Guest post by Daniel Silliman
Things were getting hot for the moonshiners of Middle Tennessee in the summer of 1922.
There was raid after raid on the stills of Jackson County, 80 miles northeast of Nashville, where the Cumberland River curved and curved again. Prohibition agents seized the oldest operating still in the county. They seized a new still that hadn’t even been used yet. They seized the biggest still anyone in the area had ever seen and they seized the hidden little ones too. The “wildcatters,” as they were called in Tennessee newspapers at that time, kept getting raided.
This was all the work of one man: a born-again Methodist on a mission.
Howell J. Lynch was known to his friends as “Bud” and to moonshiners as “that wild man.” He was converted by Methodist preaching at the age of 42. It was, the preacher Kenneth A. Early noted, “a glad surprise to all who knew him.” It changed his life. He really thought about becoming a minister. Instead, he took on a different mission: stamping out alcohol production in Middle Tennessee.
For Methodists, this was a righteous cause. Across the country, Methodists lead the charge for prohibition. As historian Barry Hankins explains in his book Jesus and Gin, Christian fundamentalists of the era almost universally saw alcohol as a moral threat, which made men violent, put women and children in danger, and undermined the stability of society.
In the South, many Methodists put this in militant terms. One Tennessee minister wrote that alcohol was “the greatest enemy of the Christian religion and the Church of God.” James Cannon Jr., the Southern Methodist minister who led the church’s temperance organization, said he wanted to turn the church into “a militant Christian power in a war against alcohol.”
There was some disagreement about this among Southern Methodists but, as historian Joe L. Coker recounts in Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause, it wasn’t disagreement about opposition to alcohol. The church was divided over how political it should be. One Tennessee minister, for example, took leave from his pulpit without permission to run for governor on the Prohibition Party ticket. He was formally reprimanded. There were also allegations that Cannon diverted church money to support prohibitionist political candidates. He built such a political machine that secular critics said he’d turned Congress into his own troop of Boy Scouts, and some in the church worried he might have crossed some lines doing it. The allegations were never proven, but many were scandalized by the thought they could be true.
In Tennessee, the Methodists against political involvement said the church should rely on “spiritual forces and agencies to secure the extermination of the traffic in strong drink.”
Methodists for political involvement, on the other hand, embraced the label of “political partisan.” “You may publish me as one,” a politically active minister wrote, “not only in your papers, but on the house tops, and by me stand three thousand Methodist preachers, not a dozen of whom would refuse to vote for a measure to prohibit the matchless evil of the age.”
There is no record that Lynch felt one way or the other about alcohol before his conversion. He was active in Democratic Party politics but the party, at the time, was divided on the question of prohibition. The issue was often deemphasized for the sake of party unity.
Lynch, likewise, doesn’t seem to have shown any particular interest in religious things. He appears to have been nominally Methodist. Records show two of his five children were married in the Methodist church in Gainesboro, the seat of Jackson County. Other than that, though, Lynch just seems to have been focused on his job as the county tax collector and his work with the Democratic Party.
He may have started thinking about eternity in the spring of 1921, when his brother had a serious accident. L.W. Lynch was logging the land he owned next door to Howell Lynch when it happened. He was putting longs on a mule-drawn wagon, and one of them slipped and started to roll. Afraid the log would hit his mule, the man jumped, hand outstretched to steady the load. He tripped on a rope, fell backwards, hit his head on the mule wagon’s iron coupling, and fractured his skull.
According to the newspaper editor who kept careful tabs on everything for the Jackson County Sentinel, L.W. Lynch was carried to his brother Howell’s house on a stretcher. There was serious concern for a while, and he stayed in bed for several weeks.
At the same time, the new Methodist minister in Gainesboro started preaching about the need for Jesus. The week L.W. Lynch had his accident, Kenneth A. Early preached about the elder brother in Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son. “He was all right according to public opinion,” Early preached, “and his followers today refer to him with pride, saying God only requires a man to be moral.” They were wrong, Early said. Morality is not enough. It didn’t save the elder brother in the story.
