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  • Karen Washburn

Moonshine Leads to Murder

There were other more serious dangers associated with moonshine than being caught by the law. In 1923 there was a still operating on one of the islands in the Potomac River opposite what is now River Bend Park. Then it was private park known as Trammell's, where people would spend leisure time in the many fishing camps located on the hillside above the river. The island location was probably selected for several reasons. The island belonged to Maryland, even though it was close to the Virginia shore, which made it off-limits to the Fairfax sheriff. And it required a boat to get there which made it more difficult for the law officers to raid it without warning. It also had the advantage of near-by customers from the fishing camps.

One day, a local man decided that he really needed a drink but he didn’t have any money. He tried to borrow, but no one was willing to lend to him. He decided to go out to the island, declaring that he would get a drink “come hell or high water”. He and another man left Trammel's Landing in a canoe. No one ever reported exactly what happened on the island. But about three hours later witnesses reported that a man’s body that had been lying in a canoe was tipped out into the water. When the body was recovered the coroner determined that the man who was desperate for a drink had been murdered by a blow to the head.

In the Great Falls vicinity, river front sites were also popular for still locations because it made distribution easier. Moonshiners who were good businessmen with a good product established regular routes for home delivery. Deliveries could be carried on from either side of the river because many of the regular customers lived in Georgetown. When some farmers went into town to sell produce in the city markets, jars and bottles of moonshine rode with the vegetables, butter, and eggs. The Washington and Old Dominion Railroad also provided another convenient way to ship bottles and jars of whiskey along with farm produce and milk. Milk cans made a convenient hiding place for jars of whiskey.

The customers, while they were breaking the law, were otherwise, for the most part, law abiding. They just didn’t happen to agree with the eighteenth amendment. Some of the most prominent people in society were regular customers, including law officers, judges, and members of the U.S. Congress. The law was certainly not evenly enforced.

As time went on, the enforcement of Prohibition became a major problem. In the 1920s and 30s the Sheriffs Offices did not employ very many men. Because Northern Virginia was composed mostly of farming communities with small populations, there was not much crime and therefore no need for a large Sheriffs Office. However, Prohibition changed that.

Fairfax & State Officers Capture Still/ Police Historic Association

There were so many stills in Northern Virginia that the Sheriffs Offices did not have enough men to investigate all of the charges and to make arrests. To fill the gap, additional men were hired by the state as Special Officers, commonly known as “revenuers”. Even with this addition, there still weren’t enough men, so it became common practice to borrow help from other areas. A raid in Virginia might include officers from Fairfax and Loudoun combined with officers from Alexandria or the District of Columbia. At times, when the job warranted, federal and state revenue officers also participated. No matter how they worked, it was not an easy job.

First there was the mission of finding the stills. Most of the time the location was brought to the attention of the sheriff by reports from neighbors. Even when hidden deep in the woods, the smell of distilling alcohol was pervasive and carried a long way. While many of the neighbors might not approve of moonshining, so long as it didn’t interfere with their lives or well-being, they were able to turn a blind eye to the operation in the interest of friendly relations. Others simply didn’t care or were moonshine customers. But, since communities were small, almost everyone knew what everyone else was doing. Therefore, word of these illegal businesses eventually got to the sheriff.

Different law officers handled this knowledge in their own personal way. At times they too would turn a blind eye to operations if they weren’t too blatant. Other officers were ardent still hunters. In the early days of Prohibition, many small stills of two to ten gallons, were found throughout Northern Virginia. The penalties for these were not too stiff. If the operators were caught and convicted they were fined and sometimes given short sentences in the local jail. But by the mid 1920s much larger stills were being found and the penalties got much harsher. Fines were much higher and convictions were often served at federal penitentiaries not the local jails.

When the still was located near the river or on a river island, officers from Maryland would join with Virginia officers to break up the operation and carry out any arrests. The number of men needed for a raid varied. Sometimes it depended on the size the illegal operation and other times on who was leading the raid.

Some officers were more comfortable with only one companion and others took the stance of safety in numbers. Still raiding could be a very dangerous since the moonshiners were frequently armed. At that time in farming communities almost everyone owned a gun. Boys grew up being taught to hunt small game for the cooking pot. This early life training resulted in many moonshiners being good shots.

