Last updated: July 10, 2018
The Lusk Herald
August 7, 1961
By Jim Griffith, Sr.
The above picture was taken in the back yard of the Niobrara County Courthouse some time during the prohibition days of 1920 when the making of moonshine was a flourishing industry in Niobrara County.
Sheriff Will Hassad is shown inspecting a number of illicit stills taken in raids he and his deputies made in various parts of the county. The principal location of most of these stills was in the northeastern part of the county where good water was available and a maximum of seclusion and isolation was a prime factor.
During the 20’s, the Niobrara County criminal docket was made up principally of bootlegging and moonshining cases, the same as almost every other county in the State.
Times were tough then and many a small rancher who was otherwise a law-abiding citizen, in order to “make ends meet,” had embarked in the business of making moonshine liquor, for which a ready market was always available if he made “good stuff.” And most of them made a pretty good brand of drinking liquor, as many of their customers will attest even today.
There never was any suspicion that Niobrara law officers “looked the other way” or were in the remotest degree in league with the illicit liquor manufacturers, as was the case in several other counties of the State, so those engaged in the business had to be more careful than their brethren in other sections of the State.
Raids on Niobrara stills were frequent and effective. Lawyers engaged in defending still operators did a thriving business. One of the most skillful defense attorneys I have ever known was the late Thomas M. Fagan. Most of those caught in the law’s meshes for moonshining usually rushed to Fagan with their troubles, and he usually defended them whether they had any money or not.
One case I particularly remember, as I was in the courtroom during the entire trial, was when one of our most prominent “distillers” was arrested for the fourth or fifth time for operating a moonshine still. As usual, he rushed to Fagan, but it was a little late. The Sheriff and County Attorney had already “pumped him dry.” (The Sheriff had caught the distiller red-handed operating his still, the still had been seized as evidence, and he had confessed his guilt and signed the confession.)
This left Fagan hard put for a defense, but he was equal to the occasion, although he employed the strangest legal strategy I have ever heard in any courtroom. His client, who had been a roundup cook and spent many years riding the range as a cowboy in the early days, was well known to almost every one of the prospective jurors. They knew that his reputation for truth and veracity was extremely questionable. In selecting the jury Fagan was careful to choose only those who knew the defendant well and when possible selected those with who he had worked on the roundup.
As a defense Fagan set out to prove that his client “was the biggest liar and fourflusher in the world” when he claimed ownership of the still and signed a confession-that he merely did so to satisfy his own ego and to emphasize his importance as a big shot moonshiner, and the further impress his fellow moonshiners that he had a bigger and better still and turned out more and better liquor than any of the them.
Fagan’s strategy and his eloquent plea to the jury must have made a profound impression, for after deliberating only a few minutes they brought in a verdict of “Not Guilty.”
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