Behind the Scenes of Appalachian Moonshining

Foxfire was a student-run magazine that focused on learning about and writing about the skills and traditions of Appalachian people.

They created a series of books that compiled some of their stories. The first of these, published in , includes a story on “Moonshining as a Fine Art.” Today I’m going to share a few brief excerpts that touch on the tax resistance aspects of Appalachian moonshining.

In the first mention, the story quotes from Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders. I’ll just go to the source and quote it directly and more extensively:

The people of Great Britain, irrespective of race, have always been ardent haters of excise laws. As Blackstone has curtly said, “From its original to the present time, the very name of excise has been odious to the people of England.” Dr. Johnson, in his dictionary, defined excise as “A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.” In , when the town of Edinburgh placed an additional impost on ale, the Covenanter Nicoll proclaimed it an act so impious that immediately “God frae the heavens declared his anger by sending thunder and unheard tempests and storms.” And we still recall Burns’ fiery invective:

  Thae curst horse-leeches o’ the Excise
  Wha mak the whisky stills their prize!
Haud up thy han’, Deil! ance, twice, thrice!
   There, seize the blinkers! [wretches]
An bake them up in brunstane pies
   For poor d⸺n’d drinkers.

Perhaps the chief reason, in England, for this outspoken detestation of the exciseman lay in the fact that the law empowered him to enter private houses and to search at his own discretion. In Scotland and Ireland there was another objection, even more valid in the eyes of the common people; excise struck heaviest at their national drink. Englishmen, at the time of which we are speaking, were content with their ale, not yet having contracted the habit of drinking gin; but Scotchmen and Irishmen preferred distilled spirits, manufactured, as a rule, out of their own barley, in small pot-stills (poteen means, literally, a little pot), the process being a common household art frequently practiced “every man for himself and his neighbor.” A tax, then, upon whiskey was as odious as a tax upon bread baked on the domestic hearth — if not, indeed, more so.

Now, there came a time when the taxes laid upon spirituous liquors had increased almost to the point of prohibition. This was done, not so much for the sake of revenue, as for the sake of the public health and morals. Englishmen had suddenly taken to drinking gin… Parliament, alarmed at the outlook, then passed an excise law of extreme severity. As always happens in such cases, the law promptly defeated its own purpose by breeding a spirit of defiance and resistance among the great body of the people.

The heavier the tax, the more widespread became the custom of illicit distilling. The law was evaded in two different ways, the method depending somewhat upon the relative loyalty of the people toward the Crown, and somewhat upon the character of the country, as to whether it was thickly or thinly settled.

In rich and populous districts, as around London and Edinburgh and Dublin, the common practice was to bribe government officials. A historian of that time declares that “Not infrequently the gauger could have laid his hands upon a dozen stills within as many hours; but he had cogent reasons for avoiding discoveries unless absolutely forced to make them. Where informations were laid, it was by no means uncommon for a trusty messenger to be dispatched from the residence of the gauger to give due notice, so that by daybreak next morning ‘the boys,’ with all their utensils, might disappear. Now and then they were required to leave an old and worn-out still in place of that which they were to remove, so that a report of actual seizure might be made. A good understanding was thus often kept up between the gaugers and the distillers; the former not infrequently received a ‘duty’ upon every still within his jurisdiction, and his cellars were never without ‘a sup of the best.’ …” Another writer says that “The amount of spirits produced by distillation avowedly illicit vastly exceeded that produced by the licensed distilleries. According to Wakefield, stills were erected even in the kitchens of baronets and in the stables of clergymen.”

Moonshining proper was confined to the poorer class of people, especially in Ireland, who lived in wild and sparsely settled regions, who were governed by a clan feeling stronger than their loyalty to the central Government, and who either could not afford to share their profits with the gaugers, or disdained to do so. Such people hid their little pot-stills in inaccessible places, as in the savage mountains of Connemara, where it was impossible, or at least hazardous, for the law to reach them. With arms in hand they defied the officers. “The hatred of the people toward the gauger was for a very long period intense. The very name invariably aroused the worst passions. To kill a gauger was considered anything but a crime; wherever it could be done with comparative safety, he was hunted to the death.”

