November 23, 1862: Female smugglers in the west

Bininger's Old Kentucky Bourbon

The New York Times published a letter from before the fall of Holly Springs, detailing the capture of a group of women who were smuggling military materials from Memphis southward. They also appear to have been carrying letters conveying military information; the correspondent says they’ll be treated leniently, but it seems their conduct could be considered espionage. The other case mentioned, of a woman carrying a four-gallon jug of whiskey southward, seems more likely motivated by greed than Southern patriotism.

AFFAIRS AT MEMPHIS.; Arrest of Female Smugglers
Published: November 23, 1862

MEMPHIS, Saturday, Nov. 8, 1862.

Speaking of smuggling reminds me of a little incident which occurred here a few days ago, and which has caused considerable fluttering among the “secesh” hereabouts. It was nothing less than the arrest of four well-known ladies of this city, who were detected in the act of conveying contraband goods through the lines. The journals of the city, in mentioning the fact, declined to give the names of the parties, on account “of their extreme respectability.” Not happenings myself to possess such an overwhelming sense of the “respectability” of persons who engage in that sort of business, I send you their names in full for the benefit of such of their friends in the North as may be reader of the TIMES. They are Mrs. MINNIE BURR, Miss WINCHESTER, Miss MERRILL, Miss CREIGHTON. The chief of the party, Mrs. BUER, is a somewhat well-known, not to say notorious, resident of Memphis, who, if common report is to be believed, possesses considerable more liberality of disposition than prudence, albeit her personal charms would hardly have constituted her a rival of Cria’s wife, had she lived in the days of the poet king of Israel. The has been strongly suspected for some time of being engaged in the contraband trade between this point and the rebel lines, but for same reason better known to the authorities than to your correspondent, she has hitherto escaped molestation. The other ladies assert that they were making their first venture in this line when they were detected.

The four contemplated a visit to Holly Springs. Although all of them were residents of this city, and professed to be intending only a visit, they succeeded in obtaining from one of our Brigadier-General’s a permit to take out quite a quantity of “family supplies,” pledging, I am told, their word of honor that they would take nothing contraband. Some circumstances excited the suspicions of Col. ANTHONY that they did not quite intend to keep their word in the matter, and when the party reached the picket line they were stopped and brought back to the city. A large wagon which accompanied them, was found well loaded with military goods, cotton cards, masculine wearing apparel, salt, &., &c. After making this discovery, the ladies themselves were conducted to Mrs. BURR’s house, and two or three known Union ladies were employed to examine their persons. And here followed some discoveries worth making. Each one of the ladies was found to have concealed inside their stays, in pockets underneath their skirts, and in two cases even inside their drawers, a large amount of letters, papers and documents of different kinds, to the number of some hundreds, some of them said to contain valuable information. In addition to these, one of them had, attached to a gintle underneath her skirts, half-a-dozen, pairs of officers; gauntlets, and a quantity of military trimming for officers’ uniforms. Another had a sewing-machine, needles, culorciom, &c., &c., besides other articles too many to recount. The whole party were kept under guard for some hours, and finally released on bail, to appear for trial before the Military Commission. What their fate will be I am unable to say; but, from the extreme leniency with which similar cases have hitherto been treated in this department, it is not likely they will be severely dealt with. It is earnestly to be hoped that such an example will be made of them as will have the effect to defer others from continuing the same practices.

The amount of smuggling now carried on from this points is almost incalculable. The unrestricted communication allowed between this city and the rebel lines affords every facility for this business, and the great difference in the prices of a vast number of articles here and in rebeldom makes the temptation a strong one. Every day seizures of greater or less magnitude are made, and it is probable that an even greater quantity escape the scrutiny of the pickets. So long as the only penalty of detection consists in the confiscation of the contraband articles, it is not likely the practice will be checked. The difference in price is such that even if two-thirds of the ventures are unsuccessful, the remainder safely carried through will compensate for the trouble. Besides those residents of the surrounding country who come in here for supplies, and most of whom do more or less of this business on their own account, the city is infested with a swarm of Jews and other speculators, who have come down here since the opening of the river, and many of them are doing an extensive business in that line. Several stores have lately been closed by the authorities for this offence, but even this seems an insufficient warning. Many women are engaged in it, the peculiarities of their costume, as illustrated in the case of Mrs. BURR and her coadjutors, affording them special facilities for carrying it on.

Some other instances are related by the pickets. The other days stout negro woman, forming apparently the sole contents of a rather [???] top buggy, approached the picket and desired to pass out. The officer in command asked her to alight that be might see if she had any contraband articles in her vehicle. At first she demurred, but on his insisting, she slowly and with a good deal of labor descended and stood in the road with her feet very wide apart and apparently a good deal discomforted in body and mind. Her odd appearance led to further inquiry, and on investigation there was discovered suspended to a stout girdle about her waist a four gallon demijon of whisky. At least the boys reported it to be whisky, though I believe none of them saw fit to apply the usual test by placing their mouths to the orifice of the vessel. In another case a huge pair of cavalry boots were found in the same convenient place of concealment, each boot containing a bottle of whisky. These are only samples, the instances are innumerable.


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