“I didn’t set fire to the jail,” Bettie Sims calmly told a representative from The Charlotte Observer on Dec. 11, 1906. The reporter had tracked down the 29-year-old Polk County native the day before she was to appear on bond in front of a federal judge on charges of, in her own words, “selling a jug of corn.” Dubbed “The Queen of the Moonshiners” by local newspapers, Bettie had been making headlines since May, more for her sensationalized feminine persona than for her blockading exploits or even for her failed escape attempt that burned part of the Polk County jail.
As UNC Asheville’s Dr. Daniel Pierce writes in his 2019 book “Tar Heel Lightnin’: How Secret Stills and Fast Cars Made North Carolina the Moonshine Capital of the World,” “Most of the people involved in moonshine, or at least the ones that appear in police reports, were white, male, and relatively young and owned, or lived on, family farms. They made, transported, or sold moonshine to supplement their family income, pay their taxes, hold on to their farms, and avoid mill work. … For most moonshiners, making illegal liquor was a part-time and seasonal enterprise that fit in nicely with the rhythms on the farm and the chemistry and realities of moonshining.”
Stereotypes of the Appalachian moonshiner do tend to feature bearded white men wearing overalls and holding a jug marked XXX, but the enterprise was certainly not limited to this demographic. Pierce notes that by the turn of the 20th century, “Increased profits from moonshining attracted individuals from all races and ethnic groups in the state, including considerable numbers of Native Americans and African Americans. Women as well as men became more involved, and wealthier and more socially respectable middle-class individuals succumbed to the temptation to make, transport, or sell illegal liquor.” And though Bettie Sims was only one of many women working to make ends meet by moonshining in Western North Carolina, she certainly became one of the more notorious brewers thanks to publishers who found that her story sold newspapers.
Born in Hootin’ Owl Holler in Polk County in 1877 (15 years after North Carolina began to tax whiskey and made selling the homebrew illegal), Nora Elizabeth “Bettie” Henderson married Taylor Sims in 1894, and the white couple had six children together – Mossie, Harvey, Evan, twins Hettie and Hattie, and Brownlow. All but Hettie lived past infancy. A year after Brownlow was born in 1903, Bettie had tired of her moonshining husband’s drinking and abuse. The couple separated and later divorced. She took her children back to her family’s farm and set out to make her own way in the lucrative business.
Knowing, as she said, that “nine out of every ten men will drink whiskey,” and that “a small barrel of blockade whiskey will yield a profit of a hundred dollars,” Bettie transformed herself from a “quiet, home-loving woman” to “a desperate Amazon, with pistol buckled around her waist, ready for fight.” at least according to The Rutherford Sun. And, by the time she wound up in federal court in 1906, she had been selling moonshine on either side of the North-South Carolina border for at least the last two years.
Though Bettie Sims had probably not escaped notice of law enforcement prior to 1906, she had certainly kept a low profile in the media, despite the sensational nature of her crimes. In February 1906, she had been finalizing the sale of nine barrels of whiskey in Rutherford County, not far from the South Carolina border, when three officers attempted to arrest her. Pistol in hand she ran across the state line, yelled for help, and was soon joined by five men, all moonshiners, who had been concealed in the South Carolina woods. As they loaded their weapons, Bettie’s friends promised the officers, who were now out of their jurisdiction, that she would appear in court, offering them $25 each in bond. The officers took the cash and slunk back to North Carolina.
True to her word, Bettie did appear in court and pled guilty. And while the weekly paper out of Polk County reported that Bettie was again released on cash bond, they also commented that “she has probably forfeited the [money] in order to escape imprisonment.” Still, she again showed up for her trial a few days later.
Bettie made a lasting impression on the reporter for The Rutherford Sun, not only because she was a woman moonshiner, but also because she was a beautiful, young, woman moonshiner. Her expensive clothing and frequent costume changes became a subject of published gossip in newspapers across the region.