Kephart goes on to draw the parallels here to what happened in the Whiskey Rebellion, when Scotch-Irish Americans in poor, rural areas rebelled against an excise tax imposed by an urban, English-descended elite. I’ve covered the Whiskey Rebellion in other posts, so I won’t reproduce his full summary here. He starts up his tale of excise tax resistance again at the Civil War:

In a tax of 20 cents a gallon was levied. Early in it rose to 60 cents. This cut off the industrial use of spirits, but did not affect its use as a beverage. In the latter part of the tax leaped to $1.50 a gallon, and the next year it reached the prohibitive figure of $2. The result of such excessive taxation was just what it had been in the old times, in Great Britain. In and around the centers of population there was wholesale fraud and collusion. “Efforts made to repress and punish frauds were of absolutely no account whatever… The current price at which distilled spirits were sold in the markets was everywhere recognized and commented on by the press as less than the amount of the tax, allowing nothing whatever for the cost of manufacture.”

Seeing that the outcome was disastrous from a fiscal point of view — the revenue from this source was falling to the vanishing point — Congress, in , cut down the tax to 50 cents a gallon. “Illicit distillation practically ceased the very hour that the new law came into operation; …the Government collected during the second year of the continuance of the act $3 for every one that was obtained during the last year of the $2 rate.”

But temptation proved too much for the government to resist, and it raised the tax to 70 and then to 90 cents by . This made moonshining attractive again. According to one report soon after “Investigations showed that the persons mainly concerned in the work of fraud were the Government officials rather than the distillers; and that a so-called ‘Whiskey Ring’… extended to Washington, and embraced within its sphere of influence and participation, not only local supervisors, collectors, inspectors, and storekeepers of the revenue, but even officers of the Internal Revenue Bureau, and probably, also, persons occupying confidential relations with the Executive of the Nation.”

In the Commissioner of Internal Revenue’s report for , he wrote, of the moonshiners:

The extent of these frauds would startle belief. I can safely say that during the past year not less than 3,000 illicit stills have been operated in the districts named. Those stills are of a producing capacity of 10 to 50 gallons a day. They are usually located at inaccessible points in the mountains, away from the ordinary lines of travel, and are generally owned by unlettered men of desperate character, armed and ready to resist the officers of the law. Where occasion requires, they come together in companies of from ten to fifty persons, gun in hand, to drive the officers out of the country. They resist as long as resistance is possible, and when their stills are seized, and they themselves are arrested, they plead ignorance and poverty and at once crave the pardon of the Government.

In certain portions of the country many citizens not guilty of violating the law themselves were in strong sympathy with those who did violate, and the officers in many instances found themselves unsupported in the execution of the laws by a healthy state of public opinion. The distillers — ever ready to forcibly resist the officers — were, I have no doubt, at times treated with harshness. This occasioned much indignation on the part of those who sympathized with the lawbreakers…

At this time not only is the United States defrauded of its revenues, and its officers openly resisted, but when arrests are made it often occurs that prisoners are rescued by mob violence, and officers and witnesses are often at night dragged from their homes and cruelly beaten, or waylaid and assassinated.

Kephart later relates this conversation:

One day I asked a mountain man, “How about the revenue officers? What sort of men are they?”

“Torn down scoundrels every one.”

“Oh come, now!”

“Yes, they are; plumb ornery — lock, stock, barrel, and gun stick.”

“Consider what they have to go through,” I remarked. “Like other detectives, they cannot secure evidence without practicing deception. Their occupation is hard and dangerous. Here in the mountains every man’s hand is against them.”

