Sunday, October 11, 2009

Legend of the Free State of Jones, by Dr. Rudy H. Leverett

In Legend of the Free State of Jones, the first scholarly account of events in Jones County, Mississippi before and during the American Civil War, Dr. Leverett definitively put to rest the myth that Jones County, Mississippi, seceded from the Confederacy.  Even so, having little stake in slavery most Jones Countians did indeed oppose the policy of Southern secession from the Union on the eve of the Civil War.  Nevertheless, once compelled to pick a side, Dr. Leverett shows that most residents of Jones County aligned themselves with the Confederacy as they battled bands of Confederate deserters hiding in the swamps of their home turf.

One such Jones County resident was Major Amos McLemore, my great- great-grandfather.   Although opposed to Southern secession, once war was inevitable Major McLemore volunteered to raise a company, the Rosin Heels, and became its commander.  He was shot dead by deserters after returning home on a mission to round them up and return them to service in the Confederate army.  (The family's struggles following Maj. McLemore's untimely death -- his widow, Rosa Lavinia, was left to raise five children under age 12 -- is the subject of this blog.)

Dr. Leverett's book, originally published in 1984, is now available in reprint.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Memories of the Eastabuchie McLemores in the 1930s and 1940s

Last week I drove to a trailer park in Petal, Mississippi to speak with Bill, a cousin of my father's. Bill is 84 years old and lives with his wife, both of them ailing but managing. Like most of the Eastabuchie McLemores, Bill stayed on the margins after leaving the Old Place.

Bill's father was one of the McLemore brothers who ran the still. Bill's parents and their six children lived in two rooms on the left side of the dogtrot cabin originally built in the 1830s by Major Amos McLemore's father, John. My grandmother Elma, her sister Lessie lived in two rooms on the right side with their collective children, seven or eight in all, and their mother Mary Etta Lee McLemore. Leroy McLemore, Elma's and Lessie's brother, lived in a back room. The kitchen was also in the back. The dogtrot had no front door, allowing air to cool the two halves of the cabin.  During the rural electrification campaign in the late 1930s, two rooms got wired for electricity.

Bill remembers Major McLemore's Confederate sword hanging beside the cabin's mantlepiece (my father remembered it atop the mantlepiece).

Bill knew about the McLemore brothers' still, which moved to four or five different locations over the years. They had eight to ten barrels of mash ready at a given time. "Distributors" would buy about five gallons at a time from the McLemores, then sell the whiskey out of their houses. Bill said he "helped sample some of it." According to a cousin of mine, my aunt and the other children stood lookout for the distilling operation; if someone unfamiliar showed up, they were to ring a bell.

The McLemore brothers ended the whiskey operation at some point in the 1940s when Leroy and Howard opened cafes/beer joints (each of them had his own). Ed Payne did not find my great-uncles' names on any lists of inmates at the state penitentiary at Parchman at any time during the 1930s and 1940s. As Ed observed, those omissions raise questions. The McLemores had been sentencied in the late 1930s to hard time in the state penitentiary for Possessing a Still and Possessing Liquor offenses. Did the McLemore brothers agree to shut down the still permanently in exchange for some sort of reprieve? Rough justice like that would be more or less unthinkable today, but it certainly would have been a common-sensical proposition, one I surely would have accepted had I been Howard or Leroy McLemore.

Bill's memory of my grandmother, Elma Rose McLemore, was very scant, or so he let on. He did say that Elma was close to a particular female McLemore living at the Old Place. I know that my own aunt, Dad's sister, forbade her kids from associating with several of her and Dad's female cousins in this line for their reputed laissez faire dealings with men, and my mother recalls my father's recounting that "the women" -- meaning these particular women, his mother Elma, and possibly others -- went to New Orleans to "go bad."

