Deciphering Moonshine Lingo in Court Records

Finding the Moonshiners

Making moonshine was a common activity for many ancestors with Scots Irish lineage. In Kentucky’s mountainous counties, they had been making corn mash liquor for decades. As early as 1880, the term bootlegging referred to people who would conceal a liquor flask in their boot. In later years, the term bootlegger applied to those who made or transported alcohol illegally.

The Doomed 18th Amendment

In 1919, Americans added the doomed Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors. Many blamed societal dysfunctions on alcohol consumption. These well-meaning citizens expected violent crimes to decrease while individuals would benefit from improved health and family life.

Overnight, a new industry emerged, as did an intense crime wave. The government decided they had to enforce the Eighteenth amendment. Congress enacted the Volstead Act, which gave some teeth to the amendment. It provided a way to punish the bootleggers.

Once the Volstead Act was enacted in 1920, the mountain entrepreneurs learned to be more careful. They started making their enticing beverage by the moonlight. Thus, it became known as moonshine liquor, and they earned the title of moonshiner.

The Volstead Act remained in effect until Congress passed the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in 1933.

The Language of Moonshine

In the summer of 2021, Melissa Barker, a professional archivist and a 2022-2024 board members, joined us to discuss how to research these records. One of her first tips was learning moonshine lingo that appeared in the records.


Video Transcript


Deciphering Moonshine Lingo in Court Records

[00:00:00] Let’s talk about court records. Well, of course, court records are going to be for those ancestors who got caught. So, I guess in a way we kind of want our ancestors to have gotten caught because we want to find these court records. Moonshine defenses were heard in criminal court. You want to look for the criminal court records.

Common Terms for Prohibition Offenses

[00:00:18] You want to look for moonshine or liquor lingo in the records. Now there is a lot of lingo and other words used when you’re talking about liquor and prohibition, but some of the ones that you want to keep your eye out for are these.

[00:00:33] The first one is bone dry. Bone dry means illegally “transporting, delivering, or storing” of liquor. I have actually seen court records, court record forms that have on them typed “bone dry.” Evidently, it was a very popular thing to be brought up on charges.

[00:00:51] Next is tippling. That’s another term that you need to look for, and that is to drink liquor excessively and habitually. It would be something they would be charged with.

[00:01:01] White lightning. Many of you may have heard this term before. It was an illicit homemade whiskey, typically colorless and made from corn.

[00:01:10] Mountain Dew, you may have heard this particular term used. It’s actually of Southern descent or a Scots-Irish slang term for moonshine.

[00:01:31] So if you have Scots Irish or Scottish or Irish ancestry, this may be something that they may have referred to a moonshine as Mountain Dew.

[00:01:30] Firewater, this is actually attributed to the Native Americans in reference to liquor. Native Americans would refer to, normally, any kind of liquor or moonshine as firewater.

Where to Look

[00:01:41] You want to look for cases in the bound criminal minute books. This is a bound circuit court criminal book from 1871 to 1888 in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives. You may be thinking to yourself, “Well, okay. That’s the bound books. That’s really all there is.” Well, not necessarily.

[00:02:01] This is a page out of the circuit court bound minute book from volume 12, page four eleven. This is the state of Tennessee versus Clayton Spears from November 1944. As you can see, this is how it looks in the book. And the red arrow is actually pointing to “unlawfully did possess intoxicating liquors, contrary to the statute and against the peace and dignity of the state.” So, that’s what he was being brought up on charges.

[00:02:24] So that’s the bound volumes, but with court records, not only are there the bound volumes, but there are also what are called loose records or loose packets.


About the Author

<h3><a href="" target="_self">Melissa Barker</a></h3>

Melissa Barker

Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Manager and Public Historian currently working at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives. She lectures, teaches and writes about the genealogy research process, researching in archives and records preservation. She writes a popular blog entitled A Genealogist in the Archives. She has been a Professional Genealogist for 20 years with an expertise in Tennessee records. She has been researching her own family history for the past 34 years.

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