During the days of Prohibition, there was perhaps no one with easier access to alcohol in the nation’s capital than the very people responsible for ratifying the constitutional amendment that banned the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol: members of Congress.
It was all thanks to Congress’ favorite bootlegger: George Cassiday, who was more commonly known on Capitol Hill as “the man in the green hat.” For 10 years, he ran a bootlegging operation for Congress out of the House and Senate office buildings.
“He kept them wet, even though they all voted dry,” Garrett Peck, author of the book “Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t,” told “Power Players” in an interview in the Prohibition-era wine cellar that belonged to President Woodrow Wilson.
Cassiday estimated that “four out of five” members of Congress drank alcohol despite their votes in favor of Prohibition, said Peck, and he went on to blow the lid off Congress’ hypocrisy by publishing a series of expose articles in the Washington Post after his decade-long operation was busted.
“This whole idea that there was somehow a consensus to change the Constitution to ban alcohol, just turned out to be totally ridiculous,” Peck said. “Prohibition turned the whole country into a bunch of scofflaws, and a bunch of hypocrites, as well.”
Cassiday first started selling booze for the House of Representatives in 1920, where he was provided with an office in the House Cannon Office Building and was able to bring his supplies straight through the front door.
“Back then to get into the halls of Congress, you were only searched when you left the building, so you could actually bring a suitcase full of liquor into the Congressional offices,” said Peck, who went on to explain that members of Congress were excluded from searches upon leaving the building, making it easy for them to bring liquor home with them.
Cassiday’s bootlegging operation in the House was busted in 1925, and he gained his famed nickname in the process.
"The way he actually got [his] nickname was when he got arrested...there was some press guy pointing out 'Oh that guy over there who's arrested, the guy in the green hat.'"
The bust only slowed down business temporarily for Cassiday, who promptly moved over to the Senate side.
“He considered senators to be more discreet than Congressmen,” Peck said. “The Congressmen … would come over all the time, they would play cards. They would hang out and so on. The Senators, on the other hand … would send their secretaries.”
But in 1930, Cassiday’s Senate operation was also busted and his bootlegging days came to an end. He signed a deal with a judge that he would never bootleg again and was sentenced to jail time.
“He only actually spent about 90 days in prison, of which he never spent a single night in jail,” Peck said.
Instead, Cassiday would sign in at the jail in the morning and sign out at night. “He lived on Capitol Hill, so he went to the DC jail, which was about two blocks from where he lived.”
Following his sentencing, Cassiday wrote about his experience working as a bootlegger for Congress in the Washington Post. And it was just three years later, in 1933, that Prohibition was ultimately overturned.
To learn more about the story of George Cassiday, and the gin that has since been named in his honor, check out this episode of the “Power Players.”
ABC News’ Richard Coolidge, Betsy Klein, Michael Conte, Alexandra Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Hank Brown, and Vicki Vennell contributed to this episode.
- Politics & Government