John Preston McConnell and the Anti-Saloon League
A talk by Gene Hyde and Adrian Whicker, McConnell Day, February 22, 2012
Thank you for joining us in celebrating the birthday of John Preston McConnell, the first president of what we now call Radford University. McConnell was a man with many interests and passions. He was a tireless advocate of women’s education, and saw education as a way to bring a better standard of life to people in his native Appalachian region. He had many professional and personal interests, and his collected papers in our Archives reveal much about his life as a dedicated public servant. Today, however, Adrian Whicker and I will be discussing one of McConnell’s lifelong passions, the abolition and prohibition of alcohol.
But first, a few basic facts about John Preston McConnell: he was born on February 22, 1866, in Scott County, Virginia. He was educated at the National Normal School in Lebanon, Ohio, where he learned the joys of pedagogy. He completed his education at Milligan College in Tennessee and the University of Virginia, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1904, writing his dissertation on “The Treatment of Negroes in Virginia during the Reconstruction Period.” After serving as Dean at Emory & Henry College, in 1911 he was invited to become the President of the new State Normal and Industrial School for Women in East Radford, which opened its doors in 1913. McConnell served as Radford’s president until declining health led to his retirement in 1937. Dr. McConnell passed away in 1941.
McConnell’s early life in Scott County shaped his prohibitionist feelings. John Preston’s father, Hiram K. McConnell, served as a school administrator and magistrate, and was known as “Squire McConnell.” Squire McConnell was an ardent Prohibitionist, and both Squire McConnell and his son John voted for the prohibition ticket in the 1888 national election, casting their ballots for Prohibition candidate Clinton B. Fisk (Republican Benjamin Harrison won the election, defeating Fisk, the democrat candidate Grover Cleveland, and candidates from several other small parties). While John Preston McConnell voted the “dry” ticket in 1888, as we shall see, that would not always be the case. As he wrote later in is his life, “I can say in the sight of God and man that from my boyhood days….I have had an incurable and ineradicable aversion to the whole (alcohol) business, its use, and its sale.”
By 1919, the national efforts of the Prohibition Party, the Anti-Saloon League, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and other groups resulted in passage of the 18th Amendment, which banned “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in the US when it went into effect in 1920. While the country was officially “dry” under Prohibition, many parties clamored to repeal the 18th, and groups such as the Anti-Saloon League felt it necessary to continue educating the public about the evils of alcohol.
John Preston McConnell joined the Virginia Anti-Saloon League, and by 1922 was President of the Virginia chapter. Through pressure on state officials and legislatures, the VASL secured many victories at the state level, including passage of the Layman Act of 1924, which was considered one of the strictest state prohibition laws in the country.
The Presidential election of 1928 proved to be a trying time for the Virginia Anti Saloon League and Virginia Democrats. The US Presidential election pitted Republican candidate Herbert Hoover against Democratic candidate Al Smith of New York, with William Varner running on the Prohibition Party ticket. John Preston McConnell identified himself as a loyal Virginia Democrat, a considered himself a faithful party member. However, Al Smith had clearly aligned himself with the “wets,” and favored the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Many in the “dry” camp were casting their support to Hoover.
Given this political landscape, as a loyal Virginia Democrat, and as president of the state Anti-Saloon League, John Preston McConnell was in a quandary. Who would he support? In an exclusive statement to the Radford News Journal on September 27, 1928, McConnell called himself “a Democrat by conviction,” and publicly threw his support to Al Smith. His decision, he said, was a personal one. Essentially, for McConnell, when he removed the dry/wet issue, he largely supported Smith’s policies and “deplored” Hoover’s. He planned to vote “the whole Democratic ticket, state and national.” McConnell had known that this stance would result in bad press for the Anti-Saloon League, and had actually submitted his resignation as President of the Virginia Anti-Saloon League two months prior to making the announcement, but it was not accepted. Soon after his announcement, however, other prominent “dry” Virginia Democrats, such as the University of Virginia’s president Edwin A. Alderman, also threw their support behind Smith.
