The new year 2019 dawned fraught with promise and peril just as the year 1919 did a century before.
The year 1919 marked the first year of Prohibition, when the sale and manufacture of alcohol was outlawed in the United States, ushering in a colorful era of speakeasies, bathtub gin, gangsters and G-men or “revenuers,” seeking to raid the DeSoto County backwoods of whiskey stills, moonshiners and home brew.
Much to my surprise, your “Time Traveler” learned that DeSoto County, although genteel, educated and civilized within its quaint towns and cities, was a rip-roaring wide-open frontier in the unincorporated areas, which were more than just a little rough and frayed on the edges.
In his new book, “Crusaders, Gangsters and Whiskey: Prohibition in Memphis,” author Patrick O’Daniel details just how lawless and rough rural parts of DeSoto County became during the days of Prohibition.
A gangster with the John Grisham-sounding name of Reno Devaux opened a speakeasy called The New Crystal Gardens in the summer of 1931, but as O’Daniel explains, “the DeSoto County Sheriff Sid Campbell proved as troublesome as Sheriff Knight,” O’Daniel remarked, referring to the Shelby County, Tenn. sheriff across the state line. “Devaux escaped through a side door during a raid and fled to Memphis to hide at the Hotel Chisca. He returned to DeSoto County, appeared in court, and promised to keep his new club free of alcohol and gambling. He renamed the club, ‘The Seville,” but constant harassment by the sheriff led Devaux to leave in frustration.”
The lure of Lake View still beckoned gamblers and bootleggers alike. “Lake View was close enough to attract business from Memphis. The Memphis and Lake View railway ran hourly to a station in the city where passengers connected to the Lauderdale Street Streetcar line.”
“The Marigold Gardens, the most popular of the nightclubs in DeSoto County, had the reputation as a rendezvous of ‘the bootlegger, the gambler and the gunman. Neighbors of the nightclub, fed up with the all-night carousing, demanded DeSoto County officials shut it down. Witnesses said that the place had been running ‘full sway amid the flow of corn liquor, the ragged music of a jazz band, (shootings), stabbing melees, drinking bouts and other wild and Bacchanalian orgies. The DeSoto County Grand Jury ordered the closure of the roadhouses and state lawmakers drafted bills to keep gamblers away in December of 1937, but officials were slow to act.”
All of this legendary lore will soon be a part of a new exhibit at the DeSoto County Museum, to be titled “Outlaws and Lawmen.” Acquisitions have already been made of law enforcement paraphernalia and the hunt is on for an authentic whiskey still that can be tied to Prohibition Days in DeSoto County. Please contact the Time Traveler at the DeSoto County Museum, 662-429-8852 if you know the whereabouts of an old whiskey still.
One of the newest exhibits which will soon be displayed is an exhibit chronicling the rise of DeSoto County’s first newspapers, “The Hernando Free Press” in 1839 and “The Phenix” in 1841 into the DeSoto Times and now the DeSoto Times-Tribune. The newspaper is celebrating its 180th anniversary this year. The exhibit is being provided through a generous grant from the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi along with other donors and contributors, including the Pittman family.
The Time Traveler cordially invites readers of this column and supporters of the award-winning DeSoto County Museum to the Historic DeSoto Foundation’s annual meeting at the old First Presbyterian Church, now CrossPointe Church, 70 Commerce St. in Hernando, adjacent to the museum at 111 E. Commerce. The meeting begins at 6 p.m.
A vision for the museum and its collection and displays will be unveiled along with a fascinating story or two.
Until then, the Time Traveler is taking off once more to a time and destination unknown even to him.
Come along for the ride.
ROBERT LEE LONG is the Curator of the DeSoto County Museum.