Prohibitionist Pussyfoot Johnson
William Eugene Johnson (1862-1945) was born in Coventry, New York, along the state’s Southern Tier, near Binghamton. However, he was educated at the University of Nebraska and remained there several years after college, working as a reporter for the Lincoln Daily News.

In 1889, Nebraska considered statewise prohibition and Johnson emerged as an ardent supporter of the so-called dry movement. As was the accepted practice at the time, Johnson used his position with the newspaper to see that articles were published that put Prohibition in the best possible light and cast suspicion on “wet” supporters.

However, Johnson was a peculiarly candid person. He admitted drinking liquor and was honest about his dishonesty – that is, he admitting using bribery and deceit to further the prohibition cause.

In 1906, he was appointed a special agent of the Department of the Interior to enforce laws in the Indian Territory and Oklahoma and was credited with securing more than 4,000 convictions from his raids on saloons and gambling houses. Along the way he picked up the nickname “Pussyfoot," which is explained in an obituary elsewhere on this page.

In 1911, he left his federal job to work with the Anti-Saloon League in Kansas. He became one of the country’s best-known crusaders in the cause of Prohibition and was in demand as a lecturer all over the world. However, not everyone greeted Johnson with open arms. At an appearance in London, he lost an eye when he was hit with a rock thrown by someone in the crowd. And an article below details the hostile reception he received in Windsor, Canada.

Johnson remained active throughout the 1920s, but retired from public life in 1930 and went home to New York state and the family farm near Coventry in a village called Smithville Flats.

Frankly, I had never heard of him ... until I came upon this intriguing item:

Syracuse Journal

Violence Feared When “Pussyfoot” Gives Talk
DETROIT, Mich., March 19 – Fearing violence when “Pussyfoot” Johnson speaks at a prohibition meeting in the Windsor armories April 11, Brig. Gen. H A. Plariet, commander of the western district of the Canadian militia, has notified Mayor H. W. Wilson that Windsor must pay for any damage to government property which may result.

I had to wonder about a man so well known that the newspaper didn't bother to use his real first name. And why would someone called "Pussyfoot" arouse fears of violence? Obviously, the reason was his cause, which was never popular, despite its brief adoption in the United States as our Eighteenth Amendment (which may be one of the best examples of what can happen when too many people fail to exercise their right to vote).

As for Canada, well, there might not have been much violence when Johnson showed up, but there was enough agitation that he was sent scurrying.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

“Pussyfoot” Stoned, Jeered
and Forced to Leave Canada

U.S. Prohibition Worker Abandons Attempt
to Speak – Police Save Him From Crowd
WINDSOR, Ontario, April 12 – William (“Pussyfoot”) Johnson, American Prohibitionn worker, abandoned an attempt to speak at the armory here last night where he was scheduled to talk in support of the Prohibition question, soon to go before Ontario voters, and escorted across the border to Detroit by police officer.

No sooner than Johnson had taken the platform he was greeted by jeers, singing and whistling and was unable to make himself heard.

A number of ex-servicemen intervened, but were unable to quiet the crowd.

“They’re making more dry votes than I could if I talked all night,” Johnson observed as he left the hall.

Outside, a crowd followed the lecturer and his escort. Several missiles were thrown, it was said, but Johnson was unharmed.

The man spent his last years on the family farm, and while his fame diminished nationally, he remained a much-loved celebrity in the Binghamton area.

Binghamton Press 1945

Pussyfoot Johnson Dies
Was Internationally Known for Lifetime Fight Against Alcohol
FEBRUARY 3 – William E. "Pussyfoot" Johnson, 82, who circled the globe three times and delivered 4,000 lectures in a lifetime fight against alcohol, died believing prohibition will return.

One of America's most colorful figures, he died at 3:50 p. m. yesterday in Binghamton City Hospital.

The man who singlehandedly cleaned up illegal liquor traffic in Oklahoma Indian Territory when Theodore Roosevelt was president and then carried his crusade around the world to the accompaniment of almost constant page one coverage from newspapers, entered the hospital on Tuesday when his last illness became serious.

Retired 15 Years Ago
He had been living in retirement for 15 years at Smithville Flats, resting from his rigorous life and compiling a history of the Johnson family.

He suffered a serious illness three years ago, but recovered. Recently, he suffered a heart attack, but this did not result in the illness that finally led to his death, which was caused directly by a bladder ailment.

The elderly anti-saloon campaigner would have been 83 years old March 25.

In his final public expression on his lifetime work, he wrote to a Binghamton Press reporter:

"Prohibition will come back of course."

His last public fight was a losing battle against the trend away from the Eighteenth Amendment. In 1932 Franklin Roosefelt came out flatfootedly for its repeal, while Herbert Hoover endorsed a plan letting individual states handle the problem.

Criticized Hoover Plan
With charactertistic forthrightness, Mr. Johnson lowered the boom on Mr. Hoover.

A Republican, the seasoned veteran of many a rough-and-tumble debate said:

"He (Hoover) led me up a political alley and left me stranded in a brush heap, like a wild jackrabbit. I propose to support for president that peerless statesman ... Andy Gump."

