A brief history of moonshiners, Revenuers and Florida sheriffs
By David Brand, Guest columnist
November 27, 2021
FLORIDA – There has been a long-standing relationship, beginning when Florida was a Territory of the United States, between our Florida sheriffs and what is now called the State Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco.
Florida sheriffs and the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco have a long-standing symbiotic relationship dating back to 1822 when Florida was still a Territory. The sheriffs and the “Revenuers” collected taxes on alcohol, regulated sales, and enforced laws designed to protect public health.
The genesis of the Florida sheriff can be traced back to when Florida, as a Spanish colony, came under the Stars and Stripes when President James Monroe appointed Andrew Jackson the Commissioner and Provisional Governor.
The president wrote to Jackson, “I have confidence that your appointment will be immediately and most beneficially felt. Smugglers and slave traders will hide their heads, pirates will disappear, and the Seminoles cease to give trouble.”
Consequently, jurisdiction establishing East Florida took place at St. Augustine on July 10, 1821. A week later, on July 17, Andrew Jackson himself accepted the transfer of West Florida at Pensacola.
Section 4 of a lengthy ordinance promulgated by the governor on July 21, 1821, provided that a sheriff and a clerk would be appointed for the courts of the territory’s first two counties, Escambia and St. Johns, thereby establishing the Office of Sheriff in Florida. Later statutes assigned the sheriff a myriad of duties including managing jails, taxes, various aspects of county government, and interaction with other judicial and administrative officials.
Liquor and Prohibition
On March 3, 1845, Florida was admitted to the Union and became a state. From 1845 through 1915, the sale of intoxicating liquors in Florida was primarily regulated on the local level. The federal government primarily regulated and taxed the manufacturing of alcoholic beverages.
In the early 20th century, public opinion about the consumption of alcohol was so predominant that it pushed a gubernatorial candidate into the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Governor Sidney Johnston Catts, Florida’s 22nd governor, won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1916. However, the Florida Supreme Court ordered an election recount, rescinding his nomination. He then left the Democratic party and was elected as a Prohibition candidate.
He served as governor from Jan. 2, 1917 to Jan. 4, 1921. His election may have reflected the mood of the country because on Jan. 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment, or Volstead Act, became effective making the possession of alcoholic beverages unlawful.
Enforcement was complicated and dangerous
Some saw prohibition as a positive crusade while others viewed it as designed to enact social control by a minority on the majority.
In April, 1919, Florida Sheriffs Association members met in Jacksonville for their annual meeting. Perry Gilbert Ramsey, Alachua County sheriff, presided as president. While the “moonshine problem” was discussed, it was decided to take the matter up again in Tallahassee on April 8 when the legislature was in session.
The law that passed in 1919 revised the alcohol fee system and reflected, at least in part, the association’s requests. During this time some counties were “dry,” or did not allow the sale of alcohol, while others were “wet.”
Enforcement, considering the difference between rural and urban areas along with local, state, and federal laws that were ever changing, made enforcement difficult.
Enforcement, seasoned with the mood of the country changing towards alcohol sales, presented a challenging environment for the sheriffs.
In harms way
Sheriffs went in harm’s way, sometimes alone in rural counties, to enforce the alcohol prohibition laws. One example occurred on Aug. 20, 1927, when Flagler County Sheriff Perry Hall raided an establishment where moonshine was being consumed.
Outnumbered, yet undaunted, Sheriff Hall ordered James Smith, one of the occupants, to raise his hands as he moved into the room to make the arrest. Smith suddenly spun around and struck the sheriff in the head with a whiskey bottle. Sheriff Hall never regained consciousness and died hours later. James Smith was later gunned down by a posse after a 21-day manhunt found him hiding out in Brookfield, Georgia.
The National Prohibition Act was rescinded on Dec. 5, 1933, with the passage of the 21st Amendment. Afterwards, legislation began to appear providing for the taxing the regulation of alcohol.
The birth of the Florida enforcement agency
On June 27, 1935, the Florida State Beverage Department was created after the Beverage Act of 1935 was passed. This act provided the authority to tax and regulate the liquor industry. Mr. J.A. Cormier was appointed by Governor David Sholtz as the first Director.
Over the years, the partnership between ABT, sheriffs, and police departments has increased to address local issues as well as creating a force multiplier.