Hopkins County Folk Lore
The Grandest Bootlegger of Them AllBy Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland
Many years ago, Bootleggers were prolific in Hopkins County. Unlike the "Moonshiners" who made White Lightning Whiskey from copper stills deep in the woods, the Bootlegger purchased his wares from legitimate sources in neighboring counties.
No wading through mosquito infested wetlands for this guy, no guarding his still from the Feds day and night, this breed was by and large lazy, selling illegal booze from the comfort of their own homes in most cases. The biggest effort these people made was driving across the county line, buying pre-packed beer and whiskey, and finding enough space to store it all.
In the older days, all the alcohol was sold at room temperature but as times progressed, the Bootlegger had the option of refrigerating his beer therefore selling it for a higher price. It was a very easy living indeed. When caught by the local law enforcement agencies, the fines were not steep and usually no time was spent behind bars. You see, the Bootleggers, being the very clever people they were, knew just how much contraband found in their homes would bring a fine, or how much would produce a jail sentence. Ah, life was good for these fellows.
Now there was a very famous Bootlegger in Hopkins County. His name was Big John and we shall leave his last name a mystery, except to certain people of Hopkins County who will recognize him in this story.
Big John was a classic among the county's illegal booze sellers. A breed unto his own, he was a fascinating man. Well over six feet tall with a ponderous belly that would put Santa Clause to shame, his piercing blue eyes shown from a lined face round as a tub of lard. What little hair he had left was as thin on top as a hog skin and gray, like dirty cotton. His body sported numerous tattoos and some would be shown if enough money was put up.
John's house was right on the highway with a drive through carport right at his front door. No sneaking to the back door to buy booze at this man's house. Anyway, he was way too lazy to walk to the back of his house to serve customers. He was brave and cocky, besides a few of the local law enforcers were his off duty customers. Big John had it made. Whenever there was a "raid" due to take place upon his residence, invariably a call was put through to John from someone he referred to as his "sources".
John did not get upset nor in a hurry. Like the cool cucumber he was, he passed off his stash to regular customers who knew just what to do from past experiences. Cases and bottles of alcohol were loaded into the trunks of numerous cars to be hauled away and hidden until the raid was made. Old John didn't lift one bottle either. He may have had to break out a sweat you see and John was into giving the word lazy a new definition.
Big John's house was large for those times. Two rooms built side by side, made six rooms sitting together like dominos. There was no furniture in four of the rooms; the fifth held the extra stock of beer, whiskey, gin, and vodka. One room to live in was all the old man wanted for rarely did he stray from bed. Not that he couldn't walk, he just preferred not too. The room held the typical stove, refrigerator, sink, table, and quite a few unmatched chairs, with heating stove for warmth in the winter. There was always someone in John's home and these people were called upon to carry in buckets of coal from the coal pile out back. While they were at it, they might as well stoke up the fire and carry out the ashes as well. On one wall, right beside the front door and jammed between the sink and the wall was his old ratty bed. A twin size box springs and mattress sit upon the torn, faded linoleum, boasting no sheets and covered by a musty army blanket and bare pillow, the place was filthy. Dirty dishes covered every spare inch of the sink, table, and lone counter top. John ate lying in bed, propped up on one arm; thus empty bowls with dried, crusted food sat in the floor, gaining momentum day by day. Some unsuspecting wife or girlfriend tagging along with her sweetie was coaxed into washing the hoard of dirty dishes when no more clean ones were left. While the customer and the Bootlegger held forth in conversation, the poor women slaved away in hot, soapy water up to her elbows. If worse came to worse, he paid someone two dollars to clean up the nasty dishes. John didn't care how other people viewed his life. It didn't matter one whit to him what they thought and he never lost a minute of worry over it either.
The old Bootlegger was so lazy; his door was never locked. Customers pulling beneath his carport and knocking on the door were greeted with a shout, "Who is it"! With the appropriate answer, the person was told, "Don't just stand there, git in, if yer goin' too"! The fellow walked to the bed/throne delivering his money to the dirty fingernailed hand that reached for it and received orders to get their own beer out of the refrigerator.
