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Driving With The Devil (Part 2)

An excerpt from
Southern Moonshiners, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR
By Neal Thompson
Crown Publishing

                                              (click book cover above to read Swampland's review)

From Chapter 4, "The Bootlegger Turn" (continued)

Until cousins Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall of Dawsonville joined the ranks in the mid 1930s, policing moonshiners had mostly been a job for local sheriffs and their deputies, who were often out-manned or easily paid off with a $100 bill. In 1934, the IRS created a new Alcohol Tax Unit, and the playing field leveled off a bit as the ATU recruited state troopers, college athletes and ex-soldiers as its first federal agents, whose job was to mercilessly quash the homemade whiskey business.

In Chicago, Elliot Ness and his “Untouchables” tangled with mobster Al Capone’s liquor boys. But in the South, “revenuers” - so-named because they sought to collect whiskey revenues - prowled the back roads of southern states alone, in search of untaxed whiskey and its makers. The era produced men like Kentucky's famous, gun-toting William “Big Six” Henderson - "the Elliot Ness of moonshiners" - a lanky revenuer who arrested five thousand moonshiners in his decades-long career. Suspects rarely gave up their real names, instead claiming to be Franklin Roosevelt, Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Lindbergh, George Washington or Henry Ford. Revenuers considered moonshiners their prey, likening their job to deer hunting at an extreme level.

"It was a game, you against them," said one tax agent.

The bootleggers, meanwhile, trained themselves to be experts on V-8 Fords, both behind the wheel and under the hood. Initially, they attempted to be coy. Bootleggers posed as traveling salesmen or, like Raymond Parks, wore a suit and tie and blended in with morning commuters. One moonshiner, when he sensed revenuers might be nearby, added to that morning-commute tactic an extra touch: "I'd start picking my nose because nobody is going to keep staring at you if you start picking your nose."

Others hid whiskey inside truckloads of lumber, sacks of cotton, stacks of tires, even crates of chickens. With gallons of whiskey in the rear seat of a Ford, they'd cover the tin cans or glass jars with an Army blanket, then douse the blanket with bleach, to mask the smell of alcohol, just in case they got pulled over. One North Georgia tripper hit a rut one night and smashed a few glass jars; even after he'd delivered the unbroken jars, the car reeked like a distillery. On his way home, a revenue agent pulled him over. The agent searched the car, looking for evidence beyond the powerful odor.

"Where are you from?" he finally asked.


"What do you do there?"

"I'm a farmer," the bootlegger lied.

Eventually, the agent had no choice but to let him and his reeking whiskey car go.

Agents could easily spot an empty whiskey car by its high-riding rear end - when it wasn't loaded down, a whiskey car bounced, and it's heavy-duty springs caused its butt to ride high - "like a cat in heat." To catch trippers in the act, revenuers designed a pincer device for the front of their cars that could snag the rear fender of a fleeing Ford. This would usually be used up a hill, where the whiskey-laden car lost speed. The bootleggers’ response was to begin attaching their fenders with wire coat hangers, which would snap off and tangle beneath the revenuer’s wheels. That inspired revenuers to take the fight up a notch, and they began welding steel battering rams to the front of their cars. They'd try to catch a bootlegger in a curve and hit him at an angle, so he'd spin out. But the bootleggers learned to slow down just a notch, wait for the revenuer to get close, then gun it, which often sent the lesser-skilled revenuer spinning off the road. Some bootleggers attached devices to their cars that spewed smoke screens, laid down oil slicks or dropped buckets of tire-shredding tacks. Revenuers fought back by shooting out radiators or tires, or just blasting the car full of holes. That's when whiskey mechanics began welding steel plates in front of the radiators, or relocated the radiator to the trunk.

Bootleggers sometimes traveled with a "blocker" - another driver who'd run interference between the whiskey car and the revenuer, a tactic that would later come in handy on the racetrack. Or, in tight-knit communities, a moonshiner’s neighbor would warn of approaching revenuers by firing a gun or setting off a stick of dynamite. One revenuer complained that “the moonshiners found out I was in the mountains before I knew the fact myself.”

In time, Lloyd Seay joined the select group of elite bootleggers who came to realize the obvious: the best way to elude a revenuer wasn’t to outsmart him, but to outrun him. Speed, not guile, became the most effective means of whiskey tripping. If revenuers blocked the road, the best drivers learned to hit the brakes, tug the emergency brakes, spin the wheel and slide into the 180-degree bootlegger turn.


Across Prohibition's thirteen years, federal agents had seized 340,000 stills and arrested just shy of one million men. Even after Prohibition, the aggressive pursuit of untaxed whiskey led to the imprisonment of many a captured bootlegger. Through the 1920s and 1930s, leading every other state in numbers of seized stills and arrests was Georgia. Though Al Capone's machine-gunning exploits received the news ink, more bootleg whiskey ran through Atlanta than any other city in the nation.

And more than a little blood was shed. During Prohibition, 126 federal agents were killed. Some were gunned down during still raids. At least one was pushed from a moving car by a moonshiner. A few died freakishly, scalded to death after falling into a vat of boiling mash or asphyxiated by the fumes of fermenting corn. One agent was maimed by a bootlegger whose brakes failed and who slammed into a roadblock.
Moonshiners also sustained horrific injuries, or died violent deaths. One South Carolina sheriff was known to fire point blank into the skulls of captured bootleggers. And untold numbers of whiskey trippers burned to death when their cars rolled and their whiskey ignited after a failed attempt at a bootlegger turn. As Robert Mitchum sings in the theme song he co-wrote for the classic moonshining flick, "Thunder Road":

He left the road at 90; that’s all there is to say.
The devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day.

And yet, in certain communities, there was a brotherly aspect to the grim battles. When famed columnist Ernie Pyle spent a day with a Tennessee revenuer, he wrote of the surprising “mutual respect” the two sides had for each other. Revenuers and moonshiners came to know each others’ names and families. A federal agent might arrest a man and send him to prison for two years, then help him find a job, a home, or a girlfriend when he got out. Some moonshiners named their kids after revenuers they had feared and fled, but whom they secretly admired. The familial rivalry even influenced children's’ games. Instead of cowboys and Indians, the children of Dawsonville and other moonshining communities played bootleggers and revenuers. Sometimes they flipped coins to decide who played whiskey trippers like Lloyd Seay or Roy Hall, or the feds.

"The losers had to play the law," one Dawsonville youth-cum-bootlegger said.

As Sherwood Anderson noted in an article about a famous 1935 moonshining trial in Virginia, southern moonshiners were "mostly kids who liked the excitement .. the kick of it." It was a pure, simple, yet deadly game of catch me if you can.

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