The Largest Still In Captivity Library of Congress

The same pool of public knowledge that led the sheriff to the still also worked for the moonshiners. They often knew that a raid was coming and had time to leave the still. They knew that it was impossible to protect their business and their primary goal was to avoid capture and jail time. But surprise raids could result in shootings. Law officers were at times wounded and in Loudoun County two were murdered while conducting raids.

The greatest still hunter in Northern Virginia was Special Officer, John Millan. A native of Fairfax, he grew up on his family’s farm on West Ox Road. He moved from serving as a Deputy Sheriff, in the mid-1920s, when he was designated as a State Special Agent to enforce Prohibition. He took to the job with a fervor not matched by many law officers.

Driven by a personal belief against the consumption of alcohol, Millan whole-heartedly supported Prohibition. He had grown up using a gun, was a good shot and didn’t hesitate to shoot in order to enforce the law. And he was not afraid to hunt down moonshiners and their operations.

Millan is remembered by one of his younger associates as being so conscientious in carrying out his duty that he would have locked up his own mother if necessary. Indeed, he is reported to have locked up his brother in the family corn crib for drunkenness before Prohibition. Throughout the 1920s and early 30s, sometimes alone, but often accompanied by Deputy Sheriff Cross and State Special Agent Williams, Millan raided and broke up stills all over the county.

The zeal that Millan displayed in doing his job caused moonshiners to fear him. Once he noticed that a car passing through the town of Fairfax appeared to be riding too heavily on its springs. He stopped it and captured a large quantity of liquor. Another time when a driver refused to pull over, he jumped onto the car’s running board with his gun drawn and demanded that the driver stop. The driver pushed him off and Millan peppered the trunk of the disappearing car with gun shots.

In December 1927, Millan and Cross accomplished one of their most spectacular raids on a location in the Mount Vernon District on the Potomac River. Acting on information received, they went prepared with sticks of dynamite. They waded across a small branch of the river to an island called the Dyke. There they discovered seven working stills. After dismantling the coils, they placed dynamite charges under each still and blew them up.

Although moonshining could be categorized as a small business, that did not mean that all stills were small. Many had a very large capacity. In June 1929 Fairfax Sheriff E.F. Kirby with two of his deputies joined with Police Chief Moxley of Rockville, Maryland and a few of his deputies to raid a still on a Potomac River island near the top of Seneca Road.

That still may have belonged to Earl Batt, Great Falls’ best known and most successful moonshiner. A resident of the Seneca Road neighborhood, he is reported to have had several large stills on the river as far up as where Algonkian Park is today. He was at times stopped and questioned by law officers but always managed to avoid being charged. In this particular raid no one was arrested, but the officers did destroy a 500-gallon still and threw several 50-gallon barrels of whiskey into the Potomac.

At the time no one thought there was anything wrong with disposing of unwanted items by throwing them into the river. Besides, there was always a chance that they could be recovered down river and if caught before the falls, the contents might be salvaged.

Not all moonshiners owned their own businesses. Many worked in their dangerous occupation for absentee owners. This might have been the case when in November 1929 Fairfax County officers raided another large still on Scotts Run near Lewinsville. They destroyed two stills, with the capacity of 400 and 500-gallons. They seized over 50 gallons of whiskey, forty-five 50 gallon fermenters, a 1200-gallon doubler, an 800-gallon cooling tub, a 10-horsepower steam boiler, 10 cases of pint jars, a .38 caliber revolver, 800 pounds of sugar and a Studebaker touring car among other things. Four men were arrested. One of whom had already served time for two different convictions for moonshining. Evidently the business was so profitable he found it worth the risk.

These are just a few specific cases of the moonshine business. And these were some of the ones who got caught. Fairfax County was rife with moonshiners and bootleggers and so was Loudoun.

Next time: Moonshine and Murder In Loudoun County

Copyright Karen Washburn 2005

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Sep 17, 2020

Very interesting article, I knew the location of many of the stills in Great Falls but this is so much information that I didn’t have.

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