Wayne Wheeler, Dry Boss (Prohibition): Biography

Wayne Wheeler was the de facto leader of the Anti-Saloon League. He was one of the most powerful prohibition leaders in the US.

Wheeler developed many tactics in pressure politics. In fact, many call pressure politics “Wheelerism.”

I. Early Life of Wayne Wheeler

Wheeler was born on November 10,1869 near Brookfield, Ohio. He was the son of Joseph Wheeler and Ursula Hutchinson.

While working as a boy on the family farm, an drunk laborer injured Wayne’s leg with a hayfork. Young Wheeler also saw another drunken person frighten his mother and sisters. These events appear to have traumatized him and led to his antipathy to drinking.

Upon graduation from high school, Wheeler taught school for two years and then entered Oberlin College. There, he excelled in argument and debate.

Wheeler received his B.A. from Oberlin in 1894. Wheeler accepted a job as a recruiter for the recently formed Anti-Saloon League. While continuing to work full time, he attended Western Reserve Law School. In 1898 he received his LL.B.

Wheeler then promptly became attorney for the League. This was an group to which he devoted the rest of his life. He became head of Ohio for the League in 1903.

II. Effective Leader

Wayne Wheeler
Wayne Wheeler

Early in his career Wheeler’s showed strong organizational skills and political acumen. He engineered the reelection defeat of a prominent wet (anti-prohibition) governor of Ohio. This greatly increased his stature. In 1915 he moved to Washington, DC, where he could more easily wield political pressure. He soon developed what is now known as pressure politics or Wheelerism.

Under Wayne Wheeler’s leadership, the League focused entirely on achieving Prohibition. It organized at the grass-roots level. And it also worked extensively through churches. The League supported or opposed candidates entirely based entirely on their position on prohibition. It completely disregard their party affiliation or other matters. And it worked with the two major parties instead of the smaller Prohibition Party.

III. Deeply Committed to Prohibition

Wheeler tended to present his views as the views of the League. Even when the League had either no view or a different view. He was convinced of the importance of prohibition. So he demanded hard work from himself and others. Of ignoring holidays, including Christmas and Easter, he expected others to do the same.

Even his love letters to his fiancee, Ella Belle Candy, had views on prohibition. Of course, along with statements of love. They were marriage in 1901. Then their house became an extension of his office. The couple had three children. Yet everything in life, including his family, was second to his prohibition activities. Even on their 50th wedding anniversary, Wheeler left his wife alone. He did that so he could travel to a debate on prohibition.

Volstead Act

Wheeler often claimed to have written the National Prohibition Enforcement Act. That’s the Volstead Act. But Congressman Andrew Volstead repeatedly denied it. Yet it’s clear that Wheeler was at least highly important in drafting its contents. Congress and others often called on Volstead to explain its complex provisions.

Called for Strong Enforcement

Many prohibitionists stressed the importance of education. That was to bring about voluntary compliance. But Wheeler insisted on strict and vigorous enforcement. He was a proponent of strong force. And “he desired the most severe penalties, the most aggressive policies even to calling out the Army and navy, the most relentless prosecution.”1

The Prohibition Bureau added poisons to industrial alcohol to prevent its us as a beverage. Wheeler opposed the use of nonpoisonous additives such as soap or other noxious but harmless things. He argued that “the government is under no obligation to furnish people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol…is a deliberate suicide.”2

IV. Powerful Leader

Authors of a biography wrote this.

“Wayne B. Wheeler controlled six congresses. Dictated to two presidents of the United States. Directed legislation in most of the States of the Union. Picked the candidates for the more important elective state and federal offices. Held the balance of power in both Republican and Democratic parties. Distributed more patronage than any dozen other men. Supervised a federal bureau from outside without official authority. And was recognized by friend and foe alike as the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States.”3

By 1926, members of Congress were criticizing Wheeler. They were questioning the League’s spending in some congressional races. He retired from the League shortly thereafter. But he continued to fight for Prohibition.

V. Death

Wheeler never wavered in his prohibition convictions. Nor did he ever rest in its pursuit. He died of exhaustion and kidney failure at his summer home. He was attempting to regain his strength to continue the fight.

wayne wheeler
Ernest H. Cherrington

At Wheeler’s funeral, League orators carefully phrased their eulogies. This reflected the cleavage between his policies and those of the nominal leadership. No sooner was he in his grave than the League abandoned his policies.

They switched to those of those of his long-time rival Ernest Cherrington. He stressed the need for education to bring about voluntary compliance.

Increasingly, League members openly criticized Wheeler’s alignment with avowed racial and religious bigots and groups. For his advocacy of illegal actions in enforcing prohibition. His deceptive practice of writing self-aggrandizing articles that he asked others to publish as their own. And with his caustic, alienating personality.

Yet Wayne Wheeler played a major role in making the League the first powerful political pressure group in the country. He also made himself perhaps the most powerful leaders and promoters of prohibition. And he did it by sheer force of determination and unrelenting drive.


Prohibition was a dismal failure that created serious problems. Yet almost one in five adults in the country today supports making drinking illegal. For everyone. Of any age. Not even Prohibition outlawed drinking! See What Did Prohibition Prohibit?

Many more tens of millions support neo-prohibitionism.

VI. Resources on Wayne Wheeler

About Wayne Wheeler
    • [William H.] Anderson criticises (sic) Gov. Smith’s plea that legislature act against amendment. New York Times, Jan 12, 1920. (Wayne Wheeler argued that a state cannot withdraw its ratification of a federal amendment. Note: Prohibition had not yet gone into effect.) Wayne Wheeler
    • Hogan, C. Wayne Wheeler: Single Issue Exponent.
    • The purchase of liquors; proposes that local and state prohibition laws forbid it. New York Times, Sept 30, 1911. (Wayne Wheeler proposed that local and state dry laws completely forbid alcohol. Also that they prohibit its transportation across their lines.)
    • Tinkham accuses “drys” of bribery; calls Wheeler “legislative corruptionist” and defies him to sue for libel. New York Times, June 23, 1922. (Wayne Wheeler faced charges of violating the Corrupt Practices Act.)
    • Wheeler asperses this city’s morals.  New York Times,  Jan 2, 1920. (Wayne Wheeler objected to the state’s efforts to withdraw its ratification of 18th amendment. He did so by criticizing the morals of New York City.)
    • Wheeler says ships must not have liquor. New York Times, Jan 17, 1921. (Wayne Wheeler opposed a bill to permit U.S. ships to serve alcoholic beverages beyond the three-mile zone.)
By Wayne Wheeler

Note. Crossed links work.

    • Hanson, D. Wayne Bidwell Wheeler. In: Garraty, J. and Cames, M. (Eds.) Am Nat Bio, vol, 23, pp. 144-5.
    1. Steuart, J. and Dinwiddle, E. Wayne Wheeler, Dry Boss, p. 14.
    2. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion, p. 279.
    3. Steuart and Dinwiddle, ibid., p. 11.