Prohibition in wild and wooly W.Va. was a deadly undertaking

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Prohibition in wild and wooly W.Va. was a deadly undertaking
A still on display at the W.Va. Culture Center. (Courtesy Steve Brightwell, W.Va. Dept. of Arts, Culture, and History)

Nationwide prohibition against alcohol consumption was launched in 1919 in the U.S., but West Virginia enacted its prohibition much earlier, and the results were deadly.

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In 1913, the state passed the Yost Law, implemented on July 1, 1914. It imposed drastic changes in the lives of some West Virginians. On implementation, about 900 men in the Wheeling area alone would lose their jobs, and 1,200 saloons across the state would close.

Many citizens with an appetite for alcohol would continue to get it wherever they could, and many who lost jobs in the legitimate booze industry would take their businesses underground. If they could avoid arrest, the profits would be huge.

State Police officers father around a collection of confiscated stills at the old Mingo County courthouse.
State Police officers gather around a collection of confiscated stills at the old Mingo County courthouse.

The challenge of enforcement was also huge. The State Police would not be created for another five years, so sheriffs, constables, and city police officers bore the burden of enforcement, proving costly. The new law also created the Department of Prohibition, and State Tax Commissioner Fred O. Blue would become its first commissioner.

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The first local official to pay the ultimate price was George T. Shires, police chief for Ronceverte. Shires arrested Will Stewart and charged him with bootlegging. Stewart surrendered without resistance but then took the chief by surprise when he pulled a revolver from his overalls and shot him. After Shires fell, Stewart shot him twice in the back. He was arrested, convicted of murder, and executed on July 2, 1915, at the West Virginia Penitentiary at Moundsville.

Though alcohol was now illegal in West Virginia, it was still legal and accessible in Ohio. So it did not take long for enterprising bootleggers to begin picking up their product across the river for secret distribution in the Mountain State, and it did not take very long for West Virginia enforcement officers to figure that out.

On June 13, 1916, Kanawha County Deputy Sheriff Henry Voiers spotted a man riding onboard a coal train in Ronda on Cabin Creek in Kanawha County. The subject was known to be involved in smuggling booze by train from Ohio.

As Deputy Voiers attempted to arrest him, the suspect opened fire. There was an exchange of gunfire until Voiers was mortally wounded. The shooter escaped on foot after engaging in a shootout with Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Police.

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On February 10, 1919, Grafton Police Chief J.E.B. Phillips arrested a man for possessing two pints of illegal liquor. When they arrived at the jail, the suspect pulled a .38 caliber revolver and fired two shots. One struck Chief Phillips, who was taken to the hospital, where he died the next evening.

While local law enforcement officers were fully engaged in the dangerous work of alcohol enforcement, the Department of Prohibition had its own enforcement agency. Prohibition officers, unlike local officers, could give their full attention to the matter. They would also find this very costly.

The officers represented a threat to their livelihood as moonshiners. Many of them took it very personally.

On Monday, August 11, 1919, Prohibition Officer Will Farley and his partner raided a still, dismantled it, and carried it to Farley’s home near Hart’s Creek as evidence. Later that night, three moonshiners broke in and shot Farley as he lay in bed, killing him. Farley’s partner, who had been in another room, fired at the suspects as they fled. The moonshiners meant to make a statement.

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Moonshiners made a similar statement in Wayne County, where Prohibition Officer William Meade and other officers had conducted several raids. On Sunday, February 12, 1922, Meade was shot and killed in an ambush. He was 48 years old and had worked for the agency for only two months.

The year 1923 would prove a costly year for those charged with enforcing alcohol laws. On February 25, Deputy Commissioner T. E. Rutheford was shot and killed while raiding a still in Wyoming County, and Prohibition Officer Mose Elswick was shot and killed while raiding a still in Kanawha County on September 23.

By now, the West Virginia State Police were fully operational and were having an impact. They would also have to do their share of enforcing the Yost Law, which would prove costly.

On October 22, 1926, state troopers were led to a still near Richwood by a 13-year-old boy. The next morning, the moonshiners spotted the troopers and opened fire. Troopers wounded two of the operators and captured the still. The wounded were taken into custody, and the troopers left.

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When they returned to the still later that evening, they were ambushed. Private Lowe was struck several times and would die five days later without ever regaining consciousness.

I’m sure there were many reasons why someone would choose to become a prohibition officer during such a violent time. Some may have craved the excitement. Some may have liked the idea of a steady paycheck. Some may have believed it was a cause worth fighting for.

Gus Simmons had been a farmer when his son was given illegal liquor my moonshiners, and he decided it was time to change professions. He became a prohibition officer. His career came to an abrupt end, however, on July 11, 1927, when he and three other officers were searching for a still in Wyoming County. There they were ambushed by several members of a family. Officer Simmons was shot and killed.

Several other officers would die before Prohibition was ended in West Virginia in 1934. Then, with the stroke of a pen, the law that so many had died enforcing was no more.

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