During Prohibition, every city with any reputation had a legendary bootlegger. Chicago had Al Capone, New York had Dutch Schultz and Cincinnati had George Remus. Lexington had Ike Miller.
Between 1920 and 1924, when Ike Miller was finally sent to Atlanta Penitentiary, he was Lexington’s most prominent bootlegger. Miller was the supplier of much of the illegal booze in Lexington and Central Kentucky during this time frame. He specialized in high quality Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, obtained illegally from the distilleries in the surround area. During this four year period, Miller’s activities were the constant source of newspaper articles, rumors and tales of legendary feats. Prohibition agents called him the “bootlegger king” of Lexington and one of “the most flagrant violators of prohibition laws in the state.”
Part One – Ike Miller:
Isaac “Ike” Miller was born in 1883 in Bardstown, Kentucky. In 1916, he moved to Lexington and purchased a sizeable stock farm on Versailles Road. The farm was located two miles west of the city limits (at stop #9 on the Lexington and Versailles Interurban) and was the former site of Camp Stanley. Camp Stanley was an Army training camp during the First World War. His farm contained over two hundred sixty acres, which would later be developed into the Oxford Circle subdivision.
Before Prohibition, Miller appeared to be a wealthy farmer, with interests in horses and cattle. He was never “in trouble” with the law and had no criminal record. He was well connected socially and the Miller farm was know for its hospitality.
After the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919, he entered the newly illegal whiskey business. He appears motivated by part adventure and part opportunist. His enterprise quickly attracted the attention of the Federal Prohibition Bureau, who raided his farm and arrested Miller a number of times for violation of Volstead Act. These activities made headlines in the local newspapers.
Flour Sack Whiskey:
During the summer of 1920, Prohibition agents noted an increase in seizures of whiskey concealed in burlap sacks. Under normal observation, these burlap sacks appeared to be simple sacks of flour. However, closer inspection showed that each contained a wooden case with twelve quarts of bourbon (each bottle individually wrapped in newspaper to eliminate rattles). These cases bore the labels of D. L. Moore, Frankfort and Belle of Anderson whiskey. These distilleries were all small concerns located around Central Kentucky, which had been acquired by during the past few months by “mysterious” investors for cash.
Later in the fall of 1920, Director Sam Collins, head of the Federal Prohibition Bureau in Lexington, launched an investigation into these flour sacks. After two months, Miller became the prime suspect. He was followed for several weeks and was observed unloading burlap sacks at several “soft drink” stands on Limestone. It was also noted that his large Cadillac Touring Car had the rear seats removed (to smuggle whiskey under a tarp).
At dark, on January 2, 1921, Federal agents, backed up by the Lexington City Police, raided Miller’s farm on Versailles Road. The agents found that Miller was not home at the time. However, the agents conducted a search of the farm and discovered seventy-five cases of whiskey hidden under a tarp in the old carriage house. The Frankfort Distillery distilled this contraband whiskey. Twenty-five cases were packed in flour sacks, bottles individually wrapped. In Miller’s basement, the agents discovered thirty empty whiskey cases and burnt remains in the fireplace.
Federal officials alleged that Miller’s farm was a “blind pig” or supply depot for local bootleggers. The seventy-five cases were valued at between $16,000 and $18,000. A warrant was issued for Miller and the agents continued the investigation into the source of the whiskey. Later, Miller turned himself in and plead guilty to possession of whiskey. He was fined $100. This was his first Prohibition conviction. [i]
Battle of Jersey Street:
Witnesses noted that on Tuesday night, June 28, 1921, at about 10:30 pm, a Chandler Touring Car, with four occupants, parked on Jersey Street, near Pine Street. The automobile had no license plate. The four men left the car and waited on the street. About 11:00 pm, another automobile, a Cadillac with two occupants, stopped about a half block away. The two groups met and talked for roughly ten minutes. Suddenly pistol shots - police estimated between ten and fifteen rounds - were exchanged between the two groups. Half the men raced away in the automobiles, and the other three fled on foot (one down Maxwell Street and two down South Upper). The newspaper started calling the fusillade the “Battle of Jersey Street.”
