The Vagabond - Stories of Blind Tigers in Etowah County

March 18, 2016 chris
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Last week The Vagabond met a young lady from Huntsville, Sarah Belanger, who is writing a book about Prohibition in Northeast Alabama. The Vagabond in the past wrote about the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the little fountain that was built at the corner of Broad and First streets in front of Gadsden City Hall. There were also talks with Sarah of the Blind Tigers on the Coosa River.

Before going any further, the reader may ask what a Blind Tigers is. Basically, it was a place on the river where alcoholic beverages was sold illegally; sometimes called a speakeasy or a blind pig. It was during the period of the United States history known as Prohibition from 1920-1933.

With the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1920, prohibition hit the United States with a bang. Bars across the country held huge “Last Drink” parties counting down to the hour of temperance. The old Gadsden’s Motlow Saloon downtown on Broad Street was recorded as having such a party.

The name “Blind Tiger” was referenced back to boats around the steamboat days after Prohibition, when most travelers boarded steamboats. When they did, they seemed to leave the law and their inhibitions behind.

Once on board, they sold patrons tickets for “entertainment,” which would start when a blinded stuff tiger or blinded stuff pig was placed on the counter. Naturally, along with every admission, every customer was treated with a free glass of whiskey or some other alcohol. 

Men often men gambled away their time right out in the open while whiskey and beer, oysters and other delicacies were served from the steamboat‘s storeroom. On the river, the law was what the captain said the law was.

Prohibition did take its toll. On the Coosa River, public pressure closed some steamboat bars, and gambling was slowly reduced to “a friendly game of very high stakes in the privacy of the cabins.”

Not all captains gave in, but those who did (or did not) could be identified by the excursion trade they attracted. This was an important source of revenue for some boats. An organization would reserve the vessel, hire a string band, pack food and drink if the steamer could not supply it, and set off. Dancing was enjoyed in the saloon, while courting couples walked around the upper deck, watched by the ever-present chaperons.

There also were instances when an all-male group commissioned a boat for what amounted to a floating stag party. One of these events was witnessed by 12 lads who hid on board. The boys later recalled the laughter, the ribald shouts, songs, and speeches that grew louder as the day progressed. They thought it wise that the captain had strung ropes all around the lower deck to keep his increasingly unsteady passengers from falling overboard.

When the “wild and jolly trip” came to an end, the stowaways remembered what fun it was to see the drunks hauled up the muddy riverbanks.

If a church made the charter, however, the band and dancing, the ribald shouts, songs, and speeches and, naturally, the drin-king were dispensed with. Almost everything else, including the food, the courting couples and, of course, the chaperons, was much the same.

Each summer for many years, the Centre Methodist Sunday School booked the Dixie for a day trip on the Coosa River to the spring at Davis‘s Landing at Pollard‘s Bend, where members enjoyed “unforgettable picnics” that were all very proper and, naturally quite dry.

Aware that prohibition did little to stop the thirst of the drinkers, some rivermen on the Coosa refused to accept the law’s limitations, and “blind tigers” soon began to appear on the rivet. Often converted steamboats, these floating bars and dance halls became legendary on the river. The boats would tie up near bridges or ferry crossings to maximize their contact with the public, and then open their doors to the thirsty. If authorities tried to close them down, the boats simply east off the lines and moved to another location. Some felt safer anchoring in midstream, where the arm of the law could not reach.

What was best for the proprietor was not always best for his customer. After an evening at the tiger, many found it harder to row back than it had been to row out. Accidents on the return trip were frequent, and the occasional drowning provided an instructive example of the wages of sin for Sunday’s sermon.

Some blind tigers stayed so long in the same place that they became landmarks for travelers and a problem for local residents. Prohibition might have been the law of the land, but accommodating the public was the rule of the river. 

There were Blind Tigers back in August of 1883. Two little boys who had been in swimming at the shoals in Coosa River at what is now Moragne Park sat on a log and watched an interesting battle between several men and a woman on the floating blind tiger of Joe Legner. These folks were putting on their clothes when the fracas started with the arrival of Jim Bunch, a village troublemaker. As soon as Jim crossed on the narrow gangplank to the boat, he let it be known that he was going to be boss by shoving the customers around and also by laying rough hands on the woman bartender, who was Legner’s common-law wife.

Jim’s claim to being the bull of the woods was disputed by none other than Tate Condon, one of the most picturesque characters in the history of this section. Others chimed in with a challenge and Jim started to use his fists, lashing out at anything and everything in sight.

Jim picked up the woman bartender and tossed her into the river, where she shouted and struggled and called for help. Some man told her to let down her feet and wade out, which she did. Just as it seemed that Jim Bunch was about to make a clean sweep of the opposition Tate Condon grabbed a ketchup bottle and tapped Bunch on the head with it, knocking him unconscious.

