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“BLOCKADERS” AND “THE REVENUE”
Little or no attention seems to have been paid to the moonshining that was going on in the mountains until about 1876, owing, no doubt, to the larger game in registered distilleries. In his report for 1876-7, the new Commissioner of Internal Revenue called attention to the illicit manufacture of whiskey in the mountain counties of the South, and urged vigorous measures for its immediate suppression.
“The extent of these frauds,” said he, “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.
“These frauds had become so
open and notorious ... that I became satisfied extraordinary measures would be
required to break them up. Collectors were ... each authorized to employ from
five to ten additional deputies.... Experienced revenue agents of perseverance
and courage were assigned to duty to co-operate with the collectors.
“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....”
recommended, in his report, the passage of a law “expressly providing that
where a person is caught in the act of operating an illicit still, he may be
arrested without warrant.” In conclusion, he said: “At this time not only is
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 onery — 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’ nohow. 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.”
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. It should be understood, too, in this connection, that the southern highlander has a long memory. Slights and injuries suffered by one generation have their scars transmitted to sons and grandsons. 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 1882, 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 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
“They were not all like that,
though,” continued the Judge. “Now and then there would turn up in the service
a man who had entered it from honorable motives, and whose conduct, at all
times, was chivalric and clean. There was Hersh Harkins, for example, now
United States Collector at
“Tell me of one,” I urged.
“Well, one time there was a man named Jenks [that was not the real name, but it will serve], who was too rich to be suspected of blockading. Jenks had a license to make brandy, but not whiskey. One day Harkins was visiting his still-house, and he noticed something dubious. Thrusting his arm down through the peach pomace, he found mash underneath. It is a penitentiary offense to mix the two. Harkins procured more evidence from Jenk’s distiller, and hauled the offender before me. The trial was conducted in a hotel room, full of people. We were not very formal in those days — kept our hats on. There was no thought of Jenks trying to run away, for he was well-to-do; so he was given the freedom of the room. He paced nervously back and forth between my desk and the door, growing more restless as the trial proceeded. A clerk sat near me, writing a bond, and Harkins stood behind him dictating its terms. Suddenly Jenks wheeled around, near the door, jerked out a navy revolver, fired and bolted. It is hard to say whom he shot at, for the bullet went through Harkins’s coat, through the clerk’s hat, and through my hat, too. I ducked under the desk to get my revolver, and Harkins, thinking that I was killed, sprang to pick me up; but I came up firing. It was wonderful how soon that room was emptied! Harkins took after the fugitive, and had a wild chase; but he got him.”
It was my good fortune, a
few evenings later, to have a long talk with Mr. Harkins himself. He was a fine
giant of a man, standing six feet three, and symmetrically proportioned. No one
looking into his kindly gray eyes would suspect that
they belonged to one who had seen as hard and dangerous service in the Revenue
Department as any man then living. In an easy, unassuming way he told me many
stories of his own adventures among moonshiners and counterfeiters in the old
days when these southern
There was a man on
Breakfast was ready in White’s home when the mob arrived. Harkins sent Merrill in to breakfast, and himself went out on the porch, carbine in hand, to stand off the thoroughly angry gang. White also went out, beseeching the mob to disperse. Matters looked squally for a time, but it was finally agreed that Lafonte should give bond, whereupon he was promptly released.
The two officers then finished their breakfast, and shortly set out for the Blue House, an abandoned schoolhouse about forty miles distant, where the trial was to be conducted. They were followed at a distance by Lafonte’s half-drunken champions, who were by no means placated, owing to the fact that the Blue House was in a neighborhood friendly to the Government. Harkins and Merrill soon dodged to one side in the forest, until the rioters had passed them, and then proceeded leisurely in the rear. On their way to the Blue House they cut up four stills, destroyed a furnace, and made several arrests.
A Mountain Home
The next day three
There were thirteen men in the moonshiners’ mob. They surrounded the house, and immediately began shooting in through the windows. The officers returned the fire, but a hard-pine ceiling in the room caused the bullets of the attacking party to ricochet in all directions and made the place untenable. Harkins and his comrade sprang out through the windows, but from opposite sides of the house. Merrill ran, but Harkins grappled with the men nearest to him, and in a moment the whole force of desperadoes was upon him like a swarm of bees. Unfortunately, the brave fellow had left his carbine at the house where he had spent the night. His only weapon was a revolver that had only three cartridges in the cylinder. Each of these shots dropped a man; but there were ten men left. Nothing but Harkins’s gigantic strength saved him, that day, from immediate death. His long arms tackled three or four men at once, and all went down in a bunch. Others fell on top, as in a college cane-rush. There had been swift shooting, hitherto, but now it was mostly knife and pistol-butt. It is almost incredible, but it is true, that this extraordinary battle waged for three-quarters of an hour. At its end only one man faced the now thoroughly exhausted and badly wounded, but indomitable officer. At this fellow, Harkins hurled his pistol; it struck him in the forehead, and the battle was won.
