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Couponing led to arrest of Tampa’s ‘Moonshine Kingpin’ in the ‘50s

Tales from the Vice Squad | Law enforcement staked out store where moonshiners purchased ingredients and hardware.
A moonshine still in a wooded area near Riverview in 1920.
A moonshine still in a wooded area near Riverview in 1920. [ Courtesy of Hillsborough County Public Library ]
Published Dec. 22, 2021

When Tampa was a hotbed of organized crime from the late 1800s through the mid 1900s, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office charged the Vice Squad with cleaning up what the federal government deemed one of the most corrupt cities in the nation. The Tampa Bay Times has obtained a cache of Vice Squad reports from the 1950s and 1960s, which offer insight into their investigations and what they were up against.

TAMPA ― In the early 1950s, law enforcement described Hershel Williams to newspapers as “one of the biggest moonshiners” in Hillsborough County.

But they could not locate his still.

So, they staked out the store where Williams obtained the hardware necessary to make his product, according to one of the Vice Squad files obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

Eventually, Williams unknowingly led law enforcement to his operation’s base.

Moonshining was the second most profitable racket for organized crime — the first was the illegal lottery known as bolita.

Though moonshine stills were hidden, Williams had his equipment and ingredients loaded onto pickup truck beds in broad daylight and driven directly to the still, sometimes with him — the man in charge — along for the ride.

And sometimes, he left a paper trail of coupons.

The illegal alcohol industry flourished during Prohibition, with rumrunners delivering premium liquor to Tampa on boats via Bimini, Nassau or Cuba, according to From Saloons to Steak Houses: A History of Tampa by Andrew Huse.

But “with premium liquor available only at extravagant prices,” blue collar workers “settled on moonshine,” Huse wrote, with stills erected in Hillsborough County’s rural areas along the rivers.

“They said the reason Gunn Highway was so crooked because it ran from still to still,” Huse quotes resident Walter Burrell as saying.

This photograph of a moonshine still was published in the Tampa Tribune in 1958.
This photograph of a moonshine still was published in the Tampa Tribune in 1958. [ Times (1958) ]

But Prohibition had been over for more than two decades when the Vice Squad was on the hunt for Williams’ still. Why would residents want illegal moonshine when they could purchase alcohol legally?

“It can’t be the price,” the Tampa Tribune reported in 1958. Moonshine cost around one dollar per half pint. That was the same price as alcohol at a package store.

“It can’t be the purity,” the Tampa Tribune continued, since it was brewed in contaminated containers and watered down. “What is the attraction then? Some say it’s like trying to get a man to change from coffee drinking to tea drinking or vice versa. Habit keeps him enamored of his original drink.”

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The Tampa Tribune then explained how moonshine was brewed:

Chicken scratch feed “made up of cracked corn, barley and wheat” filled one-fifth of a 55-gallon barrel. Up to 100 pounds of sugar and enough water to fill the barrel was added. The mixture fermented for five to seven days, until the grain settled to the bottom.

The liquid was transferred to a large cooking pot. “When the liquid is fired up, its steam runs through the coils, lying in a vat of cold water, condenses back into liquid, and comes out of the coils as moonshine” with a proof of 140-160. It was then watered down to weaken the proof. Lye was added to give it a “certain bite” and fruits like apricots or prunes would “perk it up.”

Related: Tampa residents once took on corruption that turned city into ‘hell in a handcart’

At its post-Prohibition peak, according to the article, more than 38,000 gallons a year was produced in Hillsborough. For comparison, West Tampa’s Berriman-Morgan Cigar Factory, now used by Saint Leo University, has a water tank that can be seen from the interstate. It is 25,000 gallons.

According to the Vice Squad report, Williams’ moonshine operation was known to make equipment purchases at A. Tick Co. hardware store at 1317 Fifth Ave., so they began staking it out.

When Ellis Clifton of the Vice Squad and state beverage agent John Hawrsk arrived at the store on the morning of Nov. 2, 1954, Williams’ 18-year-old associate Charles Lang had already loaded supplies into his truck and was ready to leave. Standing next to the truck was Willie Rosier, described as another of Williams’ associates.

Law enforcement followed the truck as it pulled away, hoping it would lead them to the still.

Rosier was also following Lang from a distance.

A few miles later, Williams joined the procession and noticed law enforcement.

“He honked his horn and waved,” Clifton wrote in the report.

Hawrsk called for support and, a short time later, a city traffic officer pulled over Williams “so he would not tip the boy off that we were following him ... but did not detain him long enough to do any good.” Williams caught up as they reached Lutz.

“We decided Rosier had signaled the boy that he was being followed,” Clifton wrote, “and that we could not successfully follow him to the location of the still.”

Lang exceeded a school zone speed limit, so they pulled him over and searched the truck. They found a copper still cap, a copper funnel, empty five-gallon jugs, 11 bags of scratch feed and other items related to brewing moonshine.

Clifton wrote that they also found “coupons from Richard’s Feed Store on North Armenia.” He visited the store, where the manager confirmed that Lang had picked up chicken scratch that Williams purchased.

The Vice Squad determined moonshining was the only reason to make these purchases from the hardware and feed store.

During questioning, Lang admitted he worked for Williams and Rosier and that the materials in his truck were for a still. Lang also said he was heading for Ocala. Either they did not ask him for the location of the still or the Times is missing that portion of the report.

A warrant was issued for Williams’ arrest for possession of a still. He turned himself in the next day and was identified by the hardware store owner as the man who purchased the equipment that was loaded onto Lang’s truck.

Williams then posted the $1,500 bail.

“As Williams was released and standing on the sidewalk,” the Vice Squad report reads, law enforcement had the owner of the feed store point him out “as being the man to whom he had sold scratch feed on” two or three occasions.

The Times could not learn what came of these charges.

In September 1955, according to the Tampa Tribune, the Vice Squad found what was allegedly Williams’ still in Brooksville.

“Small Army of Lawmen Raid Big Still in Hernando,” reads the headline. The article reports that the still was “one of the most complete and extensive whiskey operations they have ever encountered.” It included two 500-gallon capacity stills, an electric pump for bringing in water, 15 gas cylinders, eight gas burners, 4,600 gallons of moonshine ingredients and 129 fermentation barrels.

They discovered the still, according to the newspaper, by following Williams from a Tampa stakeout. The newspaper did not provide further information.

Williams escaped into the swamp during the raid but later turned himself in.

The Times could not discover the outcome of the trial but, by then, according to the Tampa Tribune, officers upgraded Williams’ description. They declared him the “moonshine kingpin.”