by Pam Pacelli Cooper
Today’s excerpt from the “Abbott Leonard Cohen Tapes,” recorded when he was 91 years old, provide a perfect example of the ways our perceptions can be altered when interviewing subjects or when reading diaries someone has left behind.
For most of his life, Len Cohen’s grandson Rob believed that his grandfather was a teetotaler. He remembers his grandfather’s often quoted comment:
“He who puts liquor to his brother’s lips is in danger of hell’s fires”
As we read through the transcripts, we found one entire side of a tape which described Grandpa Cohen’s experiences during Prohibition. Here is one excerpt:
[When Prohibition started] I was 32 or 33 …it lasted 13 years.
What people went through …was sort of like the disturbance of a colony of ants when their hill was kicked over…everyone scurried to find their comfort level. First there were those who accustomed to having hard liquor were determined to continue to have it unlimited. And they did just that…bootleggers and illicit chip stills sprouted like mushrooms over the land and Tennessee was way up in front in that development. The name bootlegger is derived from the seller of illicit whiskey. Of course, he carried bottles of his product handily in the leg of his high boots for immediate delivery. Bootleggers also carried real whiskey in the same way when they could get it. And there were ways to get it and they did, such as hijacking. And I know of one highly regarded citizen who had an arrangement with two negro Pullman porters whose run took them to New Orleans or El Paso, Texas who brought back to him and others, real bonded liquor.
Experiments with home brew
Everybody started the national experiment of making home brew, that’s homemade beer. And everyone had a different recipe for making it. Most efforts were not successful. Corks were popping all over town, not in celebration of the success, but because of too much yield that was in the mix, caused the corks to pop out of the bottles.
The Kick of the White Mule
Everybody had a friend who told him of a friend from whom he could buy White Mule …a raw un-aged corn liquor. In its infancy hardly fit for human consumption. So we would buy a five-gallon charcoal lined keg of it and put in some very small charcoal chips and then put the plug in the keg and that was it. Then we would set the keg aside for months or more, for Christmas or when it was ready to use.
[One year]I bought a keg of White Mule getting ready for Christmas which was about nine months away and stored it in the attic. Nine months is no age at all for [most] liquor.. . but White Mule has a real kick, or one might say, a wallop, even at that age.
Two weeks before the gestation period was over I went up to the attic to bottle the treasure. I had lived up to every part of the prescription implicitly. So I leaned over cautiously and fondly to pick up the keg expecting to strain a bit in lifting a five gallon keg full of liquor. Imagine my surprise to say nothing of the shock, the keg was as light as a feather, absolutely empty. It seemed that the keg had a tiny pinhole leak and drop by drop the whiskey had escaped. We found a moire pattern on the floor under the keg as the only evidence that we had that it had been gradually dripping out. The bunghole was still perfectly tight. So we called the emergency bootlegger who saved the day. Merry Christmas!
What a shock! This upright man who everyone knew to be moderate In every way had broken the law on a regular basis (along with many others) during his 30’s.
As you explore your family photographs, diaries, tapes, and films, what surprises have you found? Have they altered your view of your ancestors?
For us, reading the whole chapter about Prohibition led to the understanding that Mr. Cohen was quite well versed in the nuances of the liquor trade. And it altered the myth a bit and made grandpa seem more believable, a more well-rounded character in our family’s story.