Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, R.I.P.

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When Popcorn Sutton died in mid-March at the age of 62, the national press ran obituaries.  Though he was just an old moonshiner who’d plied his trade for half a century and done nothing else of consequence, a whole bunch of folks in Tennessee and North Carolina grieved more than they would have over the death of a military hero, movie star, or ex-president.  A few lamented the disappearance of the best 180-proof whiskey available on planet Earth.  More mourned the loss of a dogged warrior who’d fought the enemy’s merciless legions, held them at bay for nearly a lifetime, and finally yielded to overwhelming numbers and resources.

You can see photographs of Popcorn on the world-wide web, a scrawny old man wearing overalls, a faded flannel shirt, and the wreck of a brown hat—the splay of his red-gray beard covering his chest, sad eyes seared by the gaze of the Beast.  One snapshot shows him standing by his Model A Ford, with mom corn and pop corn painted on the front bumper.  Another with Willie Nelson’s arm around him.  A third with him holding a copy of Me and My Likker, his autobiography.

You can even go to YouTube and see a snippet of The Last One, a film about Sutton, made by Neal Hutcheson, whose North Carolina company, Sucker Punch Pictures, features Appalachian stories and themes.  The Last One is a step-by-step workshop on how to make a still and run off your very own moonshine, with Popcorn and assistant J.B. Rader as instructors.

It’s like watching a segment of Paula Deen on the Food Network.  Popcorn talks you through the exacting process, starting with the selection of a site and ending with the sampling of the finished product.  You can sense the true artisan’s quest for perfection in his careful explanation of each step.  This is no hustler, out to make a quick buck.  Scuttling around the copper kettle and tubing, sealing the contraption with his skeletal thumb, he is the master of a great craft, cooking one more batch for posterity, “the last run of likker I’ll ever make.”

By the time Hutcheson shot this film, Popcorn was already a mythic figure.

Everybody in that part of the country knew who he was and what he did.  Of course, he had no intention of stopping, any more than Michelangelo considered stopping after finishing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Sutton went right back to the old copper cookery, and no one seemed to mind—except for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).  Perhaps for them he had become the embodiment of surd evil.  Perhaps his local fame reflected poorly on their competence and relevance.  Whatever the case might be, last year they swarmed all over his three-still operation and heaped numerous charges on his back, already bent double from hauling 25-pound sacks of sugar to mix with the sour mash.

Following Popcorn’s arrest, ATF Special Agent James Cavanaugh proclaimed, “Moonshine is romanticized in folklore and in the movies.  The truth though is that moonshine is a dangerous health issue and breeds other crime.”

Not as dangerous to health as the ATF.  You will recall that this same agency was complicit in killing 78 people at Waco, including 21 children and 2 pregnant women.  When it came time to investigate this federal massacre, the chief of ATF operations at Waco said there were no guns on the government helicopters.  Under questioning, he changed his story, admitting there were indeed guns, just no mounted guns.  A bullet from a hand-held gun is just as lethal as one from a mounted gun.

Who was the leader of the ATF at the Waco massacre, whom critics have charged with lying to investigators?  The same James Cavanaugh.  Question: Over the years, who has posed the greater threat to human life—poor old Popcorn Sutton or the federal government, led by trigger-happy hotshots like Cavanaugh?  The evidence seems clear.  The score is at least 78-0, not counting Ruby Ridge.

Here’s what Popcorn said about moonshining, in general, and his own operation, in particular:

If you ain’t got the proper equipment to start with, then you don’t need to get in the business, because you don’t need to kill a bunch of people and make ’em sick . . . I wanted to make a product that they’d come back and see me when they got that drunk up.

Apparently, he knew more about the equipment he was using to make whiskey than Cavanaugh knew about the equipment the government used to kill civilians at Waco.

Following Popcorn’s arrest and subsequent death, plain folks expressed their anger on the world-wide web.  On a site called Smokey Mountain Breakdown the following appeared:

[R]evenuers suck.  Like our federal government doesn’t have better things to do.  But we keep making them bigger and fatter, and creating new departments for them to run and staff.  Defend the country, deliver the mail, I’m thinking that’s about enough for them to handle.


East Tennessee has been robbed of a man who was a part of history.  I met Popcorn a few years back, and I thought he was precious[.]  I never heard tale of any time he ever hurt a soul[.]  They should have just let him be to continue his craft.  Well, I’m sure ole Popcorn knew he had many freinds and aquaintences that will be missing him.  I bet he is in Heaven tending a Golden Still.

While many attitudes and values have changed over the past 200-plus years, some have remained constant.  Government still wants to tax sin, in general, and whiskey, in particular.  Ordinary people believe fiercely, unequivocally that such taxes are wrong, indeed downright wicked.  What we see in the case of Popcorn Sutton is the continuation of the Whiskey Rebellion, which began in George Washington’s administration and threatened the very existence of the new nation.

In the late 18th century whiskey was more than merely a solace against bone-chilling winter and—with an average of seven children per house—a way to sweeten the lengthy confinement between harvest and spring planting.  (“Maude, tell them children to shut up, and bring me my jug.”)  It was also a money crop and, along the frontier, a medium of exchange.

“How much is that cotton dress in the window?”

“Three gallons, Ma’am.  But it’s been there for a while.  I’ll give it to you for two.”

