This is another installment in a series of articles that Historic City News has been fortunate to receive permission to publish; taken from a collection of nostalgic memories recorded by Geoffrey B. Dobson.
Moonshine and Gopher Stew
(Part three of four-part Series)
Part III A Cat and Mouse Game
By Geoff Dobson
Hoss Munucy had been arrested and found guilty of violating federal liquor laws. He had been found with a teaspoonful of moonshine as well as a few loose grains of sugar and rye grain in his 1950 Chevy. In the 1950’s, enforcement of the liquor laws was predominantly by federal revenue agents.
Efforts at taxing liquor went back to the early days of the Republic when Congress in order to pay the left-over cost of the Revolution taxed whiskey. Resistance to paying the tax resulted in the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Federal troops had to be sent into Pennsylvania to put down the rebellion. In Ireland, efforts to collect a tax imposed by Parliament to pay for the Napoleonic Wars was also a futility. In 1842, in a debate over the imposition of a tax on Ireland to pay for the possibility of a general European War, the member for London noted that the collection of such a tax would be “as not less futile than an attempt to tax moonshine.” Whether the right honourable member meant moonshine as referring to illicit spirits may be subject to debate. In those days, “moonshine” had two meanings, nonsense and illegal liquor. The term derived its name from smugglers to plied their trade at night. Irish peasants and their cousins in the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia shared a common attitude. The concept of paying taxes on one’s own product seemed almost immoral. Why should one pay taxes to Parliament on grain that one grew and merely converted to another form? It would be like growing grain, milling it to make flour, from the flour baking bread, and then paying the government for the privilege.
Local sheriffs rarely enforced moonshine laws. Sheriffs were elected and thus understood local conditions and mores. As one old-time law enforcement officer whose cousins were in the moonshine business told the writer, “back then making moonshine was not regarded as disgraceful – unless, of course, you made bad whiskey.”
Over in Putnam County, Bill Maxwell of the Gainesville Sun wrote of his Uncle Charlie who ran some five stills. Some were hidden behind blinds made of Spanish moss, others in fern sheds. On one occasion an inmate escaped from the local correctional institute. Charlie was mixing yeast into the batch when a pursuing posse burst upon the scene. “Down on your stomachs,” yelled one of the dog handlers. But the officer in charge laughed at the dog handler , “Hell, that’s just old Charlie,” he said. “He ain’t no convict — unless we arrest him for making stump juice.
Charlie, you seen any convicts around here?”
No sir,” Uncle Charlie said, “I ain’t seen no convict. I don’t need no trouble with convicts and stuff like that.”
You be careful now, Charlie. That pot might blow up in your face.”
Other sheriffs themselves may have engaged in moonshining. William E. “Pogey Bill,” Collins, sheriff of Okeechobee County, got into trouble when during Prohibition he helped ship illicit hootch to Baldwin in railcars with the booze hidden under lumber and turpentine.
In 1955, Levy County, Sheriff George Truitt Robbins was convicted of accepting bribes from moonshiners for protection. He advised local moonshiners when it was time to move their stills. When a still was found by federal revenue agents and under surveillance, the Sheriff warned the operators by leaving a red string or flag as a danger sign. The operation was financed by a local Ford dealer, quarter-horse rancher, and road contractor. The Ford dealer was found “not guilty.” He allegedly had been entrapped into financing the operation. Some don’t learn their lessons from runs-in with the law. Forty-nine years later, for double and triple billing the Department of Transportation, his son and contracting company were found guilty of grand larceny and at age 83, he was placed on 30 years probation. He would have come off probation at age 113, but he never made it. He died less than a year later.
Some sheriffs would, of course, prove that they were enforcing the law, by making a show of raiding a still. Nobody was ever at the still when it was raided. Adequate warning would be given in advance. In one North Florida county, a high school student told the teacher that there was no moonshine problem in the county, the sheriff when he was conducting a raid, always blew his siren on the way to the still. Indeed, the son of an individual who constructed stills on the side for extra cash, indicated to the writer that some stills were “fake” stills designed for the sheriff to find. The sheriff, rather than busting up the still at the scene as federal agents were wont to do, would load the still up on a truck and bring it into town to prove that he was enforcing the law.
It was necessary for the federal revenuers to actually catch moonshiners in possession of the still or be in possession of the illicit liquor. Thus, there was an unwritten rule that if the moonshiner got away from the still “fair and square,” he would not be arrested away from the still unless he was in actual possession of the hootch. E. R. Raby of the state beverage division explained:
“We didn’t bring them into court unless we caught them right there at the still. As long as they could run and get away, we wouldn’t bring them to trial. But if you caught them, you didn’t even have to handcuff them. They’d follow you in.”
In Baker County, one teenage moonshiner made his escape by swimming across the St. Mary’s River. To reduce weight on the swim, he had to shed his clothing. Thus, he had to walk home au naturale. To conduct a search of premises or a vehicle, the revenue agents had to have “probable cause.” Everybody pretty much “knew” who was making shine, but proving it or having probable cause was a different matter. Thus, there ensued a cat and mouse game between the revenue agents and the moonshiners. Some agents therefore developed an extraordinary sense of smell and hearing, a sense, which if their testimony was believed, would have put the best hunting dog to shame. One testified that he could smell the shine even though the barrel was topped off with kerosene. Another, testified that he had probable cause to search a vehicle. He could hear the booze sloshing around in the trunk. To stop the searching of his car, one moonshiner left a nasty surprise in the trunk. When the revenuers opened the trunk, they found a four-foot rattlesnake. The moonshiner’s car was never stopped again.
Undercover agents tried to worm their way into a suspected moonshiner’s confidence. They would focus on persons not engaged in moonshining themselves, but who provided goods or services necessary to the operation. Large purchases of sugar would excite the interest of the revenuers. One St. Johns County moonshiner out on S.R. 16 was caught because of his purchases of sugar. Others would buy the sugar directly off ships coming from Cuba to avoid the suspicious buys. In St. Johns County, one undercover agent worked his way into the confidence of a machinist for the railroad. A good still must be made of copper. [Other metals will give an off-taste to the whiskey. Some unethical moonshiners might use an old automobile radiator as a condenser. That would however create a risk of lead poisoning.] The still must have machined fittings between the pot and the cap arm so that after the mash is made, the steam will not escape. Railroad machinists did not have a good income. To put food on the table, outside income was necessary. Making stills in a shed behind the house and taking on other metal working jobs would fit the bill. After gaining the confidence of the machinist, the undercover agent asked the machinist if he could make a silencer.
The machinist lied and said he could.
The silencer was made and when tested it blew up.
A second effort was a success but landed the poor machinist a visit to Judge Simpson in Jacksonville. Making silencers is a felony.
Next Week:: A Difficult Case.
Photo credit: Submitted by Geoffrey B. Dobson
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer and a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org