- Karen Washburn
Moonshine and Murder In Loudoun
In Loudoun County, as in Fairfax, the early years of Prohibition enforcement were marked by some leniency and much confusion over which branch of officials could enforce in which location. A case in point was a raid conducted in 1921 by State Prohibition Officers Brown and Meadows from Richmond. A still was reported to be operating on Vandevanter’s Island in the Potomac River. It was a good location for a still because it was far from the Maryland shore and did not offer anything to attract visitors from the Virginia side.
Acting on a tip, in a typewritten unsigned letter, the Richmond officers traveled to Loudoun County. The letter gave complete instructions as to how to find the still. The state officers were instructed to go to a camp at the side of the river where they would find an unsecured motorboat that they could use to access the Island. The officers followed the instructions and surprised Bob Jenkins as he was running the still. The Loudoun Mirror reported that he didn’t even try to resist due to the fact that the state officers were heavily armed. Jenkins was arrested and brought back to Leesburg along with his still and three or four gallons of whiskey.
Brown and Meadows took Jenkins before Justice of the Peace Shipman who promptly released him. Shipman pointed out to the State Officers that the island was in Maryland and not within their jurisdiction. This action did not please Brown and Meadows. They thought they had made a very successful raid. Jenkins retained Leesburg attorney Charles F. Harrison to represent him. On behalf of his client, Harrison demanded that the still and whiskey be returned to his client. But Loudoun Sheriff T.W. Edwards refused, because the possession of both was illegal in Virginia, and he could not return them even if they had been illegally confiscated.
Once thwarted by the Loudoun County officials, the state officers took their case to the federal level. Several days later Federal Revenue Officers arrived in Leesburg with a warrant for Jenkins’ arrest. However, he had not waited to meet them and could not be found. All of that effort and expense was spent for a still that only had a four-gallon capacity.
This type of leniency and confusion in law enforcement was somewhat short-lived in Loudoun. Soon after the island raid, local officials began to crack down hard and get tough on moonshiners. The law was stringently enforced by gun-toting law officers. But they had no better results in stamping out the activities of the moonshiners than did their colleagues in Fairfax. At times the severity of enforcement caused great tragedy. Such was the case that resulted in the murder of J.D. Lambert, Jr.
Lambert was both a resident and a successful business entrepreneur in Leesburg. For some reason, in 1923, he was appointed as a State Special Agent to enforce Prohibition. It is not known why he took on this dangerous job, but it may have been because of his personal beliefs. Some of his close relatives were serving as deputy sheriffs and that might also have influenced him.
Whatever his reasons, Lambert took up the job with the ardor of a crusader. There were times when he was warned by the circuit court judge for being too heavy handed and too anxious to use his gun in the pursuit of his duties. It is also interesting to note, that unlike many Loudoun men of his era, he was not a good shot. In fact, one of his fellow officers later remarked that he couldn’t imagine why Lambert always started shooting because he couldn’t hit the “broad side of a barn”.
Lambert got a tip in October 1923, that there was a still working in the woods near Belmont Station on the 1,000 acre Belmont Plantation. It made a good location for a still because the owner, E.B. McLean, was rarely there and it was remote. Lambert buckled on his gun and accompanied by Deputy Sheriff C.L. Umbaugh, left Leesburg about 3:00 p.m. to search for the still.
When they found the still they remained hidden as they watched one of the still owners, Maurice Poole, playing craps with “Doc” Johnson and Johnson Jackson, inside a ring made of large wooden barrels filled with mash. Another man, Clarence Costello, was a short distance away, acting as a lookout.
According to Poole, Lambert, in his well-known style, pulled his gun and called out, “Don’t run boys or I’ll shoot”. Human nature being what it is, they ran, as Lambert fired his first shot in the air. Deputy Umbaugh chased the runners firing shots as he ran. Costello and Lambert remained in the vicinity of the still, and exchanged shots as Costello made his escape.
Umbaugh was outrun by the moonshiners that he was chasing. Doc Johnson and Poole kept going. By now it was about 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. and starting to get dark. Umbaugh, having lost his quarry, tried to return to the still. But he couldn’t find it or Lambert.
The woods were quiet. Umbaugh was uneasy since he had heard shooting while running through the woods. Because Lambert had the keys to the car, Umbaugh decided to walk all the way back to Leesburg to get help. In retrospect it seems that it was a rather odd to walk all that way to summons help. He had to pass several farms on the way into Leesburg. And he could have gotten a ride to town or used a telephone.
He didn’t arrive back at the sheriff’s office until about 9:45 p.m. When he reported what had happened to Sheriff Edwards he found that no one had heard from Lambert. Fearing that he was hurt, Umbaugh, with four other men, immediately returned to the Belmont woods to look for him. They found him dead, on the path to the still, with his gun in his hand. He had been shot twice. The fatal shot hit him in the back.
While Umbaugh was taking his long walk back to Leesburg, Poole had gone to his home near Ashburn and gotten his horse. He wanted to find his two business partners, Curtis Jenkins and Ed Ball. Poole, anxious to get out of the area, rode to Mundy’s Store in Ashburn where he found Ball and Judge Benjamine.
After Poole told Ball what had happened they decided that they should go on to the Jenkins farm located off of the Leesburg Pike, in what is now Countryside. Judge Benjamine agreed to give them a ride in his car.
When they got to the Jenkins farm they discovered that Costello had already been there and reported that he had shot Lambert, but didn’t know how badly he was hurt. After talking with Ball, and Jenkins, Poole decided to go to stay with his brother who lived in Ballston. Bill Milstead, another friend, who was there, agreed to give Poole a ride to Great Falls so that he could catch the trolley into Arlington.