Regular customers soon learned the way to get a few extra bottles of beer was to run errands for the old man. The customer who might be short of cash and unable to afford his drink for the day performed errands of picking up groceries, laundry, mailing of bills, etc. Persons driving their own vehicles brought trunk loads of alcoholic beverages purchased with John's money, to John's house. These people stood a risk of incarceration for transportation of illegal liqueur. That didn't seem to be a deferring factor since a case of free beer or three bottles of whiskey could be had, free of charge, for the job. John had a brand new Buick parked beside his house which was only driven when he needed to sign up for his disability checks or someone drove the old diabetic to the doctor when a check up was needed.
There was one thing John did like and that was trinkets and junk of any kind. As long as he could cram it into his one living space, it was there. Any enterprising person with something to sell knew to stop by Big John's. The walls were covered with 3-D pictures of Jesus on the Cross, wall clocks of every description, faded plastic flowers, perched haphazardly into wall vases nailed on door frames, temperature gauges advertising Cocoa-Cola, Orange Ade and Uncle Sam bearing the words, "Enlist Now" and a matching pair of Bird Dog prints without frames, even though John had never hunted a day in his life. These were hung on the wall above his bed. There was even a pair of pink plaster cast ballerina shoes complete with ribbons dangling from them mounted over the sink. A huge wooden Indian stood by the door, with a black, satin Top Hat plunked upon the head. Little outdoor toilets, string puppets, ashtrays with nude mermaids, hand held puzzle boxes, an apple peeler, and a set of men's cologne packaged in a colorful box, lined with red wrapping paper. On one shelf stood half a dozen bottles of Wild Root Hair Cream the old man had bought from a traveling salesman. All items were for resale to John's customers. A few unlucky male clients, who had paid John a "bargain" price for a bottle of it, complained behind John's back that the bottles were filled with plain old Jergens Hand Lotion. Not to be considered just a collector of cheap junk, Big John showed off a handsome set of Encyclopedias purchased from two Mormon boys riding bicycles. Numerous other pieces of marketable resale items covered the kitchen table and sink sideboard. Hanging from the bare kitchen light bulb that swung over the table, was a helicopter, Betty Boob or flying pig depending on what John bought next. Tacked in every corner of the room were sticky fly strips exposing forever the victims that were stuck there. John didn't believe in taking them down, he just had more hung up over the old ones. He had boxes of these flycatchers to sell as well. Last but not least, stood an old out of order Juke Box, it's chrome breast scared and dented, it's glass face scratched from years of fingernails, rings, bracelets and beer bottles, sitting in lone grandeur beside a doorway. Its assortment of old records featured Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter and more. It didn't matter that the songs couldn't be played. Big John liked to dazzle his clientele with the display of lights emitting from the old relic, which was all that remained in working order.
Dazzle the locals is what John did best. John's walls told the story of his life as a circus man in the many enlarged photos of him that were stuck on every available space in the room. John had traveled with circus' as a young man all over the US of A. Numerous pictures of John with a head of hair and weighing about 200 pounds less, showed him pulling a car with a rope by his teeth. John, in a long cape, a beautiful maiden suspended in mid air by his magic wand, produced much admiration from local visitors. Another picture depicted John's favorite of himself. Head thrown back, shoulders broad and straight, the black and white photo showed a young man swallowing a jewel-encrusted sword. One formidable shot featured John himself inserting a fire-burning torch into his throat, attended by lovely women in revealing costumes (for the day) posing on each side of him.
Big John loved to be the center of attention. Holding court on his smelly old bed, his visitors were enthralled with tales of the circus and his days in Hollywood as a stunt performer and extra. Pointing to this picture or that one, John directed the attention of his guests to each little detail in succession. Sometimes he would instruct one of his cronies to bring a picture to him. With everyone gathered 'bout the reclining man lying prone upon the mattress, he told of playing the circus in New York, Vegas, Miami, The Catskills and even Canada.