McConnell’s stance was widely reprinted in papers across the region and nation, including in Al Smith’s home state of New York. The Anti Saloon League’s national newspaper The American Issue ran a banner headline stating ”Virginia Political Leaders Fail to Keep Faith” on September 29, while also running an article about McConnell’s attempt to resign in July.
McConnell received dozens of letters about his support of Smith. Many were supportive. One Pulaski merchant wrote that “I do not know of anything that has pleased me more than…your letter in support of Governor Smith….I sincerely believe that this letter will do worlds of good throughout Virginia for the Democratic Party, and I want to commend you for the stand which you have taken.”
Many more letters, however, took a different approach. Some were morally outraged. A minister from Wytheville wrote “On reading the morning paper my heart has been all but completely crushed. If there was ever a man in whose moral leadership I had the utmost confidence and in whom I personally idolized it was you. Now to have this confidence crushed and my idol demolished is tragic. Dr! Dr! Dr!! How could you deal such a blow to your old pupils?….for four or five hours I have been depressed. But that I do believe in God. I would say that religion is a mockery and scripture a lie. Soon that do to any soul what you have done to mine I would suffer martyrdom.” Another minister from West Virginia wrote “I am surprised, shocked, and almost horrified…may the Lord have mercy on you old party bound Virginia democrats.” McConnell’s files are full such letters, and also his responses. In one response he said that “We have a perplexing situation before us in the coming election. I want to say to you that I do not feel that I am infallible about these matters. All that I think I can claim to say is that I want to do the right thing.” Overall, McConnell’s responses to his attackers and supporters echoed a consistent theme: he was not a single-issue voter, he had many reasons for his decision, and he believed that the Democratic Party would do the most good for the Commonwealth.
This backlash was very difficult for McConnell. “In all of my life time of public service in connection with public affairs, either business, political, economic, or social,” McConnell wrote in 1933, “I don’t think I was half as much abused in all of those years as I was in 1928. That did not shake me from my purpose to do what was right and I did what I thought was right.”
Following Dr. McConnell’s attempted resignation from the Virginia Anti-Saloon League and the acrimony surrounding his endorsement of Al Smith, there was a relatively quick warming of relations with Anti-liquor foes nationally and in Virginia. McConnell actively sought out books on Prohibition for the Library here at Radford and offered his help to several women throughout the state in preparation for school assignments and debates related to the liquor controversy. He also fostered working relationships with church and civic leaders throughout the Commonwealth and with administrators and faculty at Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Hollins, Emory & Henry, Averett, and Roanoke Colleges in an attempt to bring anti-liquor speakers to those campuses and their surrounding communities. He also fought successfully against the granting of a license to Radford Drug Company to be allowed to dispense alcohol by prescription.
Despite resigning as President of the Virginia Anti-Saloon League, the resignation was not accepted and, much to his chagrin, he was told by Superintendent David Hepburn that he would remain President until a successor was chosen. Eventually, Hepburn relented but McConnell, not altogether by choice, remained a part of the Executive Committee of the Anti-Saloon League until finally stepping down after he and the League were named in a wrongful termination suit by a former field agent for the League. The suit was settled out of court and McConnell was not held liable for any damages. McConnell’s relationship with Hepburn and the Virginia Anti-Saloon League definitely suffered after the events of 1928 and would not be fully repaired until after the passing of Hepburn in April 1931 and the naming of his successor, Ed. J. Richardson of the Anti-Saloon League of America. McConnell had lobbied for Richardson to be the replacement and the two had an excellent working relationship. And as the nation went into a deep Depression and the 18th Amendment was repealed, McConnell continued to fight, probably with more zeal than before, against what he perceived as the evils of alcohol. McConnell unceasingly sent solicited and unsolicited donations to the Virginia Anti-Saloon League and other Prohibition concerns throughout the nation and worked harder than ever at bringing speakers to Radford and the surrounding communities. Thanks to Dr. McConnell’s efforts, Radford was one of the few independent cities in the Commonwealth to vote against the repeal of Prohibition within Virginia. And while he would not admit it publicly, in private conversation he admitted to Leigh Colvin of the Prohibition National Convention that “this College is whole heartedly pushing the campaign [against alcohol].”
