Joe Phillips Tells of Long Chase of “Wild
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
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
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
The still was bubbling merrily when Phillips gave the signs to close
Stepping from the concealment of a large tree Phillips leveled his rifle
at Gosnell and commanded:
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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