Moonshine’s Less Romantic Glow

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When one reads about illicit liquor in the U.S. back country, cities and towns not always excepted, many accounts are wreathed in an indulgent, even romantic tone. Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913 and iscussed in my last post, is a good example.

Generally, sociological and ethnological treatments post-1900 are more or less sympathetic, reflecting I think a more nuanced understanding of marginal cultures than existed earlier.

Before 1900, there was a tendency to speak more superficially of the mountain people, that they were primitive, impoverished, hidebound. This lead to a condemnation of their ways including the illicit distilling aspect.

To be sure, the romantic idea of the outlaw stillman has always existed but it’s more a literary or poetic device in contrast to narrative works dealing with sociology or culture. Robbie Burns’s classic line, “freedom and whisky gang together” is an illustration of the timeless poetic approach.

In the 1800s few public voices were understanding of the illegal whiskey culture. There were two types of anti-moonshine literature. One was temperance inspired while the other focused on law and how best to uproot defiance of authority and the legal writ.

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The 1881 tome  After The Moonshiners is in the latter class and was written by a former Internal Revenue agent. He spent years in the south combatting illicit stills. Many of the conflicts were violent. Accounts of this type often stress that moonshiners frequently were petty criminals in general; counterfeiting and dealing in stolen goods were some of the other malfeasance they dealt in.

The book points out too the toll excessive alcohol use often meant for families, for example that men would trade corn meal with the stillmen for whiskey when their families were going hungry.

Some contests between moonshiners and the law developed into pitched battles that sound every bit like a modern firefight. Agents might be armed with the early Springfield rifle whose “ball” had a range of 1000 yards. They also used “Navy revolvers”, or Colts, valued for their butt-ends as much as their cartridge capacity. Agents tried to arrest their quarry peacefully but the resistance sometimes encountered could be fierce. Many agents were killed or wounded chasing the moonshine outlaws up and down a quite-literal hill and vale.

Oddly, acquiescence in arrest was sometimes a ‘shiner strategy. In one district moonshiners would serially inform on and testify against a peer, he would take the hit and spend some jail time. After release he would inform on another, and so on. A spell in jail sounds like something few would voluntarily incur but as one author put it the “hostage”, or convict, often ate better than he did at home and had a chance to see the town (where the court house was) before being imprisoned. Many arrested thought it a good deal!

The temperance books of course focused on the moral and physical ruin liquor often caused. While today there is tendency today to think this was exaggerated some of the lurid stories were obviously based in fact.

Alcohol always did exact a certain toll, and innocents were hurt by it and still are. That can’t be denied, but nonetheless the religious fervour of these books should factored. Some of the most interesting literature in this vein was written by ex-moonshiners who became true believers. Certainly from the latter source, one knows their accounts of whiskey-making should be trusted.

Note re images: The first image above was sourced here and is in the public domain. The second, sourced here, has the following attribution and permitted use: By Hmaag (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons. Both images are believed available for educational or cultural use. All feedback welcomed.

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