Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World

By Deutsch, James | Western Folklore, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World


Deutsch, James, Western Folklore


Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World. By Charles D. Thompson Jr. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Pp. xxix + 269, acknowledgments, prologue, photographs, epilogue, notes, works cited, index. $75.00 clodi, $23.95 paper.)

Charles D. Thompson Jr. is an educational administrator and adjunct professor at Duke University with impressive academic credentials. He has published books and articles, directed documentary films, received fellowships, and . . . is die grandson of William Clifford Thompson, who not only hauled boodeg liquor, but also sold the ingredients needed to brew that liquor in the backwoods of southwestern Virginia. Thompson's familiarity with these two worlds - of academia and moonshine - provides him with just the right perspective to interpret the culture of his ancestors and their communities: their history, lore, and "spirits" (as per the double meaning of the book's felicitous title).

Franklin County, Virginia - where Thompson grew up - provides the focus and locus for the book. Known as the "Moonshine Capital of the World," this remote, rural county had a national reputation for "mountain lawlessness and depravity metastasized," where "armed hillbillies [were] ready to blow your brains out if you got lost and veered too close to a still" (8). Yet, as Thompson demonstrates, the history and culture of moonshine is a wholly American story - exemplifying principles of self-reliance, pluck and ingenuity, hard work and persistence, and community democracy.

All of these elements emerge out of the three separate but interrelated trials that anchor Spirits of Just Men: 1) the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935, which prosecuted some three dozen individuals - including "die self-proclaimed grand-nephew" of General Robert E. Lee (20) - for a conspiracy to defraud the United States of liquor taxes; 2) the 1936 trial that accused some of those same defendants of tampering with the first trial's jury; and 3) die 1937 trial mat accused two brodiers of murdering a Franklin County deputy sheriff who was one die alleged leaders of die moonshine conspiracy. …

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