Bill did remember that the land that my father's father's family tenant-farmed adjoined the McLemore property near the cemetery and that Elma would hop the fence to talk to my father's father, Rudis, as he worked. Rudis's family grew watermelons according to Dad's sister. She told me Rudis was big and handsome and played the guitar. "This was all too much for Mother," according to my aunt, and before long Elma married Rudis and moved him into the Old Place. He stayed there only sixteen days. My September 16, 2009 post quotes my aunt's recounting of the night Rudis slipped out. The McLemore brothers gathered in the wide hallway of the dogtrot with kerosene lamps and shotguns before going out after him, without success. Elma kept fainting and being brought back around. Rudis's family left the area soon after that. By all accounts when Rudis left, Elma lost whatever innocence she had left.

Bill remembered the death several years later, on December 17, 1937, of Shirley, my father's eight-year-old sister. Bill didn't witness it, but he learned Shirley had run off the school bus towards the house across the road because Uncle Leroy was supposed to have bought a radio that day and she was eager to see it. A drunk was at the wheel of the car that struck her, which didn't immediately stop. Shirley's sister, my aunt, then thirteen years old, accompanied Shirley's dead body to the hospital, where she waited for hours alone for a familiar adult. Elma was eventually found in a bar.

If Elma was an alcoholic, the condition seems to have been predetermined. According to Bill, two of her sons and at least one of her brothers all had drinking problems, and by the time Elma was thirty she had had five children by five different men, had been abandoned by two, one of whom she adored, had lost one child to a tragedy and, with her large extended family, including about thirteen children, was living in an unplumbed dogtrot cabin in the Piney Woods firmly in the Great Depression's maw.

Maybe not surprisingly given what reality had dealt the family, Elma's mother, Mary Etta Lee McLemore, was not a religious person, despite being a charter member of the Eastabuchie Baptist Church. In fact, Mary knew about her sons' still and even mixed the whiskey with camphor and used the mixture for -- Bill didn't know what. Possibly a salve that Dad remembered "Grandma" would continually rub onto her legs. She'd also use the moonshine to make herself a "toddy" before bed.  Bill knew about the leg problem but didn't know what it was. Grandma used to sit on the porch a lot. She would make switches out of gallberry bushes and switch the children for "fussing." Still, Bill somehow remembers her as a kind person.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Howard McLemore's letter to the Hattiesburg American about his contempt citation

Hattiesburg, Miss.
May 8, 1939.

Editor, The American:

Since there has been so much comment on the charge of contempt of court filed against me in circuit court Friday, May 5, I wish to make this statement:

To begin with I wish to state that I made no loud outburst in the courtroom as some of the county officers would have you believe. I spoke the word “amen” in a very low tone, and not in a deep tone and certainly not with the intention of causing a disturbance or being disrespectful to the court.

M. Hawkins was being cross-examined by Attorney Earle L. Wingo and the question co-incided so perfectly with what was in my own mind at the moment that I spoke on an impulse.

Deputy Cubley was standing near where I was sitting and asked who spoke; and when I told him it was I he walked over to Judge Pack and said, “A man said ‘amen’ back there.”

Judge Pack said “bring him around.” Then Mr. Cubley called me around and took me before the judge where I asked what I was being charged with, a thing I had a perfect right to do.

Instead of telling me what the charges were or giving me any information Mr Cubley grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me away, saying: “Judge Pack said put you in that room.”

To which I replied: “I don’t give a damn what Judge Pack said; I want to know what I am charged with.” As a citizen I had a right to make this demand.

In the course of a very few minutes I was brought back before the judge, where I asked for time and opportunity to procure an attorney and was told that I had already had a chance to get an attorney; I think my rights as a citizen were denied again.

In about five minutes they had questioned the states’ witnesses which constituted all the testimony that was offered in the case since I was locked in the room alone without a chance to prepare my case.

Results: One hundred dollars and thirty days!

I take this opportunity to thank the many good citizens who have offered me assistance.


