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Moonshine

Moonshine in wooden crate.

In November 1916, Montana voters approved a statewide ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages. The law, which went into effect at the end of 1918, was a reflection of the growing importance of female reform in Montana. However, not all Montana women supported temperance. In fact, for some enterprising women, the new ban creative lucrative opportunities.

Although Montana was at the forefront of the prohibition movement, the law didn’t have that much effect on curbing drinking. In wide-open and ‘fun loving’ Montana, it would be nearly impossible to enforce the new ban. Given the state’s remoteness and plentiful supplies of wheat, a thriving bootlegging economy was virtually a certainty.

When we think of bootlegging, we typically picture it as male-dominated, gun-toting activity. In fact, many women were quick to seize the economic opportunity by brewing their own moonshine and operating ‘home speaks’. Because making ‘shine’ was easily done in the kitchen, it was an especially appealing industry for working-class women, as well as widows who could not easily find work outside the home.

In 1925, Emily Stone, the state’s only woman prosecutor, attended a meeting with the state attorney general. One of the topics discussed was the special case of women bootleggers “who carry bottles in their blouses … where officers will not search.”

One of Butte’s more famous brewers was widower Nora Gallagher, who concocted her hooch in her kitchen because she wanted to purchase Easter outfits for her five children. Another Butte resident proved that age was no barrier when 88 year-old Lavinia Gilman was caught running a three-hundred-gallon still.

Mary Ann Moriarity was especially clever as she combined her existing business – washing clothes for local miners – with her moonshine enterprise. She delivered illicit booze hidden among clean clothes for “fifty cents a pint or two dollars for a gallon”. Her daughter was enlisted to help with this homegrown business.

It wasn’t necessary for a woman to live in an urban area to make a decent living selling illegal alcohol. Married and single female homesteaders alike augmented their farm incomes with bootlegging. In eastern Fergus County, African-American Bertie Brown brewed what locals said was “the best in the state”. Unfortunately, Bertie would die before her time when her still exploded in 1933.

One of the more interesting stories of a homesteading bootlegger is that of former dance-hall girl Josephine Doody. Dan, a Glacier Park ranger and her future husband, fell in love with Josephine after seeing her at a dance hall. Dan was determined to rid Josephine of her opium habit. He tied her to his mule and proceeded to his homestead, where he locked her away until her opium dependency was broken. After Dan died, Doody remained at the homestead located just south of the park. In her little cabin, she would brew moonshine that would become legendary.

Her best customers were the men working on the Great Northern Railway. When the train stopped at Doody siding, each toot of the whistle signaled one gallon of moonshine. Navigating the Flathead River in a small boat, Josephine dutifully delivered her ‘goods’ to the waiting men.

Of course, crime does not always pay. As was frequently the case, women convicted of bootlegging were confined to jail or sent to the state prison far more often than men, who many times just paid a fine.

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