A thick overcoat that Mr. Harkins wore was pierced by twenty-one bullets, seven of which penetrated his body. He received, besides, three or four bad knife-wounds in his back, and he was literally dripping blood from head to foot.
This tragedy had an almost comic sequel. After all danger had passed, a sheriff appeared on the scene, who placed, not the mob-leader, but the Federal officer under arrest. Harkins left a guard over the three men whom he had shot, and submitted to arrest, but demanded that he be taken to the farmhouse where he had left his horse. This the sheriff actually refused to permit, although Harkins was evidently past all possibility of continuing far afoot. Disgusted at such imbecility, the deputy stalked away from the sheriff, leaving the latter with his mouth open, and utterly obsessed.
A short distance up the road, Harkins met a countryman mounted on a sorry old mule. “Loan me that mule for half an hour,” he requested; “you see, I can walk no further.” But the fellow, scared out of his wits by the spectacle of a man in such desperate plight, refused to accommodate him.
“Get down off that mule, or I’ll break your neck!”
The mule changed riders.
When the story was finished, I asked Mr. Harkins if it was true, as the reading public generally believes, that moonshiners prefer death to capture. “Do they shoot a revenue officer at sight?”
The answer was terse:
“They used to shoot; nowadays they run.”
We have come to the time when our Government began in dead earnest to fight the moonshiners and endeavor to suppress their traffic. It was in 1877. To give a fair picture, from the official standpoint, of the state of affairs at that time, I will quote from the report of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue for the year 1877-78:
“It is with extreme regret,” he said, “I find it my duty to report the great difficulties that have been and still are encountered in many of the Southern States in the enforcement of the laws. 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. In the regions of country named there are known to exist about 5,000 copper stills, many of which at certain times are lawfully used in the production of brandy from apples and peaches, but I am convinced that a large portion of these stills have been and are used in the illicit manufacture of spirits. Part of the spirits thus produced has been consumed in the immediate neighborhood; the balance has been distributed and sold throughout the adjacent districts.
“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.
“So formidable has been the resistance to the enforcement of the laws that in the districts of 5th Virginia, 6th North Carolina, South Carolina, 2d and 5th Tennessee, 2d West Virginia, Arkansas, and Kentucky, I have found it necessary to supply the collectors with breech-loading carbines. In these districts, and also in the States of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, in the 4th district of North Carolina, and in the 2d and 5th districts of Missouri, I have authorized the organization of posses ranging from five to sixty in number, to aid in making seizures and arrests, the object being to have a force sufficiently strong to deter resistance if possible, and, if need be, to overcome it.”
The intention of the Revenue Department was certainly not to inflame the mountain people, but to treat them as considerately as possible. And yet, the policy of “be to their faults a little blind” had borne no other fruit than to strengthen the combinations of moonshiners and their sympathizers to such a degree that they could set the ordinary force of officers at defiance, and things had come to such a pass that men of wide experience in the revenue service had reached the conclusion that “the fraud of illicit distilling was an evil too firmly established to be uprooted, and that it must be endured.”
The real trouble 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
There is no question but that this statement of the Commissioner was a fair presentation of facts; but when he went on to expose the root of the evil, the underlying sentiment that made, and still makes, illicit distilling popular among our mountaineers, I think that he was singularly at fault. This was his explanation — the only one that I have found in all the reports of the Department from 1870 to 1904:
“Much of the opposition to the enforcement of the internal revenue laws [he does not say all, but offers no other theory] is properly attributable to a latent feeling of hostility to the government and laws of the United States still prevailing in the breasts of a portion of the people of these districts, and in consequence of this condition of things the officers of the United States have often been treated very much as though they were emissaries from some foreign country quartered upon the people for the collection of tribute.”
