The Woman Assistant U.S. Attorney General and the Prisoner at Leavenworth, 1928-29.

Called the "most influential woman in America" in the 20s, Mabel Willebrandt was a key advocate for prison reform and a player in the pardon of Cook in 1930.


The trial, imprisonment, appeals and pardon applications of Frederick Albert Cook occupied thousands of pages of Federal Court proceedings for eight years of the second decade of the last century. And those same years involved the career of the highest ranking woman in the federal government, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the first woman Assistant Attorney General of the United States.

Possibly dismissed by many political historians and those who would later chronicle the women's movement, Willebrandt had the unpopular call to enforce the equally unpopular 18th Amendment, which amounted to enforcing Prohibition at its highest legal levels in the "roaring Twenties."

Born on the Kansas prairie in 1889, Mabel Walker Willebrandt began school at 13, was a teacher at 17, a principal at 22, and a lawyer at 27. Five years later, at 32, she was appointed an assistant attorney general by President Harding, heading the division in the Justice Department responsible for prohibition, prisons and taxes. Arguing before the Supreme Court, she compiled a winning record seldom equaled.

Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the first appointed woman Assistant Attorney General, served from 1922 to 1929.

Mabel Willebrandt's biographer, Georgetown University historian Dorothy M. Brown, writes in Mabel Walker Willebrandt: A Study of Power, Loyalty and Law (University of Tennessee Press/Knoxville, 1984) that:

"While a principal, she sent herself and her husband through the University of Southern California law school. In 1916, she became the first assistant police court defender in Los Angeles, representing more than 2,000 women in the next two years. Simultaneously, she launched her private practice, began establishing a network of women professionals, and became active in Republican politics and in lobbying for women's issues before the California legislature. Meanwhile she faced the disintegration of her marriage and coped with an increasing hearing disability."

For Willebrandt, 1928 was the most difficult of seven demanding, challenging years as assistant attorney general of the United States. The highest ranking woman in the federal government with responsibility for prohibition cases, federal income tax litigation and the federal prison system, she argued more cases before the U.S. Supreme Court than all but three of her contemporaries. In both prohibition and tax cases, her arguments set the basic interpretations of the scope of the new 16th and 18th amendments to the Constitution. Her initiative and drive won major expansion and reform of the moribund federal prison system.

With her arduous, loyal campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover, the "First Legal Lady of the Land" earned the added titles of "Prohibition Portia," the "Deborah of the Drys," and "Mrs. Firebrand." Syndicated columnist Frank Kent called her "the most notorious woman in America." Friend and foe could agree with the assessment of Collier's political commentator: "No other woman has ever had so much influence upon a presidential campaign as Mrs. Willebrandt has had upon this one."

The Willebrandt connection with Cook took place between 1927 and his parole and release in 1930. As U.S. Assistant Attorney General, she was designated as the Department of Justice person to liaison with the federal prison system.

A review of the history of Cook's conviction is appropriate here. 

In April 1923, Dr. Cook was indicted in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Texas, in Fort Worth, on charges of circulating through the United States mails literature which contained false representations with regard to the value and oil producing potential of the lands and mineral interests of the Petroleum Producers Association in order to induce potential investors to purchase shares of stock in the company. He was accused of utilizing the United States mail to defraud. Dr. Cook asserted his innocence and pled not guilty to the indictment.

Dr. Cook and the officers of the Petroleum Producers Association were tried in October and November of 1923. On November 23, Dr. Cook was found guilty of the charges against him and was sentenced by the Court to serve fourteen years and nine months imprisonment in Leavenworth Penitentiary and a fine of $12,000 was imposed.

In 1927 the issue of Cook's time served in the Fort Worth jail during his appeal came to the attention of Willebrandt.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided the question whether or not the Probated Sentences Act was retrospective in its operation and thus, whether Dr. Cook might be granted a probated sentence and release from Leavenworth penitentiary. The case was argued before the Supreme Court in October with Willebrandt, as Assistant Attorney General representing the Federal Government and Herbert C. Wade of Dallas, Texas, representing Dr. Cook. The Supreme Court held that the Probated Sentences Act was not retrospective in its application, that Dr. Cook could not therefore be granted a probated sentence under its terms and must therefore remain incarcerated in Leavenworth Prison. (Cook vs. United States of America, 275 U.S. 347, October Term 1927, decided January 3, 1928.)

Cook's incarceration has been detailed by several writers during the 1920s and the 1930s and by his biographer Andrew Freeman in 1960. One of the writers of this account had been told by A.H. Conner, then Superintendent of Federal Prisons, that he "knew Dr. Cook quite well." Conner continued:

"I was at the institution [Leavenworth] several times a year and saw Dr. Cook quite frequently during those visits. In spite of his difficulties, I remember him as a very quiet, engaging, soft voiced sort of a person, who as far as I recall showed no bitterness. On one or two occasions he mentioned his North Pole experiences and his contact with many prominent people throughout the world, but never with any spirit of vindictiveness.

"As I recall it, Dr. Cook was assigned to the hospital and assisted the medical staff in routine matters, but of course as a matter of policy he was not permitted to assume any major responsibility in the diagnosis or treatment of prisoners although his competence as a physician was generally recognized."


The account of how Willebrandt had come to support Cook and his pardon application is detailed in the extensive notes of Cook's biographer Andrew Freeman in 1937. It is also reflected in this letter to the Superintendent of Prisons, which was sent on April 5, 1930, a year after she had resigned her office:

"I leave to your good judgment whether it is wise, in view of prison discipline, to send the inclosed. I feel it genuinely and would like to get a word to Dr. Cook that I am for him. I feel this especially because in spite of really wanting to see him get leniency, I was obliged to oppose his probation and argued the case in the Supreme Court. The argument was not personal but was to prevent an impossible interpretation of the probation law. Dr. Cook was understanding enough to judge the Government's motives correctly and, although his disappointment was great, his morale was not weakened.

"If you feel it would be wiser not to write the letter then will you not please have Warden White covey my best wishes to him informally." 

The letter was late. Cook was released on parole on March 10, 1930, but ever the servant of the law, Willebrandt proceeded with caution.

Mabel Walker Willebrandt would leave the Department at a time of new awareness of air travel. She would meet with Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochoran and other pioneer women aviators and publicized air travel whenever she could. She would then enter the final phase of her life, as counsel for the Screen Directors Guild in Hollywood. To some it was an undistinguished period, as a participant in the second "Red Scare" and admiration of Senator Joe McCarthy and congressional "witch hunting" committees. A Taft supporter, she would express her distrust of Nixon and "secret admiration" of Kennedy, but died seven months before the president's assassination.

Clearly, the assertion that women in American politics "have been virtually invisible," did not apply to Mabel Willebrandt. More accurately, she has all but disappeared. 

Willebrandt in 1930 with Amelia Earhart.  Having left the Justice Department in 1929, she became part of the Aviation Corporation and lobbied for commercial air travel.

"Partially, she wielded the eraser herself, vowing as she left Washington to avoid politics and ordering her mother to destroy the correspondence that detailed her successful and traumatic years as assistant attorney general," Brown said:

"In 1928 , the New York Times carried more than seventy-five stories on Willebrandt; the last story that appeared there until her obituary in April, 1963, was in 1935. Similarly, she vanished from the major new histories of the 1920s and is frequently nowhere to be found in the new surveys in women's history. Even in Sophonisba Breakinridge's early analysis, Women in the Twentieth Century, Willebrandt is barely mentioned. Only in studies on prohibition and on prison reform is her work acknowledged. Her life had so neatly broken in two that those who shared the second half knew little of her Washington career."

Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society