The first day of court, she entered clad in a blue silk gown with a long train and matching hat; she had a snuff mop tucked in her cheek. The following day she arrived in a checkered shirt, brown skirt, and a hat trimmed with pink roses. The next day she wore “a third dashing dress” and rumors circulated of a hat with white ostrich plumes. Though her clothing and “fair face, plump form, and rosy cheeks” impressed many of the men in court that week, it did not impress the judge, who commented that “such women as she were a menace to society and must be punished for the good of Polk.” Realizing that the judge was not going to dismiss her case, Bettie decided to skip her sentencing the following day. Officers went after her and brought her to the jail.
The judge sentenced Bettie to six months in county jail; though some locals felt that since Bettie had “already cost the county many dollars … the proper place for her would be the penitentiary or some other place where she would be compelled to work for her keep.” The whereabouts of her children while she served her sentence went unmentioned in print, but they presumably remained in the holler with Bettie’s parents.
Perhaps it was because of her children, but Bettie was determined not to remain in jail. At midnight, while the jailer slept in his apartment, Bettie and Ed Church, a man who had been sentenced that day to 12 months of hard labor for manslaughter — he had shot and killed his brother-in-law during a drunken brawl — and was awaiting transfer to the penitentiary, concocted a plan to escape the jail.
One or both of them took straw from their mattress, placed it against a door, and lit the straw on fire. Once the fire had burned through the center of the door, Ed, who left two crowbars behind — perhaps supplied by accomplices who had made their way into the jail that night — was able to open a window, climb out to the roof of the porch, jump to the ground, and escape.
Bettie took the stairs. As she passed through the jailer’s apartment, he awoke and attempted to stop her. She pulled a knife — either from her person or from the apartment — and a fight ensued. Bettie cut the man at least three times before he knocked her down. She was manhandled into a cell as she yelled for her release.
With the failed escape attempt, Bettie’s notoriety grew, but not without consequence. Her fight with the jailer left her injured and she spent the next few days laid up in bed, while newspapers across the state gleefully reprinted the story of “The Belle of Polk Court’s” daring misdeeds. Her new fame did not deter Bettie, or perhaps it encouraged her. After months of not making the papers, the Polk County News ran a tidbit about Bettie. The county sheriff had searched Bettie’s cell at the beginning of October and found “a large bunch of keys of every description hidden in a pan of pudding which was sent to her.”
But it wasn’t until her appearance in federal court in December that the “Queen of the Moonshiners” would see another headline. Released from the county jail on bond to appear at the federal court in Charlotte, Bettie took advantage of her freedom. When the court reporter for The Charlotte Observer found her seated in a window sill in the post office holding an apple and an orange, she was dressed as fashionably as usual. She wore beads around her neck, large gold rings on her fingers, a blue and red plaid shirt, a dark red skirt, and a matching hat with black feathers.
When the reporter questioned her, she was at first reserved, her voice soft. But when he brought up the burning of the Polk County Jail, she began to elaborate.
“I didn’t set fire to the jail. No. I didn’t. The old man (Ed Church) fired it. I didn’t see that I was in there to fight fires and so I let her burn. When it began to get hot I pushed down the door and walked down into the hall. I met … the jailer, and he wanted to stop me. Yes, he did. I didn’t want to stop and so we had it out right there. Just as he was about to go out others came up and I decided to stay. But I didn’t set fire to the jail.” In court, she was found guilty of retailing in whiskey, but the judgment was suspended since she had already been found guilty in the state court and served her sentence. She left Charlotte to return to her home in Polk County.
It appears Bettie’s time in prison did not sway her from continuing to pursue her chosen profession. And perhaps she had help from her family. While some news reports mentioned that Bettie “came from a very good family of people in Polk County” and “has a tolerably good education … and of good and honest parentage” others indicated that “her brothers knew something about moonshine” and she was “reared in an atmosphere of vice and taught to think that it is right to sell mountain dew.”
By March 1907, just a few months after Bettie’s release from county jail, her father had opened a mill for grinding corn. Whether corn from this mill was used in the manufacture of moonshine is uncertain, but milling would have been a convenient trade for a distiller to take up.
Six months later, Bettie was back in the headlines, the papers rehashing her exploits of the prior year while briefly reporting that she had “fled to South Carolina.” And, indeed, when the state of North Carolina decided not to pursue further charges against Bettie, she moved her children just across the border into Spartanburg.
