A Leaf from the Past

In the United States, moonshining is seldom practiced outside the mountains and foothills of the southern Appalachians, and those parts of the southwest (namely, in southern Missouri, Arkansas and Texas), into which the mountaineers have immigrated in considerable numbers.

Here, then, is a conundrum: How does it happen that moonshining is distinctly a foible of the southern mountaineer?

To get to the truth, we must hark back into that eighteenth century wherein, as I have already remarked, our mountain people are lingering to this day. We must leave the South; going, first, to Ireland of 150 or 175 years ago, and then to western Pennsylvania shortly after the Revolution.

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 1659, when the town of Edinburgh placed an additional impost on ale, the Convenanter 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, and the immediate effect was similar to that of introducing firewater among a race of savages. There was hue and cry (apparently with good reason), that the gin habit, spreading like a plague, among a people unused to strong liquors, would soon exterminate the English race. 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.’... The commerce was carried on to a very great extent, and openly. Poteen was usually preferred, even by the gentry, to ‘Parliament’ or ‘King’s’ whiskey. It was known to be free from adulteration, and had a smoky flavor (arising from the peat fires) which many liked.” 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.”

However, this sort of thing was not moonshining. It was only the beginning of that system of wholesale collusion which, in later times, was perfected in our own country by the “Whiskey Ring.”

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 and glens 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.”

Thus we see that the townsman’s weapon against the government was graft, and the mountaineer’s weapon was his gun—a hundred and fifty years ago, in Ireland, as they are in America to-day. Whether racial character had much to do with this is a debatable question.