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Published January 31, 2018

Folklife: Female Folk Heroes of Moonshine and Bootlegging

Moonshiners and bootleggers have eluded the status of being seen as hardened criminals and over the years evolved to folk hero status. But not all moonshiners and bootleggers were good ole boys. In fact, women brewing and producing distilled spirits goes back more than 800 years. Women have been credited with the invention of beer as far back as 4,000 B.C.

Maria Hebraea has been dubbed the “First Lady of Hooch”. She was the first woman to invent a distilling apparatus for making brandy and whiskey between the first and third centuries. Her model is still used to this day in the foothills of Appalachia for making moonshine. The first recipe for sour mash was credited to Catherin Spears Frye Carpenter in 1818.

Society’s stereotype beyond women being no more than ordinary housewives, mothers and grandmothers made it difficult for juries to convict. Jurors couldn’t conceive the idea of women hiding flasks and pistols strapped to their inner thighs. Women almost always received lesser fines and sentences than men if they were caught.

Unlike their male counterparts known for big mouths and big guns, women took the approach of staying low key and quiet about their activities.

They were charming and swift and hid their illegal operation undercover while brewing in their own kitchen. Mary Ann Moriarity had a laundry business and bootlegged her moonshine hidden in deliveries of clean laundry. Esther Clark stored her moonshine in her chicken coop and was dubbed “The Henhouse Bootlegger”.

During Prohibition, federal officials estimated that there were more women than men in the moonshine and bootlegging business and sales were 5 to 1 compared to men. Officials were less likely to suspect women of selling and making moonshine. Women had several advantages over men in making and distributing the illegal hooch. Many states had laws prohibiting women from being searched by the police which made it easier for women to smuggle illegal booze. Bootleggers often hired women to ride along because their vehicle was less likely to be stopped and searched.

Queen of Mountain Bootleggers

State laws made it easy for women to smuggle booze under their dresses and fur coats.

Maggie “Megs” Bailey became a local legend in Harlan County, Kentucky and was known as the “Queen of Mountain Bootleggers”. Like most moonshiners and bootleggers did during those days, Maggie began selling moonshine in the dry county when she was 17 years old to support her family. She took pride in producing quality corn and sugar head whiskeys and was a well-loved member of Clevertown. She played a vital role in her community by caring for the needy, donating money and food and sponsored several local children through college.

She also avoided being prosecuted by any jury because she was so well loved. She was only convicted one time of selling moonshine and concealing 150 half gallons of moonshine 1941.

Maggie spent 18 months in the federal reformatory for women in Alderson, West Virginia. After time served, she avoided ever being convicted again with the help of her family, friends and neighbors who always came to her defense. Maggie sold moonshine from the 1930’s and stayed in business until she was 95 years old. Maggie always kept a low profile, lived in a modest house and was an expert on the search and seizure laws of the 4th Amendment.

RELATED: Appalachian Lexicon: 12 Common Sense Slang Words.

Over her lifetime, U.S. District Judge Karl Forester who represented Mrs. Bailey stated, “I know she must have been hauled into court at least 100 times. I do not remember a single time she was convicted.” Although she never drank, the only people she would not sell illegal whiskey to was children and drunks. The Queen of Mountain Bootleggers passed away on December 3, 2005 at the age of 101 from complications of pneumonia.

Nancy the Moonshiner

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Applejack, also known as “Jersey lightning” was the most popular drink of choice in New Jersey during the late 1800’s. But one mysterious woman who attracted the suspicion of federal agents was a woman known only as “Crazy Nancy”. Nancy lived in the hills of Warren County along Lake Pequest river. Selling berries in the summer and trapping for furs in the winter didn’t seem to coincide with her lavish lifestyle. She was never without money and always seemed to drop out of sight every winter for about 6 weeks and then reappear.

For two months, Nancy was under surveillance and during that time local apple farmers were complaining of their apple orchards being frequently robbed. It was only after the federal agent snuck into her home to find a small door that led to a chamber dug into the side of the hill. The federal agent witnessed Nancy enter the chamber and come out fully dressed as a man carrying a sack. The agent suspected she was the apple thief. When Nancy left, the federal agent inspected the hidden room to find a full-blown moonshine operation complete with a still, 50 large jugs and large amounts of apples. Laying on the floor, he found women’s clothing.

When Nancy returned, the agent tried to apprehend her but she blew out her candle, reached for a stool and threw it at the agent knocking him unconscious. Nancy escaped and was never caught. Agents found 500 gallons of applejack stored under the floorboards and in the secret chamber. It was speculated that she hid her jugs in buckets of chestnuts and shipped her illegal brandy to New York and Philadelphia. The real identity of Nancy the Moonshiner has never been solved.

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  • Hope Thompson


  • Trying to educate the world one SLICE OF HISTORY at a time! Hope Thompson is a freelance journalist focused on hidden history, Southern & Appalachian folklife, and Native American culture. She is a native of North Carolina and has been writing for this space for four years. She currently works in state government finance and owns a graphic design business. All my articles.

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