Marvin ‘Popcorn’ Sutton had been ordered to South Georgia federal prison, widow says
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Famed Appalachian moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, whose incorrigible bootlegging ways were as out of step with modern times as his hillbilly beard and overalls, took his own life rather than go to prison for making white lightning, his widow says.
“He couldn’t go to prison. His mind would just not accept it. … So I credit the federal government for my husband being dead, I really do,” Pam Sutton told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday from the couple’s home in the Parrottsville community, about 50 miles east of Knoxville.
A few hours earlier she had buried Sutton, 62, in a private ceremony in the mountains around Haywood County, N.C., where he grew up. He went to his grave in a pine casket he bought years ago and kept in a bedroom.
Sutton — nicknamed “Popcorn” for smashing up a 10-cent popcorn machine in a bar with a pool cue in his 20s — looked like a living caricature of a mountain moonshiner. He wore a long gray beard, faded overalls, checkered shirt and feathered fedora. He made his home in Cocke County, where cockfighting and moonshining are legend.
He wrote a paperback called “Me and My Likker” and recorded videos on how to make moonshine. The History Channel featured him in a 2007 documentary called “Hillbilly: The Real Story.”
“You might say he embodied a kind of Appalachian archetype, a character trait of fearlessness and fierce loyalty to regional identity even in the face of personal persecution and stereotyping,” said Ted Olson, a regional writer and faculty member in East Tennessee State University’s Department of Appalachian Studies.
Sutton conceded he was part of a dying breed in an interview last year with actor Johnny Knoxville for a video posted on Knoxville’s “Jackass” Web site.
“All the rest of them that I know are dead,” Sutton said in the profane, not-for-primetime clip. “I just hope and pray they don’t send me off (to prison).”
Sutton’s widow said he’d just gotten a letter to report Friday to a medium-security federal prison in South Georgia to begin an 18-month sentence for illegally producing distilled spirits and being a felon in possession of a gun. He had pleaded guilty last April.
On Monday, she came home from running errands and found him dead in his old Ford. Authorities suspect carbon monoxide poisoning. Autopsy results may be weeks away.
Pam Sutton, who became Sutton’s fourth wife in 2007, said carbon monoxide may be the method but that’s not what killed him.
“He tried every way in the world to get them (federal authorities) to leave him on house arrest,” she said.
“He was a true moonshiner,” his widow said. “He would tell you exactly what he thought, whether you wanted to hear it or not. But he was also the sweetest, kindest, most loving man I ever met in my life.”
John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn., recalled that Sutton made a still for the museum in the 1990s.
Irwin told Sutton to run nothing but water through it. But with thousands of people, including then-Gov. Don Sundquist, visiting for an annual homecoming event, Sutton decided to cook up some real sour mash and dispense it to the crowd in little paper cups.
“Popcorn is getting everybody drunk,” the governor’s Highway Patrol escorts complained and when Irwin told him to stop, Sutton packed up and left, Irwin recalled.
“I think most people have a warm feeling for him, but he bragged so much about it (moonshining),” Irwin said. “And then he got into it in such a big way. He wasn’t just a poor old moonshiner trying to make a few dollars.”
Sutton’s last arrest followed a raid in which authorities found nearly 1,700 gallons of moonshine in Parrottsville and a storage unit in Maggie Valley, N.C., three stills, supplies, firearms and ammunition.
When he pleaded guilty, it was his fifth conviction. He’d gotten probation before, but U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer said he couldn’t do that again, despite Sutton’s age and physical infirmities.
His estranged daughter Sky Sutton, 35, of Northampton, Mass., had just completed a book about him, titled “Daddy Moonshine,” the day he died. “It was beyond surreal,” she said Wednesday. She hadn’t seen him since she was 2, though they had talked on the phone.
She has no doubt Sutton died on his own terms. “Of course he did. That man went out in a blaze of glory, and flipping his finger as we went,” she said.
Popcorn Sutton Obituary from the Wall Street Journal: Legendary Tennessee Moonshiner Plied His Trade to the End
Wednesday, March 18, 2009