Monday, September 28, 2009

McLemore orneriness in action

My previous post set forth a rap-sheet-in-progress for my McLemore great uncles, who were moonshiners in Forrest County, Mississippi. The rap sheet included the following entries:

May 5, 1939: Howard charged with "Contempt of Court committed in the presence and hearing of the court. Adjudged to be in contempt of court." Fined $100 and sentenced to 30 days in jail. A margin note indicates "certif. of appeal 5/16/1939.
* * *
December 9, 1939: Hearing on Howard's motion to set aside verdict/for new trial for Possessing Still and on his motion to set aside judgment on his contempt conviction. His motion is overruled, but judgment is modified. The $100 fine stands, but his 30-day sentence is suspended pending good behavior.

From a September 28, 2009 email message to me from Ed Payne:

Contempt citation for HOWARD MCLEMORE is an interesting story. A police officer named M. Hawkins had confronted 3 Creel brothers outside the Downs Cafe on Mobile [Street, Hattiesburg] and said that they were drunk and should get off the street. They responded (in typical peckerwood style) "We're running things down here" and jumped him. He pulled his gun and in the melee shot and killed Homer Quick, a farmer, and wounded at least one other person. It was the Creel brothers who were charged with manslaughter, which no doubt did not sit well with the Mobile [Street] regulars since, in the peckerwood view, Officer Hawkins should have kept his nose out of their business.

Howard attended the jury selection and, when a lawyer asked aquestion of Hawkins that he felt was to the point, he said, "Amen." A deputy heard him and reported his exclamation to the presiding Judge, by the name of Pack. He was hauled before the Judge and Howard asked what was the charge. The judge (by Howard's account) did not bother to respond and so, as he was being led away, he damned the judge. Three days later (May 8, 1939) Howard wrote a Letter to the Editor that was published the same date giving his version of this. As it happens, Judge Pack is a relation of mine--being, if I recall correctly, an uncle of my grandmother.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My great-uncles' rap sheet

My father's uncles, Amos, Howard, and Leroy McLemore, were moonshiners. They ran a still on the Old Place in Forrest County, Mississippi, just outside of Eastabuchie. My father remembered watching them make whiskey. He said they would toast wood shavings and put them into the clear distilled alcohol to give it a nice whiskey color. He also remembers that one night an uncle tore out in his car towards the still at the back of the property with "revenue men" in pursuit -- the bolting car mowed down one of the front porch's supports en route and the porch collapsed.

Here is my great uncles' rap sheet so far as I have been able to assemble it (it's a work in progress). Except as indicated, the following rap sheet is assembled from entries in the Forrest County, Mississippi, Circuit Court Minutes, which appear to be incomplete.

* * *
Fall 1917: U.S. charges Howard with bringing five quarts of whiskey to Mississippi from New Orleans, Louisiana in violation of the Reed Act. (From squib in Biloxi Daily Herald on November 8, 1917.)

[To be done -- research to determine any additional federal charges, i.e., during Prohibition.]

1933: The states ratify the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition. Ratification is effective on December 5, 1933. From Ed Payne email message to me dated September 24, 2009:

You might want to note for your readers that Mississippi was the first state to adopt prohibition in 1907 (went into effect in 1908) and, following the repeal of national prohibition in 1933, remained dry until 1966--when it became the last state to repeat prohibition. Thereafter the state adopted local option. A map showing the current division of wet / dry counties (and cities within counties) can be found here:
April 27, 1933: Leroy charged with, and pleads not guilty to, Intoxicating Liquor [need to clarify nature of this charge]

December 5, 1933: Leroy pleads guilty to a charge of Having Whiskey; matter continued as to Howard. (Note that December 5, 1933 is the date on which the 21st Amendment becomes effective.)

December 23, 1933: Leroy sentenced: $300 fine and 90 days in jail (on Having Whiskey charge). Leroy was given an opportunity to speak but "had naught to say." Half of his sentence -- as to both fine and jail term -- is suspended.

December 27, 1933: Leroy is issued an unspecified citation (likely relating to the next entry, below).

January 17, 1934: Leroy's suspension of sentence is revoked; full fine of $300 and full jail term of 90 days is imposed.

June 11, 1934: Ruling on Leroy's appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirms the revocation of suspension of his sentence.

April 20, 1936: Amos and Leroy indicted for Possessing a Still.

