Women bootleggers put men to shame in the days of Prohibition. Women bootleggers (moonshine smugglers) were not unheard of; in fact, there may have been more women bootleggers than men. Here’s why: the women of moonshine had substantial advantages over men. For starters, they were much harder to detect and arrest than men simply because it was illegal to search a woman in those days. Women took full advantage of this and actually hid moonshine on their persons; some even taunted law enforcement to search them. Also in their favor was the fact that juries of the day were loath to convict a woman of the crime of bootlegging. They simply refused to believe that a woman could do such a thing.
Women were less likely to be suspected of practicing the craft of moonshine, but history tells the story of many women who did just that. These women kept a low profile and were not confrontational; if a woman was caught, she had a hard time convincing the sheriff that the discovered still was really hers.
Many times male bootleggers would hire women to ride along with them on their moonshine deliveries because they knew the police were less likely to stop them with a woman in the car. The word on the street was that no decent federal agent would hold up a car that had women in it.
In those days there were alcohol smuggling syndicates; they knew about the legal loopholes involving women and illegal alcohol. So they recruited women to work with them and as time went on women bootleggers outnumbered men five to one.
On January 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment was ratified. This was a big victory for teetotalers and churchgoers everywhere; it meant the restriction, sale, transport, importation, and exportation of alcoholic beverages. The law thought that this would put an end to alcohol sales and usage forever. How wrong they were. These were the days of moonshining and backwoods stills; enforcing Prohibition was pretty near impossible. Consumption of alcohol was not illegal and folks could easily get all they wanted from bootleggers and speakeasies (underground bars where people went to drink and dance in the 1920s). True to form, when anything is banned, human nature takes over and demands more of it. Prohibition did much to help the following ladies make a very good living.
Maggie Bailey “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers”
Known as “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers”, Maggie Bailey began making moonshine at the age of 17 and it became her life’s work. She lived in Clovertown in Harlan County, Kentucky.
People in the community of Clovertown loved Maggie; she would help anyone who had fallen on hard times and even helped send some local kids to college. Maggie looked like any ones’ grandmother; she wore a house dress and an apron every day. Maggie Bailey never drank but continued to sell moonshine well into her 90s. She called herself an “old bootlegger” and said she started selling moonshine to help her family make ends meet. If you were in the market for a batch all you had to do was pull around to the back of her house and she’d load up your truck with all you wanted. Maggie never sold to children or people that she called “drunkards”.
She was a smart woman and had educated herself on the 4th Amendment. She knew about search and seizure and could quote certain cases backward and forward. Maggie had a great personality and was only convicted of moonshining once in her long career, though the entire community knew of her dealings.
The Bootleg Lady of Glacier Park
Josephine Doody was a former dance-hall girl turned bootlegger. She lived in a remote cabin in Glacier National Park. The men of the Great Northern Railroad men became her best customers and when the train passed through her area it would stop and toot the whistle the number of times to correspond to how many gallons of moonshine they wanted. She delivered it across the Flathead River is a small boat. Since those days, her legend has grown. Today, a headstone is erected in her honor that says “Josephine Doody, October 16, 1853, January 16, 1936. The Bootleg Lady of Glacier Park.”
She was a 34-year-old mother and a Polish immigrant living in La Grange Park, Illinois. Mary Wazeniak made and served moonshine out of her home. She was quite well-known in the area. The story goes that at the end of a long night of drinking, one of her customers was staggering home. He fell into a bog and died from the toxic brew. At her trial, the press called her “Moonshine Mary.” She was the first woman in Illinois convicted of selling fatal moonshine.
The Rum-Running Queen
She was 26 years old and an outlaw in 1928 during prohibition. Willie Carter Sharpe ran bootleg liquor across the Virginia border to other states. Many times the police were chasing her and shooting at her tires. They dubbed her the Rum-running Queen.
Willie said, “It was the excitement that got me. Cars scattering, dashing along the streets.” Maybe Willie was an adrenaline junkie. She lived in Franklin County, Virginia and it’s been said that she hauled more than 220,000 gallons of her home-made moonshine between the years of 1926 and 1931. She eventually was apprehended; at her trial spectators were intrigued by the diamonds in her teeth.
The ladies of moonshine had clever ways of hiding their moonshine. It was easy for them to get away with their moonshining as they hid behind their aprons. Mary Ann Moriarity had a laundry business and she would hide bottles of hooch in baskets of clean laundry delivered to her customers.
Esther Clark was known as “The Henhouse Bootlegger” because she hid her moonshine in her chicken coop. When she went to the henhouse, she was gathering more than eggs.
Stella Beloumant didn’t fool around when it came to moonshine. She was the alpha bootlegger in Elko, Nevada in her day. The law had one heck of a time taking her down. The U.S. Attorney General, the Prohibition Bureau’s second in command, two of its agents and the District Attorney teamed up to put Stella under a 24-hour stakeout. When finally they nabbed her, the haul was a massive amount of illegal whiskey.
A Black woman homesteader named Bertie Brown, also known as Birdie, made moonshine at her homestead in Fergus County, Montana. She was one of Montana’s Whiskey Women. Her ‘white lightning’ was said to be some of the very best in the area. Unfortunately, her still exploded in 1933, taking her with it.