“Christ placed him in the unjustified class,” Early preached. “Therefore, we conclude he was LOST, as he did not cry to God for mercy.”
It might not have been that sermon that got to Howell Lynch. It might have been the next one, when Early preached on Resurrection, or another sermon, where he preached about overcoming sin.
“Man sinned and through his sin moral and spiritual death was the result,” Early preached. “It looked at though God had been defeated, that man whom he had created in his own image was doomed to destruction. God did not despair, but ‘Gave His Only Begotten Son that whosoever shall Believeth on Him but have Everlasting Life.’”
As the Jackson County Sentinel noted, this was forceful Gospel preaching.
Early urged his congregation to “talk to their sinner friends about accepting Jesus Christ as savior.” He said the power of the Gospel overcame sin, and true Christians were transformed. They became strong and active forces for righteousness.
Lynch heard the message and accepted Jesus in May 1921. He was 42 years old, a father, a husband, and a public figure in Middle Tennessee. He confessed he needed God’s mercy, God’s salvation, and pledged to give his life over to Jesus.
People were amazed at his conversion. The church was excited, convinced that Lynch, with his “natural talents,” would be “a power for righteousness.”
Lynch soon became a lay leader in the Methodist church. He helped organize the expanding Sunday School classes. He talked about ordination.
“He expressed himself oftentimes to me and others that he would like to be a minister,” Early wrote. “But, as God has many other worthy fields of service for his servants, He thrust Mr. Lynch into the front line trenches of the government against the moonshine stills. He became a terror to the distillers.”
The newly born-again Lynch was approached about becoming a prohibition agent in the months after his conversion. The government was woefully understaffed and sometimes barely enforced the ban on alcohol. When the ban went into effect in 1919, there were only 1,500 prohibition agents to enforce it in the whole country. In a place like Jackson County, Tennessee, there was nobody. The nearest prohibition agent was in Nashville, about 80 miles away. Bootleggers and moonshiners were free to do what they wanted.
Lynch agreed to take the job to try to stop that. He resigned from tax collecting, put his dreams of becoming a Methodist minister on hold, and swore an oath to enforce the law. In October, he became a prohibition officer. He strapped a pistol on his waist and put another one in his pocket. He deputized a friend named Sam Whitaker, and the two men started raiding stills.
They hit the first one at the end of the month, a small distillery and brewing operation. They caught a moonshiner in the act, arrested him, and destroyed what they estimated were 600 gallons of beer.
It was just the beginning.
In January, he seized a 180-gallon still, the largest anyone had seen in Middle Tennessee.
In February, he arrested three brothers named Mack, Dallas, and Johny Scott, who ran a moonshining operation on Gaw Branch, a creek about 10 to 15 miles off Cumberland River. Then, that same month, Lynch arrested another pair of brothers, Tom and Henry Young. The Youngs had what was believed to be the oldest moonshining operation in Middle Tennessee, with a 110-gallon still.
In April, Lynch found a cache of beer secreted in a dead tree. He destroyed it, along with about 1,500 gallons of beer that month. He seized and destroyed 1,000 gallons in the beginning of May, and made multiple arrests.
That’s when the moonshiners started fighting back. Lynch and Whitaker hit a two-still operation at place called Union Hill. No one was there when they arrived, guns drawn, but the stills were still warm to the touch. One was a small still, about 35-gallons. The other was larger even than the largest one they had seized at the start of the year: a 250-gallon behemoth. Lynch and Whitaker were starting to dismantle the operation when someone shot at them from the woods.
The bullet went whizzing past their heads. Lynch, without hesitation, went rushing into the woods–toward the sound of the shot. He chased the man for about a quarter mile, but, he told the Jackson County Sentinel, he never caught sight of him.
For Methodists who believed prohibition was a righteous cause that could save America, if only the government would really enforce the law, Lynch was the hero they’d been waiting for.
“A hero in the cause of prohibition,” Early said. “After his conversion, he was always on the right–the side of God on all moral questions as he saw them.”