The next morning, after Poole read in the Washington Times that Lambert had been killed, he decided to return home and surrender to Sheriff Edwards. When he got home he discovered that Costello had been there the night of the shooting looking for him. Jenkins and Ball had also gone to the Poole farm, where they were arrested by Sheriff Edwards at about 3:30 a.m. Costello escaped but was arrested at his home near Aldie the next day.
Poole’s statement to the Sheriff tells the background of a simple illegal enterprise that ended in tragedy. About three months earlier, Jenkins and Ball had gotten a 100-gallon still which they set up in the Belmont woods. They then met with Maurice Poole, who was only age twenty-one at the time, and offered him a one-third partnership if he would run the still for them.
This was a classic case of absentee ownership as Poole lived near the still site and the owners lived east of Ashburn. If he could be persuaded to do the work, he also would take most of the risk. They offered Poole one-third of the proceeds plus an extra gallon of whiskey for everyday that he ran the still. He was paid $5.00 a gallon for his share of the profit from the sales. Jenkins supplied all of the raw material for making rye whiskey. He was also the distributor of the finished product. Poole employed Doc Johnson and Johnson Jackson to help him and paid them each one gallon of whiskey a day for their work. For all concerned this was much more money than they would have earned doing any other job.
About a week before the still was raided, Jenkins hired Clarence Costello as a lookout and introduced him to Poole. Costello told Poole that he needed a gun if he was going to do the job. Poole took his father’s pistol without permission and loaned it to Costello. After the shooting, Costello went first to report to Jenkins and then went to the Poole’s farm. He returned the pistol to Mr. Poole, Sr. and told him that he shot Lambert and saw him fall, but didn’t know how badly he was hurt.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Lambert were particularly tragic for people in the communities of eastern Loudoun and Leesburg. The shock shook them to their cores. Not only was the victim well known to them, so were Jenkins, Ball, and Poole. Loudoun County had a small population and people tended to stay in the same area, generation after generation. Lambert, only thirty-seven years old at the time of his death, left a widow and five children and had a large extended family throughout the county.
Once all of the suspects were arrested, the law moved very swiftly and the trials were scheduled almost immediately. Costello was sent to the Fauquier County Jail in Warrenton instead of the Loudoun County Jail in Leesburg. The change of location was probably done because Deputy Sheriff C.L. Umbaugh was the jailer in Leesburg and some of Lambert’s relatives were deputies.
Costello and Poole were both indicted. Costello was charged with first degree murder. and his trial was set for November 7, 1923. His defense attorney, R.A. McIntyre, was no slouch. And he left no stone unturned in his efforts to prove that his client was acting in self-defense. His impressive list of 21 witnesses, included local circuit court Judge Fletcher who was to preside over the case. This caused a new judge to be appointed to conduct the trial and the date to be moved to December. McIntyre was determined to get a fair trial for his client. A difficult proposition because the deceased was so well known in Loudoun County.
McIntyre made a case for self-defense. He stated that there were known to be three guns at the sight of the crime. Two were capable of shooting steel-jacketed bullets and one only shot old fashioned lead bullets. The doctor who had done the autopsy had not been able to locate and remove the bullets from Lambert’s body. The case became more unpleasant when the judge ordered that Lambert’s body be exhumed and that the bullets be recovered.
In order to accomplish this grisly task they sent to Washington, D.C. for Dr. Joseph Rogers, a former Loudoun resident. By use of x-rays, a fairly new technique, Dr. Rogers was able to locate and remove the two lead bullets.
When the trial finally got underway on December 18, Commonwealth Attorney Cecil Connor delivered a strong opening statement. He called it a “dastardly and brutal murder of an officer in the discharge of his duty”. He pronounced that he would prove to the jury that the prisoner was guilty of first degree murder.
McIntyre for the defense was equally eloquent and stated that he would prove that his client acted in self-defense and that Lambert had fired two shots before any shots were fired back. He also expected to prove that it would have been impossible for his client to have shot Lambert due to the angle at which the bullets had entered the body. The question of who else could have fired the fatal shot hovered in the air. According to the testimony of those involved, there were only three guns at the site. For some people, the question was never adequately answered. Seventy years later there were Loudouners who remembered the case well and still held strong and differing opinions on who was really the guilty party.
W.C. Whitmore, the county surveyor, was called to testify about a detailed drawing that he made of the site of the still and the location of Lambert’s body. All those present during the raid testified except Maurice Poole. He refused, because he was still waiting for his own trial.
In spite of McIntyre’s best efforts Costello was found guilty of second degree murder. Connor, the prosecutor, pressed the jury for the maximum penalty, and reminded them that this was no time for leniency because at the time of the shooting Costello was engaged in lawlessness that was a felony in its own right. Costello was sentenced to twenty years in the state penitentiary.
Poole fared somewhat better at his trial. He was defended by Loudoun attorney Walter Tansill Oliver. As in Costello’s case, Judge Fletcher of the circuit court was again called as a witness. Costello was returned from the penitentiary to testify. Oliver made the case that Costello had taken the gun from the Poole home without permission and that Poole never intended for anyone to be shot. Furthermore, Poole had run when Lambert called out and was not present when the shooting occurred. The jury was even taken to the scene of the murder so they could get a first-hand understanding of what had occurred. They returned a verdict of guilt as an accessory before the fact. He was sentenced to two and a half years in the state penitentiary.
Poole’s business partners Curtis Jenkins and Ed Ball were tried and found guilty of manufacturing ardent spirits. They were sentenced to six months in jail and fined $500.00 each, a very large amount of money at that time. Just the same, they got off lightly. Their position of being absentee owners had successfully removed them quite literally from the line of fire.
Next time: More Moonshine and Murder in Loudoun
Copyright Karen Washburn 2004