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How an Accidental Discovery of a Prohibition-era Bootlegging Operation Shed Light on Local History


Liz Publika with her "Baptisttown  & Prohibition" exhibition poster at the Evansville African American Museum
Liz Publika with her "Baptisttown & Prohibition" exhibition poster at the Evansville African American Museum

Back in January, I was invited to design an exhibition poster for the Evansville African American Museum by curator Tory Schendel-Vyvoda. The goal was to illustrate how the Victorian values of the 19th century influenced social class, social norms, and social beliefs — and how they culminated in the Race Riot of 1903, the most violent event of this kind in the city’s history. Plus its aftermath.


Interestingly, the initiative was kickstarted last summer, thanks to an accidental discovery of a Prohibition-era bootlegging operation hidden away underneath a bookstore in Evansville’s downtown region. The owners, Adam and Sam Morris, were renovating their newly-bought space when they came across what looked like an entry to a secret passage. So, they called in the experts.


Moonshine jug and glass found in tunnel at the Your Brother's Bookstore in Evansville, Indiana
Moonshine jug and glass found in tunnel at the Your Brother's Bookstore in Evansville, Indiana

At first, Schendel-Vyvoda thought that the Morris brothers found an entrance to an Underground Railroad Station along the city’s Main Street. After all, reports of such stations in the area exist and persist. But further examination revealed something entirely unexpected: moonshine jugs, parts of a still, and some dusty furniture that suggest a history of gambling.


Now, gambling and drinking were not welcomed by American Victorians who championed Temperance and believed that alcohol was responsible for destroying civil society. These beliefs overlapped with other ideas about race and violence, mainly that blacks were of a weaker moral character than their white counterparts and that alcohol only worsened their behavior.


And so, the idea for the “Baptisttown & Prohibition” exhibition was born. But before it was able to take shape, scattered pieces of information needed to be put together. For starters, the suspicion needed to be verified. And then there was the issue of historical accountability. Poor record keeping, racist interpretations of history, and ingrained bias were at play.


With the help of her assistant Daniel Griffaton, Schendel-Vyvoda spent months gathering information about both Victorians and bootlegging in the area. They interviewed descendants, collected oral and written accounts of events, and contacted scholars and researchers. Finally, they came to a surprising conclusion: the illegal practice helped bridge the race gap.


"Baptisttown & Prohibition" Exhibition Poster Designed by Liz Publika
"Baptisttown & Prohibition" Exhibition Poster Designed by Liz Publika

This was when I was brought in. My task was to help create a visual representation of the research; to demonstrate how Victorian ideas influenced society throughout the 19th century, elevated the perceived virtue of sobriety, complicated race relations in the aftermath of the Civil War and then the Race Riot of 1903. But also how drinking brought the people together.


Flyer for the opening of the "Baptisttown & Prohibition" exhibition | Designed by Liz Publika
Flyer for the opening of the "Baptisttown & Prohibition" exhibition | Designed by Liz Publika

The exhibition opened on April 7th. The poster, which was just featured in the “Mending Over Moonshine” article in Evansville Living, will appear in an upcoming PBS documentary, “Hoosier Spirits: Distilling in Indiana,” and will be on display at the museum until further notice, but you can check out the work right here, right now.



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