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Lessons from a Moonshiner

“She’s ketchable, but not fetchable.”

(The last law enforcement officer to try to arrest moonshiner Mahala Mullins)

Talking to Dead People

After my mother passed away in 2014 and I started learning more about our hidden family origins, I became a lot more comfortable talking with who I imagine to be our ancestors. I’ve done it my whole life, but I learned early on not to tell people that. I don’t know if I’m actually talking with those who have gone on before, with some Divine entity, or maybe just some part of my own conscience. Whatever or whoever it is, I’ve found it useful.


As part of my genealogy research, I try to imagine what life was like for different ancestors – why they made the choices they made, what different life events were like for them and what the world may have looked like to them in their time. At times, when I’m wrestling with different issues myself, I run one of these conversations to try to glean some wisdom from the people from whom I descend.



So many of my struggles would have to seem downright bizarre to my ancestors. This perspective tends to reveal my privileged expectations. I expect to have adequate food, shelter, comfort, health care, safety. I’ve had to fight for these things many times in my life, but never in the way that my ancestors did. That helps me move forward differently when things are what I think of as “hard.”


Big Haley

With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to one of my more colorful ancestors, Mahala (“Big Halley”) Mullins, 1824-1898. You can read her full story here or watch it here. Trust me – She was an intriguing person. Big Haley was an infamous moonshiner in the Clinch Valley of Appalachian Tennessee. It was thought that she was afflicted with Elephantiasis which left her weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 pounds. She had also birthed 20 children, including quadruplet boys. All four quadruplets survived, which was at least two-parts miracle in those times.


Her moonshining business and resistance to arrest were both legendary. It’s said that one of the many times the police tried to arrest her she told the officer, “If you kin git me up and out of this bed and through that door? You kin go ahead and arrest me.” She was never arrested.


I imagine a conversation between us somewhat like this:



I just don’t know how I’m going to pay this IRS bill.



The IR what now? Oh! Right – I heard tell the gubmint saying they git part of the money we makes. Weelll… My money ain’t zackly legal like, so…



Well, if we don’t pay them they could take our house, or put us in jail.



(Laughing.) Yeah gal, you gonna hafta put on a few hunnerd more pounds if ya don’t want um to ‘rest you.



(Smiling) Fair point. It’s hard to pay the mortgage sometimes too. It took a long time for us to be able to afford to buy a house. I really don’t want to lose it.



A “mortgage?” What’s that? How somebody gonna take yer house? They gonna come pick it up and drag it away?



The bank owns most of the house. We pay it off over time.



See now? We done built our cabin with our own hands. Nobody held deed to our land but us. Ain’t there nowhere you kin go build sumpin?



Some people with a whole lot of money can do that. We really can’t.


AUNT HALEY:           

I cain’t really he’p you with none a that. Anythang else on yer mind?



I was going say I’m really frustrated with trying to be healthy, not being able to afford the best quality food, needing to keep rehabbing my knees so I can exercise and get some of this weight off, but… umm.



Guuurrrlll you need ta just go set down on that one. You know I done been rode hard and put up wet.



I know, Aunt Haley, I know. I’m sorry for complaining.



You ain’t hardly stout nuff. You better thank the good Lord you got some fat on yer body ta keep ya warm in the winter! I’m watching you comin home wit dem pokes a food you done bought in them big stores with all the people in em. The stuff you call “health food” ain’t any count. You gots rabbits and boomers all over the place. I even seen some deer in yer back yard! Thems some good eats! And you ain’t growing a single thang you can et out there. ‘Sides, honey ah made moonshine for a livin’! That stuff’ll kill anything that don’t belong in yer body right quick.


You up thar looking all tucked in, and you got all this stuff we dint have. But look it how gaummed up you is! Some bank owns yer house. You worrying about this bill and that bill, and paying out all yer money to somebody else. I’uz juss fine in my drafty cabin up der on Newman’s Ridge. Little cousin, honey, you worry bout stuff that’s plum stewpit.



And you know what? Aunt Haley is right. I worry about stuff that is plumb stupid. I will take a note from Mahala Mullins. I will continue to work hard, to plan, and to creatively manage whatever comes my way with gratitude and confidence.


But I’m a leave that moonshine alone.




Do you ever get overwhelmed with the shoulds have to’s and musts of our 2024 lifestyle? Is it causing you anxiety or stress? Contact Tiffany today. Let’s see what your ancestors might be telling you! 




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