I love HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. It nails the 1920s, and the reality-based characters from Capone to Daugherty are pretty accurately portrayed. But what really knocks me out about the show are the lesser-known but historically relevant people the writers have unearthed, like the marvelous Mabel Walker Willebrandt.
Born in 1889, Mabel Willebrandt would have been an extraordinary person by today’s standards, but in her era she was an inconoclast. At a time when women did not even have the right to vote (until 1920), she received a law and master’s degrees from the University of Southern California. She became the first public defender of women on record. Working without pay, she handled more than 2,000 cases of prostitution. Through her efforts, both men and women were allowed to testify in court, where she insisted the Johns be arrested and prosecuted for their crimes, as well as the prostitutes. As her fictional character Randolph says, the women she represented were “the kind that didn’t have any other choice.”
In 1921, Mabel Willebrandt was appointed to serve as Assistant Attorney General in the Harding Administration, the highest-ranking woman in the federal government at the time. Willebrandt headed the division in the Justice Department dealing with federal taxation, prisons and the enforcement of Prohibition. She played a key role in winning approval for the first federal prison for women, a minimum security facility with no walls and no fences. She argued more than forty cases before the Supreme Court during the 1920s.
Although Willebrandt was personally opposed to Prohibition and drank socially, she became a teetotaler after passage of the Volstead Act as a moral example to others. Intriguingly, she was an ally of J. Edgar Hoover and advocated his appointment to head the Bureau of Investigation in 1924. Like others, Willebrandt apparently believed that the 29-year-old Hooverwas the best candidate to clean up the “Devil’s Den” of corruption that the Bureau became during the Harding Administration.
Boardwalk Empire depicts many sinners and a very few saints of the 1920s. The real life Esther Randolph was a paragon of honesty and professionalism in an era of rampant corruption.