February 1, 1937: Mississippi Supreme Court affirms Amos's conviction arising from the April 20, 1936 indictment. From the court's decision:
The evidence against appellant was obtained by agents of the Federal Government. They, having previously ascertained the location of a still, went up north of Hattiesburg, where the still was located, about 5:45 in the morning, to some point in the edge of a swamp on Leaf river, and saw there Leroy McLemore and another bring certain parts of a still. They again went to the place and found some mash almost ready to run. They again went to the place, on the day the appellant was arrested, and found a regular still for distilling whisky set up, and Leroy McLemore was building a fire around it, but they did not see any vessels in which the whisky, when made, was to be placed. They arrested Leroy McLemore, and one of the federal officers went to a point above the still, and between that and the McLemore residence, where there was a path leading to the still, and secreted himself. Shortly thereafter, Amos McLemore appeared with an empty keg on his shoulder and was walking toward the still; the federal officer followed him, and when appellant noticed this, he threw the keg down, whereupon the officer told him to go on to the still. When they reached the still where Leroy McLemore and the other person were, Leroy McLemore was asked to whom the still belonged. He stated that it belonged to him and the appellant. He was then asked upon whose land it was situated, and he stated that he did not know; that the McLemore estate had not been divided. These statements were made in the presence of appellant, were not denied, and thereafter appellant confessed ownership of the still, and requested the federal officers not to talk about the matter, as he (appellant) had a job on the G. & S. I. Railroad and feared he would lose it, and he also asked that they be taken to some jail other than that at Hattiesburg. The officers refused to do this, and Leroy McLemore and the appellant were placed in jail at Hattiesburg.

The appellant offered no evidence at all, and asked for no instructions, and the court admitted the above stated evidence.
McLemore v. State, 172 So. 139 (1937).

May 10, 1937
: Amos charged with Manufacturing Liquor.

November 10, 1937: Howard charged with Possessing Liquor and Possessing Still, enters not-guilty plea. Case set for trial "3rd Wednesday."

November 30, 1938: Leroy receives a jury trial on a charge of Possessing Liquor. Jury finds Leroy "guilty as charged, and recommend the mercy of the court." Leroy is given an opportunity to speak but declines to do so. He is sentenced to one year of hard labor in the state penitentiary [presumably at Parchman]. (Based on the June 5, 1939 opinion by the Mississippi Supreme Court, I deduce that Leroy was also charged and, on November 30, 1938, convicted with Possession of a Still.)

December 5, 1938: Howard receives a jury trial on a charge of Possessing Still. Jury finds Howard "guilty as charged." Sentencing is deferred to July 5, 1939.

December 6, 1938: Howard sentenced to two years' hard labor in State Penitentiary on Possessing Still conviction.

[Note that the dates for the preceding two entries are reversed in the Forrest County Circuit Court minute books. Needless to say, Howard couldn't possibly have been sentenced before he was tried, so I restored the dates to their logical chronological order.]

December 9, 1938: Howard moves to set aside the verdict and for a new trial.

May 5, 1939: Howard charged with "Contempt of Court committed in the presence and hearing of the court. Adjudged to be in contempt of court." Fined $100 and sentenced to 30 days in jail. A margin note indicates "certif. of appeal 5/16/1939."

June 5, 1939: Mississippi Supreme Court issues decision on Leroy's conviction for "possession of a still," presumably on appeal of his November 30, 1938 conviction. The decision recites in part:
The evidence in regard to the still was procured by United States officers, who, discovering the still on certain lands, with mash ready for distillation, secreted themselves nearby. When LeRoy McLemore came upon the scene early in the morning, dipped some of the mash from the barrels, placed it in the still, and lighted the fire under the distillery, one of the officers approached and placed him under arrest. According to their evidence he made a voluntary statement, to the effect that the still belonged to him and his brother jointly, and was jointly operated by them. There was ample evidence to show that the confession was voluntary, and that no promise or threat was made to secure it.
The still was located upon land formerly owned by the appellant's father, who had died, and which his mother occupied as her home. There was no proof to show that the appellant occupied the property as an heir, or that he was occupying it at all, any further than to operate the still upon it. The federal officers had no search warrant, but under the law of the state the widow of a homesteader is entitled to use the homestead during her lifetime, and consequently she has the right of possession to the exempt homestead, and to its proceeds, for her support, during her lifetime or the period of her widowhood
McLemore v. State, 189 So. 525 (1939).