In South Carolina, Bettie, who was now presenting herself as a widow, sent her three oldest children, who were 14, 13, and 12, to work as spinners in a nearby cotton mill. Her estranged husband, Taylor, continued to reside in North Carolina and sell moonshine in and around the Asheville area until he died Nov. 27, 1915.
Just over a month later in January 1916, Bettie officially married Frank Giles; though it seems the pair had been living as husband and wife since at least 1911. Frank was also from Polk County and had also been jailed for selling moonshine. His entire two month sentence had overlapped with Bessie’s term at the jail a decade prior.
Bettie’s daughter, Hattie, remembered her life with her mother and stepfather during the early 1910s in an interview published by Bernice Horne Tompkins in “Polk County, North Carolina History.” “We lived at Inman for a while, but moved often, going from mill to mill. Later we lived at Tucapau, near what today is Startex, SC. In the fall we moved back to Polk County, and lived in a little house up on the hill above Grandma and Grandpa Henderson. We had to go way down across the road to get water. It was hard to dig through rocks but we finally got a well.”
By 1919, The Rutherford Sun, which had so sensationally covered Bettie’s blockading career, now reported her movements in the Society Pages. On March 13, they wrote, “Mrs. Frank Giles returned home Wednesday from Union, SC, where she has been visiting her daughter, Mrs. Fred Buckner.”
By 1921, Bettie had become her father’s primary caregiver. Her mother had died of cancer nearly a decade before and in trying to find medical attention for her father, she wrote to the National Soldier Home in Virginia: “He has lost his mind and is almost deaf and no one to attend to him on the account of his mental condition he will hafto be confined he had the flu last winter that affected his mind and our nearest asylum is all filled up to overflowing and I cant bear to see him confined in prison without haveing a treatment. Some time his mind comes back to him and then at other times he dont seem to know anything.”
Though the Soldier Home wrote back offering free care for Bettie’s father, he died just a month later at the Polk County jail locked in a cell that had been provided by the jailor – his son, Monroe.
Whether Bettie continued to brew alcohol after Prohibition went into effect at the beginning of 1920 is unclear, but if she did, her connections to the local jailor may have helped keep her out of trouble. And, though Bettie’s name stayed out of the papers, other Western North Carolina women found themselves in court on moonshining charges. As Pierce notes, “While the general stereotype of North Carolina women, particularly white women, in the early 20th century shows them firmly in the prohibition camp, and often leading the way, the period saw an increase in women making the newspapers for their involvement in the illegal alcohol trade.”
Perhaps Bettie’s earlier notoriety had been forgotten with her name change and/or staff turnover at the newspaper, but she ceased to appear in local news coverage of any depth until her obituary ran in the Polk County News on March 31, 1922. Taken down by ovarian cancer, Bettie died at her home at just 44 years of age. Her husband and children placed an ornate obelisk on her grave in Polk County’s Green Creek First Baptist Cemetery.
Anne Chesky Smith is the Executive Director of the Western North Carolina Historical Association in Asheville.
Above: Bettie Henderson Sims with her children, Mossie, Eva, Harvey, Brown, Hattie; 1904. Courtesy of Polk County, North Carolina History
Polk County Courthouse, Courthouse Street, Columbus, Polk County, NC, c1937. (Courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Archie A. Biggs, Photographer)
Old Polk County Jail on Walker Street in Columbus, North Carolina, c1937 (Courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Archie A. Biggs, Photographer)
Bettie Giles Headstone, Green Creek First Baptist Cemetery (From findagrave.com)
Thanks to Pat McCool, President of the Polk County Historical Association and Mayor of Columbus, for sending a couple more newspaper articles about Bettie Sims my way:
It appears that on March 28, 1902, Bettie purchased a house and six acres of land in Tryon from T.T. Ballenger. Around the same time she was convicted of “retailing liquor” and was sentenced to six months in jail or a fine of “$100 plus cost.” She opted to pay the fine – and to do so, mortgaged her new house for $150 on April 3, 1902. On November 12, 1902, she defaulted on the mortgage. The house and land was to go up for auction on the courthouse steps on December 13, 1902.
During November and December 1902, Bettie would have been about six months pregnant with her youngest child, Brownlow. Yet, it was only her name on the deed – which she had signed more than eight months earlier.