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For most states, the repeal of prohibition meant a return to a state of legally drunken normalcy, but not so in Mississippi. The Magnolia State went dry over a decade before the nation, leaving bootleggers to establish political and financial holds they were unwilling to lose. For nearly sixty years, bootlegging flourished, and Mississippi became known as the "wettest dry state in the country." Law enforcement tried in vain to control crime that followed each empty bottle. Until statewide prohibition was finally repealed in 1966, illegal booze fueled a corrupt political machine that intimidated journalists who dared to speak against it and fixed juries that threatened its interests. Author and native Mississippian Janice Branch Tracy delivers an intimate look at the story of Mississippi's moonshine empire.
Janice, thank you so much for joining us here on Crime Capital.
[00:00:09.370] - Janice
Thank you for inviting me.
[00:00:15.270] - Ben
Before we get into the meat of your budget book, I just wanted to ask a little bit about your background. You grew up in Mississippi, so the names and the places that you wrote about were familiar to you already. But how did you get interested enough in this material to write a book about it?
[00:00:37.650] - Janice
It all started with the Tales, and I'll call them that family Tales stories, activities of a man named Tillman Branch, who is the center of the Juke Joint King Book, the first book that I wrote. And once I got into writing about him and learning more about him, I never met him. I just heard all of the mostly bad things when we would have family reunions, which his side of the family didn't attend as much. My grandfather and Tilman Branches grandfather were siblings. So that's how we were related.
And once I got into writing the book about Timman Branch and doing the research, I found that the story of moonshine in Mississippi, which I knew from a distance growing up in the 50s and 60s in and around Jackson, I need another vehicle to tell the story of illegal liquor in Mississippi. And that's when I talked to the editor at the publishing company, The History Press, about how I could do that. And she was conducive to me writing an outline and submitting it for the review panel at the publishing company.
So that's how I got into writing the story of illegal liquor and bootlegging and moonshine activities in Mississippi.
[00:02:22.670] - Ben
Before you were an author, you actually had a career working as an investigator. How did that come about?
[00:02:32.930] - Janice
It happened over the years that I ended up being in an investigative job. In the beginning. When I went to work for the government in 1094, I was a Social Security claims representative. I took retirement and disability claims and was actually hired because Social Security Administration took over the old age and disability programs from the state called Supplemental Security Income SSI. So I took claims, used my science background that helped out with disability claims. Actually, medical terminology was easy for me and understanding that and gradually I had gained the German position in my job level.
And if you want more money with the government, then you have to quote unquote bid on jobs at a higher grade level. So a job opening became available in metery, Louisiana, and eventually that office was in New Orleans. So I applied for and got that job to be a Social Security investigator. And this was quality review and analysis and adjusting people's checks and not out and out fraud investigations. But finding indications of fraud and that got me into the investigating field. And later I applied for a job as a criminal and civil investigator because of people that I had met in New Orleans, where I worked, and I worked for Department of labor as a criminal and civil investigator investigating embezzlement and election violation allegations that later got me into applying for a job with the Environmental Protection Agency, where I was hired as a civil investigator and later became an enforcement officer.
I had a 30 plus year career with the federal government and because I did criminal investigations with Department of labor, then I had a little bit different kind of research activities that I participated in because we were developing cases to get indictments and to take to court where people would receive jail time. And that was a section of the law that dealt with embezzlement of Labor Union funds with EPA. It was a little bit different situation with the civil investigations, but I spent my entire career looking for people, finding information about people and what made them tick sometimes, and then what caused them to commit crimes almost always.
So it was a little bit of everything dealing with people, places and things and information that might not be on the surface, digging a little bit harder.
[00:06:10.850] - Ben
And that sounds like a perfect skill set for researching and writing a book.
[00:06:17.160] - Janice
Exactly. It was just like what I had done for so long, but just a different subject matter.
I'm going to ask you a poorly phrased question.
[00:09:58.120] - Janice
[00:09:59.770] - Ben
I think you're going to see what I'm getting at. As you were researching the early days of Mississippi's Prohibition. Okay. We're talking 19 teens, 20s. Kind of right when these laws really are coming into effect, how thirsty in general were average Mississippi during this time? What we see are the behavior of state legislators who are very eager to score moral victories by passing Prohibition style laws. But we also know that many of them are still keeping very well stocked liquor cabinets in their offices and in their homes.