“Why is it agin them? We ain’t all blockaders; yet you can search these mountains through with a fine-tooth comb and you wunt find ary critter as has a good word to say for the revenue. The reason is ’t we know them men from ’way back; we know whut they uster do afore they jined the sarvice, and why they did it. Most of them were blockaders their own selves, till they saw how they could make more money turncoatin’. They use their authority to abuse people who ain’t never done nothin’ no-how. Dangerous business? Shucks! There’s Jim Cody, for a sample [I suppress the real name]; he was principally raised in this county, and I’ve knowed him from a boy. He’s been eight years in the government sarvice, and hain’t never been shot at once. But he’s killed a blockader–oh, yes! He arrested Tom Hayward, a chunk of a boy, that was scared most fitified and never resisted more’n a mouse. Cody, who was half drunk his-self, handcuffed tom, quarreled with him, and shot the boy dead while the handcuffs was on him! Tom’s relations sued Cody in the county court, but he carried the case to the federal court, and they were too poor to follow it up. I tell you, though, thar’s a settlement less ’n a thousand mile from the river whar Jim Cody ain’t never showed his nose sence. He knows there’d be another revenue ‘murdered.’”

“It must be ticklish business for an officer to prowl about the headwaters of these mountain streams, looking for ‘sign.’”

“Hell’s banjer! they don’t go prodjectin’ around looking for stills. They set at home on their hunkers till some feller comes and informs.”

“What class of people does the informing?”

“Oh sometimes hit’s some pizen old bum who’s been refused credit. Sometimes hit’s the wife or mother of some feller who’s drinkin’ too much. Then, agin, hit may be some rival blockader who aims to cut off the other feller’s trade, and, same time, divert suspicion from his own self. But ginerally hit’s jest somebody who has a gredge agin the blockader fer family reasons, or business reasons, and turns informer to git even.”

Kephart adds:

It is only fair to present this side of the case, because there is much truth in it, and because it goes far to explain the bitter feeling against revenue agents personally that is almost universal in the mountains, and is shared even by the mountain preachers.… There is no denying that there have been officers in the revenue service who, stung by the contempt in which they were held as renegades from their own people, have used their authority in settling private scores, and have inflicted grievous wrongs upon innocent people. This is matter of official record. in his report for , the Commissioner of Internal Revenue himself declared that “instances have been brought to my attention where numerous prosecutions have been instituted for the most trivial violations of law, and the arrested parties taken long distances and subjected to great inconveniences and expense, not in the interest of the government, but apparently for no other reason than to make costs.”

An ex-united states commissioner told me that, in the darkest days of this struggle, when he himself was obliged to buckle on a revolver every time he put his head out of doors, he had more trouble with his own deputies than with the moonshiners. “As a rule, none but desperadoes could could be hired for the service,” he declared. “For example one time my deputy in your county wanted some liquor for himself. He and two of his cronies crossed the line into South Carolina, raided a still, and got beastly drunk. The blockaders bushwhacked them, riddled a mule and its rider with buckshot, and shot my deputy through the brain with a squirrel rifle. We went over there and buried the victims a few day later, during a snow storm, working with our holster flaps unbuttoned. I had all that work and worry simply because that rascal was bent on getting drunk without paying for it. However it cost him his life.”

Kephart then quotes from the report of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Excerpts:

In the mountain regions of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, and in some portions of Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, the illicit manufacture of spirits has been carried on for a number of years, and I am satisfied that the annual loss to the government from this source has been very nearly, if not quite, equal to the annual appropriation for the collection of the internal revenue tax throughout the whole country.…

This nefarious business has been carried on, as a rule, by a determined set of men, who in their various neighborhoods league together for defense against the officers of the law, and at a given signal are ready to come together with arms in their hands to drive the officers of internal revenue out of the country.

As illustrating the extraordinary resistance which the officers have had on some occasions to encounter, I refer to occurrences in Overton County, Tennessee, in August last, where a posse of eleven internal revenue officers, who had stopped at a farmer’s house for the night, were attacked by a band of armed illicit distillers, who kept up a constant fusillade during the whole night, and whose force was augmented during the following day till it numbered nearly two hundred men. The officers took shelter in a log house, which served them as a fort, returning the fire as best they could, and were there besieged for forty-two hours, three of their party being shot — one through the body, one through the arm, and one in the face. I directed a strong force to go to their relief, but in the meantime, through the intervention of citizens, the besieged officers were permitted to retire, taking their wounded with them, and without surrendering their arms.

“The real trouble,” Kephart notes, “was that public sentiment in the mountains was almost unanimously in the moonshiners’ favor.”