This shows an out-and-out
misunderstanding of the character of the mountain people, their history, their
proclivities, and the circumstances of their lives. The southern mountaineers,
as a class, have been remarkably loyal to the
The vigorous campaign of
1877 bore such fruit that, in the following year, the Commissioner was able to
report: “We virtually have peaceable possession of the districts of 4th and 5th
In January, 1880, a
combined movement by armed bodies of internal revenue officers was made from
As a matter of fact, the number of arrests per annum, which hitherto had ranged from 1,000 to 3,000, now dropped off considerably, and the casualties in the service became few and far between. But, in 1894, Congress increased the tax on spirits from the old 90 cents figure to $1.10 a gallon. The effect was almost instantaneous. We have no means of learning how many new moonshine stills were set up, but we do know that the number of seizures doubled and trebled, and that bloodshed proportionally increased. Again the complaint went out that “justice was frequently defeated,” even in cases of conviction, by failure to visit adequate punishment upon the offenders. It is, to-day, a notorious fact that our blockaders dread their own State courts far more than they do the Federal courts, because the punishment for selling liquor in the mountain counties is surer to follow conviction than is the penalty for violating Federal law. The latter is severe enough, if it were enforced; for defrauding, or attempting to defraud, the United States of the tax on spirits, the law prescribes forfeiture of the distillery and apparatus, and of all spirits and raw materials, besides a fine of not less than $500 nor more than $5,000, and imprisonment for not less than six months nor longer than three years. I am not able to say what percentage of arrests is followed by conviction, nor how many convicted persons suffer the full penalty of the law. I only know that public opinion in the mountains did not consider an arrest, or even a conviction, by the Federal authorities, as a very serious matter during the period from 1880 up to the past two or three years, and little resistance was offered by blockaders when captured.
Recently, however, a new factor has entered the moonshining problem and profoundly altered it: the South has gone “dry.”
One might have expected that prohibition would be bitterly opposed in Appalachia, in view of the fact that here the old-fashioned principle still prevails, in practice, that moderate drinking is neither a sin nor a disgrace, and that a man has the same right to make his own whiskey as his own soup, if he chooses. Undoubtedly those who fight the liquor traffic on purely moral grounds are a small minority in the mountains. But the blockaders themselves are glad to see prohibitory laws enforced to the letter, so far as saloons and registered distilleries are concerned, and the drinking public prefer their native product from both patriotic and gustatory motives. Such a combination is irresistible.
When pure “blockade” of normal strength sold as cheaply as it did before prohibition there was no great profit in it, all risks and expenses considered. But to-day, even with interstate shipments of liquors to consumers, a gallon of “blockade” will be watered to half-strength, then fortified with cologne spirits or other abominations, and peddled out by bootleggers, at $1.50 a quart, in villages and lumber camps where somebody always is thirsty and can find the coin to assuage it. Thus, amid a poverty-stricken class of mountaineers, the temptation to run a secret still, and adulterate the output, inflames and spreads.
In any case, the fact is that blockading as a business conducted in armed defiance of the law is increasing by leaps and bounds since the mountain region went “dry.” The profits to-day are much greater than before, because liquor is harder to get, in country districts, and consumers will pay higher prices without question.
Correspondingly, the risks are greater than ever. Arrests have increased rapidly, and so have mortal combats between officers and outlaws. Blockading has returned to much the same status described (as previously quoted) by our Commissioner of Internal Revenue in 1876. I have not seen recent revenue reports, but I do not need to; for the war between officers and moonshiners is so close to us that we almost live within gun-crack of it. If Mr. Harkins were alive to-day, he would say: “They used to shoot — and they have taken it up again.”
Observe, please, that this is no argument for or against prohibition. That is not my business. As a descriptive writer it is my duty to collect facts, whether pleasant or unpleasant, regardless of my own or anyone else’s bias, and present them in orderly sequence. It is for the reader to deduce his own conclusions, and with them I have nothing at all to do.
I have given in brief the history of illicit distilling because we must consider it before we can grasp firmly the basic fact that this is not so much a moral as an economic problem. Men do not make whiskey in secret, at the peril of imprisonment or death, because they are outlaws by nature nor from any other kind of depravity, but simply and solely because it looks like “easy money to poor folks.”
If I may voice my own
opinion of a working remedy, it is this: Give the mountaineers a lawful chance
to make decent livings where they are. This means, first of all, decent roads
whereby to market their farm produce without losing all profit in cost of
transportation. The first problem of Appalachia to-day is the very same problem
as that of western