Printed from:

Welcome to Columbia Magazine  

JIM: Adair County's own Moonshine Wars

Righteous officers of the law and the judicial apparatus of the county became much more righteous about enforcing the Volstead Act after Governor Edwin P. Morrow signed legislation authorizing bounty money to righteous lawmen, and a $50 incentive to righteous neighbors to squeal on industrious local manufacturers of the same product for which Kentucky is most famous today. These were Bad Times, which left one man dead, an incident which required the repeated courtroom actions in both Adair and Green Counties, to give the acquittals of The Law permanence. During the Moonshine Wars, the Worlds Record Adair County still was confiscated. It is all here in Jim's work, chronicling Adair County's huge chapter in the epic social failure of the American Republic. It's evocative of the problems which always recur when fee based justice prevails. Reminiscent too, in more recent times of when a fee based jailer, also an officer of the court, would stand near the jury box and whisper advice to the jurors, in nearly every case, "What that SOB needs is a bunch of days." leaving no doubt he was speaking of the accused, whose presence in the Adair County jail would bolster the income of the jailer. -EW

By "Jim"

"The officers of this county are after the moonshiners and they are doing good work." - Adair County News, May 22, 1922.

The price of moonshining, 1922

Prohibition went into effect on the seventeenth day of January, 1920, and immediately thereafter, stills began popping up in rural areas like mushrooms in May. A little over two years later, on the 22nd day of March, 1922, Governor Edwin P. Morrow signed legislation giving Kentucky lawmen teeth to enforce the Volstead Act. Among other things, the measure allowed peace officers five dollars for every arrest and conviction made related to moonshining, and offered a $50 reward to any citizen who provided information leading to the arrest and conviction of a moonshiner. Needless to say, sheriffs stayed busy giving chase to the scofflaws as bootleggers sold each other out for half a C-note and public-spirited folks of a sudden had visions of fifty-dollar bills dancing in their heads.

Two days after Governor Morrow signed the above-mentioned legislation, word reached Adair County Deputy Sheriff S.F. Coffey that "a still had been installed on the farm owned by Prof. R.R. Moss, four miles out and near the Greensburg road." Deputy Coffey and a number of other officials sped to the scene and upon their arrival, three men fled through the woods, leaving a 40 gallon still to the not-so-tender mercies of the law. The 'shiners, when commanded to halt, ignored the order, increased their speed, and disappeared. (One of the three, Lucien Angely, was arrested less than a month later in Barren County and brought back to Adair.) The News indirectly quoted Deputy Coffey as saying "distillers are going to have a hard time in Adair County." Little did he realize the prophecy of his words.

On the morning of Thursday, March 30th, notification reached Sheriff George Coffey there was a working still in the Picketts Chapel community of the Keltner precinct. He, accompanied by deputies S.F. Coffey and Frank H. Winfrey and Deputy Jailer Elmer Miller, immediately set out on horseback for that location. The News reported that

When they reached the place where the still was supposed to be located, they dismounted and hitched their horses, and commenced a careful survey of the premises. In a short time they discovered the still and three men standing about it, and one man was off to himself, on a hill. He was believed to be the lookout.

The officers said to the three men, "Boys, we have you covered, give up and you shall not be hurt." Just at this time a shot came, it is believed from the man on the hill, and another shot came from a different direction.

The officers, believing themselves to be in mortal danger, returned some 25 rounds of fire. When the smoke cleared, one man, Clarence Vanarsdale, was dead; another, Teddy Morrison, had suffered a shot to the leg; and it was also reported that "a boy named Pickett was shot and badly wounded."

(This was the only mention of young Pickett, so the report may have been in error. A year earlier, Teddy Morrison had broke jail in Adair County but soon "was caught and returned to the bastille." Less than three weeks later, he made another unauthorized exit. Quipped the News, "He left no word as to when he might return." Shortly thereafter, however, he once again was a guest of the county. Clarence Vanarsdale, surname also spelled Vanarsdall, was about 20 years old at the time of his demise.)

The officers proceeded to destroy the still & worm, dumped 900 gallons of "beer," returned to Columbia, and surrendered themselves to County Judge C.G. "Gus" Jeffries for the death of Vanarsdale. The examining trial was set for Friday afternoon, March 31st but was continued until Saturday, April 8th. On that date, however, reported the News, the Commonwealth wasn't yet ready so the trial was again continued, this time to early May. The same edition of the paper which informed readers of the second postponement also editorialized that

County Judge Jeffries and the enforcement officers are doing good work in Adair County. Moonshine is becoming scarcer and scarcer, and the County Judge says that he intends to drive the moonshiners from the county. All good citizens should back the officers in their efforts to make this a law abiding county..

