting!

  166. Karyn M. Newton

    As a lifelong Buckeye, it’s always interesting to read a book set in Ohio!

  167. ruth roth

    Awesome opportunity ~ thank you

  168. Angie Simmonds

    I love this era! Thanks for the opportunity.

  169. Jeanne

    This sounds awesome! Thanks for the chance to win.

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