By Patty Templeton
From The Rambler Archives – November 2014
Booze. Booze. Booze. As the famed man Homer Simpson said, “It’s the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” Including poverty, at least, for some. The United States has a long history of moonshiners. Ever since the Whiskey Tax of 1791, the U.S. government has told its citizens they can’t distill their own spirits without excise and ever since 1791 U.S. citizens have waved jugs of white lightning and dissatisfied middle fingers in the air.
The Rambler ain’t saying one side is right and the other wrong. We’re saying, why the heck is it always fellas, eh? Every which way you look in history, there’s a dude running a rebellion, a man behind a still…and we call BS. Just because the world hasn’t heard about them doesn’t mean that women in niche histories don’t exist. The Rambler went on a mission to find some moonshining ladies folks should know about.
Here are two women who – for better or worse – got on the Feds shitlist by selling homebrew. Now if only songs were written about each…
The Strange Case of Nancy, the Mysterious Moonshiner
Hooch! Theft! Cross-dressing! Escape! Now, if that ain’t the makings of a good song, we don’t know what is.
1896 was a big year for apple jack in New Jersey and Nancy was one of its leading distillers. “Crazy” Nancy (called such by the inhabitants of her surrounding county) lived in the hills near the Lake Pequest River. No one knew how she survived. She had no family. Her only known income was berry-selling in summer and the occasional fur in the fall. Each winter, she’d disappear for six weeks, but, who can be too worried about a hard-bargaining loon of a woman when someone was thieving large quantities from the apple orchards? Still, a government man by the name of Finch, posing as a farmhand, spied on Nancy for two months.
Finch staked out Nancy’s two acres and barn abode. One freezing night he saw a man with an apple sack enter Nancy’s home…but no male ever left. Nancy left later that day…and Finch took a chance. He broke-in and searched her joint. What Finch found was a hidden compartment that was dug into the hill. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (February 2, 1896), “In it was a still, a half a hundred large jugs and a pile of apples. It was a complete moonshiner’s outfit. On the floor lay Nancy’s female apparel.”
What does a lawman do when he realizes a woman has been the scourge of the apple orchards? He hides under her kitchen table in the dark and waits for her to get home. Then, like an idiot, he yells, “Hold up your hands!” after she’s come home and lights a candle…which gives Nancy time to blowout said illumination and crack the SOB over the head with a chair.
Needless to say, Nancy ran away and was never found. What was retrieved were over 500 gallons of apple jack from hidey-holes in her home and a nearby cavern.
Mahala Mullins – The “Unmovable” Moonshiner
Mahala Mullins was a widow with near 20 kids. She weighed somewhere between 400 – 700 pounds (1890s newspaper accounts vary). She lived near Sneedville, Tennessee with a cabin at the top of Newman’s Ridge. It’s a cabin you can still visit as it was given to the Vardy Historical Society and restored. Anyways, all those young’uns, the ones that survived infancy and didn’t get shot or lynched later, helped produce the Mullins’ specialty: apple and peach brandy.
Let’s get back to that weight issue. It’s not so much that The Rambler gives a good goddamn how large Mahala was, more so that the police and revenuers did. Some accounts state Mrs. Mullins had elephantiasis. Others state that that she was so large, when she died they had to remove the chimney to allow her body’s egress. However big she was, the phrase that followed Mahala Mullins was “catchable, but not fetchable.” Authorities knew that Mrs. Mullins was a moonshiner, but they had no way of arresting her and jailing her.
See, she lived up a winding ridge and there was no solid road. She sold moonshine to those that braved their way up to her, and made a good living at it, too. When revenuers would appear, it is said that Mrs. Mullins would taunt them, saying, “Take me if you can.” Authorities never quite figured out how to make that happen. The Atlanta Constitution in 1897 reported, “It would take half a dozen strong men to carry her out of the house and when the outside was reached they would not be able to get her to the road at the bottom of the ridge, as it is impossible to get a wagon to the top, where her cabin is located.” Lawdogs would bust her still and leave it at that. Of course, Mahala would immediately build a new one.
Come on. This screams for a song…and get this, Mahala Mullins mighta been murdered. It’s a rumor, but a long-standing one, that Mrs. Mahala Mullins died in convulsions similar to those that would occur if a person had been poisoned. But who (outside of police) would want Mahala dead? Maybe rival moonshiners envious of her unarrestable status?
Come on now, The Rambler knows yer out there. Yes, you. The lurking songwriters. The slinking storytellers. The prowling poets. Get on it. These are two outlaws that’d make hella swell subjects. The world has heard of Popcorn Sutton. Give it a few more rotgut rebels to wonder over.
Patty Templeton likes hearing about moonshiners and women rebels. If you’ve got names of either, you should hit her up over here.