Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Moonshine and Murder

I always knew that there was moonshine in my father's family background. I even got tricked into tasting some when I was younger. (Word to the wise, when a crowd of guys gathers in the backyard and passes a mason jar around, it is NOT spring water.) Stories of uncles, grandfathers, fast cars, product hidden in beehives, and thump barrels silenced in a creek were told and listened too over and over. One story I was told seemed too fantastic to be real.  It goes like this.....

According to family legend, as told by my father's mother (who was just over a year old when it happened), her father had a contract with the federal government to produce moonshine for the military and the government during WWI.  Now, Prohibition being the law of the land, this made local producers who didn't enjoy this protection jealous. They joined together, ambushed the cabin one night and shot her father, gravely wounding him.  They took off into the night and she was placed in the dying man's lap, where she remained all night long as he died.  Two men were eventually tried and convicted of murder and were executed for the murder.

So, what did this give me to go on?  A location, a time period, a potential individual, and a story that must have made local news.  I decided to start with the individual, trying to pin down a name for my grandmother's father. Not as easy as it would sound.  There is no father listed on her birth certificate, nor on that of her older sister.  Hmmmmm..... I kept plugging away and finally I had a name, John White.  The only name more mundane and difficult to confirm would have been John Smith, but still how many John Whites married to Delia Easters with daughters Bertie and Annie could there be?  Only the one as it turns out and he appears marrying Delia in 1914 and by 1920 she and her daughters are all shown in the census as "Whites" and living with her widowed mother, no John in sight.  This was promising, he disappears at the right time. I "googled" everything I could think of to track down the story from there and got nowhere, for years.  Then I had a flash of insight, maybe somebody else had another part of the story.

I was off to my ancestry.com account looking for someone else that had John White in their tree.  Lightening struck and I got in touch with a lovely lady living in North Carolina who's MIL is actually my relative, a cousin counted and removed (I haven't quite worked it out yet, but my great-grandmother Delia and her MILs mother were sisters).  This lady's MIL was actually friendly with my grandmother when she was a young woman!  From here the story resolved quickly.

Turns out, it wasn't my great-grandfather John White.  Nope, it was Delia Easter's father William Riley Easter who was the victim of the story told so many times.  My new friend/family in North Carolina sent me the newspaper articles and a couple of pictures and here is how the story really goes.....

William Riley Easter was a man who made stills, really good stills, and he repaired stills that law officers had attempted to destroy. He was also an exceptional producer of shine.  According to the newpapers his son (and maybe he) had a loose aggrerment with the sheriff in Mount Airy, NC (of Mayberry fame) in which he would turn in stills for bounty money.  In July 1918, William Riley Easter's son, Jim turned in a still to the local sheriff, Belton that belonged to the Cain brothers.  The sheriff confiscated the still, and the Cains took serious exception to this.  Threats were leveled about the return of the still or else violence would be done.  William Riley walked into town and further inflamed things by turning in the product of the still that had already been destroyed.  That sealed his fate.

On the night of July 22, 1918 he was hosting a family party at his "small mountain home" with children and grandchildren in attendance.  His wife, my great-great grandmother Margaret and her daughter, my great-grandmother Deelie Easter WHITE were in the front yard when a large group of men appeared in the moonlight.  William Riley Easter, thinking they were revenuers came to the door and asked them in, and then the shooting started.  Riley was struck in the stomach and was dragged into the home while fire was returned from inside the cabin.  A woman screamed that the men had killed "her pap and her baby" and the gunfire stopped, the men melting back into the night.

The law was fetched and a doctor brought to tend to the wounded and sort out the story.  The doctor, insisting that Riley would not die, was contradicted by Riley, who insisted otherwise. He gave testimony and identified those that had shot him.  Gut shot and in pain, he lingered 13 hours, with his granddaughter (my grandmother), Annie Easter White on his lap.

The Cain brothers were caught quickly, along with several others identified by Riley as he died and confirmed by other family members.  They were taken to jail, tried for the crime and the two Cain brothers became the first men electrocuted in Surry County, NC (hanging having been the method until then).

So there it is, a story that belongs in a book or a movie, but not my history. It is surreal to me that my grandmother was a baby in the middle of all of that, that my great-grandmother had to be a witness to the murder of her own father.  I have seen pictures of Delia, she seemed so stoic and grim, she had good reason to be. My Grandmother Annie Easter White Secrest Prazzo could have her moments of deep negativity, and who can blame her?

Moonshine can have such a romantic and daring aura about it, but this story shows the underbelly of it all. Rivals, cheats, anger, retribution, gunfire, and women and children screaming and cowering in the midst of it all.

I am still researching, still reading and still digesting, but I wanted to get this out on the blog to begin sharing it with others in my family who will want to know.

5 comments:

  1. Got curious and looked up the phase of the moon for the night this happened- one night before the full moon. The yard must have looked like daylight.

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  2. My husband is the grandson of Garner Cain. I have pictures of Mr. Easter's Home if you would like to have them.

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    1. I only just now saw this. I would love to see pictures. I only have photocopies of microfilmed evidence photos.

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  3. William Easter is my great great grandpa =) I would love any info you have!

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    1. Please email me at ardently@verizon.net. Happy to share all information I have!

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