November 28, 1939: Leroy charged with Manufacturing Liquor.

November 29, 1939: Howard charged with Possessing Liquor.

December 9, 1939: Hearing on Howard's motion to set aside verdict/for new trial for Possessing Still and on his motion to set aside judgment on his contempt conviction. His motion is overruled, but judgment is modified. The $100 fine stands, but his 30-day sentence is suspended pending good behavior.

January 26, 1940: The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issues its decision in an appeal from a judgment of forfeiture of a two-door Ford sedan that had been found to have been used by Leroy in the unlawful manufacture of liquor. From the Fifth Circuit's decision:
The district court found that Howard McLemore, who bought the car, had a record for handling tax-unpaid liquor, having been previously convicted of violating the internal revenue laws with reference thereto, and that this reputation was known to appellant [the Federal Credit Company] before it acquired the paper evidencing the unpaid purchase price of the car, but that the Credit Company had a conversation with Howard McLemore, and from this conversation reached the conclusion that it would be safe in buying the paper, as he would not use the car for handling such liquor, but would keep it for use principally by his wife as a family car; that thereafter Howard lent the car to his brother, Leroy McLemore, who at the time was engaged in the unlawful manufacture of whiskey, and who placed two kegs in it that were intended to be used for the purpose of depositing and concealing whiskey, upon which the tax had not been paid, with the intent of defrauding the Government of the revenue thereon.

The car was seized by federal officers as Leory [sic] McLemore drove up in it and stopped in front of a house in the rear of which an illicit still, in which Leroy had an interest, was located. The officers had previously seized the still, and were awaiting the arrival of the owner or operator, as they observed no place to store the daily output thereof and expected some one to come who would haul away the whiskey that had ben run that day. It was early in the night when Leroy drove up in the car, stopped, left his lights on for a while, and sat there a few minutes to get his bearings; then turned off his lights, threw a ten-gallong [sic] keg on the ground, got out and walked around the car, flashed an electric light, picked up the keg, put it on his shoulder, started toward the path leading to the side of the house, and whistled. One of the officer [sic] answered the whistle, and arrested him. Upon searching the car, they found the rear seat completely gone, and another ten-gallong [sic] keg and particles of rye, sugar, and charcoal in the back of the car where the seat had been. Both kegs had the odor of whiskey in them, and were of the type commonly used by men engaged in the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquor.

Purchase slips and receipts were found on the person of Leroy McLemore at the time of his arrest, which listed articles and equipment similar to those found at the site of the still. Some of the slips listed rye, sugar, charcoal, and other materials generally used in connection with the operation of a whiskey distillery. These and other circumstances in evidence convinced the court below that the kegs and other materials in the car were used and intended to be used in the manufacture and sale of tax-unpaid intoxicating liquor.
Federal Credit Co. v. United States (1940).

WPA Life Histories, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Cool.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Backwoods Scot anti-authoritarianism

Here's Ed Payne's take (email sent to me on September 23, 2009) on the distinction between the seemingly upright, lifelong Baptist Walter Scott McLemore, my great grandfather (son of Maj. Amos McLemore), and Walter's sons Amos, Howard and Leroy, who were moonshiners/"beer joint" owners.

* * *
But after finding the 1917 arrest article, I've been mentally stepping back somewhat from too much reliance on the "blame it on the 1920s" hypothesis. Let's go back to the analogy of conventional families who spawned drug dealing baby boomer children. In this case let us say that said family lives on a farm. Now we have to imagine the adult children continue to live on the farm with their supposedly conventional and upright parents. But these parents permit their children to continue living on the farm even after they have been busted numerous times. And the parents would have to at least suspect that their brood are growing pot right there on their property. At this point one has to wonder exactly how conventional the parents really are. If not in sympathy with their children's activities, they are at least very, very tolerant of them. Or maybe we need to question what "conventional" means.