While Lynch was making things hot for moonshiners in Middle Tennessee, Early organized a revival. The first sermon was on hell. Early advertised the revival in the Gainesboro newspaper. The newspaper notice said: “The people of Gainesboro who are en route to Hell should not fail to hear this sermon.” Later in the week there would be a sermon on “Deputy Devils” and another titled, “Prepare to Meet Thy God.”
That’s what it was like in Middle Tennessee in the summer of 1922.
That’s what it was like when Lynch heard the Young brothers were out of jail and back moonshining again. They had a still near Marison’s creek, south of Gainesboro in an area the Jackson County Sentinel called a no man’s land.
Lynch and Whitaker went to check it out.
They got out of the car on the road, a ways away from their destination. They told Lynch’s youngest son Baugh to drive it to a nearby store, where the car wouldn’t raise suspicion. They snuck through the woods to the creek and found the hallow where the still was supposed to be. It was gone. It was a still site, and the prohibition agents thought there was evidence of a recent batch of whiskey. They started looking around and found the still hidden in the top of a tree.
Nearby, they realized, there was a house and a barn where the Youngs might be staying and might have stashed their illegal liquor. They decided to raid the buildings from behind.
Meanwhile, Baugh Lynch went to the store down the road to buy peaches and wait for his father. Henry Young saw him. Young asked if he hadn’t just seen him drive the other way with several people in the car. Baugh didn’t answer. Young asked if it was the “Wild Man,” but Baugh wouldn’t answer. Young rushed back to the house.
When Lynch and Whitaker snuck up behind a back fence, he was waiting.
Henry Young stood in a second-story window with a shotgun. He saw Lynch come up by the corner. He raised his gun and shot him.
The shotgun load hit him in the chest. Lynch collapsed. His left lung was punctured and he couldn’t breath.
Young ran downstairs and came out the front door, gun in hand. Whitaker opened fire but missed. He took cover behind a fence while Young blasted away at him with the shotgun. Whitaker fired back wildly until he ran out of bullets. He could see Lynch bleeding on the ground, but he couldn’t help him. He ran into the woods, through a briar patch and down a hill. He found a tree and hid, sure Young was going to hunt him down.
Instead, Young drove back to the store, where Lynch’s son was waiting with the peaches. He stopped in the store and told the men there he had shot Lynch and another man. He then drove on, and went to the Gainesboro doctor and said the doctor should go to his place, because there was a really sick man out there. Then Young went to the Jackson County courthouse. He found the sheriff and told him what he’d done. Young was immediately arrested.
“The news of the tragedy soon spread over town, and excitement ran high,” the Jackson County Sentinel reported. “Young appeared very excited, but had little to say.”
The sheriff, the doctor, the men at the store, and Baugh Lynch all went to the scene of the shooting. They found Lynch dead where he had fallen. His one revolver was still in its holster. His other was still in his pocket. He hadn’t fired a single shot. He had died in the line of duty, trying to be a force for righteousness.
Lynch was only a prohibition officer for a little over eight months. He died just over a year after he was born again. He was 43 years old.
Hundreds of people came to see his body when it was laid out. His funeral was judged to be one of the biggest ever held in Gainesboro. Prohibition agents from around Tennessee came and brought flowers for the coffin. The state’s prohibition office said Lynch was a great hero. The newspaper editor, documenting everything, reported that “during the short time he served, he made a record that will long linger in the minds of the law-abiding people of Jackson County, which will ever stand out as a monument to his life and the worth cause for he died.”
Early, preaching the funeral sermon, called Lynch a modern Christian martyr.
“He will ever live among us as a hero in the cause of prohibition,” Early said. “May all of us strive to follow him as he followed Christ and when life’s labors are ended meet him in the land of ‘unclouded day.'”
Daniel Silliman is an instructor of American Religion and Culture at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at Heidelberg University. He is writing his doctoral dissertation on bestselling evangelical fiction. You can follow him on Twitter @danielsilliman.