When Bunch came to, he walked uptown and into Mac Commins barber shop, where he asked Mac to look at his bloody head and see if he needed a doctor. Mac sent for Dr. John B. Liddell, and several stitches were required to close the wound.

As soon as he was released, Jim made a bee line for the floating tiger with the avowed purpose of “whipping everybody on the boat.” He was overtaken by policeman Morris and brought back to town.

Jim Bunch was a miner and always was in trouble with the police, usually be-cause of his tendency to fight. He was a regular patron of the numerous blind tigers that flourished in the early 1880s, especially the two that were operated on boats that were pulled up and down the Coosa in the vicinity of Gadsden.

The Legner boat was fitted up with living quarter in which was stored the stock of rnoonshine whiskey. One end had a roof but was open otherwise. On the open deck was a dining table where most of the drinks were served. Sometimes at night, the table was removed and the drinkers did a bit of dancing.

At the time of the melee started by Jim Bunch, Joe Legner – sometimes spelled Legnier – was a baker who thought he could make more money bootlegging than by making bread and cakes. He was in jail at the time of this particular fight on the charge of selling whiskey and assault.

One day at the Broad Street wharf, Legner got into a small bateau with a friend to go to his floating saloon. As they were passing the Kittrell sawmill, he fell out of the boat and drowned. Legner’s body was found and fished out from under a long raft of logs.

Just above Gadsden was Rock Run, which featured the story of Bell Tree Smith, a fantastic character who flourished in Cherokee County back in the 1890s and who met the fate of almost all of the bullies who respected no law and the rights of no man.

Smith got his nickname from the fact that he operated a blind tiger under a tree near his place of business. His illicit liquor sales were out in the open air to be seen by any officer or citizen who dared to take the risk of peeping or spying, for it was generally understood or believed that monkeying with what Bell Tree Smith considered his inalienable rights spelled sudden death or at least a good pistol whipping and similar punishment as would call for silence on the part of any person who happened to be unduly nosey.

The man’s real name was William (Bill) Smith. His background was all right, but in early manhood he thought he saw a way to get rich by selling moonshine whiskey in a prohibition county, and in an area that supported several iron furnaces, particularly around Bluffton, which once had a population of 8,000 and which today is nothing but a weed patch.

According to stories published about him and also according to legends that still linger around his old stamping ground, Smith had a novel idea about conducting a blind tiger out in the open air. He chained a bell to a large tree. The customers came up to the tree, deposited the exact sum of money for the amount of whiskey wanted on a projecting shelf or in the hollow of the tree, rang the bell and walked off to a point where he could not see the tree or the bell or the person who delivered the liquor.

In fact, the customer knew that it was fatal not to get out of sight. Pretty soon, the bell would ring and he went back to find the amount of white lightning he had paid for. He quickly got out of the neighborhood without knowing who sold him the whiskey. In fact, the customer never saw a single person during the transaction. Consequently, he could not truthfully swear in court that he had bought his liquor from any one person. That was the reason that William (Bill) Smith got the nickname of Bell Tree Smith. Lots of people believed that he was really named Bell Tree from the start.

It was almost a foolproof system, especially since Smith had the reputation of being a very dangerous man. It was generally known that it would not be healthy for any person to swear against him. When the grand jury met and the circuit court began its annual grind, Bell Tree was around to see who might be inclined to betray him or swear against him.

Smith had killed a man, according to reports, and it was not safe to report him to the law. He was reputed to be an overbearing man. In fact, almost everybody in that section of the county and just across the state line in Georgia was afraid of him.

Bell Tree was a bully in his own bailiwick, which was chiefly in the environs of the boomtown of Bluffton. It is said that Smith never raised any rows outside of his own community, where his customers looked him upon as a sort of hero. Smith was almost worshipped by his customers who were called his “witnesses” by many because he could prove almost anything in court by them.

Like all bullies, however, Bell Tree came to an ignominious end.

One day he drifted into the Borden-Wheeler Springs community, where a large crowd was gathered. Always a showoff, Smith decided to give the crowd a sample of his dare deviltry. He pulled out his pistol and ordered a 17-year old boy named Chandler to get down on his hands and knees and eat grass like a cow. Terrified of Smith’s reputation, the boy obeyed. As he ate grass, the crowd, or most of it, was convulsed with merriment.

Suddenly, the 19-year old brother of young Chandler pushed forward. As soon as he realized what was going on, he stooped down, seized a rock and threw it with all his might.

The rock struck Smith in the head, knocking him to the ground unconscious. As he fell, his gun fell out of his hand. The 19-year old Chandler boy picked up the pistol and fired a bullet through Smith’s head.

That was the last of Bell Tree Smith, for he was killed instantly. Young Chandler was not bothered by a law agency, because he was considered to have acted in self-defense as well as in the defense of his kid brother.