Transcript: American Spirits – Andrew Mellon [VIDEO]

Leslie Przybylek, senior curator, Heinz History Center:

Meet Andrew W. Mellon. Now, if Mr. Mellon in this portrait looks perhaps a little tired, it might be because of the turbulent period in the decade immediately before this image was painted. The portrait was done in probably the early to mid-1930s.

Mr. Mellon was part of a famous banking family here in Pittsburgh, and in fact, city residents may well recognize his name. He was one of the co-founders of companies like Alcoa and Gulf Oil and Mellon’s business fame and success is what brought the attention of President Warren G. Harding who appointed Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury in 1921.

Now that might not sound like a really controversial move, but there’s a catch: In 1921, the Secretary of the Treasury officially was the person who was overseeing Prohibition enforcement. He wasn’t the person who was directly responsible for it, but Prohibition enforcement rested within the treasury department so technically the person who was the head of the treasury was also the head of enforcing Prohibition laws in the United States.

Well, Andrew Mellon was not only a successful businessman, he also was the majority owner of Old Overholt Distillery here in Western Pennsylvania. It was one of the most famous whiskey brands in the nation in the 1920s so not unsurprisingly, Prohibition advocates were absolutely furious that the president had named, as head of the treasury, someone who owned a distillery. In fact, Old Overholt, even managed to get one of the rare medicinal whiskey licenses so while they were no longer slowed to make new stock, they were permitted to sell their whiskey that they had already made to drug stores and physicians could prescribe you a dose of whiskey.

Groups like the Anti-Saloon League launched a national campaign against Mellon and his name was in all of the national papers regarding complaints about this fact that here the president has named someone as head of the department overseeing Prohibition enforcement who owns a distillery. Well, Mellon does eventually heed all the public outcry and he sells off his shares of Old Overholt, he divests himself from the company and the rest of his tenure, at least under Warren Harding proceeded uneventfully.

Now to be fair to Harding, the president’s argument was that he didn’t think that Prohibition enforcement should be under the treasury department anyway, he felt it should be part of the justice department. And it really was a symbol of just absolute confusion that reigned in the federal government over how they were going to enforce this law that was almost impossible to enforce and eventually Harding’s wish came to pass. In 1930 Prohibition enforcement was transferred to the Justice department and it ended its life in the early 1930s as a forgotten little division ultimately within the FBI.