The Archive Lady: Finding Moonshine Records
Debbie in Alabama asks “There are rumors in my family that my great-grandfather ran moonshine in the area where he lived here in Alabama. What kind of records should I look for at an archive that could confirm this family story?”
Debbie asks a great question and one that I get all the time in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives. Apparently there are many genealogists out there that are searching for “moonshine records.” I have not personally seen any records that are labeled “moonshine records,” but there are other record sources that can help to tell your ancestor’s story of working moonshine. Here are the top three record sources that I would recommend to any genealogist trying to research their moonshine ancestors.
One of the best sources to locate our ancestors who had anything to do with moonshining is the local court records. If our ancestors were caught making, selling or transporting moonshine by the police, there should be a court record. The criminal courts heard court cases of persons who made moonshine, sold moonshine and also transported moonshine illegally. Seems there was a period of time when the local law enforcement made it their mission to find every person who was doing anything with moonshine. Many of these records are indexed by the criminal’s name in the Court Minute Books. Once you have found the court case, be sure to also ask for any loose records associated with that case. These are not archived with the bound volumes, but separately in file folders and boxes. These loose records can tell much more of the story and could even include photographs and detailed witness statements.
The local newspapers can be a treasure trove of information about local moonshiners that have been caught. It appears that many local police departments made sure to get the story and even photographs into the local newspaper. I have seen many newspaper accounts of finding moonshine in the local area and there is inevitably a photograph of their successful haul. Trying to find these types of news reports could be a challenge. Using the search feature with online newspaper databases is not always fool proof. I always encourage genealogists to read the entire newspaper to glean any and all information that could be printed about your ancestor. If you have found a court record, finding a related news story could be fairly easy by using the dates on the court proceedings to know which newspaper issues to search.
Local Jail or Penitentiary Records
If your ancestor was caught and sentenced to do time for their moonshine crime, they probably spent time in the local jail or they could have been sent to the state penitentiary. The record for many of these facilities could exist in a local archive or at the state archive. In these records, the genealogist could discover a mug shot of their ancestor and the details of their incarceration which should include the date they entered the facility and the date they were paroled. It is important to talk to the archivist and specifically ask for these types of records since they may not be located on shelves in the research area; however, you may find them in the records storage area called “the stacks.”
If you have ancestors that dabbled in moonshining and you think you won’t be able to find any records, try these records sources and you may just be pleasantly surprised.
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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