The next morning, Lexington City Police received a report of an abandoned car on Stone Road, near Nicholasville Road, about two miles from Lexington. A motorcycle officer investigated and found a Cadillac Touring Car – License #41864 - pulled off the road, with the front seat covered in blood and a number of bullet holes in the back end. The police quickly traced the owner, who indicated that he had recently sold the vehicle to Miller. No transfer of the vehicle was recorded.
Two hours later, Miller was located by police at the St. Joseph Hospital with two gunshot wounds (to the shoulder and arm). These wounds were not serious and Miller would leave the hospital after a week. The previous night, Dr. David Barrow had taken Miller to the hospital after treating his injuries. Miller was registered under the name William Brown. Miller refused to answer questions, saying, “I’m too sick.” An investigation was started under Chief J. J. Reagan, and Sheriff J. Waller Rodes, into the events on Jersey Street. The investigation quickly identified Walter Nelson as the passenger in Miller’s car, but the police were unable to locate him.[ii]
Meanwhile, the local newspapers began a series of stories titled “Who Shot Ike Miller.” Miller became a folk hero for his bootlegging activities and his refusal to talk.
On July 2, Miller was charged with transferring a vehicle without registering and having improper tags on his automobile. The tags on the Cadillac belonged to a Lexington Motor Car, also owned by Miller. This violation usually carried a $10 to $100 fine, if prosecuted. However, the police refused to release the Cadillac until Miller cooperated with authorities. On July 4, Miller was released and returned to his farm to recuperate.[iii]
On July 9, Miller appeared at the courthouse and posted a $200 bond on the vehicle title charge and $1,500 bond to retrieve his automobile. He also obtained new tags for his automobile at the cost of $18.98. The newspaper started another “Who Shot Ike Miller” article with:
“With a bright new pair of license tags adorning his car, Isaac (“Ike”) Miller, farmer and stockman, sitting almost exactly where stains of blood still could be seen, yesterday morning drove his bullet riddled and battered Cadillac automobile from police headquarters to his home on Versailles Pike.”
“On Miller’s face was a smile. In the hands of police was an order of delivery signed by the Fayette Circuit Clerk, John Carter, directing that the machine be turned over to Miller. And thus ended the imprisonment of an automobile which has been kept as hostage since the mysterious gun fight occurred on Jersey Street the night of Tuesday, June 28.”
Miller also granted an interview to the reporter, and indicated:
“This is the truth. I don’t mind telling you about it, I was on my way home that Tuesday night, turned my machine into Maxwell Street and then started down Jersey Street when four men stopped me. They began to talk threatening, and when I went to slide my hand into the pocket of the car door where I had a revolver, one of them began shooting. He hit me once. Then he shot again and I got hit again. That all there was to it, except they ran and left me there.”
“No, I didn’t know any of them. One of them, however, I will not forget. He was the man who shot me. I saw his face and saw it plainly. I know it the next time I see it and when I see it, he can expect some difficulty from me. His face was full of scars. I saw them plainly.”
“Maybe I can add a few more to those he already has.”
“I didn’t have any money to amount to anything with me. I had left all the money I had on my person, about $2,000 at home the day before. I only had a small amount of money and they did not take it.”
“Those four men who stopped me and shot me must have done that (abandoned his car on Nicholasville Pike) – I didn’t. After they ran I attempted to start the car and couldn’t. Knowing that I was shot, and being unable to tell how badly, I got out and walked downtown to a hotel, and from there was taken to the hospital.”