I'm interested in your everyday sharecropper, your everyday merchant, the sort of lower class or middle class resident of the state at the time. How much are they drinking?
[00:10:57.790] - Janice
They're drinking a lot because of the plight that they were living in life. They were poor, they didn't have control over their lives. And in many times there was no other form of recreation, if you want to call it that to them or socialize except drinking on Saturday night. So there were plenty of small places that catered to people who wanted to go out and drink or listen to music. And remember, the Blues music developed in places that also served liquor bootleg in many cases, like Tillman Branch.
So it was a way of life. Not everyone, not all of the sharecroppers and the other people who were working on the farms and the bigger farms that were still called plantation in those times, too. But it was their Saturday night good times, a way of salving their sorrows if you want. I'm not condoning it. I'm just stating a fact that I believe sure you're observing it.
[00:12:15.430] - Ben
You're recording it. No, that's completely understandable. You write early on in your book just to read a little quote here that when a man, woman, or even a young miner wanted to buy alcohol of any type or size, they could do so, provided they had the cash, knew where to go and weren't afraid they would be arrested. Illegal liquor was as plentiful and available as water from the Big Muddy. You're making the claim here that in many ways alcohol was not just a matter of entertainment or recreation for a lot of these folks.
It was a matter of survival economically.
[00:13:01.210] - Janice
That was the other side of it. And that's why liquor was so plentiful because people made lots of money off of it. And it wasn't just for local consumption. Liquor was moved around in different places in the state. And of course, later in the book, there is information about how Louisiana and Mississippi had relationships that involve liquor because Louisiana had different laws. And of course, then there was liquor going across the Tennessee Mississippi state line and between Alabama and Mississippi as well. I would say, even though I didn't cover this in my book, that there was a lot of traffic beyond the Gulf Coast, even into the Panhandle of Florida.
But the liquor was carried in and out, and it was a way to make money. It was a way to make money for people who didn't have anything else except farming. And even in World War Two, where buses of local men would leave for the local induction office, and they would leave the women and the children at home on the farm and to supplement money. Some of the women even were bootlegging while the men were away at more. It was a manner of survival because there was easy money.
Easy is not the best word there because there were problems that went along with making windshield, dangerous type situations that evolved. And that would be from a physical standpoint with things that blew up a caught on fire or with the dangers of someone stealing or taking over or even injuring someone because of, I guess you would say, competition.
[00:15:01.010] - Ben
As you were researching, was it apparent to you whether there was more money to be made in the manufacture of illegal liquor versus the sale and transport of illegal liquor? Do you see what I mean?
[00:15:20.530] - Janice
The sale and transport if it went outside of Mississippi, there was big money. There have been allegations that Al Capone had an operation that centered around the area where Kiln, Mississippi, is taking liquor by train cars out even to Chicago or to New York. I'm not sure that all of that has been validated, but that would be the big money where there were businessmen, so to speak, criminals who were businessmen transporting liquor or bringing it in even. And I talked a little bit about how liquor came in along the Gulf Coast, even as far over as the Texas Gulf Coast with Galveston, which had similar clubs and entertainment facilities.
But locally, the transporting was often done inside the state by family members. And a good instance of that is mentioned in Mississippi mainstream politics, where Tillman's sister in law was transporting liquor. I'm sure he paid her for it, but this was not big money, like transporting the liquor outside the state.
[00:16:40.010] - Ben
It's kind of remarkable, frankly, to think that a jar of firewater brewed in Hancock County, Mississippi, could end up in the hands of a Chicago gangster, isn't it?
[00:16:51.250] - Janice
Yes. Rebode, I'm sure really is something. Yeah, it really is. And there have been some books written about that area. Most people who know the name Kill, unless they're from Mississippi, may associate it with Brett Faer because that's the area that he's from. But there was a lot going on there before the clubs and the hotels, the restaurants and all on the Gulf Coast with the liquor operation.
[00:17:26.970] - Ben
Well, that brings up a good point, Janice, which is that folks who have never been to Mississippi might not be aware of how geographically diverse the state is. We have the river counties, we have the Delta, we got the Hill country, the Piney Woods, and we have the Gulf Coast, of course, just to name a few regions, and they're all very different from one another. You write in your book that the landscape of bootlegging was just as diverse as the physical landscape, with hotspots of very different kinds and concentrations in those different areas.