Around this same time, Dr. McConnell was able to secure one of the more famous speakers to have visited Radford to that point. William E. Johnson was a world famous Prohibition figure and law enforcement officer. Johnson was such a stealthy and effective pursuer that he was nicknamed “Pussyfoot.” I’m not sure the name holds the same meaning now, but needless to say, he was an effective enforcement agent, securing over 4,000 convictions in less than six years. One supporter was quoted as saying, “Naturally, one of the first things that struck us was his delightful nickname. It sounded like dirty work at the crossroads on a dark night…. He seemed dreadfully able to provoke drought wherever he went.” Johnson was from upstate New York and graduated from the University of Nebraska. Following college, Johnson worked at the Lincoln Daily News and then was the manager of the Nebraska News Bureau. As a journalist, Johnson wrote articles in favor of Prohibition and even infiltrated brewers and saloons to engage in espionage and sabotage and published information about them. In 1906 Johnson was appointed special agent of the Department of the Interior to enforce laws in the Indian Territory and Oklahoma. Johnson was so effective in gaining convictions that saloon keepers and other interested alcohol proponents offered a reward for his death. Johnson responded by employing nighttime raids and destroying most of the saloons in the territory. Johnson later bragged “I have told enough lies for the cause to make Ananias ashamed of himself. Did I ever drink? Yes, gallons of it.” Pussyfoot resigned his federal post and moved to Kansas in 1912 to work with the Anti-Saloon League and served as managing editor of 35 Anti-Saloon League Publications. Johnson toured the world in support of Prohibition, visiting Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands. In 1919, while promoting Prohibition in England, he was captured by students in London and lost his right eye in the fracas. Johnson was not bitter about it and turned public opinion in Britain to his side by saying “the friendships that I made through that incident are worth a bushel of eyes.” Johnson became so popular in Britain that he was named director of the London office of the World League Against Alcoholism.
In December 1931, Pussyfoot was the keynote speaker at the Virginia Anti-Saloon League Conference in Richmond. He then went on a statewide speaking tour and Dr. McConnell worked hard throughout the New River Valley to secure speaking engagements and large audiences for Johnson. On December 18, Pussyfoot Johnson spoke to a large crowd at the auditorium of the Grove Avenue Methodist Church in Radford with the faculty and students of the College in attendance.
For the remainder of his term as President of the College, McConnell continued to tirelessly work for the cause of Prohibition and to work with faculty and students in integrating an anti-alcohol sentiment throughout the curriculum and the atmosphere at the College. Mrs. Clara McConnell, Dr. McConnell’s wife was also very active in the fight for Prohibition, serving as the President of the Southwest Virginia Chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Perhaps McConnell’s views on Prohibition and its role at the College can best be viewed by something he wrote to Prohibition leader Harry S. Warner: “We are very careful not to harass our students and those who are about our institution in such a way as to annoy them or nauseate them with the idea, but we see to it that Prohibition ideas have a very large place in the thinking on the campus.”
To demonstrate the softer side of Dr. McConnell and to summarize the quality of the man, one only has to look at his treatment of David Hepburn’s widow. Mrs. Hepburn, as had many Americans, had fallen on very hard times by the mid 1930s. With no husband, several unemployed adult children at home and one with severe disabilities, Mrs. Hepburn was unable to provide for her family. One Christmas, deep into the Depression, McConnell, after hearing of the plight of the widow, and despite the tensions that sprang up between him and Rev. Hepburn in the years following the 1928 election wrote Widow Hepburn a gracious letter and sent her a check to use as she saw fit.
A note on sources used for this talk: Much of the material came from papers in the Anti-Saloon League Collection at McConnell Library. Additional material on McConnell’s life came from A History of the State Teachers College – Radford, Virginia, by M’Ledge Moffett. Additional material on W.E. “Pussyfoot” Johnson came from online editions of the Times of London and the New York Times, available through McConnell Library’s databases. The photo of William Eugene “Pussyfoot” Johnson is in the public domain, and was obtained from the Library of Congress.
The Anti-Saloon League Collection is available for research. Please contact Gene Hyde, Archivist, to make an appointment.
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