John Kelly's Washington: Congress Winks at Prohibition in Bootlegger's Tale

George L. Cassiday, shown conducting a lottery, once headed a veterans group. During Prohibition, he supplied booze to members of Congress.
George L. Cassiday, shown conducting a lottery, once headed a veterans group. During Prohibition, he supplied booze to members of Congress. (Courtesy Of Frederick C. Cassiday)
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By John Kelly
Monday, April 27, 2009

If, during Prohibition, you wanted a nice stiff drink in Washington, your best bet was to befriend a congressman. It didn't much matter which particular congressman. Republican or Democrat, Bible-thumping son of the South or worldly big-city Yankee -- nearly all had access to whiskey and gin.

And for that you could thank a short, well-dressed former World War I tank crew member named George L. Cassiday, or, as he came to be known across the country, the Man in the Green Hat, official bootlegger to the solons of Capitol Hill.

"He never went anywhere without a hat," Cassiday's youngest son, Frederick, told me recently. "We used to make fun of him. It was old. It obviously had been well worn, but if you looked at that hat today, you'd say, 'My god, this guy really has a classy hat.' "

A classy hat, a stock of booze and a clientele that included, Cassiday estimated, two-thirds of the lawmakers on the Hill.

Cassiday started bootlegging, he said, because jobs were hard for vets to come by in the years after the Great War. The 18th Amendment banned the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors. When people can't get what they want, a market is born. In 1920, Cassiday started catering to thirsty members of the House of Representatives.

The problem wasn't finding customers, Cassiday wrote in The Washington Post in 1930. It was meeting the demand. Clients got tired of waiting when he could bring in only as much as he could carry hidden in his coat.

One day, a Midwestern congressman had an idea. "George," he said, "did it ever occur to you it would be easier to bring in larger lots and distribute it from a base of operations from the inside?" Space was procured for Cassiday in the House Office Building.

Cassiday got the booze from New York City and later Philadelphia, taking the train north and returning with two suitcases groaning under the weight of 40 quarts of alcohol. There were occasional problems. "Say, Buddy, your clothes are leaking," a passenger wryly remarked when some of the bottles broke on the concourse of Penn Station.

Authorities occasionally raided Cassiday's house at 303 17th St. SE, confiscating his stock. But he never got in much trouble until 1925, when he was detained entering the House Office Building with bottles in a briefcase. "I was wearing a light green felt hat at the time," he later explained. The nickname stuck, especially since it echoed the title of a then-popular novel about London socialites -- Michael Arlen's "The Green Hat."

Cassiday was barred from entering the House. He responded by switching his business to the Senate.

Senators, he decided, were more careful than representatives. They seldom bought the juice themselves, sending a secretary instead. One senator wouldn't keep bottles in his desk, preferring to store them on the top shelf of a bookcase in his office, next to bound copies of the Congressional Record.

Cassiday wrote: "He never mentioned liquor to me, but occasionally he would say he could use some 'new reading matter.' This customer always referred to me as his 'librarian.' "

Cassiday was arrested again in 1929 and his "black book" of customers confiscated. He fought the charges valiantly -- no warrant, he said -- but ended up being sentenced to a year in jail.

He served the sentence, sort of.

"My mom and him both told me he actually never spent a night in jail," said Frederick, 60, a retired Air Force Reserve sergeant who lives in Fairfax County. "What he would do is, he would go there in the morning every day, sign himself in, and then, at the end of the day, sign himself out."

Cassiday said he didn't get rich from his exploits. "The truth is that I never made more than a good living to support myself and my family," he wrote in The Post. "That was because I never went in for any of the side lines of prohibition, and never will."

Prohibition ended in 1933. Cassiday worked in a Pennsylvania shoe factory and then at several D.C. hotels. He died in 1967 at the age of 74. His preferred drink was Yuengling beer, six-packs of the stuff.

"There's a lesson here that could be learned, but we seem to have never learned it," Frederick told me.

That lesson? "That you can't say one thing and do another. If you want to make a moral stand, then you have to live with that moral stand. Personally, I see a lot of hypocrisy in a lot of our laws."

The Man in the Green Hat deduced a different moral. "Some of them I found were mighty good fellows," he said of his customers, "and others not so good, but I learned right off the bat that when it comes to eating, drinking and having a good time in general, they are as human as other folks."

You might even say more human.

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