The Tragic Way Legendary Moonshiner Popcorn Sutton Died

Moonshine — or the illegal production of whiskey — may be thought of as a relic of the Prohibition era. In the 1920s and '30s, when all alcohol production was banned in the United States, bootlegged booze was big business. Distilling spirits at home remains illegal to this day, though, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Despite those legal ramifications, one legendary moonshiner known as Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton persisted until 2009. Related to that, he died under tragic circumstances, NBC News reports.

Prohibition began with the 18th Amendment, passed in 1920 and repealed in 1933. Moonshiners like Sutton were once common in the remote southern Appalachian region where he lived — a hotspot for the illicit activity, according to the Appalachian State University Department of Anthropology. Born in North Carolina, Sutton died by suicide near Parrottsville, Tennessee, at the age of 62. 

Sutton was about to begin an 18-month prison sentence, his wife, Pam Sutton explained. "He couldn't go to prison. His mind would just not accept it," she said (via NBC News).

Sutton looked the part

Before Popcorn Sutton died, he made little effort to conceal the nature of his business. He typically dressed in overalls, with a vintage-style fedora over slicked-back hair, and a wild, salt 'n' pepper beard — like a '30s-era moonshiner traveled through time to the modern era, according to Smoky Mountain News. Sutton pleaded guilty to the illegal production of distilled spirits and possessing a handgun as a felon. NBC News reported that 1,700 gallons of moonshine were discovered between Sutton's property and in a storage unit. He also had a number of stills, firearms, and ammunition, among other types of moonshine supplies in his possession.

Sutton was sentenced to 18 months in prison on his fifth conviction. He had served probation in the past. Referring to Sutton, Museum of Appalachia founder John Rice Irwin said (via NBC News) "I think most people have a warm feeling for him, but he bragged so much about it [moonshining]. And then he got into it in such a big way. He wasn't just a poor old moonshiner trying to make a few dollars." His moonshine had a "mythical quality," as Mountain Xpress put it.

Sutton's notoriety and singular nature made him the subject of many books and documentaries, such as "Me and My Likker," ghostwritten with Ernestine Upchurch, per Sutton also granted actor and comedian Johnny Knoxville (Jackass) an interview shortly before his death (via Knoxville News Sentinel).

Sutton died from carbon monoxide poisoning

On the day Popcorn Sutton died, his wife, Pam Sutton returned home to find her husband unresponsive in his old Ford pickup truck. His cause of death was ruled to be carbon monoxide poisoning, confirmed in an autopsy (via the Winston-Salem Journal). Fittingly, he was buried in the mountains near where he lived in a pine casket he had kept in a room in his house for some time, per NBC News. With that, Sutton's decades-long run from the law came to an end.

Today, his stalwart resistance and adherence to the old ways of the region have made Sutton something of a folk hero. His legacy remains controversial, though. " ... [M]oonshine is a dangerous health issue and breeds other crime," ATF Special Agent in Charge James Cavanaugh said (via Mountain Xpress). "This has not changed over the years. The illegal moonshine business is fraud on taxpayers in Tennessee and across the country," Cavanaugh continued. 

Still, according to writer and East Tennessee State University faculty member Ted Olsen, Sutton, "embodied a kind of Appalachian archetype, a character trait of fearlessness and fierce loyalty to regional identity even in the face of personal persecution and stereotyping" (via NBC News). 

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.