Jerry Summers: Lem Motlow - 2 Strikes But Not Out

Sunday, October 18, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

To those of you who may be non-drinkers of Tennessee’s pride and joy in the Sour Mash whiskey industry, you still can relish the tales of Jack Daniels and his nephew, Lem Motlow. Their production is not only good tasting (I hear), but it is the financial anchor of Lynchburg in Moore County, where the history of the founding family is both colorful and controversial.

It is well known that the namesake and founder of Jack Daniels' famous beverage never married, but his sister, Nettie, married Felix Motlow and had four sons, among them Lemuel “Lem” Motlow, born in November 1869.

Lem worked for his uncle in Lynchburg learning the whiskey business from an early age and, when Daniels became enfeebled in the later stages of his life around 1907, he gave the thriving business to his nephew, Lem.

Motlow, who was 38 at the time, expertly ran the distillery and increased production and a reputation for good whiskey that allowed the product to be sold at a higher price (still does) than most sour mash whiskey.

With an effective advertising campaign that emphasized that it was the only distillery that used “pure limestone water” and “mellowed the product through hard maple charcoal” it was the beverage of choice for many Tennesseans (and still is).

Motlow over the years coined several slogans as part of justification for the higher price such as “All Goods Worth Price Charged” and “Every day we make it we’ll make it the best we can.”

When National Prohibition forced the distillery to shut down in 1920 Motlow started a new industry in Lynchburg which evolved into one of the largest mule trading centers in the entire South as a manufacturer and distributor of harnesses.

Tennessee had in 1910 voted “dry” on a statewide referendum and the manufacturing of the renowned Tennessee sour mask whiskey was banned.

As a result, Lem Motlow had moved the company’s distillery to St. Louis, Missouri, a wet state, where he could move a sizeable amount of liquor from Tennessee that he had already produced but could not sell in the Volunteer State.

In 1923 he made a tentative deal to sell his large liquor stocks to a St. Louis businessman. However, before the transaction could be completed Motlow was faced with two serious legal problems.

Under the laws of Prohibition, liquor that had already been distilled before the ban went into effect had to be kept under strict guard and a crew was hired by federal liquor agents to guard Motlow’s 1,000 barrels of Jack Daniels whiskey.

However, in August 1923 thieves in St. Louis managed to siphon away 883 barrels of the prized liquor to outside containers and the cache disappeared into the night. Motlow was charged with bootlegging.

He would later be cleared at trial by a St. Louis jury thus preventing the loss of the ownership of his Lynchburg distillery and other stiff penalties.

Motlow had a large team of talented lawyers who were able to convince the local jury that the Tennessean had been double crossed by his business associates and set up as a fall guy.

A second more serious event took place on March 17, 1924 which resulted in the whiskey proprietor being charged with murder.

According to some stories Motlow was under a great deal of stress from the pending bootlegging charge and started to heavily drink his own liquor products with some friends.

In an inebriated state he boarded the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) train back to Nashville carrying a pistol.

When a sleeping car porter named Ed Wallis asked Motlow for his ticket he could not produce one and Wallis refused him a sleeping berth.

Motlow became enraged by the man’s actions and, when Conductor Clarence Pullis tried to intervene in the argument while going through a downtown tunnel in St. Louis, Motlow reached for his pistol and fired two shots, apparently intending to shoot Wallis. Instead, his second shot hit Pullis in the stomach. He would eventually die in a local hospital. Motlow would be charged with murder.

Local sentiment ran against the Tennessean and the St. Louis newspaper gave the case continuous front-page coverage.

Although Motlow was having financial difficulties because of the ongoing Depression he was able to assemble and hire a team of seven attorneys to represent him, headed by Patrick Cullen, a prominent St. Louis attorney.

Lem claimed self-defense and the only eyewitness was the Black porter, Wallis, whose credibility was attacked through a crudely racist defense strategy.

Motlow claimed Wallis was arrogant and had grabbed the defendant by the throat and when he reached for his pistol “somebody grabbed my hand from behind and the pistol accidently discharged twice”. He was acquitted with the defense playing “the race card” throughout the trial and particularly in closing argument with the porter being described as a member of a civil rights movement attempting to increase black equality.

One of the lawyers who was approached but not hired was Pikeville, Tennessee criminal defense attorney Lewis S. Pope. Motlow became short of cash so he allegedly offered Pope stock in the Jack Daniels Distillery to be part of his defense team which the Bledsoe Countian rejected. (A dumb decision by a smart man!)

After being cleared of both charges, Motlow sued in the Moore County courts to reopen his distillery after Prohibition ended in 1933 and he finally got approval in 1938 to once again offer the thirsty citizens of Tennessee and America the popular Jack Daniels liquor in black (Old No. 7) and green bottles and the lesser-priced Lem Motlow Sour Mash.

To lessen opposition from the “drys” on the local county court, he ran for the Tennessee General Assembly in the House in 1933 and was successful in being licensed to distill in 1938, although his county officially continued to be dry (and still is to this day). After winning that position he was elected to the Tennessee Senate in 1939. With his political influence, Jack Daniels became a monopoly as the only legal whiskey distillery in 1947 in Tennessee. Ironically, Motlow, who had sustained a stroke in 1940, died that same year on Sept. 1, 1947, at the age of 77.

In 1956 the Motlow family sold its distillery interests to Brown-Foreman of Louisville, Kentucky, whose original product was Old Forrester Bourbon Whiskey. In 1960 the company first reached $100 million in sales of its products and in 2000 achieved $2 billion gross sales with its ever-increasing lines of liquor and wine products (Sorry Lewis S.. Pope).

Prior to his death Lem Motlow acquired thousands of acres of land in Moore and Coffee County and also bred champion Tennessee Walking Horses and regularly competed in the Tennessee Walking National Celebration in Shelbyville.

A son, J. Reagor Motlow, also became a politician and served in the Tennessee Senate. In 1969 the Motlow family donated 187 acres in Moore County to establish Motlow State Community College, which has expanded to several other campuses in communities in Middle Tennessee.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)  

Lem Motlow
Lem Motlow

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