“Well, I thought I might have a chance of finding out who they were. A couple of my friends tried to find out right away and I thought it best not to give my name (referring to registering under the name William Brown) until they done all they could. Before they had made much progress the police found me there (in the hospital).”[iv]
Late at night on July 2, 1921, while Miller was still in the hospital, two speeding touring cars were traveling though Shelbyville, Kentucky, when one crashed into a buggy. The wrecked automobile was loaded with whiskey, with some of the bottles broke in the crash. The whiskey runners quickly salvaged what whiskey that could be loaded into the second automobile. The second automobile then quickly disappeared down the road. Before leaving, the whiskey runners set the wreck on fire. The Shelbyville police traced the ownership back to Miller, who had purchased the vehicle a month earlier. When questioned, Miller indicated no knowledge of the vehicle. Shortly afterward, Miller went on an extended vacation to Hot Springs. Hot Springs were a well known resort for bootleggers, often with rival gangs enjoying the spa side by side. Later, Miller was cited for changing the license plate and paid a fine.[v]
Belle of Anderson Raid:
On Tuesday, November 17, 1921, Prohibition agents raided the Belle of Anderson Distillery, on the Kentucky River at Clifton, Anderson County, Kentucky. A few months before the tax paid whiskey at the distillery was purchased by a syndicate of men from Louisville and Cincinnati. Records indicated that five thousand gallons of whiskey was stored in the “free” warehouse. The excise tax had already been paid on this whiskey and it was stored without government supervision. Over the past few months, allegedly whiskey had illegally been bottled and sold without a federal permit.
Late in the afternoon, Prohibition agents from Lexington drove to the Kentucky River at Clifton, where they discovered that the ferry was closed due to high water. The agents then secured a rowboat and crossed the river to the distillery. The agents were spotted and one of the bootleggers fired six shots in the air as a warning. The agents blocked the road and forced an escaping Touring Car to stop, while some of the bootleggers escaped on foot. Agents found two Reo motor trucks loaded with seventy-five cases of whiskey on each in the distillery yard. The trucks had Ohio licenses and were waiting for darkness to leave. Another fifty cases were discovered in the harness room and three hundred fifty empty cases in the icehouse. All bore the Belle of Anderson label. Eighty to ninety barrels remained in the free warehouse. The agents seized the whiskey and arranged to ship it to Lexington the next day.
Six bootleggers were arrested and taken to the caretaker’s shack. In the shack, the agents confiscated thirteen thousand in cash and a register book. Fearful of the bootleggers still at large, the agents called the Governor’s office to request the militia to help guard the prisoners and seized whiskey. Later that night, armed guards arrived from Frankfort to reinforce the agents.[vi]
Prohibition officials were quoted that this was “the most audacious bootlegging scheme yet attempted in Kentucky.”[vii]
On Thursday afternoon, November 19, 1921, Federal agents led by Sam Collins again raided Miller’s farm and found six cases of Belle of Anderson whiskey in his carriage house. These cases were wrapped in burlap sacks, twelve quarters to each. The whiskey was valued at $1,440. Miller had been observed on Tuesday leaving the distillery in Anderson County. In addition, a listings of his purchases were recorded in the register seized two days before.
Upon reaching Miller’s residences, they discovered that Miller was again not home, but that his wife was ill in her room. Agents gave the maid the search warrant to take up to Mrs. Miller. While searching the house, Miller called and shortly afterward arrived home. While the agents waited, Mrs. Miller had dinner prepared for them. He was cited for possession of intoxicating liquor and released after Miller gave his personal check for $2,500 for bond to the agents.[viii]
The next week, his trial was postponed until the January term. Miller left to see his mother, who was ill, in Battle Creek, Michigan. It was disclosed by authorities that records seized at the Belle of Anderson Distillery led to the raid.[ix] However, in January 1922, Federal Judge A. M. J. Cochran ruled that the search warrant was insufficient and dismissed the charge. He also ordered that the whiskey be returned to Miller.[x]
In early September 1922, Miller again ran afoul of the Prohibition Bureau, when Director Sam Collins witnessed him delivering liquor on Short Street. After spotting Collins, Miller attempted to escape in his automobile. After a high-speed chase through the streets of Lexington, Miller was arrested for possession and transportation of illegal liquors. He was found to have two pints each of whiskey and gin. The chase car was driven by Collins’ wife, who was driving when her husband spotted Miller. On September 27, 1922, Miller pled guilty in Frankfort to these charges. He was fined $500 for possession and given ninety days for transportation. This conviction became his second prohibition offense.[xi]
He was ordered to serve his sentence in the Winchester City Jail. Miller was transported to Winchester by Marshal J. J. McKenzie. While passing though Lexington on Short Street, between Market and Mill Streets, they met another automobile. Miller asked to speak to the other driver – saying that he was a tenant on his farm – and McKenzie allowed him to get out of his car.
