If Andrew Volstead smiled much, it was hard to notice beneath his bushy mustache. Google his image and it’s one scowl after another beneath piercing eyes.

Even his oversized portrait made entirely of beer bottle caps features a dour sourpuss of a face. It hangs from the back wall at the Freehouse brew pub in the North Loop of Minneapolis.

“All during his life he declined to be interviewed or photographed and refused numerous offers to write about his life,” according to the 10-term congressman’s 1947 obituary.

When you author the 1919 legislation that prohibited the making or selling of alcohol (commonly called the Volstead Act) — only to have it repealed 14 years later — history tends to frown on you. No wonder he always seemed so grouchy.

But this story isn’t intended to rehash the wet-dry debate that became Volstead’s loser legacy. No, it’s time for the nearly forgotten Volstead prequel, which centered around the 1901 murder trial of a prominent Granite Falls dentist who shot a gambler after a long night of poker.

The son of Norwegian immigrants, Volstead was born near Kenyon in Goodhue County on Halloween, 1860. He attended nearby St. Olaf College and the Decorah Institute in Iowa before teaching school and joining the bar in 1883.

He briefly moved to Wisconsin before settling in Granite Falls. He became the president of the school board, the city attorney and even the mayor before joining the U.S. House for 20 years — rising to chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee.

Rewind to the last day of March, 1901, a Sunday. A couple of unscrupulous card sharks from St. Paul — William (Irish Lord) Lenard and his sidekick, Frank Mullane — had made their way up to Granite Falls and put the word out that they were looking for a poker game.

Dr. Samuel Wintner, a prominent Granite Falls dentist, offered to both play and host the game.

“The players began to congregate about 2:30 in the afternoon, making their way to the doctor’s office rather stealthily, as gambling was not recognized as a universal blessing at Granite Falls,” journalist Merle Potter wrote in a 1931 book.

Amid the whiskey and cigar smoke, the game went back and forth until 2 a.m. It was now April 1 and, despite the booze, the dentist was no fool. He noticed he’d been dealt two kings — seven times in a row. Each time, Lenard or Mullane beat him with pairs of aces.

The last time, Wintner bet without looking at his cards — knowing he’d have two kings. When he lost again, he exploded and called the Irish Lord a cheater. He demanded Lenard return the $200 he’d won — roughly $5,000 in today’s dollars. The request prompted only a smirk and Lenard called him a Welsher.

The dentist left briefly and returned with a loaded pistol, pointing at the card player’s head. Some accounts say Lenard called his bluff. Others say he tried to escape but the dentist fired twice and knocked Lenard’s teeth out with the butt handle of his gun. The Irish Lord crashed through the plate-glass door and tumbled down the stairs and into the street, dead.

That set up what was the trial of the last century — although, granted, it was still 1901. Volstead, the 41-year-old Yellow Medicine County prosecutor, had what seemed like an open-and-shut case.

But the dentist hired a defense attorney named Frank Mellen Nye from Minneapolis. Within six years, Nye would join his fellow Republican, Volstead, in Congress before serving as a Hennepin County judge in the 1920s.

First, though, they faced off in court. Nye brought in a series of St. Paul gamblers to testify about how Lenard and Mullane were well-known cheaters who’d amassed $15,000 before sneaking out of the Twin Cities.

Then, there was the evidence: Marked decks and a mirror ring were found among Lenard’s possessions.

People have the right to prevent a felony, Nye argued, such as when someone tries to take your money. Volstead and Nye jousted throughout the trial, delivering riveting orations.

The jurors got the case on a Saturday night. Before midnight, they returned a “not guilty” verdict. The Granite Falls Journal printed a special edition. The town was stunned and Volstead was skewered for losing such a slam-dunk case.

It wouldn’t be the last time he was vilified. He lost his 1922 re-election bid but appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1926. Prohibition would be repealed seven years later.

Through it all, Granite Falls remains proud of its longtime prosecutor and congressman who had championed anti-lynching legislation and helped farm cooperatives operate without worrying about antitrust provisions. It named a high school football field after him. And the Andrew Volstead House, complete with his law books and old trunks, is open for tours by appointment.

 

Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com