What’s Cooking Wednesdays: Crimes against butter

Charles Wille was sent to the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth in 1915 for crimes against butter. (ARC 596115)

The Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, has housed some famous and infamous inmates, such as “Birdman of Alcatraz” Robert Stroud and Machine Gun Kelly. In the early 20th century, the prison took in some less likely felons—violators of the Oleomargarine Act of 1886.

How did trafficking in this popular butter substitute become a Federal offense? Well, almost immediately after New York’s U.S. Dairy Company began production of “artificial butter” in 1871, regulation began. Dairy interests pushed Congress to pass the 1886 act, which imposed a two-cent tax (per pound) on margarine and also required manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers of margarine to obtain margarine licenses.

Joseph Wirth (along with his brother, Toney) arrived at Leavenworth on March 25, 1911. Both had been convicted of illegal oleomargarine commerce.
John L. McMonigle was incarcerated twice for oleo violations. His first stay was in 1913; in 1915, he returned to Leavenworth from St. Louis. (ARC 596101)

By 1902, 32 states had bans on coloring margarine yellow to make it look more like butter. That same year, Congress increased the tax to 10 cents a pound for colored margarine but imposed a lesser tax of a quarter of one cent per pound on the uncolored stuff.

The exhibit “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” includes the story of felons convicted of violating sections of the Oleomargarine Act and sent to the Federal prison at Leavenworth. Some tried to pass the margarine off as butter; others tried to evade the tax by reusing tax stamps again and again.

Consumers colored their own margarine with yellow food coloring into the 1940s. The federal margarine tax system came to an end in 1951. In 1967, dairy state Wisconsin was the last state to repeal the restrictions on the sale, coloration, and/or manufacture of margarine.

The prison records of Wirth, McMonigle, and Wille are in the Records of the Bureau of Prisons, Record Group 129, at the National Archives at Kansas City, Missouri.

Originally published in the November 2004 issue of Prologue magazine.

2 thoughts on “What’s Cooking Wednesdays: Crimes against butter

  1. As a youth, my Dad traveled to Illinois to buy oleo that was illegal to obtain to Wisconsin. It was uncolored and on the way home he had to mix the oleo with a yellow gel capsule that was packaged inside. One would knead it like bread and by the time they arrived back home the package was yellow like butter. Oleo was contraband for sale in Wisconsin, just like alcohol during prohibition!

  2. This history is so interesting. My grandmother & mother talked about having to add color to oleo. I never knew this background.

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