Friday, May 6, 2016


Mahala Collins Mullins

This paper was originally presented at the November, 1974, meeting of the Tennessee Folklore Society by Saundra Keyes Ivey
Fisk University

The Moonshiners, published in 1895, described a well-known seller of Tennessee home brew as follows:

Betsy is a moonshineress, and despite the vigilance and the bravery of Uncle Sam's gallant army of revenue officers, she will remain a moonshineress, no doubt, so long as she is able to pour a drop of liquor out of a keg or a demijohn and count the price of it.

She keeps open house all the year round, and extends to the officers as well as other people a cordial invitation to visit her whenever it suits their convenience....She could not be taken out of the house without taking the roof off and hoisting her out with a derrick; and a derrick could not be taken there for the purpose, for she lives way up on Newman's Ridge, more than three miles from the nearest spot at all accessible with team and wagon....During the greater number of her waking hours, she sits upon a low bed, resting her feet upon the floor, a cask of the "contraband" always in reach from which she supplies the necessities of any who honor her with their patronage.She once sent her compliments to the judge, with the information that she would like to be arrested and taken to court, so that she might see him and something of the world before dying.

This gross woman (six hundred pounds gross) whose body measures nine feet in circumference, whose manners are as coarse as her physical organism; who violates law, defies officers, makes daily traffic of the "dark beverage of hell," is not without a spark of sentiment, a trace of those finer human impulses and aspirations which reach out toward the divine. Once every year, she causes her huge bulk to be transported to the cabin window, from which can be seen the graves of her five sons, every one of whom died tragically, and from this spot she watches the decoration of those graves with extravagance of beautiful wild flowers.[1]

  This passage is quoted at length for two reasons: first because it describes a Tennessee folk character of genuine interest, and secondly because it contains the seeds of much that has been written about its subject, Mahala Mullins, and about her people, the Melungeons of Hancock County, Tennessee. [2]

  "Aunt Haley," as she is known in Hancock County, was one of fourteen children born to Solomon Collins and Gincie Goins. Born about 1824, Mahala married Johnnie Mullins and became the mother of about 20 children, some of whom died as infants. An examination of the available genealogy for the Mullins family reveals a possible reason for Mahala's being erroneously referred to as "Betsy" in the preceding passage and in a number of subsequent publications. Mahala's husband Johnnie had a sister , Betsy, who married Alfred Collins. In the days of extremely-close family ties, an outsider might possibly have confused the sisters-in-law's names and therefore spoken of "Betsy Mullins.[3] Whatever the reason for outsiders' references to "Betsey," Aunt Mahala is well known to and always correctly identified by Hancock County residents.

   In the folklore of Hancock County, Mahala is commemorated for two things: the quality of her moonshine, said to be excellent, and the estimate of her weight, which range from 300 to 600-plus pounds. While the cycle of anecdotes about Mahala always revolves around these two items, several different motifs have grown out of the concern with her brew and her weight.

  In an anecdote collected for a 1966 M.A. Thesis, for example, we learn that Aunt Mahala Mullins was known in her neighborhood for two reasons - - she was a “bootlegger” and the biggest women (sic) in that section since she weighed almost 350 pounds. The federal authorities had tried to arrest her but found it impossible to do so because they couldn't get her down the mountain if they got her from the house. Her cabin was built on the Tennessee - Virginia State line and when the officers from one state came to arrest her, she merely moved to another part of the house which was located in the opposite state. When Aunt Mahaly finally died the neighbors had to knock the chimney out of the house in order to remove her body for burial. [4]

Inaccuracies in the anecdote are immediately obvious. I have visited and photographed the site of Aunt Mahala's log house, and it is not located on the Tennessee-Virginia line (although Newman Ridge is fairly close to the state line). And even if the house were so located, the anecdote itself contains the inconsistency of state jurisdiction's limiting federal officers. It is perhaps for these reasons that Hancock County stories about Aunt Mahala do not often feature the “state line” motif.

The anecdotes do, however, refer to Aunt Mahala's weight, the amount of which varies according to the informant. In the course of my own fieldwork, such comments as the following were collected:

 " My mother knew Aunt Mahala. She visited her. She saw her. That's first hand information.... And she said that...she weighed over 500 pounds. Uh, there's been guesses, and ...I doubt if they knew, because there wouldn't be any scales or anything." (Collected from a male informant, age aproximately 65, in July, 1973.)

