Was This Great Woman Murdered?

There is a Mystery About the Moonshiner Who Weighed 560 Ponds


Mahala Mullins, the noted moonshiner of Hancock County, Tennessee and a leader of the mysterious tribe of Melungeons which have been a puzzle to ethnological students for years, is no more. The great woman - physically great because her weight was over 500 pounds - died under circumstances as mysterious as some of the incidences in her checkered life. Her whole life was a melodrama, with a few elements of farce comedy injected, and her end was tragic. Surrounded by her children, she met death in agony in her mountain cabin; and there may be not a few about Sneedville, the nearest considerable settlement to her home, who assert that her death was not due to natural causes, but that she was poisoned by rivals in the illegitimate business of making moonshine whisky which she carried on.

Her life bagan in the cumberland Mountains, in Hancock county, and ended there. But for her awful avoirdupois it would have probably ended in jail. The number of times that Uncle Sam's revenue officers have placed her under arrest have almost been legion. That she escaped the jail was due simply to her size. Revenue officer after revenue officer attempted by subterfuge to coax her down from the mountains without avail. To arrest her in the woods where she lived, almost at the very peak of Old Baldy Mountain, was easy enough, but to convey 560 pounds of her struggling, resisting flesh down the mountain side into town was impossible.

The earliest known of Mahalia comes from Wal Stebbing, who conducted a general store in Sneedville in 1840. He remembers distinctly how Bill Mullins came into town, gloriously under the influence of "mountain-dew" and confided to a few friends as they sat about the whitewashed  stove in Stebbing's store that he was about to get married. He told them that the lucky woman was "old man Carley's girl." The wedding was not a very formal one, and when Bill Mullins next came down into town accompanied by a young woman whom he called Mrs. Mullins the marriage was an accepted fact.

A prospector who came over from Knoxville some time in the '50s was much interested in the tribe, and he learned in a general way that the Melungeons had lived in the mountains as far back as the memory of the earliest resident of Sneedville went, and that they had always kept among themselves and that they had always made an especially good brand of "moonshine," but as to their history he learned little and their descent, ethnologically, still less, for word was passed among the tribe that the prospector was a "revenue," and one night his cabin in the mountains was set afire by someone, and someone else fired a shot that went through the prospector's arm. The next day he left town.

In the days when Bill Mullins flourished people in Hancock County knew him as one of the most desperate "moonshiners". He had numerous adventures with the revenue officers, with little gain either for them or him. His end came in 1879, in the winter, when Deputy Smallwood and his posse followed Bill's trail until it ended in Red Cross Gulch. Mullins knew that he was being tracked before the deputies were half way up the mountain. He sent Mrs. Mullins and the children out of the cabin and they found shelter somewhere in the wood. Bill converted his cabin into a fort and had it all completed when Smallwood arrived. He made a vigorous defense, but the guns brought to bear on him were too many. Besides, food gave out, and after two days, Bill surrendered. He was taken to the county seat, sent to jail, and there he died.

After the law had forgotten the existence of Mrs. Mullins - and the law down Hancock county has a very poor memory - she reappeared and set up business for herself. For many months she was not disturbed. The whisky she sent to town was very mellow and fine and that was sufficient.

It appears that the first attempt made to arrest her was in 1887. Deputy Maskill led the posse up the sides of Cumberland. They found little trouble in locating Mahalia's cabin, but when they arrived, all the little folks had disappeared. Mahalia was there, however, and she made no objection when the deputies searched her cabin.

They moved about very vigorously, however, and they found a section of copper worm in the hollow of a pine not far from the cabin. Maskill told her she was under arrest and would have to accompany him. Mahalia just looked at him and puckered up her nose. Then she told him that she wouldn't budge a step unless he compelled her.

All the deputies tried to do so. They took her by the arms and feet and tried to carry her out of the cabin. But 560 pounds of flesh is hard to move, even if the person it represents is quiet and willing to be moved. They tugged and they strained and, after a quarter hour's exertion, did move her as far as the cabin door. Then Mahalia objected to going further. A giantess in size, , she was also possessed of much strength, and she threw the officers of the law away from herself with ease. then the posse drew off for consultation. Maskill suggested that an effort be made to tie her hands and feet. He asserted that he was convinced that if Mahalia could be prevented from using her hands, her removal might be effected.

While the plan was being put into execution one of the deputies asked Maskill how he was going to take the woman down the mountain side, even if her hands and feet were tied. He hinted that if Mahalia's 560 pounds ever dropped out of the hands of the officers she would be sure to roll, possibly to her death. But Maskill was not to be frustrated by argument, and he insisted in carrying out his purpose.

What might have happened if the plan of tying her had been attempted is matter of speculation. What did happen was the sudden appearance of one of the children, a wild, unkempt creature whose love for her mother was that of a wild beast for its' dam. The officers paid little attention to the girl until one of them overheard her whispering to her mother: "I'll go tell the crowd." Then she ran, swift as a deer, from the cabin.

They attempted to catch her, but she escaped. Here, then was trouble ahead. If the Melungeons came down in force on the sheriff and his posse, the officers would certainly be overpowered. Maskill had planned to slip up into the mountains and arrest Mahalia and then slip down again into town before the colony of moonshiners on the mountain would know what had taken place. His force was too small to hope for a sucsessful resistance to the fighting members of the Melungeons. Maskill therefore decided to withdraw.
For months Mahalia was undisturbed. Various revenue officers visited the section, and some of them went so far as to declare her under arrest, but none ever made an attempt to remove her. They contented themselves with telling her, in a grave and as impressive manner as they could, that she was under arrest, that she must consider herself as a prisoner and prepare to be tried. For a while these threats really impressed the woman, and she desisted for weeks at a time from making mountain dew. But after a number of these experiences she became convinced that the officers would not attempt to take her away, and she continued in her business with impunity.

For the last few years she had been little troubled by the officers. she was becoming aged - at the time of her death she was just a week more than 75 years of age - and her activity grew less. Once or twice within the last year the officers visted her and destroyed her still, but none ever attempted to remove her.

She finally died in great agony, in a convulsion, with every symptom of poisoning. It is known that for some time past other moonshiners in the Cumberland have been envious of the woman and of her ability to carry on her work in defiance of the law, and that she was poisoned. No investigation has been made and none can be. If she has been poisoned, the Melungeons know it and the mountains will witness bloodshed, for the tribe always avenges an injury to one of its members.