That was a bit of Johnsonia typical of that which captivated the public for years.

Matching his ready wit was a sportsmanlike cheerfulness and an engaging philosophy that his was a rugged fight in which he had to take it while he also dished it out.

In 1919, for instance, during an English anti-saloon lecture tour, be was struck in the right eye by a stone thrown from the fringes of thei crowd. A few days later, it was necessary to remove the eye. It didn't discourage him, and his declaration that "there is no ill will on my side—not a grain," endeared him to the English public, which generally was hostile to his cause. King George, the present monarch's father, expressed his regrets. The public subscribed to a $2,000 fund for his dry campaign.

How He Got Nickname
He won the nickname, "Pussyfoot" in his early days on the Indian territories of the West, where he waged night and day his fight to eliminate liquor. A newspaper said "the booze-hunter strikes like lightning even if he is a pussyfoot." The name stuck.

He used his fists and his guns in breaking up liquor traffic among the Indians. As he expanded his fight to take in the whole world, and particularly to bring about prohibition in the United States, such violent methods no longer were necessary, but his spirit and
determination increased.

Mr. Johnson was a newspaperman, also. He served in his younger days on the Lincoln. Nebraska, Daily News, was associate editor of the New York Voice; managing editor of 35 anti-saloon publications, and author of a score of books and pamphlets on prohibition.

He was born in Chenango County on March 25, 1862, and was educated in the University of Nebraska, where he first became engrossed in the subject of Prohibition.

Mr. Johnson's public life also included a term as Prohibition nominee for the Maryland House of Delegates, and once ran for Congress from Maryland.

His Affiliations
He was vice-president of the International Prohibition Federation of London; a member of the Executive Committee of the International Temperance Bureau, Switzerland; United States delegate to the Fourteenth Anti-Alcohol Congress in Italy; director of the Scientific Federation of Boston; editor of the New Republican and publicity manager of the Anti-Saloon League of America from 1916 to 1919.

His first wife was Lillie M. Trevitt of Lincoln, Nebraska. After her death, he married Mrs. May Stanley of Washington, D. Ci, in 1928.

Besides Mrs. Johnson, he is survived by two sons, Clifford of Washington, Maj. Clarence Johnson of Fort Benning, Ga.; a sister, Mrs. F. M. Skillman of Broken Bow, Neb.; a brother, Bert, of Binghamton; and two stepchildren, Howard Stanley of New York City and Mrs. Robert Nethercut of Rockford, Ill.

The body was removed to the Harry R. Rogers Funeral Home, Greene, where funeral services will be held at 2:30 p. m. tomorrow. Officiating will be the Rev. A. A. Bresee, pastor emeritus of the Zion Episcopal Church of Greene. Burial will be in nearby Sylvan Lawn Cemetery.

Finally, I found this column, written three years after Johnson's death. The story it tells is almost too funny to be true. One can imagine it being turned into a movie by Ethan and Joel Coen ("Raising Arizona", "Fargo", "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?").

Binghamton Press 1948

Matter of Fact

JULY 14 – I was tallking to an ex-bootlegger the other day. During Prohibition he had been on the staff of a still that turned out six gallons of alcohol a minute. The still was located, of all places, on a farm practically in Pussyfoot Johnson’s side yard.

Bootleggers always demonstrated something less than affection for Pussyfoot, but this ex-bootlegger, now a substantial business man, chuckled with fond remembrance.

"He was a great old guy," he said. "That place we had was right next door to his farm, and he never knew it. We ran into a little trouble once up there.

"One of my jobs was to buy oil for the still. Now, that still ran 24 hours a day and we'd use a lot of oil. The oil waste would run out of the barn, into a little creek and that stupid creek pretty soon was carrying a coat of oil down through the field.”

“That’s where the trouble started,” he said. “The farmers around there took one look at that creek and figured we had oil on the property. They asked us about it and we brushed ‘em off as well as we could. But they kept coming back with propositions. They offered to pool their money and help us make a test boring to see if the land did have oil deposits.

“Judas priest, we were in hot water. We had to look interested and at the same time convince them we didn’t want to make millions of dollars by discovering oil. They even had a town meeting. Things were getting hot.”

“Well,” he continued, all this was getting us a lot of attention we didn’t want. You don’t make Prohibition whiskey with the town board wandering around your place drilling for oil. It looked the the jig was up and the federal guys would be paying us a call any minute.

“So we started to take that still apart and look for another location. But the machinery was hotter than a second hand stove. We looked around desperately for a place to hide it, and one of the boys, who was a genius and should have gone far by now, came up with the answer.

"We hid that still in the barn of Pussyfoot Johnson, the world's greatest Prohibitionist, and he never knew he was doing us a favor until the state troopers stumbled across it one day.

“I always meant some day," he said, shaking his head sadly, “to call formally upon Jr Johnson and make his acquaintance. After all, we had been neighbors. But the old guy died and I never knew him. I bet I’d have liked him.”