Black Market Moonshine Begins

Prohibition in Virginia ushered in an era of Moonshine in places like Norfolk and Hampton Roads

It was Halloween of 1916 when Virginia joined 17 other states in prohibiting the sale of alcohol. In Norfolk alone, 115 licensed bars were forced to shut their doors. The ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 sealed the fate of liquor sales throughout the country, and bootlegging became a profitable, yet dangerous business in Tidewater.

In a spectacle that received attention from The New York Times on Jan. 16, 1920, the famous evangelist Billy Sunday presided over a funeral for “John Barleycorn” at what was known as “The Tabernacle,” a meeting hall in Norfolk. A 20-foot-long coffin was paraded through the streets to the funeral and brought to the hall as a symbol of the death of the evils of alcohol. In a dramatic eulogy, Sunday said farewell to Barleycorn: “Goodbye, John. You were God’s worst enemy; you were Hell’s best friend. I hate you with a perfect hatred; I love to hate you.”

Six weeks after Barleycorn’s funeral, the Custom House in Norfolk was forced to smash open their bottles and kegs—evidence discovered by Prohibition agents—and 2,500 quarts of assorted wine and liquor were dumped into the Elizabeth River. The lawful sale of liquor was over. The moonshine era had arrived.

Look for our July issue’s “Hidden History” for more about moonshine in Hampton Roads, the Silver Spray and where the state stands today.