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Life on the run

The 18th amendment, in effect from 1920 until its repeal in 1933, prohibited the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. But as it turns out, Prohibition did not leave the people of Raleigh all that thirsty. Writer Robert Thompson gave readers a glimpse into the rum running life in 1929.

For the past year, the tenth since national prohibition, Raleigh has consumed an average of about 300 gallons of whiskey a day, according to the estimates of officers of the law, whose business it is to stop the liquor traffic, and rum runners, whose determination it is to carry it on.

Three hundred gallons is a lot of whiskey. If the officers and runners are correct, and they insist that their figure is conservative, it is 2,100 gallons a week or 134,000 two ounce illegal drinks of whiskey -- three for every inhabitant -- that Raleigh drinks every week. At the prevailiing price of whiskey bought direct from the rum runners -- home delivered whiskey costs more -- that means that Raleigh spends $3,400 a week for its booze.

Where does all this whiskey come from? How does it get here? Who drinks it? Why can't it be stopped? These are the questions that law abiding citizens, whose ignorance of actual conditions is colossal, ask. The last two of these questions, as to the drinkers and the possibility of stopping the traffic, cannot be accurately answered here -- though the rum runners say everybody is drinking it and that's the reason it can't be stopped -- but first hand information as to the source and the transportation was last week readily obtainable from some of the foremost figures of the industry -- "Boll Weevil" Ray, Clarence Hamilton, "Red" Hearn and Walter Morris, -- and was easily checked through police and deputy sheriffs.

New Bern and Craven county which the rum runners call "God's country," is still the centre of the liquor industry in this section of the State but it has competition from the Steel Bridge section in Virginia, and from Johnston, Franklin, Wake and, in fact, practically every county in this section. In a majority of counties, however, the stills are rural affairs while in the swamps beyond New Bern and near Steel Bridge they are great steam plants, running as regularly and as efficiently as factories -- far more regularly than cotton mills at the present time.

Ray, Hamilton, Hearn and Morris, in their interview in the Wake county jail, were not disposed to give any accurate information on the location of the stills but they did say that the daily production in the New Bern section -- some of which goes out by boat -- runs into many hundreds of gallons. The sale of thousands upon thousands of fruit jars and tons upon tons of sugar to the manufacturers is one of the chief businesses of New Bern, they say, and trucks loaded with these products can be seen headed for the swamps every day. "If it wan't for liquor New Bern would have to close down," claimed "Red" Hearn.

But one thing the boys wanted to be made clear. "That's all wrong about us paying off the (law) in New Bern," declared Hamilton. "They run you there as much as anywhere. Of course we never had much liquor running around New Bern, we brought it to Raleigh and some other places, but when the law had anything on you there they'd run you. I've had to run off and leave two cars in New Bern and send somebody else back for them."

"Yeah," put in Boll Weevil, "that's where I was arrested."

The four chief sources of information for this story usually bought their whiskey on the outskirts of New Bern rather than going to the swamps after it. By going to the swamps they could get it for $10 a case, while it cost $12 this side of the long bridge, but the boys seem to think it was worth the difference to start that much nearer their markets.

Having loaded their cars they started toward Raleigh, running fast but not fast enough to attract too much attention unless "the law" was after them. Here they disposed of their whiskey for $24 a case, usually. About half of the liquor brought into Raleigh was sold by the jar, half gallon, at $2 each, and about half in case lots to bootleggers and customers who like to keep a good stock in charred kegs. Often, however the market would be flooded and the runners would have to cut their prices to the trade, the bootleggers, as low as $18 a case. Sometimes they would even have to leave town with their whiskey not sold and hide it out in the country until the demand picked up.

As to the men that bring the liquor into Raleigh, and the reason they are in the business, much can be said.

"They are the best fellows you'll find in any racket," claimed "Boll Weevil." As they are a cheerful lot of young men, whose money goes as easy as it comes, it is easy to see why he and many others believe it. But closer scrutiny into their lives and their interests reveal that they are attracted to the business by "easy money," reckless living and a thirst for admiration from a certain class -- mostly the petty underworld -- and for publicity.

"But I'm glad I was caught. It's a damn sight better talking about it than being in it," declared Ray. "The kick don't last long and though you make a lot of money you gotta spend it and you never have nothing in the end."

All four of the rum runners interviewed agreed that the fact that they were never safe, that they never felt safe sleeping even in the neighborhoods of their homes, that they couldn't go into a cafe without fearing that some officer was going to get them, was too high a price to pay for the money, the thrill and the publicity they got out of their business. And rest assured that rum runners are as pubicity hungry as prima donnas and prizefighters. When W. E. Tyson, probably the leader of the lot, was arrested, an envelope full of newspaper clippings about himself was found in his pockets.

"Sure, put my picture in the paper," said Ray. "People have read so much about 'Boll Weevil' they ought to see what he looks like." And Hamilton, Hearns and Morris were just as obliging.

Asked why they didn't quit if their business was so objectionable, the runners said that they all knew they were going to be arrested sooner or later and that they intended to quit as soon as they got caught.