Now, one of the major hotspots that you describe is the Gold Coast, which is a term that is not widely used in Mississippi much anymore. What can you tell us about the Gold Coast.
[00:19:27.150] - Janice
The Gold Coast was a flood area or an area prone to flooding by the Pearl River. In Ranking County. There was a bridge that went there, and it was virtually uninhabitable back during the years that most of the activities were going on there. It was kind of no man's land. It wasn't downtown Jackson, but it was close by. It was, quote, unquote East Jackson back then, since its records would show anyone living there is living in East Jackson. So it was a place where you could go and hide out and do things that were not within the jurisdiction of the Jackson Municipal Police Department, even though at that time probably there was a lot of looking the other way.
The Sheriff's Department in Rankin County was the local law enforcement officer. So in the beginning, people had to build structures there that were on stilts to keep them being washed away with the spring floods. Once the Ross Barnett Reservoir was built and opened, that relieved the flooding that was going on around Jackson with the Pearl River. I remember flood sales in downtown Jackson growing up where the store still had basements and the water would come up. I think Town Creek was the tributary that would flood some of those.
So it was an area that wasn't really buildable for permanent structures are conducive to living over there. Unless you did have one of the operations that later developed. And then sometimes the owner might live in the facility or nearby, like Red Hydra that I mentioned he had a farm, but there was also some sort of living space for him near his clubs and operation.
[00:21:33.650] - Ben
Now, as you were describing the venues where a thirsty local could go and wet their whistle, the names of some of these joints are just incredible. You have the Blue Peacock, you have the Club Royale, you have the Rocket Lounge, the Shady Rest, the Blue Flame. I mean, I don't know about you, Janice, but I would love to have a drink at the Rocket Lounge. I think I'd just be the coolest cat in town if I did.
[00:22:05.930] - Janice
Well, some of the names were made to seem like extravagant venues. And when I've read around the places that were on the Gulf Coast or in New Orleans and just other places outside Mississippi, sometimes these names were brought in because of the exotic sound, the Blue Peacock, or because taking on the name of a place that people already knew that was luxurious or extravagant sounding. The Blue Flame actually came about because of the Blue Flame that was in Tallah County. I think one of Tillman's places was named The Blue Flame at one time.
But Blue Flame. There's a Blue Flame road just north of where I live. And you can only guess what went on there back during this time because it was rural North Texas. But The Blue Flame, I think, was copied and repeated in several different places. I think The Shady Rest probably has a lot of connotations to it. I can't remember if it was, quote, unquote package store or restaurant with maybe some kind of tourist court or motel type set up there. I can't remember, but it seems like it might have been.
But yes, they lured the people in with the names now.
[00:23:44.770] - Ben
A good number of these places weren't just honky Tonks or sort of one room shacks or Juke joints. Many of them were actually high class establishments. The Rainbow Garden was a good example. You had food, you had music, you had dancing, you had gambling, you had tables, bands coming all the way from places like Chicago to entertain the guests. Could you describe some of these venues for us to give a sense of kind of what it was like inside, compared to, say, a modern nightclub, something we would walk into today.
[00:24:24.630] - Janice
The Rainbow Garden was in Durant, Mississippi, I think. And the draw to the Rainbow Garden was it was supposed to be like a supper club or dinner venue venue. I'm sorry. I had fairly good first person description of the Rainbow Garden because my parents went there for a hamburger when they were dating. They serve food. You couldn't just go buy a hamburger anywhere in that part of Mississippi. And they also, of course, had the music you're talking about sometimes with the big band sounds. And this would have been in the 40s that I'm talking about.
So that was not the only part of the Rainbow Gardens. There was the wall and the door that went elsewhere in the Rainbow Gardens, and that's where the gaming machines were, and probably the drinking of alcohol that was served out in the bigger area, too. So it was a local version of a supper club with entertainment, with food and with dancing.
[00:25:48.630] - Ben
So how did you get access to the other door to the other part of the venue?
