Spirits of Just Men
Charles D. Thompson Jr.
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Buy *Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World* by Charles D. Thompson Jr. online

Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World
Charles D. Thompson Jr.
University of Illinois Press
304 pages
April 2011
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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I live in Appalachia, once (and possibly even now) the heart of the moonshine business, where the smoke off the Smokies on any given morning might be mist or the rising evidence of a still tucked away in a hollow. Charles D Thompson Jr. is also from this region, and when he began to trace his ancestry, he found that his family tree included lots of connections to the illegal liquor business. Hence this book from a writer who has previously written about the same area - Franklin County, Virginia, the setting for Spirits of Just Men - in The Old German Baptist Brethren. Thompson is the curriculum and education director at the Center for Documentary Studies and a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Duke University.

Thompson accurately identifies the rebellious, loner streak that led to the "untaxed liquor business" as straight off the page of American independence. Those seeking a new life in the Appalachian mountains (mainly stubborn, working-class Scotch-Irish immigrants) refused to be subjugated to the state, especially in the matter of taxation. Corn, an essential crop for human and animal food, could also be converted into the potent brew known as moonshine by a process that wasn't simple, but it wasn't rocket science, either. The resultant product was not only a nostrum for what ails you and a source of sure-fire intoxication but a saleable commodity, often providing the only source of cash for mountain families. Moonshining enjoyed a boom time during Prohibition. But then came the crash, and its role was even more crucial. In the years of the Great Depression, people in the backwoods were left with almost no resources for survival other than homesteading for basic subsistence and moonshining to buy necessities at the store.

The book centers on the difficult and turbulent 1930s and on the events surrounding the so-called Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of some "just men" whose lives and fortunes were embroiled in the illegal whiskey business. As Thompson makes clear, this generally included nearly everyone in the community. The local sheriff and his deputies were often complicit in the moonshining business, turning a blind eye at the least in the case of families whom they knew well - and whom they well knew could not survive without the income that the fiery liquid provided. In fact, many people in law enforcement were themselves moonshiners on the side. It was hard to get a jury in Franklin County of persons not tied up in some way with the moonshine business and its offshoot illegal activities. Those who opposed the white lightning trade were generally of two sorts: Federal government agents and fundamentalist church members. It is a fact redolent of those times that Appalachia then was still considered missionary territory. One of the book's characters was an Episcopalian missionary lady very involved in attempting to improve conditions for the poor and benighted folks in Franklin County. In writing about the trials and the region, Thompson had access both to historical transcripts and eyewitness accounts.

Though Franklin County citizens today have found other ways to survive economically, including tourism, the name it garnered during Prohibition as "the moonshine capital of the world" is still touted as part of its colorful history.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2011

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