So I have to return to your original multi-generational idea. I'm not so sure it has to do with family poverty, which you've heard was the common condition of the Piney Woods, so much as with some branches of the family going peckerwood. "Peckerwood" is a derisive term but one I will use here to denote those hard nosed, ornery, feisty and usually poor plain folks who some scholars (Grady McWhiney chief among them) have strongly equated with the Scots-Irish (aka Celtic) line. A peckerwood is suspicious / defiant of legal authority and will demonstrate a strong tendency to take the side of his or her kin--regardless of the transgression involved. I made passing noted of this mentality in my Sarah Collins article.

Now I think McWhiney went way overboard by seeming to associate peckerwoodness with genetics rather than cultural heritage. That said, I concede that peckerwood characteristics originally appeared most strongly among Scots-Irish immigrants. Take a peckerwood out of the Piney Woods and put him in Appalachia and he is a hillbilly. Put him in a more agricultural setting and he is a redneck. Put him in the oil fields and he is a roughneck. Put him on Fox News and he's Sean Hannity / Glenn Beck. You got a small dose of stereotypical criticism of blacks in Hattiesburg. Yet I can refer you to articles in which McWhiney characterizes Celts as lazy, ignorant, amoral, and indolent compared to their Anglo neighbors. Those terms sound familiar?

At some point the likely Anglo-Scots cultural moorings of Amos McLemore must faded in the midst of the surrounding peckerwood culture in which he and his descendants lived. Frontier necessity probably caused the shift from Episcopal to Baptist. Meanwhile, in the post Civil War period the tension between the rebellious, fiddle playing, whiskey drinking elements of that culture and the portion that sought to rein itself in by becoming teetotaling, dance-prohibiting Baptists grew more pronounced (and played itself out on a national level with Prohibition). Yet the Old Testament Baptist God of the teetotalers can himself be viewed as Supreme Ornery Cuss who created the Universe just so he could enjoy the satisfaction of tossing 97% of humankind into the eternal fires of hell--as the logic of full blown predestination doctrine demands. Once Baptist theology began inferring that being among the proper folks suggested you were among The Elect of God, Jasper Collins got disgusted enough to risk eternal hellfire by becoming a Universalist.

The point is that thus far your visit has been among the Baptist relations. But the peckerwood side of the McLemore family (and the Piney Woods in general) is still out there. It is living in mobile homes and less fashionable suburbs of Hattiesburg and it even shows up on the balcony of the Brownstone. It cusses and fusses and gets in family fights that smart folks know never to step in the middle of. And among the most outlaw of these peckwoods, moonshine has given way to meth labs.

Maybe the question is by what increments some members of the family became peckerwoods. Walter did not have to be a full blown peckerwood--just enough of one to side with "his boys" against the law. . . . [H]ow defensive could Walter have been concerning his moonshining sons and loose living daughters? Whatever his own feeling, no one else had better say a damn word.

Now consider one other element: Elma's brothers must have known about her affairs with Holmes and Bethea. Holmes was the county lawyer and thus a member of the hated legal authority and Bethea, though not Sheriff until 1948, was among the respectable people who certainly looked down upon the peckerwood, moonshining McLemore brothers. And they, in turn, despised the well-heeled social set of Hattiesburg, a goodly number of whom they knew had occasion to consume their products on the sly. No wonder they took their class hatred out on poor Jimmie French Moore. No wonder that he would have taken his own life if he felt that his efforts to lift himself up were in vain--that was and always would be a peckerwood like them. (Great mostly unknown movie on this theme is "Flesh and Bone" )

But I am back to the question of the transitional role of Walter S. McLemore. Was he only a passive "stand by your kin" peckerwood or had he himself ever been a peckerwood moonshiner? Or did William, Howard, and Leroy find their roll models among their neighbors and older cousins?