[00:25:55.140] - Janice
Probably talk to someone. My parents didn't go through the other door. At least my mother didn't admit that they did. I don't think they did. But it was known. And then you talked to someone who would let you through. I'm assuming. And I don't have pictures of the Rainbow Garden to tell me. And you should never assume anything. But more than likely it was behind the counter where it was not easily accessible without help. And then there was the back door out of the Rainbow Gardens because you had to be able to leave if there was a rate like there eventually was by the National Guard and well documented rate.
Blackjack Powell was the person who ran that with some other Powell family members. I recently had a younger member of the Powell family contact me because her grandfather was a brother of Blackjack Powell, and he died when her mother was one year old in an automobile accident. And she had just found out the history of the Powell family and the Rainbow Gardens. So I was able to find some newspaper articles for and share those. But actually, her mother had heard stories about what went on with the Rainbow Gardens and Blackjack Powell and the rest of the family.
But they had never read any of the newspaper articles. So that was a good thing. And a not so good thing, because I don't think they really knew how involved in the liquor operations family was or that most members of that family who were around after the raid were arrested.
[00:28:17.030] - Ben
Well, it's funny, isn't it? Because in this kind of cat and mouse game of making, selling, transporting and serving illegal liquor in this time, folks could get pretty creative in the ways that they eluded the authorities or deceived the folks around them. And Blackjack is actually a pretty good example.He hid his liquor bottles inside a sunken metal washtub in a spring fed pool. And you write that to get the booze out of the pond, you had to use a concealed pulley system to bring that tub up to the surface to get the product, which was otherwise totally invisible to folks just walking by.
That's pretty clever.
[00:29:15.790] - Janice
That's pretty clever. Yes. And I think that information I'll have to refresh my memory here a little bit. Maybe came from someone I interviewed who was a contemporary who was still living, who had personal knowledge of that.
[00:29:32.670] - Ben
Did you use the pulley?
[00:29:34.550] - Janice
Well, that person didn't, but that person was from another county, the best I recall. But I interviewed several people who are probably in their mid to late 80s now. And the two men I'm thinking about right now, both are still living, but they were in homes. Junior College was in Goodman, Mississippi, which is just south of Durant. So it was a residential situation there at Home Senior College. And, of course, a lot of the young men. I'm not sure about the young women, but the young men would frequent some of these places in Durant and south of Goodman at Tillman's Place.
So those were first hand knowledge, or at least maybe having talked to somebody who sold it. Yeah. There were all kinds of things that happened to keep the liquor hidden in one of the accounts that I got from the daughter who was present but a child when it happened, the liquor was underneath the floor of the living quarters in the restaurant in Durant. And, of course, the National Guard came in with their axes and found what was there and, of course, tore up the floor in the living quarters where the family was asleep that night.
That person still living, too.
There is no doubt that these stories are entertaining. I mean, they're a lot of fun to look at the ways that folks would hide the booze or try to outrun the cops or drop the product down into a pond and pull it up with a mechanical system. That's great stuff. But there are legitimate tensions in these communities, aren't there?
You describe service members coming home from the war in the midforties, still into Prohibition, who drink and gamble away their wages, and they are leaving their wives and their children scrambling to make ends meet. And, of course, violence is a factor, too. That's all over your book. And Tillman Branch died for his craft. He was shot exact while he was selling it. Now we can joke and we can have fun with it today, but it's easy to underestimate the very real problems that this kind of illegal activity did cause, isn't it?
[00:35:25.230] - Janice
To us? It seems almost like fiction because it was very dangerous. It was ridiculous in some ways and uncalled for how things happen. But domestic violence was very bad, but not only domestic violence between men and women, husbands and wives, but between men in general. It might have involved a woman. But I talked to one woman who passed away last year and not really old, unfortunately. But she was the product of a relationship and later relationships with both the parents, where Moonshine probably caused a lot of problems in her growing up years and in the family relationships.
And she told me that there were six relatives in her extended family who died because of Moonshine. It was either an altercation of some kind minor, not necessarily really serious matter, but because people have been drinking and there was a gun and in Italian homes, counties during those days and lots of others, if you lived in a rural area, you had a gun or more than one gun, because hunting was a big sport and also a gun for protection because you didn't have close by neighbors.
So guns were available. And Moonshine triggered the worst in people. Seriously.
