Joe Phillips Tells of Long Chase of “Wild Bill” Gosnell,

 Notorious Old Moonshiner

By F. D. Vanover – The Lincoln Republican, Louisville, Kentucky – April 1931


"Wild Bill' Gosnell, leader of a gang of moonshiners in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee thirty years ago, could hardly have grasped the full importance of a cool million dollars, the amount which one Chicago 'booze baron who retired some time ago is said to have amassed. Gosnell, tall and lean, with piercing, deep-set eyes and face covered with a heavy growth of a black beard, was a typical specimen of the rough and unuttered mountaineer who, it is now being claimed by prohibition agents, was the grandfather of the modern racketeer.  But what a whale of a difference, then and now. In Gosnell’s day, moonshining was not only a racket but a livelihood, $300 a year, in the native vernacular, was "a sight of money."

Feared, and therefore respected throughout the hill country for more than twenty years, Gosnell waged a relentless warfare against the hated "revenuers" as well as against rival gangs of moonshiners invading his territory. And while they did not "take them for a ride" in these days, these early gangsters lived in constant danger not only of the law but of themselves. Shooting or cutting the throats of livestock was the favorite method of revenge adapted, but when gunning for his rival the mountaineer either shot him from ambush or pounced upon him and slit his throat in the same manner he would his cow, horse, or other animal.

There were only a small number of revenue officers on duty throughout this virtually inaccessible region when Gosnell held sway, and few were daring enough to make any attempt to interfere with the operation of the old mooshiner's gang. Inaccessibility of the mountain fastnesses, combined with clannishness of the natives themselves, made pursuit of the mountaineers not only difficult but dangerous in the extreme.

So long as Gosnell kept within the protecting shadow of the cliff-strewn and heavily wooded hills he was in little danger of capture. Here he was surrounded by those who, like himself, did not consider it wrong either to make moonshine whisky, or to right a wrong with a rifle. This code handed down from the earliest pioneers who, while owning large tracts of land, found its productiveness scarcely repaid the labor spent in cultivation, was given expression by Gosnell when a circuit riding minister upon one occasion attempted the redemption of the old moonshiner.
 
"I ‘low," said Gosnell, "that God Almighty made apples an' peaches,  an 'ef  He didn't want 'em made into brandy by we mountain people He'd  a kep' the secret of 'stilling all to Hisself. But we hez the secret, and we raises the apples an' peaches.  If a man' can't be 'lowed to do ez he wants with his own fruit, it's a damned poor country."

And "Wild Bill" spoke the sentiment of the mountains.

It was not due to the clannishness of the mountaineers alone, however, that Gosnell always succeeded in escaping arrest.  He was elusive, wary as the red fox, and many times wriggled out of tight places by the exercise of native wiles and ability.  Numerous stories of his escapades are still recounted back in the hills, where they attracted unfailing admiration.

One of Gosnell's close calls came when he was driving an ox team to the "settlements" ' with a cargo of corn liquor. The rickety old wagon was creaking slowly along a mountain road when two grim-visaged and heavily armed men stepped from the bushes. Both were strangers to Gosnell, and even before either of them spoke he knew their business.
 
"Where you goin'? What's your business, stranger?"  were the questions hurled at him. Gosnell did not think that either of the men knew him, and quickly decided upon a desperate ruse.

"My name's Mose Atken, jes' a pore ol' critter who's tryin' to attend to his own business," was Gosnell's ~ ready reply.
 
“Mose Atken, hey?  Well, ef you air Mose, it’s more’n likely you’re a moonshiner, from all we’ve heard about him.  But we’re looking for Bill Gosnell,” and all seemed lovely until one of the men suddenly demanded.

"What you got in that wagon?", eyeing suspiciously a pile of hay in the back of the lumbering vehicle.

Gosnell's voice became mild. Tears welled in his voice.  "Men, don't bother me now. Ef you want me you can ketch me tomorrer, I won't be hard to find. But not today  -- my pore old brother jest died of smallpox, an' as I couldn't get none of the neighbors to come nigh an' put him in his coffin, I kivvered , him up in this bunch of hay here an' I am goin' to bury him all by myself."

The two officers did not wait to hear more. "Go on,"  they called and  retreated back into the bushes.

And "Wild Bill" drove away, with two barrels of moonshine undisturbed beneath a covering of hay. He had made his escape by posing as a mountain evangelist, himself a well known character, a hard drinker who during his periods of repentance following a spree, would make eloquent and effective pleas to sinners.