It was Alexander Hamilton’s idea to impose an excise tax on whiskey—to raise revenue to pay off the war debt of the colonies and to establish the right of the federal government to jerk the chain of the newly freed citizenry.  As Hamilton put it, the whiskey tax was “more as a measure of social discipline than as a source of revenue.”  Hamilton was the quintessential apostle of Big Government.  Aaron Burr did the right thing for the wrong reason.

The law specified that small producers of whiskey would be taxed at a rate of nine cents per gallon, while large producers would pay only six cents per gallon.  President Washington—who was a large producer—thought Hamilton had a good idea.  So did Congress.  Again, some things haven’t changed.

On the other hand, small farmers, who remembered fighting a revolution in part over the Stamp Act of 1765, felt betrayed.  This was the first time the new government had flexed its muscles, and folks in the boondocks didn’t like it a bit.  In the hills and hollows they concluded that this was just the kind of situation for which the Second Amendment was created.  Their struggle for independence began in South Park Township, Pennsylvania, and spread southward and westward.  Soon a loosely organized but well-armed resistance movement was flourishing nationwide, directing their attacks against the likes of tax collectors, mail carriers, and courts—i.e., government agents.

George Washington—who had fought and defeated the armies of a tax-mad king—wasn’t about to let the same thing happen to his own duly constituted government.  He declared martial law, recruited some 13,000 men, and appointed Lighthorse Harry Lee as their commander, with written instructions to fight those “who may be found in arms in opposition to the National will and authority.”  It was the first time a president assumed that the will of his government and the will of the people were identical—but by no means the last.  To underscore that proposition, he even rode out at the head of the army, which was just about the size of the force he’d led against the British.

Instead of Braddock, Washington’s army pursued a folk hero—nameless and faceless—called Tom the Tinker.  To this day, no one knows for sure who he was or if, indeed, he ever existed.  In a sense, it doesn’t matter.  In many states, groups organized, calling themselves Tom the Tinker’s Men.  They narrowed their focus to target whiskey-tax collectors and those who collaborated with them, if only by complying with the law.  Of the latter group, historian William Hogeland wrote:

You might find a note posted on a tree outside your house, requiring you to publish in the Gazette your hatred of the whiskey tax and your commitment to the cause; otherwise, the note promised, your still would be mended.  Tom had a wicked sense of humor and a literary bent: “mended” meant shot full of holes or burned.  Tom published on his own, too, rousing his followers to action, telling the Gazette’s editor in cover notes to run the messages or suffer the consequences.

Though the army was effective in Western Pennsylvania, Washington didn’t even attempt to enforce the tax in the hills and valleys of the outlands.  Today history books concentrate on success in Pennsylvania and ignore failure in the rest of the country.  As Murray Rothbard explained,

Washington, Hamilton, and the Cabinet covered up the extent of the revolution because they didn’t want to advertise the extent of their failure.  They knew very well if they tried to enforce, or send an army into, the rest of the back country, they would have failed.  Kentucky and perhaps the other areas would have seceded from the Union then and there.

In 1802, Congress repealed the law that precipitated the Whiskey Rebellion.  However, today it is still illegal to make whiskey, even for your own consumption—a law that defies common sense.  As a consequence, the spirit of Tom the Tinker lives on, particularly in the mountains of Appalachia, where white lightning remains a respectable beverage.

To his admirers, Popcorn Sutton was the reincarnation of Tom the Tinker.  Had he been a purveyor of pornography or methamphetamine, he would have been a pariah, loathed by the very people who found him quaint and heroic.  Whiskey is different from dope and smut.  It just is.

Popcorn was arrested because somebody couldn’t keep his mouth shut.  One of his “still sheds” caught on fire; and both the county and local fire departments came to put out the flames.  Before they had completed the job, Popcorn showed up and asked the firefighters to please not mention the presence of three stills, coils of copper wire, bags of sugar, sour mash, and more than 800 gallons of moonshine stored in the remains of an old school bus.  Somebody ratted him out, and the feds swooped down on his property and hauled him away, along with his paraphernalia.

He hadn’t been arrested since 1998; and in the past he’d been given probated sentences, since no one took what he’d been doing too seriously.  This time Popcorn promised never to do it again; he pled ill health, saying, “I’d like to die at home rather than in a penitentiary.”  The court was unforgiving.  The prim judge said he’d heard no expression of remorse and sentenced Popcorn to 18 months in prison.

Popcorn waited until the word came to surrender.  Then he did what he believed he had to do.  He climbed into his old Ford Fairmont—the one he’d traded three jugs of moonshine for—shut the windows, and cranked up the car.  That afternoon, his wife, Pam, found him, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.

“He got his letter to report Friday, and he just couldn’t handle it,” she said.  “We tried everything we could to leave him on house arrest, and they wouldn’t do it.  So I thank the federal court for this.”

Some of his admirers have said that the making of moonshine is a dying craft, that Popcorn was the last great practitioner.  They complain that there’s no money in moonshine anymore, that soon enough no one will even know how to make the stuff.

Don’t you believe it.  The spirit of Tom the Tinker and Popcorn Sutton will rule the mountains until the final trumpet echoes in smoking valleys.  Raw-boned mountain boys already know it isn’t just the money.  It’s the incomparable thrill of thumbing your nose at Alexander Hamilton.  Popcorn has left them the how-to DVD.  A dozen young towheaded adventurers are back in the mountains right now, soldering coils together, cooking sour mash, listening to the drip, drip, drip of their own fierce defiance.  And they don’t give a damn for George Washington’s army.

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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