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Two men sip on a batch of moonshine in Clay County, Tennessee. 1920.Tennessee State Library
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Bystanders attempt to catch in cups the moonshine being poured out of a second story window by federal agents during a raid on an illegal still. Circa 1925. American Stock/Getty Images
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A man takes a swig of his product before sending it off to customers. 1940. Joe Clark/University Of North Texas Library
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A tank from the National Guard smashes equipment from moonshine stills in Newport, Kentucky. February 20, 1922. Bettmann /Getty Images
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Atlanta agents make a huge moonshine bust of 75 1/2 gallons of contraband whiskey. March 2, 1944.
They became tipped off when somebody noticed a backyard tree stump had been moved. Bettmann/Getty Images
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Elizabethton, Tennessee sheriff Mike Bootright and his deputies stand proudly with a confiscated moonshine still and its product. Circa 1940s. Tennessee State Library
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Armed moonshiners pause for a drink in the woods, near Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. Circa 1950s.Joe Clark/University Of North Texas Library
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A policeman stands alongside a wrecked car and cases of moonshine. November 16, 1922. Library of Congress
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Authorities stand in front of a large copper kettle still for making moonshine with boxes of bottles and funnels spread before them that were used in the process. Date unspecified. Buyenlarge/Getty Images
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Law enforcement officials stand near an illegal alcohol still captured during a moonshine raid. Circa 1920s. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
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Authorities send a message to moonshiners by displaying barrels of illegal liquor and the words "moonshine raid" during the 1920s Prohibition era. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
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Daniel Duesst poses for a photo with his gun, his dog and his jug of moonshine in Sequatchie County, Tennessee. Date unspecified.Tennessee State Library
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A group of policemen pose with cases of moonshine confiscated from a bust. 1922.Library of Congress
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Sheriff's Deputy H.C. Carter, of Colleton County, South Carolina, takes a hefty swing at a small still, found in the backwoods near Walterboro. October 17, 1954.
The previous year, some 16,000 stills were seized, but that was reputedly only about one-fifth of the total number in operation. Bettmann/Getty Images
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Illegal alcohol found inside a secret stash compartment of bootlegger Charley Birger's car. Circa 1920s. Wikimedia Commons
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A moonshiner throws another log into the fire of his still during a moonshine cook in Virginia. Circa mid-20th century.Earl Palmer/Virgina Tech Library
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Two police officers stand beside a car that was carrying illegally made alcohol for resale. Circa 1950s. Wikimedia Commons
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Photographer Joe Clark stands beside a moonshine still that was built inside a cave. Circa 1950s.Joe Clark/University Of North Texas Library
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Authorities smile while standing in front of a large moonshine bust in Johnston County, North Carolina. 1951. Wikimedia Commons
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A state trooper stands beside a car with a packed trunk full of illegal moonshine. 1940. Tennessee State Library
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Agents in Birmingham, Alabama stand by their raid of illegal moonshine. October 17, 1954.
The moonshine would be packaged in reclaimed empty bottles of recognized brands on which taxes were paid, so it looked legit.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Barrels of illegal liquor flow into a creek bed after being discovered and destroyed by federal agents. Circa 1950. Evans/Stinger/Three Lions/Getty Images
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Known as a "submarine" or "black pot" type of still, this equipment had the capacity to produce 800 gallons of corn mash liquor at a time. Circa mid-20th century.Earl Palmer/Virginia Tech Library
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Because the moonshine was so potent, moonshiners would take turns holding a gun on each other to force them to take a drink. Grundy County, Tennessee. Date unspecified. Tennesee State Library
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A revenue agent puts a moonshine still out of use by shooting it with his pistol. Circa 1950. Evans/Stinger/Three Lions/Getty Images
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Moonshiners would do whatever they could to hide bottles of their product in case of a raid.
Here sits a bottle of moonshine found inside a tree stump. 1942.Joe Clark/University Of North Texas Library
White Lightning: 26 Vintage Photos From The Heyday Of Moonshiners In The South
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.