Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Bootleggers and Back Door Gambling

There are things our ancestors chose to do in the past that we can decide to see in a negative light or we can choose to reflect on the fact that some choices were made to simply survive during a different time. 

Shine, hooch, white lightning, or whichever you prefer to call it, was once a big business in the south. Mississippi did not repel prohibition until 1966, and until that day operating an illegal still was very profitable. That is if you could out run the revenuers.
So, pretty much everyone can tell a tale of someone in their family either making, selling, buying, or drinking their fair share of moonshine. Of course not every person in the family wants to be reminded that grandpa once went before the judge on charges of operating an illegal still, possession of mash and several tons of non- taxed whiskey. Fined and let go only to appear once again a few months later.
The way I look at it is that this is a part of Americana. It’s a big part of the history of who we are and where we came from. It should not be a shameful thing to be whispered about, or denied completely.

The Daily Herald August 16, 1920
Times Picayune November 13, 1928
Times Picayune November 13, 1928
So, when I started to hear the stories about all the relatives who were involved in this risky business I thought, this has to be written down. We don’t need to forget that Papa once had a still back in the woods behind our house and that he had a trained mule that would detour from his route if he heard someone following him.
One day recently a cousin said, “Come see what I have found, you won’t believe it.” There right down from our house near the creek bed was a bevy of bottles sticking up here and there. Large glass jugs that once held moonshine some forty odd years ago. Unfortunately, they were quite empty, the corks long ago rotted away. Now filled with dirt mud and moss, they were beautiful to me. I brought one home to display and say, here is a part of our history, an American story. 
I began to look in old newspapers now, not for obituaries and birth announcements but for tales and names of those who were running illegal outfits. This brought up many, many names. It also got me in trouble with a family member who thought I was digging dirt up on her brother.  However, all the old men of the family were thrilled to read about and remember the stories about the past. They sat and told me so many things. Laughing about a great uncle who was running from the revenuers and got his feet shot full of buckshot, but they never got him. Then I was told the tale of some people who were selling directly to Al Capone. One fellow was told by the judge that his fine was $600 dollars and the man said, “Well judge, I got that right here in my back pocket.” The judge leaned down and said, “Well, tell me do you also have 6 months in that pocket too?” Before I left the men requested copies of the papers to keep for themselves, their eyes bright with the memories of the past. 

 A neighbor recently said that he found the remains of an old still while clearing some land behind where we live. Imagine that. Must be one of the ones that made the stash of jugs we had found. Then just today, my son comes in from his walk in the woods and hands me two old pieces of an old broken pot which once held the mash for a still. Just a few little souvenirs of life past but, they are the things that will always keep the past and the history of those wild young men daring the law to make a buck, alive. 

Gambling Houses
So, ahem, yes, my family owned an establishment in New Orleans. No, big family secret there. My great grandfather owned several grocery stores in New Orleans in the late 19th century and into the 20th century. The thing about his grocery business was that there was a room in the back for gambling. This was quite common and as long as the politicians received their fair share they were open for business. 
Handbooks, this was an outside the track operation for betting on the horse races. People could hear the races being called up and down the streets from such establishments. The allure of doing a little betting while getting some shopping must have been quite profitable to the owner of the establishment. Lotteries were also big money makers in these back door establishments. 

By 1919 several groups began to protest against the illegal operations, and while raids were conducted, the operations usually continued after paying a fine. Then in 1928 along came Huey Long. He took a strong stand against the operators of these businesses. Sending men out to raid and close them down for good.

But, by this time my great grandfather had already given up his illicit pursuits due to a pretty young girl who walked barefoot into his store one day in 1910. "Young lady, where are your shoes?" Led to a marriage and three beautiful daughters, one who was my grandmother.

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