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WHISKEY WOMEN

A Hooch 'n Hellraisers blog post: Entrepreneurial women thriving in Prohibition America

Every woman can find lasting romance—even the lady moonshiner if a man loves her still.

 

Distilling used to be considered women’s work, part of their duties around the hearth and home. During the 1920s, the kitchens of widows and enterprising homemakers buzzed with activity as these self-reliant women made and sold alcoholic beverages so they could work at home while caring for their children.

Come along and meet a few of these moonshining women…

Texanna Chappell

Texanna Chappell, a Virginia mother with six children, became a widow when her husband died suddenly. At his funeral, a relative told Chappell that many people were earning money as alky cookers and she could, too. Later, the helpful relative sent her a recipe for making corn whiskey. On day when Chappell’s children were crying due to hunger, she decided to become an alky cooker. She bought the components for a still, assembled it herself, and set it up in her home. She was afraid to fire up the still because she was nervous and apprehensive about breaking the law. But she calmed down, made her first batch and sold it to a neighbor who bootlegged.

“With that first money, I gave a party for the youngsters. We had chicken, and ice cream and cake, and everything that the kids could think of.”

After Chappell had been making alcohol for several months, acquaintances told her that the police were planning to raid her house. She disposed of her mash, dismantled her still, and poured all her whiskey down the drain.

“I’ve turned many a widow woman loose and never made a report. I did it because…her children would have had no food.” J. Cate, head of the federal Prohibition unit in East Tennessee.

Brewing illegal liquor provided income for a surprising number of older women who urgently needed money, usually to deal with family troubles. The enterprising seniors showed remarkable strength and fortitude as they carved out a niche in a cutthroat business run by mobsters. Judges sometimes sent older women to prison, which may have been a blessing in disguise for the frail, elderly ladies who struggled to keep the wolf from the door.

Rosa Fontana

Prohibition agents caught Rosa Fontana, age eighty-three, making and selling wine. She was a fragile, doddering woman who needed help to walk. She claimed she was making medicinal wine for her gravely ill husband. The couple had run a profitable grocery store, but his illness had depleted their savings, leaving them penniless. Following Rosa’s third arrest, she pled guilty to manufacturing and selling liquor and was sent to Alderson prison.

Marie Hoppe

Acting on a tip from a group called the Volstead Vigilantes, Prohibition agents in New Orleans raided widow Marie Hoppe’s home, where they seized 130 bottles of homemade beer.

At Hoppe’s arraignment she told the judge that beer was a healthy, nutritious drink “Vital for a child’s muscle development.” The judge believed she was selling her homebrew so ordered her held for trial. Sadly, the widow died before her trial, leaving her children orphaned.

 

A woman did not have to live in a city or town to benefit from the underground liquor trade that Prohibition created. Female homesteaders, both married and single, supplemented their farm incomes with bootlegging.

Birdie Brown

The rutted road was a familiar one to Fergus County locals during the days of Prohibition. You had to be careful — bad hooch could cause blindness and even death. Those looking for a place to party knew to point their cars toward Black Butte and Birdie (or Bertie) Brown’s place.

Bertie (Birdie) Brown was among a very small number of young African American women who homesteaded alone in Montana. She was in her twenties when she settled in the Lewistown area in 1898. She later homesteaded along Brickyard Creek in 1913.,

Brown described herself at different times as an abandoned woman and as a widow. Like many women homesteaders, she supplemented her income in various ways. She raised leghorn chickens, kept a garden, and planted wheat, oats, and barley on twenty-five acres of her homestead. She is, however, best remembered for her moonshine.

She was as nice a woman as they come, and her still — according to locals — produced some of the best moonshine in the country.

During Prohibition in the 1920s, Birdie carved a niche for herself. Her neat homestead where she lived with her cat was a place of warm hospitality. Birdie’s parlor was legendary.

In May 1933, just months before the end of Prohibition and Birdie’s livelihood, the revenue officer came around and warned her to stop her brewing. But as Birdie multitasked, dry cleaning some garments with gasoline and tending what would be her last batch of hooch, the gasoline exploded in her face. She lived a few hours, long enough to request that someone take care of her beloved pet. But the cat that followed her everywhere was never found.

Josephine Doody

Perhaps the most fantastic story of a homesteading bootlegger is that of Josephine Doody, a former dance-hall girl who brewed moonshine at her remote cabin on the southern edge of Glacier National Park.

According to the legend, Doody’s future husband, Dan, a ranger at the park, had met and fallen in love with Josephine after seeing her at a dance hall in the railroad town of McCarthyville. Wishing to rid her of her opium habit, Dan tied Josephine to his mule, took her to his homestead, and locked her up to break her addiction. After Dan died in 1919, Doody remained at the homestead and became famous for her moonshine.


In the early 1900s, Doody earned the nickname the “Bootleg Lady of Glacier Park” and she operated at least three stills in the wilderness north of Nyack.

Legend has it her shine was so good it would stop Great Northern Railway trains right in their tracks.

“[T]he train would stop at Doody siding, and each toot of the whistle would mean one gallon of moonshine. Josephine delivered it across the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in a small boat.”

At the peak of her reign, trainmen would help Doody distribute her product along the line and in return a bottle or two would end up in the engineer’s grip for his own enjoyment after a long day on the high iron.

Doody died of pneumonia in 1936.

 

Other blog posts in the Hooch ‘n Hellraisers series:

Coming soon….

  • Hoochie-Coochie Hooch Haulers

 

 

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