If the crowd were especially enthusiastic, at times the old entertainer would grace his audience with a performance. Heaving his great expanse off the bed, he disappeared into one of the empty rooms of the house. Shuffling back into the room, his visitors gasped aloud as John slowly and methodically slid his jeweled sword from its purple velvet bag. The performer in him was evident now as the old show business John took to his role. Asking that the main light bulb be unscrewed, the room was only lit by the yellow light filtering inside from the porch light and the flashing lights of the old Juke Box. John, standing in front of the jukebox, began to play his audience well.
Adjusting his height to the fullest extent while holding the sword parallel in his hands, each person was asked to come forward and inspect the sharpness of the blade. Then with exaggerated movements, he held the sword with both hands over his head, arching the blade slowly from left side to right. The only thing missing were the two lovely assistants shown in the original picture now hanging in semi-darkness on the blotched papered wall. The lack of music was not noticed as John mesmerized his captives by throwing the sword from one hand to the other now, still over his head. Building the tension now to high anxiety, he slowly steps forward with his left foot, stretching and bending the knee, John has assumed the stance of a dueling swordsman, on guard. With an agility one would have thought left the old man many years ago, the shoulders squared, the old bald head was arched backward, his throat perfectly aligned in a straight line. Slowly, ever so slowly, the sword was raised. The fake jewels glinted in the colored lights as both hands grasped the handle, positioning the saber into position over his waiting forehead.
Inch by inch the long; pointed blade began to ease its way down the throat of Sebastian, the Master of Mayhem. Once again, the crowds seated upon hard cold benches beneath the three-ring circus tent held their breaths in fear and anticipation. At last, nothing protruded from the mouth but the carved handle of the sword, fake rubies blinking in the soft light. The crowd erupted into wild cheering and frantic applause as the performer extended both arms to shoulder level, spreading them wide with a flamboyant gesture of the hands. The magic was back and John was under the Big Top again.
The dozen or so people sitting in awed stupor in John's kitchen/bedroom yelled and clapped at the top of their lungs. No one noticed the huge belly of the elf hanging from under the shirt like a bag of soft, white flour, nor the gnarly bare feet, and certainly not the grimy, ragged, undershirt. All eyes saw something very special that night. A dangerous circus trick "done just for them" by a great man who had "seen and done it all". They, too, felt the magic.
Tales were told of time spent on Indian Reservations out west and his Senorita down in Old Mexico, who John swore would still be waiting for him if he ever decided to go back, drew comments aplenty of "John, I woulda done 'bout anything just to a been thar for one day!" and "Gawd, I wished I coulda seed that, just one time"!
Famous names were dropped easily and candidly. Tales of his friendships with the rich and famous, rolled from his tongue smoothly, as syrup dripping from a silver spoon, rich, sweet and tasty. John made mention of associations and drinking bouts with known performers made possible by his work as an extra and stunt man. Bogart, Gable and John Wayne were just a few of the movie greats John claimed as friends and acquaintances. The old grizzly even claimed to be an extra in the making of the "Wizard of Oz". I suppose no one ever thought it suspicious that there was a lack of photos of John and his famous friends. If so, no one was going to admit it. The room was always full of gay, laughing people and the liqueur was flowing too freely by this time. John's sagas were told far and wide and it made no difference that he was a bootlegger at all. Perhaps people felt a little smug and just a little important by the greatness of it all. Enough to say at least, "My friend knows Bogart, and let me tell you this..."
Playing jokes and tricks on his "house guests" was a number one priority with John. Having a roaring sense of humor himself, he reveled in "getting one" on his fellow cronies. Taking their money and sending the satisfied customer on his way with a cold six pack of bottled beer, John counted the minutes until they returned. Always the customer returned within half an hour, opened six pack clutched under his arm, red faced, tongue protruding and panting like a dog chasing a three legged cat. You see, John thought it was hilarious to fill the empty beer bottles with watered down hot sauce.
There was another little trick of Big John's that sent on-lookers into gales of laughter. With the room bustling with talk and gaiety, John would insert a fifty-dollar bill into a wallet. Gesturing for a co-conspirator, the wallet was passed quietly and nailed inside the flap and through the money, to the front door stoop. As the first person decided to call it quits and head for home, the signal was given for all to watch. The door was left opened, it being summertime and all.
