Moonshine’s Less Romantic Glow


When one reads about illicit liquor in the U.S. back country (cities and towns not always excepted), many accounts are wreathed in an understanding, even romantic tone. Our Southern Highlanders published in 1913, which I discussed in my last post, is a good example. Generally, sociological and ethnological treatments after 1900 are more or less sympathetic, reflecting I think a more nuanced understanding of marginal cultures than existed in the 1800s and earlier.

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

To be sure, the romantic idea of the outlaw stillman has always existed but more in creative writing, especially poetry, than narrative works dealing with sociology or culture. Robbie Burns’s classic line, “freedom and whisky gang together” is an illustration of the old poetic approach.

But in the 1800s, few non-artist voices could be found who were understanding of the illegal whiskey culture. There were two types of anti-moonshine literature. One was temperance inspired, the other focused more on law and how best to obviate all defiance of authority and legal writ.


The 1881 tome  After The Moonshiners is in the latter class, it is by a former Internal Revenue agent who spent years in the south combatting the 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 crimes they committed.

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 firefight. Agents might be armed with the early Springfield rifle whose “ball” had a range of 1000 yards. They also used “Navy revolvers”, Colts, valued for their butt-ends as much as their cartridge capacity. Agents tried to arrest their quarry peacefully but resistance was sometimes encountered and could be fierce. Many agents were killed and wounded chasing the moonshine outlaws up and down a quite literal hill and vale.

Oddly, acquiescence in arrest was sometimes a strategy. In one area, moonshiners would serially inform on and testify against a peer, he would take the hit and spend some jail time, and when released, join the game and inform on another, and so on. A spell in jail sounds like something few would voluntarily encourage but as one writer put it, the “hostage” (the convicted one) often ate better in jail than he did at home and had a chance to see the town (where the court house was) before being imprisoned, which many of the arrested thought a good deal!

The temperance books of course focus on the moral and physical ruin liquor often caused, and while today there is tendency to think this was exaggerated, some of the stories were obviously true. Alcohol always did exact a certain price in society, and innocents were hurt by it and still are. That can’t be denied, but still the religious fervour of these books has to factored when considering what they argue. 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 are to 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 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons. Both images are believed available for educational or cultural use. All feedback welcomed.

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