[00:37:13.330] - Ben
You know, one thing that fascinated me about your portrayal of this time and state's history is the way that you write about the ecosystem of the participants. You have the consumers, sure, everyday men and women who wanted to find a drink, and you had the producers, of course, the bootleggers themselves. But you also had other agents in this ecosystem. You have the sheriffs and you have the judges, and you have the newspapers who all played a role in influencing the level or the pervasiveness of booze in a given county.
The newspapers are kind of interesting because they often take very strong stances against it. And I'm thinking of someone here like Hazel, Brandon Smith or Haught and Carter. But at the same time, sometimes they admit that Prohibition just isn't working, and they say that we just need a better solution than Prohibition. And they try to cut kind of a third way. As you were researching, how did you kind of map out this ecosystem of all the different players on the scene, beyond just the drinkers and the sellers?
[00:38:44.790] - Janice
There really wasn't a conscious mapping. It was just something that happens when you find out who a person is, what they do, how they feel about different things, how they react to different things. So the psychology of the actors, so to speak, in this big production that was bootlegging and Moonshine sales, there was illegal liquor sold hard liquor that was bootleg, too. So we can't say moonshine was the only thing that was going on. But it was how they interacted with each other. They had relationships that bordered on business, because if you made somebody mad with what you wrote in the newspaper, like Hazel Brandon Smith did.
Then you had the townspeople against you. Her newspaper office was burned in Lexington later on, not because of moonshine, but other beliefs and participation activism that went on. But it was a dynamic that changed from week to week, from month to month with the newspaper people, the current Sheriff, the person running through, Sheriff, the religious community, and then the merchants who engaged in the illegal liquor sales. A lot of the illegal liquor, the bonded liquor, so to speak, was done by people who had very reputable and lucrative businesses.
And that was throughout the state, not just in the central Mississippi area. Of course, the Gulf Coast is a perfect example of that. But they might own a retail establishment, like, say, wholesale groceries or retail grocery store, which put them in the position to be able to get products in and out or to have the right people in their business space to facilitate that. But it was a dynamic that changed over time.
[00:41:07.650] - Ben
It's funny, as you describe these sort of middle years of Prohibition. It was about a 50 year time period in Mississippi. So those middle decades, it becomes clear that it is kind of like a game or a show or a stage production in that the raids are just part of the act. Right. So the cops will come in or the National Guard. In some cases, they'll bust up a few stills, they'll shut down a Juke joint. But within a few months or a couple of years, whenever the proprietor gets out of the clink, they're just right back to it.
It occurred to me it's kind of like playing Prohibition whacka mole with an infinite supply of moles before whacka mole was a term.
[00:42:00.510] - Janice
Yes, it was a quick fix, at least on the surface, to a problem that didn't go away after the event happened. You're exactly right. A lot of politics, local politics, state politics were involved in it.
You talk about the way in which folks might be a very split opinions or communities could be divided, and you would have kind of different perspectives on the issue of alcohol and its impact. As you talk about that, I'm reminded of the way in which you write about mixed loyalties among a very specific group of people in the state, which are the sheriffs and the sheriffs are supposed to enforce the law. But county by county, it is a crapshoot whether they are on the take two.
And I'm thinking of Sheriff WP. Rutherford in Prentice County, who ended up being recalled from his office for his failure to enforce the laws against bootlegging. How did you make sense out of these? It's too easy, isn't it? To call them crooked tops.
[00:46:08.370] - Janice
Right? It's according to where they lived and who their constituents were, and this was their livelihood. And you can go the other end or other end of the spectrum from Rutherford and talk about Sherry Stubblefield over in I think it was Holmes County where he was actually trying to be a crime fighter in some ways. So it went from one end to the other. But if you were going to be a crime fighter and try to cut out illegal liquor and the other things that went along with it, which were slot machines and prostitution.
Sometimes then you probably weren't going to be reelected. And that is just the fact of the matter. Well, this was their occupation. This was their job. This is how they fed their family, and they had quite a bit of influence in the community as the chief law enforcement officer in the county. So I think it was maybe not the intention of some of the earlier sheriffs to get in there and have money available to them because they let something happen that shouldn't. But it was more a gradual thing.
And we see that in current society with different things, maybe the person is honest going into the position or office, but then there are too many temptations and they cave in. And then if they want to keep that job, they have to do what their constituents want them to do. And remember, at some of these times in the 50s and 60s, there weren't as many people voting, even in local elections