Leading citizens were either directly interested in the traffic, or were in active sympathy with the distillers. “In some cases,” said the Commissioner, “State officers including judges on the bench have sided with the illicit distillers and have encouraged the use of the State courts for the prosecution of the officers of the United States upon all sorts of charges, with the evident purpose of obstructing the enforcement of the laws of the United States… I regret to have to record the fact that when the officers of the United States have been shot down from ambuscade, in cold blood, as a rule no efforts have been made on the part of the State officers to arrest the murderers; but in cases where the officers of the United States have been engaged in enforcement of the laws, and have unfortunately come in conflict with the violators of the law, and homicides have occurred, active steps have been at once taken for the arrest of such officers, and nothing would be left undone by the State authorities to bring them to trial and punishment.”

Increased enforcement efforts followed, which showed signs of success until the government got greedy and raised the tax rate again. Then the Baptists & Bootleggers alliance began: the Baptists began to prohibit legal alcohol in the South, and the Bootleggers absorbed the profits from the illegal trade. And there things stood at the time of the publication of Kephart’s book.

Back to Foxfire:

It’s different now? Clearly not, as seen in an article in the Atlanta Constitution on the interim report of the Governor’s Crime Commission. In , there were around 750 illicit stills in Georgia, operating at a mash capacity of over 750,000 gallons. This amounts to approximately $52 million in annual federal excise tax fraud, and almost $19 million in state fraud. The article quotes the Commission, placing the blame for Georgia’s ranking as the leading producer of moonshine in the United States on “corrupt officials, a misinformed and sometimes uninterested public, and the climate created by Georgia’s 129 dry counties.”

Moonshiners tended to despise the “Feds” or “Revenuers,” but to have more of a friendly rivalry with the local sheriffs. This was in part due to familiarity and to a shared culture, and to a mutual sense that they were each just doing their jobs and trying to get by. One moonshiner recalls:

[T]here was another sheriff whom he often encountered on the streets of a little town in North Carolina. The sheriff would always come up to him, greet him, and ask him what he was up to down in Georgia. The other would usually reply, “Oh, not much goin’ on down there.” If, however, the sheriff had gotten a report about one of his stills, he would follow that reply with, “I hear you’re farmin’ in th’ woods.” The moonshiner would know that that was a warning for him to watch his step. Despite the warning, the sheriff was able to catch him and cut down his stills on three separate occasions, but they remained fast friends.

We talked to several retired sheriffs… and they agreed completely. Most of the blockaders that they had encountered ran small operations, and the whiskey they made was in the best traditions of cleanliness. Besides, times were hard, and a man had to eat. Despite the fact that the sheriffs at that time were paid on the “fee system,” and thus their entire salary depended on the number of arrests they made, they did not go out looking for stills. They made arrests only after reports had been turned in voluntarily by informers…

Foxfire gives more details on this “fee system:”

[T]he local officials got $10 just for a still. If they were able to catch the operator also, they received between $40 and $60. Extra money was given them if they brought in witnesses who could help convict. For the blockader’s car, they received approximately half the price the blockader had to pay to get it back which was usually the cash value of the car. And they were allowed to keep any money they could get from selling the copper out of which the still had been made.

The number of stills actually uncovered varied drastically from month to month. Some month, twenty or thirty would be caught and “cut down,” but other months, none at all would be discovered. Hardest of all was catching the men actually making a run. In almost all cases they had lookouts who were armed with bells, horns, or rifles, and who invariably sounded the alarm at the first sign of danger. By the time the sheriff could get to the still, the men would have all fled into the surrounding hills. We were told about one man who was paid a hundred dollars a week just as sentry. Another still was guarded by the operator’s wife who simply sat in her home with a walkie-talkie that connected her with her husband while he was working. The still, which sat against a cliff behind the house, could only be reached by one route, and that route passed directly in front of the house. The operator was never caught at work.

Foxfire then goes on to relate various techniques for keeping a still well-hidden, and the countermeasures the revenuers took to find the hidden stills, with some interesting anecdotes along the way. The magazine then describes how stills are constructed (with some useful illustrations), and gives a recipe of the process from beginning to end, including distribution and sales.