Skullcracker Skullduggery – Moonshine


By Randolph W. Hobler

Our image of a moonshiner? A lone, lanky, scraggly, rugged, sunburnt, long-bearded, floppy-hatted. beady-eyed, suspicious, individual-liberty-lovin’, Feds-hatin’, shotgun-totin’ hillbilly, high on a remote, forested Appalachian mountain. So far, so true. But there’s much more.

Moonshine? It’s the stealthy, homemade nighttime creation of raw, clear, unaged, distilled whiskey which can rise to 190 proof. It can be distilled from rye, wheat, berries, plums, potatoes, apples, peaches, carrots, and more, but the king of moonshine is corn. With high sugar content, it’s readily accessible at farms throughout the country and is cheap and fast to make. Just heat up a mash of yeast, milled corn, water, and often sugar, dump it into a heating pot—a “thumper” from the sound it makes—send the steam through a copper coil (a “worm”) in a barrel filled with cold water, and from there to a small pipe that drips into a mason jar or jug. The trick in distilling moonshine is that while water boils at 212o, alcohol boils at 173o, so if you boil the total liquid below 212o, the steam will only consist of alcohol, leaving the water behind.

It’s so ubiquitous, moonshiners have at least 33 words for “moonshine”. Like Devil’s Juice, Mulekick, Corn Squeezins, Tiger Spit, Panther Sweat, Hillbilly Pop and Skullcracker.

The Devil of Detail Lies in the Law

Let’s zero in on Montana Code 16-4-311, declaring it illegal to distill liquor in your home, even for your own consumption, even if you don’t sell it. The catch? You must have a license, with hassles-like requirements for labeling, storing, sampling, obtaining building, health, and fire code approvals, having a single-entrance lockable door, and having a door no wider than six feet, (good thing they put that in!), etc. For offenses, you’re subject to five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. You might well be saying “Hey, no fair! It’s perfectly legal for me to brew beer or wine in my own home. This is an invasion of my privacy!” One legal component? Your own safety. Whiskey can be risky. In Lewistown, Montana, the traditional safety test was to put a finger in a jar of moonshine for three minutes. If, when you pull it out, your fingernail is missing, that Mulekick was too strong!

Then, consumption: as little as one ounce can cause blindness or death. Many people were paralyzed or died using lead coils instead of copper. When Wayne Carpenter of Ryegate, Montana, drank moonshine, he drawled, “It would tear the top of your head.”

Then, production: Higher-proof alcohol is more flammable, and stills would regularly blow up. In 1933, an African-American woman moonshiner near Lewistown named Bertie Brown suffered severe burns and died one day when her still exploded.

Taxation Altercations

The second component? Taxes. Before the income tax in 1913, the major source of government income was from taxes on alcohol, 75% of all federal revenue in 1850. The first whiskey tax was imposed in 1791, sparking a four-year Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania and Kentucky. George Washington led troops against 7,000 rebels threatening to set fire to Pittsburgh. Six years later, Washington himself, in a bit of historical hypocrisy, built himself a white lightning still at Mount Vernon that sold 11,000 gallons in 1799 alone. An army of tax collectors, called “Revenuers” fanned out over the entire country to extract moonshine taxes. Enforcement included posses of raiding federal agents like these in Flathead Country: Black-Faced Pete, Whispering Lou, Lynx-Eyed Eiklor, and Big Carl Knudson. Montana’s biggest raid? A 2,500-gallon moonshine still between Sweetwater and Black Tail nicknamed Big Bertha. Over 200 years these hated intruders were met by determined armed resistance, including tarring, feathering, and shoot-outs galore.

The skullduggery, (or should we say Yankee ingenuity?) to hide from revenuers included trap doors, cellars under cellars, tunnels, caves, false walls, gasoline cans marked “Honey” and even gaggles of chickens spread about to make residences seem farm-like.

Why the hoopla? Turns out, virtually every farmer in America had an illegal still, Montana mountain areas like Milk River, Bear’s Paw, and Crow’s Nest festered with moonshiners. Farmers could barely make ends meet by turning some of their corn into hooch.

Then the Feds are going to tax them, too?

What does this all distill down to? The power to control will persist. As will the will to resist. Montana moonshiners ain’t never goin’ nowhere nor are any of those dad-gum revenuers. MSN

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