Tales of a revenuer: Hunting down and catching bootleggers

By: J.A. Bolton - Storyteller

ABC officers — or old-time revenuers — regard the secret making and selling of illegal whiskey not as a criminal offense, but as a tax violation. These men, and occasional women, put in 60 to 80 hours a week at work and almost never take a vacation. Their primary job is to stop the making or selling of non-tax-paid liquor and, more recently, the growing and selling of illegal drugs.

The last big boom in the white liquor business was during the ’60s and early’70s. It collapsed partly because of the rise in sugar prices and partly because merchants were required by the federal government to report all large purchases of sugar, although some did not.

A lot of times an ABC officer worked alone but sometimes with a trainee. When a large operation was being raided, several officers or local law enforcement might work together to arrest the shiners and destroy the still.

Not only do ABC officers check out illegal stills, they also watch for and catch liquor-selling bootleggers. Most bootleggers operate after the local liquor store closes. Moonshine — and even legally bought liquor — is sold by the drink, pint and quart jars, or in half-gallon or gallon milk jugs. It is sold out of houses and apartments, at cross-road stores, filling stations, at the back doors of hotels, in parking lots and just about any place you can think of. Bootleggers often add Pepsi Cola or tea to moonshine in order to turn it the color of higher-priced bourbon. A smart bootlegger might serve a customer his first couple of drinks with the good stuff but after a few drinks most folks can’t tell the difference. This is when N.C. corn liquor mixed with Pepsi and tea comes into play.

Most ABC officers have a background in law enforcement or military service. Most officers just have a knack or a love for their jobs. Their jobs require working in all types of weather conditions, enduring snakes, ticks, red bugs, mosquitoes, folks shooting at you and anything else it might take to get the job done. Sometimes their job might require them to pose as a fish salesman, sawmill worker, preacher or some other profession that might help them make an arrest.

How does an ABC officer know where to look for moonshiners’ stills or a bootlegger’s bar? A lot of times, the officer will check with merchants who sell glass jars or plastic jugs in large quantities. They check on sugar sales, strange activities or smells in the woods, foot or car traffic into certain areas, and do fly-overs. Informants also play a big part in helping them find stills and bootleggers.

Most moonshiners are pretty smart, but, on occasion, they have been known to drink too much of their product and get careless. Shiners oftentimes encircle their still site with a strand of cotton thread, usually green or black. It is strung just inches off the ground and is invisible amongst the underbrush. A smart liquor agent approaching a still for the first time waves a fern gently before himself to locate the thread. Why, sometimes shiners will place money on the ground around his still to see if anyone has come around and picked it up. Sometimes they even tie dogs out close to the still to give them a warning if someone is approaching.

When an ABC officer stakes out a still, he might be concealed for days or nights waiting for someone to come and start up the still. An officer told me he was lying in wait one night and a snake crawled up his britches leg. I asked him what did he do. He said, “There won’t nobody at the still and I got up and ran.” Lucky for him, the snake rolled down his britches leg and out on the ground before it could bite.

Talking about running, about 90 percent of moonshiners, when confronted by a law officer, will run. Armed with only a handgun and several pairs of handcuffs, the officer has no choice but to chase them down. A former ABC officer, I will name only as “Swamp Man,” said he actually ran three shiners down and handcuffed all three by himself. Seems one was too old to run far and the other two were half-drunk.

When a moonshiner is caught or doesn’t return to his still after several weeks or months, the ABC officers either chop the still to pieces or blow it up with dynamite. When the still is blown up, the officer returns to make sure the dynamite has done its job.

In years past, if a still was discovered around election time, the local high sheriff would bring it to town and display it around the court house. Along with his deputies, he would have his picture taken with the still as a sign he was doing a right good job as sheriff of the county.

When first-time shiners are arrested — and they aren’t running a big operation — they usually get probation and a large fine. The bigger the liquor operation, the more time the shiners serve in federal prison. But get this: along with going to jail, everything that was being used or could have been used to make or haul illegal whiskey was confiscated. Things like a mule and wagon, picks and shovels, barrels, tin tubs, Mason jars, cars and trucks were sold at public auction. In cases of fast cars, the ABC officers usually ended up driving it on the job to catch more moonshine runners.

Well, catching a moonshiner at his still is one thing — but catching a wily bootlegger selling his product was another. Like moonshiners, a bootlegger can talk or shoot the grease out of a biscuit. Most didn’t get where they were at by being dumb or drunk. A lawman had to catch each one with the goods or selling them before an arrest could be made.

Talking with “Swamp Man” really gave me some insight on being an ABC officer. He said when checking on a still, he would park his car several miles away and walk in. Sometimes another agent would drop him off at the edge of a swamp or patch of woods and would stand by if’en the shiners happened to try and make a getaway by car.

“Swamp Man” said if he heard of a potential still site, he would walk through the area in a zig-zagging pattern. Sometimes he might find a sugar bag, a Mason jar lid, a shred of a pasteboard box or other telltale signs to guide him to a still path. Said when you are walking toward a working still, you only have to crack but one stick or make a sound close to where the still is being operated and you let yourself in for a load of buckshot and no flowers on your grave.

“Swamp Man” also told me that once he and another agent were checking on a potential still on Marks Creek, not far from the South Carolina border. The first time in, all they found was a small boat hidden beside the creek. The next time they walked into the creek, there was a four-wheeled truck parked next to the creek and the boat was gone. Well, patience and camo are a virtue for an ABC officer. Wasn’t long, they heard someone paddling down the creek toward them. Won’t long, here comes two shiners with so many cases of moonshine in their boat it was sitting only an inch out of the water. As the two shiners pulled into their makeshift boat landing, guess who was waiting for them. As the two officers rushed the boat, the shiners tried to get away by paddling their boat into the main current — but you know an ABC officer don’t mind getting wet and they made the arrest.

After the shiners and liquor were safely locked up, “Swamp Man” and his partner went back to Marks Creek to find and blow up the liquor still. They took the same little boat and paddled about a half-mile upstream and there, in a fork of the creek, was the still. With the dynamite lit, the two officers got back into the boat but were unable to get far enough away from the blast (fuses cut a little to short). “Swamp Man” said when that still blew, it threw all types of metal and wood all around them, but luckily all they got was a scratch or two.

Well folks, that’s my stories of moonshining, bootlegging and revenuers, by-golly I’m sticking by them.

J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson County Writers’ Club, Anson and Richmond County Historical Societies and author of his book, “Just Passing Time.”


J.A. Bolton