The episode I was told about featured a short little man, standing not five feet tall. This man was known around the area for the baggy pants he continually wore. Preferring not to buy garments for himself, he always wore his son's pants, who was tall and heavy. The pants were held gathered around his scrawny waist by a trusty belt and the long legs of the trousers left to gather 'round the ankles to be walked on wherever he went. He was a friendly little drunk, but the first one around if he thought he could get something for nothing. Continuously repeating his hard luck stories to anyone he thought might take pity upon him with a little greasing of the palm, he was known as Free Loadin' Willie. After numerous good-byes, and a good amount of wobbling, the drunk made his way to the open door. Upon seeing a fat wallet lying at his feet, the first thing to be done was to peep over the shoulder, inconspicuously of course, and see if anyone else noticed it. No one seemed to be aware that a wallet had been dropped right there on the doorstep. Leaning non-chalantly against the doorframe, it took some time to maneuver an unsteady toe between the flaps of the billfold, especially in his present woozy condition. The feat accomplished, the man's eyes bulged with a sharp intake of breath when his little watery eyes spied the corner of the fifty dollar bill sticking innocently from the slit. Hmmm, now how to get the money without the rest of them noticing. It made no difference that the money might belong to one of his pals seated right inside. Nope, not one dang bit. That money was put there by the Almighty to help him out in his time of need so who is the heck was he anyway to question the hand of fate.
He called one last goodbye, just in case somebody was actually paying attention to him, and stepped outside the door. How clever he was, how ingenious the plan that was taking place in his stupored condition. "Hmmm, this is a piece of cake." Pretending to stoop and tie his shoe, he made a fast grab for the wallet. With the wallet securely nailed to the stoop, the attempt was unsuccessful. The little drunk stooped to make another great yank when one foot stepped on the long trouser legs of the other foot. Stumbling, Free Loadin' Willie found himself propelled right through the open doorway and back into the room, belly down. With the impact of the huge belly flop, Willie's false teeth shot from his mouth and torpedoed across the room. His beer launched from the brown paper sack, sliding and tumbling across the room like pins on a bowling lane. The little band of people inside laughed uproariously, holding aching guts, tears streaming down their faces. Willie was hauled unharmed to his trousered covered little feet and in a short time set upon the short walk home, teeth safely lodged in his shirt pocket.
Others who were hell bent on obtaining the fifty dollars were known to "accidentally" drop keys, purses, caps, and even their booze close to the nailed wallet. Everyone made a second or even third attempt at pulling up the wallet before the people inside broke into spontaneous laughter. Yep, a good time was to be had at Big John, the Bootlegger's. Some people who were teetotalers were known to drop in occasionally just for the antics that went on in John's little front room.
While good times prevailed at the house on the hill, John kept order with an iron fist. No fights were allowed inside or outside his home. If arguing became serious, John sternly warned them once. The second time, action was taken immediately. Lying upon his matted, olive green army blanket, a hand dashed, lightning fast, beneath the pillow. The almost fight instantly diffused. Somehow, differences of opinions just didn't matter when a loaded 45-caliber pistol was leveled at one's head. The hard eyes of the old man never blinked, and the huge ham hock palms holding the weapon, never wavered. Holding the gun at arm's length, both hands gripping the butt, John would say, "Where do you want it at, you SOB"! John didn't put up with no bull and everyone knew he meant business. Those in the know say his bluff was never called, no not once.
Big John is gone, lying buried in the ground somewhere and his house stands empty. I have often wondered what happened to his sword and if it was buried with him. Sounds like the appropriate thing to do to me. Probably not though, for I think John would have wanted someone to have that sword, repeating his claims of near fame to each succeeding generation.
Well, I don't have your sword John, but I've done the best I could to keep your tales alive. You know I think old John is happy though. His story has been told now, his name is in print, and after all, he is lying down, just as he always preferred.
Copyright © 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
Nancy Trice, © 2000