"Huh," exclaimed a Deputy Sheriff, one of the best, when he heard of this remark. "I ain't saying that they will, but nine out of ten of them will be back in the business as soon as they get off the roads and they won't quit until they lose their nerve or until folks stop acting like they were heroes. Some woman will tell 'em they're brave and wonderful and the damn fools will break their necks to prove it. I don't make as much money in a month as they do in a week but I got more than any of 'em and I get just as many thrills as they do -- though not as much publicity. Most of 'em are good fellows, in a way, but you can't trust 'em and they're lazy as hell, just not worth a damn."

There is little animosity between rum runners and the officers that chase them, with a few exceptions.

"If we know a law ain't going to tell a lie on us and will treat us right we don't hold any hard feelings against him," said Hamilton. "There's Garland Jones. He ran me down in New Bern and I slid on my face with him sitting on top of my head but I ain't got anything against him."

One outstanding rum runner, Theodore Vincent, is not liked by his colleagues. Vincent, said Hamilton, is the man who cut the price of whiskey in Raleigh to $2 a gallon. "He don't care about nobody but himself," he said. "He said he was going to make it so hot that we'd all be run out of Raleigh but I notice that he got his first."

Of interest to liquor consumers is the fact that just before he was arrested in New Bern by Wake county officers who had been sent down to get him on a bench warrant, Hamiilton, Ray and others were getting together on an agreement to raise the price of whiskey. It was the beginning of a move to organize the industry, as it is organized in other places, but it fell through when most of the leading runners were put out of business temporarily.

"They're mostly kids running whiskey in here now," said Ray, "Some of 'em are squealers and they're ruining the business."

"The best days of the whiskey running were several years ago, he added, when the prices were high and arrests even more infrequent than now. It is an interesting trend in the business that since Vincent cut the price to $2 a jar and the rest had to follow, and since the Steel Bridge competition, the Craven county manufacturers have recently cut the wholesale price.

Apparently there is little risk in each rum running venture but a certainty of getting caught eventually. Ray has been running whiskey for almost six years, he said, and his recent arrest was his second. He is an automobile mechanic -- a good one, according to his old boss -- who got tired of working. For the first year he was in the business he would make a trip to New Bern once night and hide out his liquor when he got back to Raleigh. The next day he was on his job fixing cars but that night he would sell his liquor. After a while he decided to make his part time occupation his only business.

"Until I quit work none of the law knew I was running whiskey," he said.

Clarence Hamilton is a Cary boy who is rather handsome. He looks a lot more like a bank clerk than a rum runner but the officers say that he is one of the best and most daring drivers in the game.

Morris is not a veteran in the business and much of his activity has been limited to running with somebody on a commission or for a set amount.

"Red" Hearn, a big, good humored Irishman, is one of the most likeable men of the lot but he is a rotton business man, say the others. "Red" has never saved up enough money to get him a car and get in in business for himself but as as a companion and a rumble seat salesman he has few if any equals.

"That scoundrel has waved his hand at me many a time as Buck Eddins' car roared away," said Deputy Jones, laughing.

Asked how they could continue their illegal business in a limited territory year after year without arrest, the rum runners attributed it to speed. "If you're willing to take a chance on your life, there ain't much chance of getting caught," said one.

They seldom slept in Raleigh and did most of their eating in cafes in towns where they were not wanted or in sections where the officers were not wanted. Ray spent much of his time near Martinsville, Va., he said. Others have farms and towns that they frequent, usually because of some girl. Their associates, business and social, were not of the sort that wanted them arrested. About the only times they were in real danger, they were in fast automobiles and ready to drive much faster than most officers wanted to or could in the cars they have.

In the matter of automobiles the rum runners differ. The majority of opinion is that a Chrysler roadster is the best for their business but "Boll Weevil," who has had many an automobile, is firm of the opinion that there is nothing better than a Ford roaster for rum running.

"In town you can whip 'em around better than any other kind and on the road they are fast," he said. "For the country I guess a Chrysler is best, for it's faster, but in town give me my Ford."

The average load of whiskey the boys brought into Raleigh was about eight cases, 48 gallons, but often they would carry as many as 15 and sometimes 20. Clarence Hamilton said that he once brought 20 cases, 120 gallons on a Ford roadster from New Bern to Raleigh, but one of them slid off the running board as he rounded a curve. He had four cases in the seat and on the floor beside him, three on each running board and ten in the rear and on the rumble seat when he made the trip. -- The News & Observer 7/7/1929

Library of Congress photo

Charlie Poole's moonshine blues

Moonshine and old-time music go together like, well, blue and grass. The late great bluegrass pioneer Charlie Poole was an especially avid connoisseur, especially of the moonshine from around the Shooting Creek area of Franklin County in Virginia. Local author Charles Thompson can tell you about that. Thompson just published a book, "Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World" (University of Illinois Press), which traces his family's involvement in Prohibition-era moonshining. It's a story that Poole rambles through as a bit player.

"Charlie Poole was from the North Carolina milltown of Spray, and he liked to play around Endicott, Va.," Thompson says. "That was a pretty well-populated area in the 1920s and '30s, hundreds of farm families hanging on from moonshining. So he got a big audience up there. But most of all, he liked the liquor so much that he eventually drank himself to death. He changed the words to 'Cripple Creek' and wrote another song called 'Shootin' Creek.'"

Thompson is doing a reading on Saturday in Durham, and the program includes Poole's great-nephew Kinney Rorrer performing "Shootin' Creek" -- on one of Poole's old banjos, no less. For more on the book and the reading, see this story from Friday's paper.

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