Famed moonshiner kills self to avoid jail

By chillinwill · Mar 24, 2009 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    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

    Associated Press
    Wednesday, March 18, 2009

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  1. Alfa
    In effect this is another causality of the drug war. Popcorn Sutton died because he had to go to jail for producing alcohol in his house. Producing alcohol is no less dangerous then producing many other drugs/psychoactives.
  2. Sven99
    But 1700 Gallons? Thats a lot of moonshine.

    The Gov't would be better off making it legal to distil for personal use, in line with other laws surrounding alcohol production. They should also make it easier for people who wish to do so to register as a commercial producer and pay taxes. If they flout the regulations then by all means fine them for tax evasion, but as this is a civil matter what benefit is there of sending people to jail for it?
  3. PCG IV
    "Land of the Free" indeed :s Having run a couple of litres of wort through my still each of the last couple of nights i'm just so grateful to live in a country that permits distillation for personal purposes - in fact the only one where it's legal . . . . :applause:
  4. Jasim
    If I were to bake 1,700 muffins, would it garner the same treatment?
  5. Alfa
    Well, ask the pot-muffin granny that was in the news some years ago...
  6. Lewwy
    this dam drug war kills more and more people
    honestly who did this guy harm other than the livers of the people who drank his stuff lol
  7. yaba
    Poor man, I like the people who look at life in a different way then most do. They would have known that locking this man up would destroy his mined.. A psychiatrist would have assets him, and still...
  8. Potter
    Sad story indeed.

    God I'd kill for a taste of that mans booze, I can't imagine there's much anywhere that would compare.
  9. Mammon
    Yeah, what are they going to do - pour 1700 gallons of prime quality booze down the drain? It makes me want to cry.
  10. nate81
    so frustrating, so very frustrating. are we still somehow so invested in locking people up that we would put up a man like marvin sutton? I don't get it, prison fails at making "bad" people "good" just as the drug war fails at it's goals. It's like a child caught in a lie not knowing how to get out of it.

    Jeez, couldn't they have turned it over for some flex fuel at least?
  11. Ilsa
    yes, this man was a friend of swim's family, he and his wife live just up the mountain from her dad; she was not surprised when she heard from his wife after he passed....at the same time the museum of appalachia asked him to brew for them , yet the gov't was going after him for production. it was so stupid and sad and unnecessary.

    he did indeed go out on his own terms, and he was the quintessential moonshiner, with the attitude to go with it.

    he is missed.
  12. EyesOfTheWorld
    Did SWIYIlsa ever get to sample his wares? If so, were they the holy grail of shine SWIM is imagining them to be?
    Really, what crime did this old man commit? Evasion of a small tax? SWIM bets that if the gov't had just given him the option to pay the back taxes on the spot, he would have, and would still be alive today.
    Sad that one one had, the governor considered him a living legend, and on the other, the feds insisted he belonged in prison.

    IMO, moonshining is a living museum to the do-it-yourself/backwoods pioneer ethic that is lost on most Americand today, and it should either be made legal or decriminalized to the lowest possible level.
    Of course, the tax evasion is a different issue, but as said, if he had been given an option to pay what he owed and get on with life, SWIM is sure he would have taken it.
  13. Ilsa
    yes it basically came down to taxes....and yes swim has had his moonshine--it is by far the smoothest sipping liquor she's tasted, he was a master of his craft and a prime of example of appalachian culture, down to his fuck-you departure--he would have died in prison, most likely, given his age and poor health and he was the last bastion of his generation of moonshiners, one of the only remaining and definitely the best of them. swim knows a few others, but none brew anything like popcorn's.

    he fought like hell to be put on simple house arrest, but to no avail. i doubt he had the amount of money they were asking for, well maybe buried somewhere on the mountain. the point was he was doing what he wanted, with no harm to others, on his land, as should be his right. this could easily have been mediated and setttled without his having to report for what equated to a life sentence for him. i wish they had just let him pay and stay at home on house arrest.
  14. Kelveren
    And in fact jail makes 'good' people 'bad'.

    I'm not a drinker, but I'd try Popcorn's brew in a heartbeat.

    Government makes me wanna puke.
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