 " Her weight was exaggerated. Did you get somewhere about 500? I can't be exact; but my aunt told me, who was Aunt Mahala's niece, that she would have weighed about 300 pounds." (Collected from a female informant, age aproximately 80, in August, 1973.)

 As the phrases “Her weight was exaggerated” and “That's first hand information” indicate, there is a concern in Hancock County that the facts about Aunt Mahala be reported accurately - even though these facts may vary from informant to informant within the county.

  The concern for the “truth” of Aunt Mahala's story stems not so much from a reverence for historical fidelity as from a desire that outsiders not misrepresent the county. Both as the home of the Melungeons and as part of Appalachia, Hancock County has long been linked by outside writers with slovenliness, violence, and the hillbilly stereotype in which moonshine plays a prominent part. The initial quotation referred to in this paper, with its reference to “a spark of sentiment” in the “gross woman” erroneously referred to as Betsy, is an example of the negative asprsions which have been cast upon Hancock County by many writers.

   Some of these writers remain, happily, unknown in Hancock County, but the name of Will Allen Dromgoole, a Tennessee poetess who visited the county in the late nineteenth century, is still remembered with bitterness. In an 1891 article describing her visit to Hancock County, Dromgoole characterized the Melungeons as “filthy ... natural, 'born rogues', 'close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful, cowardly, and to use their own word, sneaky.” She concluded the essay with her judgment that “The most that can be said of one of them is 'He is a Malungeon,' a synonym for all that is doubtful and mysterious - and unclean.” [5]

  A natural resentment of such stereotyped distortions (and Dromgoole's article is only the first in a long series of these) has developed in Hancock County. This resentment is compounded by the fact that some of the most inaccurate and negative reports of Hancock County life have been published by writers who, like Dromgoole, have done fieldwork or interviewing in the course of their research.Unfortunately, some of the published materials labeled “folklore” are among the worst offenders in this regard. 

 In a 1937 Nashville Banner feature, “Lost Tribes of Tennessee's Mountains,” James Aswell wrote about the Melungeons and what he called “their legends.” According to Aswell, “one of the most striking bits of Melungeon folksay is the story of big Betsy Mullins, who from her cabin atop a razorback ridge defied the law of state and nation for twenty years.”1 At this point, Aswell is indeed referring to Hancock County folklore, but the validity of his article declines steadily as he goes on to explain that,

  At the beginning of her career, Betsy is said to have tipped the scales to a neat 600 pounds. Some versions of the story state, in addition, that she towered seven and a half feet into the thin mountain air and that she could “heft” a yearling bull over her head with all ease. When she sat to a light meal, she commonly downed a whole pig, hide hoofs (sic), and all. She could tear a firm-rooted pine from the earth with one hand and could splinter a two-inch oaken plank with her bare fist. Around her arm, she could bend a forged iron crowbar as an ordinary woman might wrap a length of silk ribbon. In a word, Betsy Mullins would have been a fitting match for that Heracles of the American lumber camps, Paul Bunyan.[7]

   The fact that I did not collect such information in the course of my 1973-74 fieldwork does not mean that the material should not be called folklore; even the beginning student is taught that folk traditions may decline or die out of communities in which they once circulated. Folklore likewise exhibits variation as one of its defining characteristics; therefore, the fact that Aswell presents ideas unreported by my informants might be explained by his having collected the material outside Hancock County, the site of my research. In fact, in fairness to Aswell it should be noted that he writes “Just where Betsy lived is a moot question. It is claimed that she was a Rhea Countian. It is also said that she was a native of Hancock, of Marion, or a half a dozen other counties. Even the name of Betsy's ridge citadel is a matter for hot argument.”[8]

   This quotation certainly implies a collection of more than one version of the anecdote, and I would be willing to concede that the differences in Aswell's information and my own reflect simply variations in time and space were it not for the tone of Aswell's material. So many phrases in his article sound more like a Paul Bunyan brochure than like any descriptions collected from any folk group whatsoever that I am forced to use the term fakelore, in it's most negative sense, to describe them.