In the later part of the rip-roaring eighties, the federal authorities determined "to get" Gosnell. He had become too much of a nuisance, and in addition to his open defiance of the prevailing liquor laws, the desperado had been firing upon the revenue agents from ambush. While "Wild Bill" was no expert marksman, yet one of Uncle Sam's men had been put out commission, temporarily, with a bullet through his leg. This was the final straw, and the orders were given to not let up until "Wild Bill" had been lodged safely behind the bars.
 
To Joseph Phillips, then one of the youngest and most daring sleuths in the federal service operating throughout the mountainous regions of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, was assigned the task of capturing Gosnell.  Phillips, at present (February 1931) is assistant Prohibition Administrator for Kentucky and Tennessee.

The first move by Phillips was to get a line on the present whereabouts of Gosnell. This proved comparatively easy, as Gosnell made slight effort to conceal his movements, and information was quickly obtained revealing that the wanted man was operating a still just across the Kentucky border in Newport

Hastily summoning a picked band of revenue agents, preparations for a successful invasion of the habitat of the moonshiner were completed.  Eight men, armed with repeating rifles, shotguns, and revolvers, comprised the raiding party.  These were joined at the last moment by the sheriff of an Iowa county who happened to be in Kentucky in search of a criminal wanted in his state.  The Iowa officer had never seen a moonshine still and was permitted to take part in the raid.

Realizing the difficulties and dangers of the assignment, Phillips determined to take as few chances as possible with Gosnell who was wanted not only for moonshining but for shooting at revenue men who had dared to invade his domain.  In order to avoid detection, or arouse the suspicion of the clannish mountain folk, it was necessary for the officers to travel by night and by mule-back.  They also dressed in rough, homespun clothing and were slouch hats, to all appearances a band of moonshiners themselves.

Picking their way along the narrow mountain trails that were little more than footpaths, the little band of revenue officers arrived apparently unseen by any of the natives within a mile of the location of Gosnell’s till.  Keeping themselves carefully concealed in the woods until nightfall members of the band of officers crawled warily on hands and knees to positions of vantage surrounding the still and waited.

Gosnell, grown old in the game, and a little bit careless, put in his appearance at the still shortly after nightfall.  The officers watched as he poured in a supply of mash from tubs sitting around the still, he lighted the fire.  The dried, oily pine branches shot forth a brilliant flame which lighted up the entire head of the hollow from which issued a trickling stream of water.

The still was bubbling merrily when Phillips gave the signs to close in.

Stepping from the concealment of a large tree Phillips leveled his rifle at Gosnell and commanded:

“Hands up!”

Quick as a flea, Gosnell dropped flat to the ground, rolled to the protecting shadow of another tree and seized his own weapon.  Springing to his feet, he raised his gun to fire in the direction of the officer.

“Bang!” a rifle cracked in the shadows behind Gosnell, and a rifle bullet crashed into the tree not an inch above his head.

“Shoot an’ you’re a dead un, Bill.” Warned another of the officers who had taken up a position in the rear of the moonshiner.

“Wild Bill” knew a fight was useless.  He dropped his gun, and stepped into the full glare of the still fire as the band of revenuers crashed through the underbrush and walked into the open.

It had been a fair and square catch and Gosnell accepted his ill luck good-humoredly.  There was no feeling of resentment against the officers who had conducted their man-hunt in a legitimate manner, for the mountaineer is not only a lover of fair-play but has a sense of humor besides.  This was shown when on of the revenuer men inquired of Gosnell if he had any “likker” around.

Scraping away a pile of leaves beside an old log, Gosnell drew fort a fruit jar filled with a clear white liquid.  He hoisted the jar and allowed about half a pint to trickle down his throat.  Then he paused, looked puzzled, and shook his head.  As if to make sure of the stuff, he drank another half pinto or so.  When he handed the jar to the officer he patted his stomach, and a smile spread over his face as he said, “Boys, that’s sure good likker.”

Gosnell’s pet still, one of the crudest of the implements used by mountain moonshiners, was quickly destroyed.  It was one of the type constructed of large copper cooking vessels, the tops of which are closed with half barrels sawed in the middle.  The worm of the still, a worn out gun barrel, was fitted into the bunghole of the barrel.  This pet still was one of the last of its kind to be found in the mountains.

When “Wild Bill” was finally arraigned before the judge who was to pronounce an end to his lurid career, he looked longingly at a small bottle of liquor used as a part of the evidence against him.  Unable to resist the temptation, he grabbed the bottle, turned it to his lips, and drank until the judge yelled, “that’s enough.”  He then smacked his lips, pleaded guilty, and went back to jail with a smile on his face.

His previously untamed spirit crushed, “Wild Bill” just vanished after completing his term in the penitentiary and the mountains knew him no more.

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Receipt for pistol taken off
Receipt for pistol taken off "Wild Bill"

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