Nancy the Moonshiner
She lived in Warren County, New Jersey in the 1880s and was known as an eccentric person who kept to herself. At night, Nancy the Moonshiner would go out and steal apples from an orchard near her home and use them to make Jersey Lightning, or Apple Jack, which was a distilled hard cider. She made a business selling it and became well known for her cider.
A female moonshiner named Mary White was arrested in 1921; the feds found $5,000 of bootlegging cash on her. Mary was a stout woman with a swarthy complexion and was missing some of her front teeth. It’s interesting to conjecture how she lost those teeth; she must have been a woman who didn’t back down from a fight.
One very interesting bootlegging lady was Gloria de Casares. Her husband was a wealthy Argentinean and it’s said that he commissioned whiskey shops to smuggle Scotch into the United States. Gloria ran the ships doing the smuggling. In 1925 her ship was about to set sail from London when federal agents seized it and found 10,000 cases of Scotch aboard.
One time in her bootlegging career, she was confined to a hotel room to make sure she didn’t make any bootlegging deals and, in the process, they confiscated all of her clothes. They figured this was a surefire way to keep her in place. Even though she was prosecuted, she never admitted to being a bootlegger.
Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe
Another great female bootlegger, and perhaps the best of all was Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe, a licensed liquor wholesaler in Nassau, Bahamas. She was an American and had ties to a British liquor distributor. When Prohibition became law in 1920, she moved to the Bahamas and used her Scottish connections to import the best Scotch.
She soon began commissioning her own boats to smuggle hooch, knowing that this was where the big money was.
Cleo was a very independent woman who never married and could fight off any man who had ill intentions toward her. She carried a gun and wasn’t afraid to use it. She had looks and many men were attracted to her. Cleo loved the limelight and even gave several media interviews. It sounds like she would fit right into our media-saturated culture of today.
After reading about her in the papers, men would send love letters to her through the newspapers. Some even proposed marriage. But she has been quoted as saying, frequently, “I don’t need a man to tell me what to do.” She was estimated to be worth around $1 million, but that had not been substantiated. She was a smooth operator and never gave away her secrets. I can’t help thinking how well she would fit in with the media-saturated culture of today.
Moonshine Has NASCAR Roots
It may have all started with Junior Johnson. He began his moonshining career at the tender age of 14 when he was hired by his father to haul the family moonshine to customers around their North Carolina home. Junior ran the moonshine and was several times chased by local revenue agents who knew what he was up to. Junior knew he had to outrun them, so he souped up his car to go faster and faster. He parlayed his driving skills and his fast cars into fame at NASCAR and became a racing legend inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But before that happened, he was arrested for moonshining and served 11 months in federal prison. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan pardoned him for his moonshine conviction.
If you’ve ever heard that that moonshine can make you go blind, it’s true. At least it was back in the days of moonshine stills hidden in the woods. It happened because unscrupulous moonshiners added lye to their brew to speed up the fermentation process. Some makers of moonshine even made the brew inside of car radiators, which meant that lead got into the hooch. Of course, this built up in peoples’ bodies and was eventually fatal.
The problem became huge and in the 1960s the federal government started a Poison Moonshine Publicity Program in which they hired Louis Armstrong to record radio spots warning people of the hazards of “backwoods booze”.
To be a bootlegging moonshiner in the 1920s and 30s was good money without a lot of unpleasant consequences. One woman admitted to making $30,000 a year; in today’s money that’s huge. Women were given very light punishments when they were caught, like being ordered to go to church every Sunday for two years! Often, they were pardoned or got their sentences commuted. One moonshine mama had her sentence commuted to 5 days. You can hardly blame women for making and selling moonshine; they saw it as just doing their part to keep a roof over their head and food on the family’s table.
The First Female Prohibition Agent
In the days of Prohibition, there were quite a few women on the other side of the bootlegging empire. Some women determined to fight the bootlegging empire that had developed by becoming prohibition agents. One well-known woman on the side of the law was Georgia Hopley.
As an employee of local law enforcement in Washington, D.C. Georgia developed, implemented and lead the publicity efforts for the Prohibition Bureau. She had a gift for public relations, traveling across the country and speaking at churches, schools, and conventions about prohibition enforcement and the evils of liquor. She wrote articles and gave interviews too; taking her message to the political and business leaders of the day. That would have been pretty easy for her to do because her father was a newspaper publisher and her brother was a Senator.
Through her efforts, she strengthened public support for the enforcement of Prohibition.
Lady Hooch Hunter
Also very well-known, and more visible in the press, was Prohibition Agent Daisy Simpson. Her home office was San Francisco but she traveled to other cities like Chicago and New York. Daisy went undercover. She used her own creative disguises and would spend time in local speakeasies, hotels, and restaurants. If owners or bartenders tried to serve her alcohol, she would arrest them immediately. It’s been said that Daisy had over one hundred disguises.
She was as brazen as she was creative. In one raid, she seized 8,000 gallons of wine. Daisy had been a delinquent in her youth and had hung out at bars and with questionable people. But somewhere along the line, she turned over a new leaf.
Georgia and Daisy were very different women who each had the unique skills that were needed to fight what they saw as the evils of liquor. So, both believed they were doing their duty for their country and were not afraid to stand up for what they believed in their fight for truth, justice, and the American way.