James Higdon on the authority of the Church and the largest homegrown marijuana syndicate in American history
When I started working on the book that would become The Cornbread Mafia, I never thought that I would be telling a story of God’s law versus Man’s law. But that’s how it turned out. Which was scary stuff, I thought. The supremacy of divine law over secular law was (I assumed) a concept reserved only for religious fundamentalists, so what was I doing with it in a story about large-scale marijuana growers?
I thought I was writing a true-crime story, and at the start I didn’t know much more than the basics: between 1985 and 1989, 70 men from a three-county area in central Kentucky were arrested on 30 farms in 10 states with 200 tons of marijuana in what federal prosecutors said was the “biggest domestic marijuana [syndicate] in American history.” They called them “the Cornbread Mafia.”
Now, having grown up in the middle of that three-county area (Lebanon, Kentucky in Marion County), I had some clue about this Cornbread deal, who some of the men were and what kinds of cars they drove. I went to school with their kids. We were all part of the same Catholic parishes and ended up at the same Catholic wedding receptions. But what did our rural Catholic identity have to do with a giant marijuana cartel?
It didn’t take long into the reporting process to encounter these facts: of the 70 men arrested in Cornbread-related busts, 69 were Catholics and zero agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in exchange for a lesser sentence. Those facts, and others like them, left me searching for a cause-and-effect relationship between Catholicism and criminal activity — and I found it in newspaper microfilm and in church archives as they illuminated the parallel histories of the frontier Catholic church and the distilling industry.
The first Catholic church west of the Appalachian mountains was built in 1790 in Holy Cross, Kentucky — ground zero of what would become Cornbread country 200 years later. Five years before the church was built, the land had been settled by a group of Catholic families of English descent led by a man named Basil Hayden, a distiller of whisky.
Hayden’s grandsons would later bottle the old man’s bourbon recipe under the Old Granddad label. By the turn of the 20th Century, Marion County had nine active distilleries employing hundreds of men. And then, Prohibition came to Marion County in 1919 and all those distilleries closed, taking the jobs from hundreds of Catholics (with about a dozen children each) and criminalizing the only thing they knew how to do.
So suddenly, an entire Catholic community descended into lawlessness. To read the newspaper microfilm of The Lebanon Enterprise for the 13 years of Prohibition is to read about comic book-level violence and absurdity: revenuers leaping from the running boards of one moving vehicle onto another, gun fights, car chases, and one record-setting still bust after another.
In this sort of environment, where men felt forced into criminal activity to provide for their children, those children learned quickly that silence was the only weapon they had against the men with guns who were taking their fathers away. When the man asked questions, not answering was the only way to fight back. When everybody did it together, it created a strong bond between them and a strong wall of silence that was almost impossible for outsiders to penetrate.
In the 1950s, I discovered in the newspaper archive that Lebanon still had the reputation for bootlegging, as Marion County was the last “wet county” to the Tennessee line. It came to a head in 1958, when an agent for the Alcoholic Beverage Control was building a new house when someone dynamited it in the middle of the night. Authorities in Frankfort, the state capital, took this attack on their authority personally. They sent 30 state policemen to harass the local liquor merchants while investigating the ABC agent’s house bombing. The state’s public safety commissioner, a young Harvard grad, accused the whole community of “open and commonplace gambling, prostitution and illegal whisky sales.”
The public safety commissioner then traveled to Lebanon with the state’s press pool in tow, claiming to have evidence to make arrests in connection with the ABC agent’s house bombing. But when he exited the courthouse empty-handed, a mob had assembled against the commissioner, shouting things at him in response to the prostitution accusations, like “Where are those girls?” and “Where are those girls!”
There, in the back of this mob scene, the local newspaper editor explained to a big-city reporter what the hell was going on, and that conversation made it into print, which was preserved in the newspaper microfilm where I found it 50 years later: “Gambling and liquor violations are a sin against the state, but prostitution is a sin against God,” the local editor said. “That’s a serious charge.”
He’s saying that the community wasn’t angry about the accusations of drinking and gambling, because they were true — but claiming that prostitution was also going on just went too far. And more importantly, it seems to suggest that this community existed in a moral universe that successfully ignored a number of state and federal laws while still maintaining its moral center by focusing on the authority of the Church instead of the encroaching power of the state, which was hell-bent on trying to control things it couldn’t control.
The children of that mob scene would grow up to become the Cornbread generation: men who seemed to possess an ability to live outside of civil authority without losing their souls in the process. Of course, this is not universally true, and the story of those who successfully walked this line is littered with others’ failure. The body count in my book is about a dozen, and the number of families torn apart by mandatory federal prison sentences and property seizures is too great to count.
But many of the men doing those prison sentences did more time than they would have, if they had only turned on their friends and cooperated with the government. But none did, zero out of 70. Family and community were more important than staying out of prison.
[Higdon's The Cornbread Mafia will be released in paperback September 3 but is available now in hardback and on Kindle. Image credits: Steve Lowrey.]