Miller quickly jumped on the running board and the other car accelerated away. After a spirited chase, Deputy McKenzie forced the other automobile to stop near the city library. Miller fled on foot down an alley and escaped. He was found three hours later hiding in a cornfield on his farm. He was taken to Winchester to serve his sentence. The driver of the other automobile was not found. [xii] While in the County Jail, he was alleged to have supplied whiskey to the inmates and jailers.[xiii]
Whiskey Labels & Tax Stamps:
In June 1923, Miller and John McAfee were both indicted on fifty-three counts of violation of the Prohibition Act regarding the illegal use of tax stamps and whiskey labels. Arthur Bensinger, their attorney, succeeded in having forty-nine counts dismissed thought a legal technicality. The four other charges were consolidated and continued until June 1924 for trial. These charges were later dropped while Miller was serving time in Atlanta.[xiv]
On July 26, 1923, Miller’s farm was again raided by the Prohibition agents. During this raid, a gallon of whiskey and bottling equipment were seized. Then on January 15, 1924, Miller was again arrested by Agents W. H. Kinnaird and R. W. Easley, when a pint of whiskey was found in his automobile.
The grand jury indicted Miller on four counts resulting from the July 1923 raid and his recent arrest. He was held in jail and tried later that week in Federal court. At trial, Miller denied any knowledge of the pint and a friend of his wife, Mrs. Wade Hampton, admitted leaving the bottle in his automobile. The jury found him guilty of possession of the gallon of whiskey at his farm and was unable to reach a verdict on the other three counts.
The next week at retrial, he was found guilty on the other three charges. This was the third Prohibition offense making it a felony, with a possible sentence of up to two years and a fine of $5,000 per count. Judge Cochran sentenced him to one year and one day in the Federal penitentiary at Atlanta and fined him $20,000 in total.[xv]
Judge Cochran granted Miller sixty days to get his affairs in order before serving his sentence. After his sentencing, his creditors began pressing to collect debts owed by Miller. To help meet these demands, Miller requested Judge Cochran to reduce his fine and extend the sentence. The judge agreed, lowering his fine to $7,500 and increasing his sentence to two years. He was ordered to surrender to authorities on March 24, 1924. The court ordered his farm sold to pay his fine, but it was discovered that he had already transferred ownership.
While free, Miller was arrested (actually cited) for the first and only time by the city police, for violation of a traffic ordinance. He was fined $1, which he happily paid.
The newspaper chronicled his last day of freedom, reporting:
“Ike did not, however, forsake the streets and byways of his home city without one final tour of inspection yesterday. Throughout the afternoon, he wandered about the city, bidding goodbye to friends, acquaintances and associates. He took his last evening meal at a downtown hotel, and the repast was a bountiful one, after which he spent sometime in the lobby, shaking hands with friends.”[xvi]
Miller surrendered to authorities at the city jail on the March 24, at 11:40 pm as required. While waiting to be transferred to Atlanta, he volunteered to travel to Atlanta, unaccompanied, and turn himself in. However, Federal regulations required that he be escorted. He was held in the city jail for several days before an escort could be arranged.
After his release two years later, Miller returned to Lexington and died in May 1931, after battling diabetes for six months.[xvii]
Part Two – Patrolman Piercy:
In 1912, twenty-two year old Lawrence Piercy joined the Lexington Police Department as a motorcycle patrolman. He quickly became a local celebrity, posing for pictures with his Indian Motorcycle - wearing riding boots and gloves. His activities were reported on in detail. In May 1913, he was injured when his cycle was hit by an automobile on South Broadway. He quickly recovered and returned to duty. In March 1913, he shot and killed a fleeing burglar on South Upper Street. He shot four times, while on the run, and hit the burglar with each shot. In July 1913, he helped break up a burglary ring and in October 1913, he was noted as helping keep order during the “victory parade” after the State University’s football team defeated Cincinnati. In January 1914, he won a wrestling match with Ed Lewis at the Belle Meade Theater after a public challenge.[xviii]
However, by Prohibition, Piercy’s activities turned to pursuing the fast buck instead of enforcement of the law. In 1921, he organized a gang of “whiskey bandits,” who over the next six months staged daring raids and holdup on distillery warehouses around Central Kentucky. The heavily armed band’s operations also included cracking safes, kidnapping, stealing automobiles and armed holdups.
