Moonshine Arrests during Prohibition in Durbin
Jason Bauserman has researched the official Durbin Town records in an effort to learn about the local enforcement of laws against making or selling whiskey during the period of prohibition in the 1920’s. He shares with us some of what he has learned about that turbulent time.
Jason noted that the Federal prohibition law went into effect on July 1, 1919 and made the making or sale of any alcoholic beverage a felony. This new Federal law clashed with local tradition and heritage as Jason explains.
“It was just kind of a way of life for many of the people back here to make their own (whiskey)” said Jason. “They grew a lot of their own food and meat, and well it was just natural, if they wanted alcohol, they could do that too, kind of a self sufficient person. But then this Prohibition came in.”
It took about a year and a half after the Prohibition law passed before the aggressive enforcement trickled down to the Durbin area, but by late 1920, the Justices of the Peace got very busy with local citizens caught distilling or selling liquor.
“In 1921, J.B. Sutton, who was the Justice of the Peace in Cass, arrested about 40 people just in the Cass area alone” Jason says. “Now not all of these people had stills, some were sellers.”
Jason found there were so many moonshine cases that the Justices of the Peace handled these felonies locally, performing as judges. He found it fascinating that these Justices of the Peace, who had no formal legal education, were handling these felony cases.
And what were the usual penalties?
“Most of the time, if you had a still and got caught it was a $200.00 fine and 60 days in jail” Jason answers. “If you were a seller, a lot of times it was maybe a hundred dollar fine and still 60 days in jail.”
Of course those fines were a lot of money to people back in 1921. Jason describes one of the more interesting cases found in the old records.
“August 9th of 1921, there was a Brooks Bishop that got caught” said Jason. “Now he was selling lemon and vanilla extract. And lemon extract was 42% alcohol, and the vanilla extract was 85% alcohol. These were manufactured bottles with a nice label. He just bought probably a big suitcase full and walked around selling this because people couldn’t get alcohol. He got one of the lesser fines, a hundred dollars and 60 days in jail.”
Before probation, most arrests in the Durbin area were men but that changed with prohibition.
“When we did hit the prohibition years, all of a sudden I started to see quite a few women that were involved, and they were the ones pretty much running the stills” Jason said. “There was not much work around. A lot of the work in this area was pretty hard, heavy grunt work –a lot of jobs that women were just denied. But, look, this is a recipe, it’s cooking, it’s watching it and making sure it comes off at the right time and really it kind of fit in with what women were used to doing.”
Jason talks about another case dated July, 11th, 1925, which involved some sisters named Jones from Deer Creek Village.
“I kind of want to pull out this one case” said Jason. “ These Jones sisters, particularly Susan Jones and Virgie Jones, had been caught quite a few times before.”
They were convicted of possession of only one bottle of liquor but because they were of “dubious character” they were sentenced to a fine of $100.00 and 60 days in jail. They were allowed to go home for 48 hours on their own recognizance to prepare for jail but instead skipped out of town. Jason tells what the Justice of the Peace said on the record about that.
“The aforesaid defendants, having decided to depart for parts unknown” quoted Jason. “ They are wished a happy and prosperous sojourn wherever they are, so long as it is outside the boundary lines of the state of West Virginia.”
Wishing you too, a happy and prosperous day