The revenuer enforced the laws regulating the licensing and taxing of whiskey. He focused on destroying illegal stills and arresting illicit distillers, becoming in the process a colorful, often notorious, figure of history and folklore.
The federal government established its authority to tax alcohol early in the history of the country, forcefully suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion in the mountains of Pennsylvania and Western Virginia in the 1790s. However, the making of moonshine or untaxed whiskey continued in rural districts, including the territory that became West Virginia in 1863. Before the establishment of national prohibition, enforcement efforts were often directed by U.S. marshals and deputy marshals, with varying levels of support from local authorities. Among West Virginia’s best-known revenuers from this period was Dan Cunningham (1850–1942), a deputy marshal whose duties included liquor law enforcement among other responsibilities.
West Virginia began statewide prohibition in 1914, followed by national prohibition in 1920. Alcoholic beverages of all sorts were strictly prohibited, except for medical and religious purposes. With these landmark changes, the collection of liquor tax revenue was no longer the issue. All alcoholic beverages were now illegal, and complete suppression was the goal. Nonetheless, federal revenue agents continued to be involved in liquor law enforcement, and liquor agents of all sorts continued to be called revenuers. At the state level, revenuers reported to the West Virginia Department of Prohibition, led by a state commissioner appointed by the governor. The West Virginia State Police were involved in liquor law enforcement as well, after creation of the agency in 1919. The federal government added a prohibition department to the Internal Revenue Service, and its agents continued in prohibition enforcement into the early 1930s.
There was widespread resistance to prohibition, and revenuers were busy throughout the 1920s. A total of 683 stills were seized in West Virginia during 1923–24, the 14th-highest number in the country. In addition to locally made moonshine, revenuers sought also to destroy bootleg whiskey, which had been made legally in foreign jurisdictions and smuggled into the United States. McDowell County Sheriff Mack Day, killed by a bootlegger in 1925, was among West Virginia revenuers of the prohibition era.
After the repeal of national prohibition in 1933 and state prohibition in 1934 the revenuer’s work changed once more. The suppression of untaxed liquor was again the issue. Ironically, however, the scale of moonshining was greatly reduced by the widespread availability of quality legal whiskey at reasonable prices in state liquor stores. As the 20th century progressed, the number of stills seized in West Virginia was much lower than during prohibition, with a mere 32 seizures reported in 1968. Enforcement actions were uncommon by the turn of the 21st century, as moonshiner and revenuer alike slipped into the province of history and myth.
Last Revised on October 22, 2010
Cite This Article
e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia "Revenuer." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 22 October 2010. Web. 23 March 2017.