Patrolman Piercy, circa 1914
Southeastern Express Heist:
During the might of July 28, 1921, masked bandits raided the Southeastern Express Office on West Short Street. At about one thirty in the morning, roughly ten masked robbers subdued the night watchmen at the express office. Both guards were standing at the express office door when the bandits suddenly appeared. The guards were told “throw up your hands, damn you, or I will kill you.” The two night watchmen were then driven out Sandersville Pike in a touring car with three masked men. Then bandits dropped the pair of at the side of the road, about five miles from town and said “stay here until 3 o’clock and don’t leave or you might get killed.”
Meanwhile, the remaining bandits located sixty-four cases of bourbon on an express truck and thirty-six stacked at the back door. By about two o’clock, a truck drove down Sycamore to Second Street and then disappeared out Short Street.
The whiskey had been received just that night at around eight o’clock from the Dowling Distillery at Tyrone. The whiskey was to be shipped to Chicago early the next morning. The value of the whiskey was estimated at $10,000.
Around three o’clock, the guards walked back to the express office and raised the alarm. The police quickly launched an investigation and notified the surrounding towns to be on the lookout for the bandit’s truck. The police suspected an “inside job” and that the raid was “planned in detail.” The assumption was that the whiskey was hidden in or around Lexington.[xix] Forty cases of the missing whiskey were later recovered in Bourbon County, at the home of Thomas C. Barnes’ brother. Thomas C. Barnes was the owner of a soft drink stand on North Broadway. He was later charged with the robbery and released on $5,000 bond.
Late on the night of December 3, 1921, B. T. Wells, a wealthy Madison County farmer was abducted from his farm and later shot. Three men stopped at Wells’ farm and asked for a bucket of water for the overheated car. While helping the men pour the water into the radiator, Wells was kidnapped. He was driven to Clays Ferry and the men inquired about his diamond ring. He had left the ring at home. After getting out of the automobile on top of the hill overlooking Clays Ferry, Wells was shot in the base of his skull. After falling down, the men tired to shoot him again and then fled. Then, Wells wounded, but alive, walked a half mile to get help.
Tyrone Distillery Raid:
On December 8, 1921, at around 9 o’clock at night, a band estimated at twenty-five bandits arrived at the Kentucky River distillery of E. B. Ripy at Tyrone, Anderson County, Kentucky. The bandits arrived in four touring cars and two trucks. After cutting the telephone lines, they quickly overpowered two guards in the distillery yard. Both men were handcuffed, along with three motorists passing by, and forced into the plant’s office. C. C. Atherton, and another guard in the office were also quickly subdued. Atherton was the plant’s superintendent.
The seven were then forced into the vault at gunpoint. After giving them a drink of bourbon, one of the robbers said “we are going to break this damn Volstead law and bring whisky back” and “we are not murderers, just whiskey thieves, getting a little Christmas whiskey.”[xx] The vault was then shut.
Meanwhile, the thieves loaded seventeen barrels, ninety-five cases and four quarts of whiskey on the trucks. Authorities valued this whiskey at $75,000.
Eventually, the hostages were able to open the vault door from the inside and quickly notified authorities. Sam Collins, Prohibition Director from Lexington, contacted the police in all towns surrounding the distillery to be on the lookout for suspicious trucks and cars.[xxi]
It was assumed that the bandits split up on leaving the distillery. None of the vehicles crossed the ferry at Tyrone. One vehicle was spotted in Lawrenceburg, heading toward Frankfort. Two trucks were reported passing through Lexington after the robbery. One of the trucks stopped at a garage to have a flat tire fixed. The garage attendant noticed shotguns in the front of the truck and the cargo in the back covered. At about two o’clock, a patrolman spotted one truck, a Republic, at the Blue Grass Garage, on West Main Street. Before he could return with reinforcements, the truck disappeared. Despite all the roads leading from distillery being watched, the bandits escaped.[xxii]
The Kentucky Distillers and Warehouse Company offered a reward of $500 for each of the bandits apprehended.
