White Lightning: 26 Vintage Photos From The Heyday Of Moonshiners In The South

Published August 31, 2017
Updated September 15, 2017
Sippin Shine
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White Lightning: 26 Vintage Photos From The Heyday Of Moonshiners In The South
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For many, the term "moonshine still" conjures up images of mountain men in overalls, huddled around crude metal tanks under a full moon, drinking liquor out of jugs with "XXX" on the side.

This image isn't entirely without merit, as a great deal of the moonshine produced in the United States during the first half of the century was indeed made deep in the woods of the Appalachian Mountains.

The only difference between these men, known as "moonshiners," and legal distillers of liquor was that the moonshiners chose not to license their distilling operations or pay taxes on the product.

This production of illegal liquor, typically a cheap whiskey made with corn mash, was popular long before the days of Prohibition (which only led to business booming more) and came into the American South with Scotch-Irish immigrants in the late 18th century.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, moonshine became an incredibly important staple of income for many corn farmers. With decent roads in the South being few and far between, a farmer could profit much more from a corn crop by converting it into whiskey, rather than loading up bushels of corn and hauling it off to the closest town. What was good for moonshiners though, wasn't necessarily good for the consumer and definitely wasn't good for the federal government.

This illegal liquor was produced without any sort of regulation and it wasn't uncommon for batches of moonshine to be liquid poison created in stills that were made with repurposed automotive parts. Batches of moonshine would often have traces of antifreeze and gasoline, as well as other toxins like paint thinner and embalming fluid.

Drinking a bad batch of moonshine could result in extreme sickness, leading to blindness, paralysis, or even death. A common test of moonshine quality would be to light a little of the product on fire, with a blue flame meaning it was safe to drink and yellow equaling tainted product.

Of course, many jugs of moonshine went out for sale, regardless of whether they were safe or not. New York officials confiscated a 1927 shipment of more than 480,000 gallons of moonshine and found that most of it contained deadly poisons.

It's hard to estimate just how much moonshine was being produced in the first half of the 20th century, but the numbers were big. The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) agents destroyed 3,909 moonshine stills and made 1,669 arrests during the 13 years of Prohibition in just a single Virginia county.

In the decades following Prohibition's end, the demand for moonshine declined and while there are still illegal moonshine operations around, folks can now legally buy a bottle of "white lightning" without having to worry about sipping on potential poison.

See some of the most incredible photos from the illegal days of moonshine stills in the photos above.

After viewing these photos of moonshine stills, take a look at the end of the Prohibition era.

Joel Stice
Joel Stice holds a Bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with more than 10 years of experience in writing and editing, during which time his work has appeared on Heavy, Uproxx, and Buzzworthy.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Stice, Joel. "White Lightning: 26 Vintage Photos From The Heyday Of Moonshiners In The South." AllThatsInteresting.com, August 31, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/moonshine-stills. Accessed April 19, 2024.