An Aunt Jenny Interview and Question Answered
An Interview with Aunt Jenny Johnston
The News Interviews Aunt Jennie Brooks. This Quaint Old Lady Says it’s Time to Quit Making and Drinking "Licker." Russellville, Ala.
Feb. 2 – In primitive days, on through the pioneer period and up to the dawn of a new century, man has flirted with the doom sounded in that scriptural tocsin – "The wages of sin is death" – but he can’t buck the telephone, telegraph wireless, airplane, automobile, and the American government of today and stay out of jail.
In her quaint dialect, "Aunt Jennie" Brooks, the little, old wizened "moonshine mother of the Alabama mountains" yesterday sounded a warning to the hillsman ‘wild-catter’ to lay down his illicit weapons of the devil and mark time to the clarion call of law. "Cause it’ll git ye!"
"Aunt Jennie" ought to know. She was 97 years old yesterday, and as she scrubbed her hands with soap from a skull ladle on the stoop of her old home near the government reservation in South Lawrence County, she said: "And I ain’t daid yit."
This little old woman of the mountains wasn’t moralizing, preaching, and handing out free advice to the general public. She doesn’t know anything about "Pussyfoot" Johnson, the world wide "dry" campaign, "Billie Jeems Brine," the Anti-Saloon League, and the organized prohibition machinery of today. She only knows:
"Hit’s time to quit makin’ licker, ‘cause thair ain’t goin’ to be no mo licker and soaner as the boys larn this much sense the sooner they’ll quit dyin’ off with thair boots on."
She ought to know this, too. Because "Aunt Jennie" has lost five sons, a husband, and a father and they all died in the same way – violent deaths, as "Aunt Jennie" put it, "All uvem with thair boots on."
Henry was the last boy to go. And the pathos of it all – he had hearkened to the intuitive wisdom of the mother – "quit foolin’ with licker."
"But the revenooers or sumun else got him just the same," the little old mother moaned.
Henry had lost a leg in one of his escapades for which, the country folk say, he served in Fort Leavenworth with "Al" Jennings after a man had been killed in Oklahoma. But Henry had quit wild-catting and during the war turned to his government, assisted in breaking up wildcat stills and was an active figure in rounding up slackers and deserters in the mountains of North Alabama.
Indeed, Henry had a commission as a deputy sheriff, owned $500 in Liberty bonds, donated to the Red Cross, and was a patriot, clipping a regular Patrick Henry gait.
"He was my last bit of flesh and blood," the mother said. He was killed less than two months ago by officers, it was claimed, although the mountain folk showed no little skepticism over the finding of his body and that of his horse. The officers said they caught him at a still, and that he had been the most notorious moonshiner in the mountains.
The country folk said "officers wouldn’t have left his body out in the woods."
Aunt Jennie is residing in the home where she was born 97 years ago, staying with Henry’s widow and three little girls.
She insists that her boys were given a hard name as "that Brook gang," and no matter whether they obeyed the law or broke it – they were charged with all the dark crimes and moonshining back to the Civil War and even beyond.
"I hate a coward," she insists even to day and is proud that all her boys "died like men with their boots on."
"But these younguns growing up here in the hills – somethin’ orter be done with ‘em so they’ll know bettern to keep on makin’ the stuff," she admonishes. "They ain’t fit to be moonshiner, law or no law, cause they ain’t none of these young fellers what’s got the old time spunk of their daddies. It jist ain’t in ‘em no more."
And the wonder of all – Aunt Jennie married a preacher. One of "them mishunarys" – Willis Brooks. She was born within sound of the howling wolf and had heard the war cry of the Indian.
Where she met him she resides today – on the old Biler Road, the former stage route from Huntsville to navigable water on the Warrior River.
Willis and a 13-year-old boy were killed by a mountain vendett in which Aunt Jennie implicates eight men.
"But seven uv ‘em been got," she will tell.
That was in the early part of the Civil War. Her home was burned and many other efforts made to drive the family from the hills. After years of a mountain feud, finally all of two factions of mountaineers were driven out by officers. Even Aunt Jennie was missing for four years. When the family straggled back, there was only two left to tell the tale – Henry, recently killed, and Aunt Jennie.
Beyond saying they died out west Aunt Jennie will not tell more.
"Ceptin’ they all died with their boots on and like men." -- Birmingham News
Aunt Jenny Johnston: Union or Confederate?
A Question Answered
The Advertiser, February 9, 1961
To Avenge Husband's Death...Winston's Aunt Jenny Johnston Reportedly Poisoned Yankees. Concerning the Civil War, Aunt Jenny Johnston was one of the most interesting characters of that period. Legend has it that her husband was killed by Union soldiers. After he was killed, it was said that Union soldiers, many of them important couriers, spent the night at her home, which was in the edge of what is now Bankhead Forest. Aunt Jenny is supposed to have gotten her revenge on the Yankees by poisoning her overnight Union guests and burying them in her backyard. No one will ever know if this actually happened, but it is known that many important messages, sent by couriers through the forest, were never delivered, and the couriers seem to have disappeared when they reached this area. Maybe Aunt Jenny was more of a Confederate heroine than most people realized. It is a known fact that Aunt Jenny's sons vowed they would avenge the death of their father. They found out who the men were who killed their father and did not rest until the last one had been killed. Embittered by the Civil War, Aunt Jenny always predicted that her sons would die with their boots on. Her predictions came true. Aunt Jenny herself died in 1924, reputedly to be 117 years of age.
The Advertiser, February 14, 1961
Writer Declares Aunt Jenny was Union, Not Confederate. To clear up the mistake in your issue of February 9 regarding Aunt Jenny Johnston concerning the Civil War. The writer personally knew Aunt Jenny and has been to her home many times, and she was a great friend of my father. That was in the distant dim past. Aunt Jenny’s husband and daughter were killed near her home and their bodies were thrown off a bluff right near her home. And it was done by what was then known as the Home Guards, bandits of the Confederate Army. The Union army had nothing to do with these murders, and Aunt Jenny knew this. My father, John R. Phillips, lived one year right near Aunt Jenny, having come to Alabama from North Carolina before the Civil War. My father and Aunt Jenny were the very best of friends, all their lives. My father, after being conscripted by the Confederate Army, escaped and joined the Union Army and served throughout the war. Aunt Jenny Johnston was never a Confederate sympathizer. She most firmly believed in the Union. The writer attended the funeral of Aunt Jenny Johnston. Her daughter-in-law is now living, and she is a good Christian woman. Please print this to clear up Aunt Jenny’s name, being accused of something of which she was most certainly not. Lucien Lowery Phillips.