The next week, L. A. Schwartz was arrested in Louisville for attempting to sell an automobile stolen from Cincinnati. Evidence tied the automobile to the Tyrone raid, as well as the break-ins at the des Cognets Coal and Piggly Wiggly offices.[xxiii] Schwartz agreed to cooperate with Prohibition agents and identified members of the organized gang. Authorities arrested Piercy, W. J. Wilson (real estate agent), H. C. Fain (truck driver), J. M. Stapp (owner Blue Grass Garage), J. W. Drake (soft drink stand owner) and Thomas C. Barnes of Lexington. Barnes was out on bail for the Southeastern Express robbery at the time. In addition, H. V. Lower and Waller Griffy, both Anderson County farmers, and Andy J. Settle, a Cincinnati mechanic, were also charged.
The week before Christmas was an unpleasant period for Piercy. While being arrested on the warrant for the Tyrone raid, he was found to have a concealed weapon. He was released on $5,000 bond for the Prohibition violation and $100 on the weapon charge. He was then arrested for the stolen automobile and again released on bond. Two days later, he was arrested another time for kidnapping and attempted murder in the Wells shooting. He was taken to Richmond and jailed until his trial. On December 21, 1921, he was moved to the jail in Lexington, after a mob of two hundred surrounded the Richmond facility.
Piercy and his confederates were later convicted. Piercy was sentenced to fifteen years in the state penitentiary. Police disclosed later that Piercy was the main suspect in the Ike Miller shooting in June 1921.[xxiv]
 During Prohibition, a number of saloons reopened at soft drink stands or as private clubs.
[i] Lexington Herald, January 28, 1921, page 1, column 8.
[ii] Lexington Herald, June 30, 1921, page 1, column 1.
[iii] Lexington Leader, June 30, 1921, page 1, column 6, July 1, 1921, page 1, column 2 and July 3, 1921, page 1, column 8 and Lexington Herald, July 3, 1921, page 1, column 3 -4 and July 5, 1921, page 1, column 3 -4.
[iv] Lexington Herald, July 10, 1921, page 1, column 3 and Lexington Leader, July 10, 1921, page 1, column 4.
[v] Lexington Leader, July 14, 1921, page 1, column 5.
[vi]Lexington Herald, November 19, 1921, page 1, column 7.
[vii]Lexington Leader, November 20, 1921, page 1, column 5.
[viii] Lexington Herald, November 20, 1921, page 1, column 8.
[ix]Lexington Herald, November 22, 1921, page 1, column 8 and December 8, 1921, page 1, column 8.
[x] Lexington Herald, September 28, 1922, page 1, column 4 and March 24, 1924, page 1, column 5.
[xi] Lexington Herald, September 28, 1922, page 1, column 4.
[xii] Lexington Herald, September 28, 1922, page 1, column 4.
[xiii] Lexington Herald, March 25, 1924, page 1, column 5.
[xiv] Lexington Herald, January 20, 1924, page 5, column 7.
[xv] Lexington Herald, January 19, 1924, page 1, column 1, January 20, 1920, page 1, column and January 27, 1921, page 1, column 1.
[xvi] Lexington Herald, March 25, 1924, page 1, column 5.
[xvii] Lexington Herald, May 30, 1931, page 1, column 5.
[xviii] Lexington Leader, May 29, 1913, page 11, column 3, July 6, 1913, section 2, page 3, column 3, October 26, 1913, section 1, January 29, 1914, page 5, column 5, March 13, 1913, page 1, column 5, March 14, 1914, page 1, column 4 and March 15, 1914, section 1, page 8, column 2.
[xix] Lexington Leader, July 28, 1921, page 1, column 7 and July 29, 1921, page 1, column 4 and Lexington Herald, July 29, 1921, page 1, column 4.
[xx] Lexington Herald, December 21, 1921, page 1, column 1.
[xxi] Lexington Herald, December 9, 1921, page 1, column 8.
[xxii] Lexington Herald, December 10, 1921, page 1, column 6 and December 21, 1921, page 1, column 1.
[xxiii] Lexington Herald, December 18, 1921, page 1, column 8.
[xxiv] Lexington Herald, December 20, 1921, page 1, column 2, December 21, 1921, page 1, column 1 and February 28, 1922, page 1, column 4.