The original mountaineers of this part of what became West Virginia brought with them many skills; one of which was the art of making their own corn liquor known as moonshine. Even after the coal industry started booming in the county, there were many residents who made a decent living making the spirits that were desired all across this nation.
There are hundreds of local documented newspaper stories that surround the Prohibition Era — which lasted from 1920 until 1933 — and like some aspects of our society of today, it amounted to what was a failed attempt to legislate morality that actually created more and new crime. The following is the story of a man that in 1930 was described by The Logan Banner as “the king of the moonshiners.”
The thrilling criminal career of Frank Hall seems to have started when he was residing high in the hills at Dempsey Branch of Mud Fork, where he was captured by State Police and county deputies for operating a still and selling moonshine in March 1927. After being arrested, Hall was released on bond, but the police suspected the outlaw would go back to his old tricks.
Some weeks later, he again was caught operating a still and when the police approached him that time, Hall was ready for them as from his front porch he fired a volley of shots into the officers, striking one state policeman before Hall escaped across the mountain into the then heavily wooded area that is now the location of Fountain Place Mall of Logan. He was captured 14 months later in Ironton, Ohio.
At his trial, Hall was sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary at Moundsville and later was en route by train from Logan with 25 other prisoners, all of whom were handcuffed. When the train reached a point just opposite of Marietta, Ohio, Hall secured a key from his pocket and unlocked the handcuffs of fellow prisoner, Frank Vernatter, but failed to get his own handcuffs unlocked. The pair then leaped from the window of the fast moving train.
It was reported that during the jump the chain of Hall’s handcuffs was broken from that of Vernatter, and — bruised and battered — the two fled to safety, swimming the Ohio River to Marietta, where they arrived hungry and penniless. After reaching Chillicothe, the two men separated. Then later, after returning to his Mud Fork home, Vernatter, accompanied by his brother (Rueben), went to Moundsville and surrendered.
However, Frank Hall was not your normal prisoner, as he quickly became a fugitive from justice again three months later by escaping from the heavily guarded prison. Hall scaled the walls of the institution, and according to the newspaper account, “this was a particularly daring deed” because the prison guards were firing at him the entire time.
Police declared Hall as “a very dangerous character” and the newspaper story said police were patrolling all of the Logan County roads because they expected Hall to try and return to his Mud Fork home place.
It was another 14 months before Hall was apprehended again; this time by authorities in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he was living under an assumed name. After waiving extradition, two Logan deputies brought the closely guarded criminal back to Moundsville to finish out his sentence
The Great Depression was in full swing in 1930, and the making of moonshine was about the only way of making an income for many Logan Countians, who risked prison every day by operating stills and selling their products. Very few coal miners were working, and mostly just one or two days per week, while others were being evicted from their coal camps’ homes. Conditions were so bad that fathers and even mothers often abandoned their children and left the area.
The Logan County Welfare Department was the only relief agency at the time, and abandoned children and others were housed at the Stollings location. The department had been created by the County Court in 1925 because of the lack of any state or federal programs and was referred to as the county “detention home.” Unfortunately, by 1931 the court would be forced to discontinue the program because the county was going broke.
When Frank Hall was arrested in Indianapolis, his wife and three children became destitute and were placed at the Stollings detention home. Mrs. Hall, according to one newspaper account, would never reveal her maiden name or where she was reared. An employee at the detention home described her as “cunning” but lacking education.
Just three days after Frank escaped prison, Mrs. Hall would be ready and waiting when her husband paid a dashing visit to Stollings and added another thrilling episode to his eventful criminal career by taking away his wife and three children. Accompanied by an unidentified accomplice, Hall left the detention center with his family in what was described by an employee at the institution as a Nash automobile.
The employee noted that even though Mrs. Hall could not read, she had regularly received letters from her formerly imprisoned husband, which were read to her, and the letters were said to reveal the horrors of prison life. Authorities were told that Mrs. Hall had been confident that her husband would escape prison and retrieve the family. Meanwhile, the police declared the outlaw to be “eternally devoted to his family.”
So what happened to the notorious Mud Fork law-breaker who repeatedly defied the odds? It was thought at the time that he likely was headed to Texas with his family, but nobody really knew for sure.
As for myself, I will tell you that the “Moonshine King” and his family moved to another secluded location, changed their names, and made a small fortune selling the illegal liquor.
Unfortunately, it would not be wise to reveal that family’s name at this time.
What I can tell you is that in June 1933, with the county’s population at over 60,000 residents and Logan City having grown to 4,389 citizens, a statewide vote was taken in which Logan Countians voted by a 6.5-to-1 majority to repeal Prohibition. Only Lake precinct in Logan County voted to remain “dry.” The Banner reported that the 22 Democrats registered to vote at Lake all voted in favor of eliminating prohibition, but 75 Republicans there voted against legalization of alcohol sales.
Statewide it was much closer, prohibition being repealed by less than a 2-1 majority. While places like Wheeling, Charleston and Huntington were rolling up 3-to-1 majorities, 16 of the 55 counties voted to go “dry.” Those counties were Barbour, Braxton, Doddridge, Grant, Jackson, Lewis, Monroe, Morgan, Nicholas, Pleasants, Preston, Ritchie, Tyler, Upshur, Gilmer and Wirt. The politics of those mostly rural counties haven’t changed much even today, although alcohol sales are allowed in at least parts of nearly all of those counties.
What I feel quite comfortable in saying regarding the infamous local moonshiner and jailbreak artist Frank Hall is that I’d be willing to bet a gallon of the “best” stuff to a half-pint of the same that ole’ Frank was a registered Democrat.
Of course, back then Logan County certainly had a great number of registered Democrats on the poll books — and the county also had just as many, or even more drunkards.
God bless Logan County and the great state of West Virginia.
Dwight Williamson serves as magistrate in Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media.