PITTSBURG — Earlier this month, Ken Peak, co-author of books including Kansas Bootleggers and Kansas Temperance, gave a presentation about local moonshining at Frontenac Homecoming.
Prior to his talk in Frontenac, the Morning Sun published an article based on an interview with Peak discussing the colorful bootlegging history that Peak covered in his presentation. Peak’s talk touched on so many other interrelated aspects of local history, however, including the Civil War, organized crime, the area’s mining history, and some famous names who may have been involved with the illegal liquor trade, that it’s worth another article exploring those connections.
“1857 to 1861, give or take, this was known as Bleeding Kansas,” Peak said, adding that many in the audience had probably heard the term before. “And the reason for that moniker was that Kansas was a battle zone, and particularly by the way along the Missouri-Kansas border.”
The issue of whether slavery would be allowed in Kansas was the major point of contention.
“Has anybody ever heard that Kansas was the precursor, possibly, to the whole Civil War?” Peak asked the audience, receiving a few affirmative replies.
Though the most decisive battles of the Civil War may not have happened in Kansas, an argument along these lines was put forward by the late Wichita State University history professor Craig Miner, who died in 2010, in his 2008 book Seeding Civil War. “My overarching thesis is that Kansas was more important to the coming of the Civil War than has been hitherto recognized, and that it was important more because of how events there were talked about in the national press than because of the significance of those events themselves,” Miner writes.
Peak did not delve into Civil War history in detail in his presentation, but rather connected the conflict’s legacy to the later history of bootlegging in the region.
“It got very violent and very ugly,” Peak said. “Kansas was finally admitted in as a state in 1861.”
Around the same time, Peak noted, Native Americans indigenous to Kansas as well as displaced tribes that had moved and were moving into the area came into greater conflict with white settlers.
“Although these emigrant tribes were assured by the federal government that they would not be moved again, Kansas Territory opened for settlement in 1854 and once again forced the removal of native peoples,” according to the Kansas Historical Society. “Many settlers moved into Kansas Territory after the Civil War, accelerating the movement of Indians off the land.”
Peak noted in his talk at Frontenac Homecoming that Kansas’s population grew enormously between 1860 and 1870. He pointed out that all of this contributed to Kansas — and particularly the eastern part of the state near the Missouri border — becoming an area where violence was commonplace. This tradition would continue into the bootlegging era.
“Along with those folks, those groups, came prostitutes, gamblers, etcetera, etcetera, that element,” Peak said. “So given all this, this whole confluence of things, the perfect storm, many people felt that Kansas needed a liquor law.”
Kansas voters ratified an amendment to the state constitution banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol —the first in the nation to do so— in 1880, which took effect in January, 1881. The amendment was not repealed until 1933, and even after that Kansas maintained a ban on alcohol until 1948, long after the federal government’s prohibition experiment ended.
The legacy of violence already established in Southeast Kansas by Civil War guerrilla fighting such as that in the area of Fort Scott and incidents such as the notorious Baxter Springs Massacre continued into the prohibition era, as Crawford and Cherokee Counties became notorious across the state as a bootlegging hub.
Much of the bootlegging violence that occurred likely stemmed from bootlegger rivalries or conflicts between bootleggers and overzealous temperance advocates. An area businessman “described an orgy of fights, beatings and shootings,” which in one case led to a Sunday morning spree during which “seven persons were shot, three seriously.”
Peak’s book Kansas Bootleggers, co-written with Patrick G. O’Brien, notes that while “nearly infinite opportunities existed for violence,” no deaths resulted in the area from encounters between law officers and bootleggers in the national prohibition era — though this may have been because of law enforcement’s complicity in the booze business. One Crawford County undersheriff who did make a greater effort to crackdown on bootleggers saw his house in Girard dynamited less than a month after he was attacked with an axe while serving a warrant.
Southeast Kansas eventually became known as a source of such high quality illicit booze that it was sought out by bootleggers in other states — further entangling the area with criminal elements.
“Crawford County moonshine quickly began traveling,” Peak said. “It did go to Chicago and elsewhere.”
Peak said some of those he interviewed for his bootlegging book implied that Chicago gangsters working for Al Capone were sent to the area to buy “Deep Shaft” bootleg liquor — a name derived from the bootlegging business’s connection to the local mining industry.
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Peak said. “I don’t know that he ever came down here himself.”
Peak and O’Brien’s Kansas Bootleggers, however, suggests the notorious mob boss may have even made a personal appearance in the area.
“Many persons were emphatic that Al Capone and his minions visited [a location in Cherokee County near Columbus] more than once to buy Deep Shaft and enjoy themselves,” O’Brien and Peak write. “Less convincing are the recollections of a few persons that Bonnie and Clyde were also there.”
Other famous names have been mentioned, however, which while perhaps not so closely associated with crime in the public mind, may be more credibly connected to local bootlegging.
“I’m sitting not a mile from here talking to a gentleman, and he was a well-known bootlegger too,” Peak said during his Frontenac Town Hall presentation earlier this month, “and he said ‘Yeah, Harry Truman used to come over and buy it from my folks in the old home place right next door.’ Now, this guy’s 75 or 80 years old. Is he going to lie about it? I don’t know. But I do know they had one heck of a still operation set up.”
Celebrity gossip aside, what is known for certain is that much of the population of Southeast Kansas — honest, hardworking people in so many ways when they weren’t moonlighting as moonshiners — were deeply involved in producing the era’s “Deep Shaft,” and Peak also tied the region’s well-known history as a mining area into his presentation.
“How are you going to hide this stuff?” Peak asked the audience. “You’ve got to try to hide it someplace nobody’s going to find it. I heard all kinds of methods. Of course the strip pits, once in a while you would find an island, you could use an island to hide it on.”
Aside from his discussion of the clever methods devised by Southeast Kansas bootleggers to stay in business while others in the area attempted to shut down their operations — “anything to confound and confuse the feds and the locals who were aggressive” — during an interview the Thursday prior to his Saturday presentation at Frontenac Homecoming, Peak discussed some other aspects of the connection between mining and bootlegging.
Besides hiding places for their booze, the strip pits provided a readily accessible water source for the moonshiners to make their product. He noted that besides islands in the strip pits, mine shafts, including one located south of the intersection of 4th Street and the Highway 69 Bypass in Pittsburg, made great “hiding holes” for moonshine.
While Southeast Kansas may have had a lengthy era as a bootlegging hub, however, Peak emphasized in his Frontenac Town Hall presentation that while many local residents may have been breaking the law, none made the kind of money often associated with organized crime.
“They were trying to get by,” Peak said, “trying to make a living.”