The outlaws of Marion County, Kentucky, defy one Prohibition after another.
Mike Riggs | July 13, 2012
When the United States lost the Philippines to Japan in December 1941, it also lost its sole supplier of industrial hemp, which the U.S. Navy used for rope. With the Pacific no longer fit for agriculture, the United States turned to nine states to grow hemp for the war effort. Of those nine states, the government picked Kentucky to cultivate the ideal hemp seed. And not just any part of Kentucky: It picked the state’s most militantly anti-authoritarian region, Marion County.
When alcohol was prohibited, Marion County had been a hub for black market booze. Federal agents shut down a different distillery nearly every week and stationed armed guards to watch over the casks of liquor that had already been made. (The liquor itself wasn’t illegal, only its production, sale, and transportation.) Con artists and mobsters came regularly to Marion, where they either bribed guards or stole the booze outright. The night the feds put a convicted Al Capone on the Dixie Flier to ship him from Chicago to a penitentiary in Atlanta, the distillers of Marion County waited with their children alongside the train tracks to say goodbye to the man who had kept them housed and fed during Prohibition.
So it was fitting that the government turned to Marion to grow hemp in 1941. Forty-nine years later, 70 descendants of the county’s starving bootleggers would be arraigned in federal court under the RICO Act and charged with organizing the largest marijuana trafficking ring in U.S. history. The operation spread across 10 states, and had produced 182 tons of grade-A marijuana. Investigative journalist James Higdon tells their story in The Cornbread Mafia.
The man behind the enterprise was Johnny Boone. Born in neighboring Washington County, Boone was an agricultural whiz kid who won awards from the state 4-H program for the tobacco he grew as a teenager. By the time he reached young adulthood, he was a regular in Marion County saloons. Returning Vietnam vets exposed Boone to weed. While some locals were initially skittish about smoking herb, especially considering the condition of soldiers returning from the war zone, Boone loved it. By the mid-1970s, he was growing gourmet kush in the land of Maker’s Mark bourbon.
Boone would eventually serve 15 years in federal prison, from 1988 to 2003. Shortly after his release, he was found to be growing yet again; he is currently on the run.
Higdon’s treatment of Boone and what law enforcement agencies came to refer to as the Cornbread Mafia is charitable, on par with Steven Ambrose’s glowing and factually confused history of the industrial titans who built the Pacific Railroad or Richard Wolffe’s hagiography of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Except the Cornbread Mafia aren’t considered heroes by many people outside Marion County. Higdon’s book attempts to rectify that. The story of the pot growers and their bootlegging forefathers, he writes, is the story of “free spirits exercising their free will in the free market, the philosophical children of John Stuart Mill, maximizing their liberty with the least possible harm to others while at work in Rousseau’s natural state, which happens to be the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
Higdon is not without a dog in the fight. He is a child of Kentucky himself, and thanks to his access to Boone he became the first journalist to be subpoenaed by the Obama administration’s Department of Justice. His portrait of Marion County and its bootleggers, past and present, is a welcome rebuttal to horror stories about cocaine cowboys, the Wonderland Murders, and the Medellin cartel. Not all drug dealers are vile or malicious, and the ones who are certainly aren’t vile or malicious simply because they’re selling drugs.
Still, there are times I found myself recoiling at his attempts to excuse the lawbreaking done by Boone and his men. Charlie Stiles, a bootlegger and thief, is the county’s de facto leader—more so even than the mayor of Lebanon, the county seat. For Higdon, he’s one of the good bad guys: When he does bad things, he does them for Marion County. Like when he steals a semi truck full of window air conditioners and sells them to the Catholic hospital in Lebanon for a tenth of their value. Or when a local boy is seen doing donuts in the parking lot of the Catholic Church, and Stiles maims him with a shotgun to teach a lesson. (All the lessons in Marion are hard ones.) Likewise Boone, who succeeded Stiles as Marion County’s Robin Hood when Stiles was ambushed and shot to death by police in 1971, is, in Higdon’s telling, a good bad guy. Even though, in 1980, Boone and another Marion County grower nearly killed a Lebanon police officer, supposedly in retaliation for the police-led beating death of a Lebanon saloon owner six years earlier. Even Higdon’s suspicion that the real reason Boone attacked the cops was to distract them from the trucks hauling that year’s crop out of Marion does not tarnish Boone in his eyes.
Higdon’s portrayal of the growers in Marion County is exceptional not just for its charity but for its nuance. The county was originally settled by Catholics in the 18th century, and Higdon explains how the region’s Catholicism allowed distillers and pot farmers to distinguish between man’s law and God’s law. That distinction allowed for gambling and boozing, but not prostitution; violence against lawmen when they invited it, but never against the church regardless of how much the rector complained about criminal activity.
Absent from Cornbread Mafia is the handwringing and tearjerking that has come to define modern drug reporting. While Higdon spares no detail about the violence, corruption, and social instability that accompanies the growth of shadow economies, this is not a story about drug addiction. It is a story, Higdon writes, “of guns and piles of ammunition left unfired, of buckets of emeralds used as currency in Belize, of marijuana seeds smuggled from Afghanistan.” That, and “generosity, of brotherhood, of criminals carrying Christmas presents through the snow.”
Mike Riggs is an associate editor of Reason magazine.