Come May 2nd, the Commonwealth, represented by County Attorney Gordon Montgomery, was ready, as was the defense team of (W.W.) Jones & (James R.) Garnett, and W.A. Coffey. The News got right down to brass tacks by announcing "All the testimony was in early in the afternoon and the case submitted to the County Judge who promptly acquitted the defendants." The article went on to state the outcome was hardly a surprise, "as all who were acquainted with the circumstances, predicted that the officers would go free."

But the law officers weren't yet in the clear. On Thursday, May 5th, an warrant for their arrest was issued in Green County on the grounds that "the shooting occurred in Green County, and that Adair was out of her jurisdiction in trying them." Adair County Coroner Dr. C.M. Russell delivered Sheriff Coffey and his deputies and Deputy Jailer Miller to the Green County authorities where the Adair Countians gave bond for a court appearance on Saturday, May 13th. (In Kentucky, only the Coroner can legally take the Sheriff into custody.) It was known at the time that Ted Morrison, the injured man, couldn't appear on the 13th, but nonetheless, the case had to called so it could be continued to a later date. Some weeks later, the News stated the case was scheduled to begin on Wednesday, May 31st, and "it is believed that both sides will answer ready."

The second trial echoed the first. Said the News,

The testimony was concluded Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning it was argued and submitted. Judge Graham readily discharged the accused...There was nothing to the case at any time, as the officers were attempting to carry into effect the law they had sworn to support. It was made very clear on the trial that the moonshiners fired the first shot.

But the legal system still wasn't through with the officers. While they were in Greensburg, Mrs. Vanarsdale, widow of the man killed, sued them all for $10,000 (collectively, not individually). Said the News of this development, "It is believed here that the proof of the killing does not warrant a suit." The jury felt the same way. The trial was held June 26th, and next issue of the News stated "It has been reported to this office that the jury was not out more than twenty minutes before it returned with a verdict in favor of the defendants."

In a hotly worded commentary regarding the above, the News allowed that

In this day of moonshining, officers may be called upon to do some very unpleasant acts, but when they are called to go out and make arrests, if they are courageous men they will do their duty...This raid and what followed should be a warning to all parties who have an inclination to disobey the laws of the government...They may survive for awhile, but sooner or later they will come to the end of their course.

All of the litigation involved in the Picketts Chapel shooting deterred Sheriff Coffey not one whit in his pursuit of official duties. As a matter of fact, in the midst of the trials, the sheriff and his deputies seized a still that may to this day hold the record for the biggest one ever found in the county.

On the night of May 9, 1922, Sheriff Coffey along with S.F. Coffey, Alba Miller, and brothers Walter and Clell Tarter "found a still in operation about two miles to the left of Sparksville" on the farm of A. Murphy, the apparatus having a capacity of 120 gallons. The paper reported that two men were spotted, but that they made their escape. "The officers saw them, but as they seemed to be running for life, they were not fired upon. The still was brought to Columbia and [the] singlings, beer, etc. destroyed on the site."

(And Ted Morrison? At last report, the June 6, 1922 News noted he had recovered from his wounds and was languishing in the Adair County jail, having been transported there from the Green County Graybar Hotel. Before his departure from the latter, however, "a young girl came to the bastille and was married to him.")

This amazing compilation, with its brilliant notation is the work of "Jim." PS: We nominate this story for consideration as one of the top 10 articles ever written for ranking right up there with Gordon Crump's "How I discovered Columbia when Columbus Didn't," Julia Ann Pickett's autobiographical revelation, "Raising Julia ANN!" and Geniece Marcum's "Lifetime of Work and Success Shared by Kinnairds."

This story was posted on 2011-09-11 12:14:03
Printable: this page is now automatically formatted for printing.
Have comments or corrections for this story? Use our contact form and let us know.

To sponsor news and features on ColumbiaMagazine, please use our contact form.


Quick Links to Popular Features content is available as an RSS/XML feed for your RSS reader or other news aggregator.
Use the following link:

Contact us: Columbia Magazine and are published by D'Zine, Ltd., PO Box 906, Columbia, KY 42728.
Phone: 270-250-2730 Fax: 270-751-0401

Please use our contact page, or send questions about technical issues with this site to All logos and trademarks used on this site are property of their respective owners. All comments remain the property and responsibility of their posters, all articles and photos remain the property of their creators, and all the rest is copyright 1995-Present by Columbia! Magazine and D'Zine, Ltd. Privacy policy: use of this site requires no sharing of information. Voluntarily shared information may be published and made available to the public on this site and/or stored electronically. Anonymous submissions will be subject to additional verification. Cookies are not required to use our site. However, if you have cookies enabled in your web browser, some of our advertisers may use cookies for interest-based advertising across multiple domains. For more information about third-party advertising, visit the NAI web privacy site.