|Prohibition in the United States was in effect from 1919 until 1933. However, West Virginia had
enacted its own prohibition much earlier. State prohibition was effective July 1, 1914. It was
implemented by the Yost Law, passed by the legislature in 1913. The Yost Law also created the
Department of Prohibition. State Tax Commissioner Fred O. Blue would become its first
This law would impose drastic changes in the lives of some West Virginians. At the time of
implementation about 900 men in the Wheeling area alone would lose their jobs. About 1,200 saloons
across the state would close. Many of those with an appetite for alcohol would continue to get it
wherever they could. Many of those who had lost their jobs in the legitimate booze industry would
simply take their business underground. And if they could avoid arrest the profits were huge.
The challenge of enforcement was also huge. The State Police was not yet in existence. It would be
another five years before that agency was created. But sheriffs, constables, and city police officers
would all find their business to be more complicated now. And they would all have their part to play in
the enforcement of the Yost Law. This would be costly.
The first local officer that would pay the ultimate price for enforcing the Yost Law was Ronceverte
Police Chief George T. Shires. Chief Shires had arrested Will Stewart, a local black man, and charged
him with bootlegging. Stewart surrendered without resistance but then took the chief by surprise when
he pulled a revolver from his overalls and shot him. After Shires had fallen to the ground, Stewart shot
him two more times in the back.
Stewart was arrested, convicted of the chief’s murder, and sentenced to hang. He was executed on
July 2, 1915 at the West Virginia Penitentiary at Moundsville.
While alcohol was now illegal in West Virginia, it was still both legal and accessible just across the river
in Ohio. So it did not take long for enterprising bootleggers to begin picking up their product there for
secret distribution in The Mountain State. And it also did not take very long for West Virginia law
enforcement officers to figure out their routine.
On June 13, 1916 Kanawha County Deputy Sheriff Henry Voiers spotted a man riding on board a coal
train in Ronda. This man was well known to be involved in smuggling booze by train from Ohio.
As Deputy Voiers attempted to arrest him the suspect opened fire. There was an exchange of gunfire
until Voiers was mortally wounded. The shooter escaped on foot after engaging in a shootout with
Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Police.
On February 10, 1919 Grafton Police Chief J.E.B. Phillips had arrested a man for possession of 2 pints
of illegal liquor. When they arrived at the jail the suspect pulled a .38 caliber revolver and fired 2
shots. One of the shots struck Chief Phillips. He was taken to the hospital where he died the next
While local law enforcement officers were fully engaged in the dangerous work of alcohol enforcement,
the Department of Prohibition had its own enforcement agency. Prohibition officers, unlike local
officers, could give their full attention to this matter. They would also find this to be very costly.
For the moonshiner, these officers represented a threat to their livelihood, a threat to their way of life,
and an invasion of their turf. Many of them took it very personal.
On Monday, August 11, 1919 Prohibition Officer Will Farley and his partner raided a still, dismantled
it, and took it to Farley’s home near Dart’s Creek as evidence. Later that night, 3 moonshiners broke
in and shot Farley as he lay in bed, killing him. Farley’s partner, who was in another room at the time,
fired at the suspects as they fled the scene. The moonshiners meant to make a statement.
They made a similar statement in Wayne County. Prohibition Officer William Meade and other
officers had conducted several raids in the area. On Sunday, February 12, 1922 Meade was shot and
killed from ambush. He was 48 years old and had worked for the agency only 2 months.
1923 would prove to be another costly year for those charged with enforcing alcohol laws. On
February 25th Deputy Commissioner T. E. Rutheford was shot and killed while raiding a still in
Wyoming County. And Prohibition Officer Mose Elswick was shot and killed while raiding a still in
Kanawha County on September 23rd.
West Virginia State Police and some confiscated stills outside the Mingo County Courthouse.
By now the West Virginia State Police were fully operational and having an impact. They would also
have to do their share of enforcing the Yost Law. And again, it would be costly.
On Friday, October 22, 1926, state troopers were led to a still near Richwood by a 13 year old boy. At
daylight Saturday the moonshiners spotted the troopers and opened fire. The troopers wounded two of
the operators and captured the still. The wounded were taken into custody and the troopers left.
Private James L. Lowe
When they returned to the still later that evening they were ambushed. Private Lowe was struck
several times and would die five days later without ever regaining consciousness.
I’m sure there were many reasons why someone would choose to become a prohibition officer during
such a violent time as this. Some may have craved the excitement. Some may have liked the idea of a
steady paycheck. Some may have believed it was a cause worth fighting for.
Gus Simmons was a farmer. That was his life. It was who he was. But when his son was given illegal
liquor my moonshiners, Gus decided it was time to change professions. That’s when he became a
Prohibition Officer Gus Simmons
His career would come to an abrupt end on Monday, July 11, 1927. He and three other officers were
searching for a still in Wyoming County when they were ambushed by several members of one family.
Officer Simmons was shot and killed.
Several other officers would die before Prohibition was ended here in 1934. Then, with the stroke of a
pen, the law that so many had died enforcing was no more.
The Battle for Booze