Blue Ridge moonshining found itself in the national spotlight with the so-called Conspiracy Trial of 1935. Despite scores of busts by revenuers in the 1920s and early 1930s, the moonshining industry continued to thrive. In Franklin County officials were accepting protection fees from moonshiners, and the Sheriff himself oversaw the complex bribery system. Small-time bootleggers were squeezed out as money and power were consolidated.
Between 1930 and 1935 local still operators and their business partners sold a volume of whiskey that would have generated $5,500,000 in excise taxes at the old 1920 tax rate. A federal investigation resulted in 34 people being indicted. Those charged included 19 moonshiners, one corporation, and nine government officials.
In a community atmosphere of threats and jury tampering, a key government witness (the man who served as treasurer of the Sheriff’s “granny fee” operation) was gunned down in his car on a country road along with a prisoner he was taking to jail on unrelated business. Two West Virginia men with connections to the illegal liquor trade were eventually convicted of the murders. Oral history tells of another witness dying under suspicious medical circumstances before he could testify.
At the time, the tense trial was the longest in Virginia history. The murders, the high-profile defendants, and the mystique of moonshining made the conspiracy trial front page news. Newspaper readers loved the tales of whiskey making and hauling, including those of Mrs. Willie Carter Sharpe, “queen of Roanoke rum runners.”
Thirty-one people were finally found guilty. The resulting jail sentences were relatively light (two years or less), and 13 conspirators only received probation. The fines levied were minuscule compared to the earnings of the major conspiracy participants. Even the short-term impact of the trial on Blue Ridge moonshining is difficult to judge. The industry certainly continued. Over 70 years later some old-timers voice strong opinions about the men who were acquitted. Adding to the mystery, parts of the trial records disappeared from courthouse files for decades.