It’s hard to imagine now but the U.S. government once thought making alcohol illegal would cure social problems. Not quite.
Instead of solving problems, the 18th amendment created more, handing over the production and sale of alcohol to the black market where organized crime thrived. That doesn’t mean we can’t revere those who tested the law and became legends of their own kind.
Meet 4 legends of Southern moonshine:
Legends of Southern moonshine began and ended with bootlegger turned NASCAR driver Junior Johnson. The very sport of stock car racing traces its roots to moonshine; specifically bootleggers who learned to drive fast while evading tax collectors. Souped-up vehicles roared down American highways with police in hot pursuit during one inglorious era.
“It gave me so much advantage over other people that had to train and learn how to drive,” Johnson told NASCAR.com.
The entire Johnson clan made their living off moonshine, before and after prohibition. While bootlegging made him a legend, Junior Johnson wasn’t above the law, once spending 11 months in a Ohio penitentiary after being caught red-handed.
President Ronald Reagan forgave Junior for his misgivings in 1986, granting a pardon and restoring his right to vote. The experience gained running from police eventually led Junior Johnson to victory lane 50 times and first ballot induction into the Hall of Fame. The Southern Moonshine Hall of Fame.
The North Carolina native led a life that proved moonshine runners didn’t die with the end of Prohibition. Popcorn Sutton published a book and a cult hit VHS documentary detailing his exploits as a bootlegger. Both the book and movie made him a hero to Southerners who enjoy a little moonshine in their diet.
Sutton’s trademark bearded-overall, cigarette-hanging-from-mouth look, became the stereotype for contemporary Southern bootleggers.
He died by carbon monoxide poisoning with a pending federal sentence looming in 2000. Country artist Hank Williams Jr. is a fan of Popcorn, mentioning him in song lyrics and even partnering with a distillery who markets “Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey.”
They say legends never die for a reason.
You ever heard of the “Real McCoy”? Well, the actual real McCoy was moonshine legend William McCoy, who was known for his pure, never watered down whiskey. His specialties being Rye, Irish and Canadian flavored hooch.
McCoy came from a family of marine enthusiasts which no doubt served his pirating operation well during Prohibition. McCoy transferred his elicit booze from the Gulf of Mexico to Long Island on his custom made schooner. The government wasn’t thrilled with McCoy and under heavy scrutiny his operation ended after a hail of machine gun fire from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Following surrender, McCoy spent 9 months in jail and was released, legend intact.
Considering inflation, the “King of Bootleggers” earned nearly one billion dollars in his illegal trade. Nobody ever said George Remus wasn’t smart. The lawyer turned bootlegger found loopholes in the law which allowed him to essentially hi-jack his own legal whiskey, then sell it to those desperate for a drink during Prohibition.
Remus started famous drinking towns in the South, where customers were entertained with gambling and of course, the finest whiskey available during the 1920’s (so they claimed).
He was a violent sort, who ran his own wife and child off the road before shooting her dead in front of eye-witnesses. Saying he got off light is putting it, well, lightly. Defending himself in court with the insanity plea Remus was acquitted by a jury in 19 minutes, then avoided the insane asylum.
Bootleggers remain an integral part of American and Southern history. Outlaws violating tax law and becoming legends while doing it.
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