   These fakeloric phrases multiply in one of Aswell's contributions to the 1940 publication of the Tennessee Writer's Project, God Bless the Devil! Liars Bench Tales. In "Six Hundred Honest Pounds," [9] Aswell introduces the reader to Betsy at a political barbecue,where she wrestles (and defeats) four men at once. As her prize, Betsy requests that she be allowed to sell gourds without interference from the law. The gourds are, of course, filled with whiskey, and the stage is set for Aswell's narration of Betsy's further adventures with the law.

   Several new elements enter this 1940 version of Betsy's story. Besides being introduced as a female "wrastler," during the course of this narrative she is allowed to grow from 300 to 600 pounds, and to progress from a mere seven husbands at the time of her initial appearance to 33 at the time of her death. Missing from this version is the erroneous 1937 report that Betsey's relatives managed to bury her by "wrapping her in great thicknesses of quilts and rolling her, inch at a time, down the ridge."[10] In 1940, Aswell describes Betsy's being wrapped in quilts and blankets, but this time she is lowered into her grave by means of a block and tackle that had been constructed by revenue agents in a vain attempt to bring her to justice. (The lowering of Betsy's body is accomplished, in this version, by her 33 husbands and assorted kinfolks.)

   To object to such fakelore is not simply to indulge in scholarly name calling or intellectual fastidiousness, for the material is objectionable on several very practical grounds. It is not just that fakelore presents erroneous information; folklore contains inaccuracies as well, as the widely divergent estimates of Aunt Mahala's weight make clear. However, the particular type of misinformation presented by Aswell serves not only to obscure history, but also to encourage sensationalism of the most misleading sort. If "Folklore is a key to understanding a way of life,"[11] as the preface to God Bless the Devil! asserts, it simply should not be distorted in this way.

  It is the distortions of Mahala's story which cause irritation and create a concern for accuracy within Hancock County. Outside writers' persistent reports that either a chimney or a cabin wall was knocked out for Mahala's burial were denied by several informants. One of Mahala's descendants explained:

" The house had a chimney built here on this end [draws diagram] which has partly fallen down now. You saw that, didn't you? And at the other end of the house, when she died, the chimney had not been built. It wasn't built. But an opening was left for the chimney. And this opening was boarded over to prevent weather exposure. Then when they moved her body out, they did take the opening out, but the chimney was not built when she died. [Emphatically] So the chimney was not torn down." (Collected from a female informant, age approximately 80, in August, 1973

  The same informant took pains to deny the erroneous statement, frequently attributed to her in newspaper articles, that when Mahala died, relatives "wrapped her in quilts and gently rolled her down the hill to be buried.[12]

" No, they carried her out....They did not have a coffin. She was on a four poster bed....They sawed the post off and boarded up the top of it, and that was her casket. In other words, they just made a box out of the bed, the top part of the bed."

  My informants were not necessarily angered by the failures of outside writers to report specific details correctly. The facts that writers often do not agree on Mahala's weight, often do not correctly describe her burial, and often do not mention that her excessive weight was due to elephantiasis may be overlooked, though it is felt by many people that such errors of reporting are perpetuated by writers' borrowing from previous articles rather than checking for correct information within Hancock County. (This opinion is given weight by the number of misleading published reports concerning the Melungeons which may be traced directly to the publications of Miss Dromgoole, but that is the subject for another paper.) However, such publications as those which mate Mahala with 33 husbands, or which refer to her as "Big Betsy, the she-devil moonshine queen" [13] are regarded with scorn.

An ambivalent attitude about the telling of Aunt Mahala anecdotes has therefore developed in Hancock County. On the one hand, there is pride in relating unique tales from the county's past, and the story of law enforcement officials' reporting that Mahala was "ketcable but not fetchable" is told with gusto. In fact, during a community improvement project several years ago, county school children made a sign bearing that slogan and placed it for the view of tourists attending "walk Towards the Sunset," an outdoor drama based on the Melungeon story.

  On the other hand, there is a justifiable wariness that the outsider may misrepresent the anecdote. While there is no sense of shame attached to Mahala's profession of bootlegging-- a picture of her seated next to a container of whiskey with a dripping gourd in her hand was shown me by a number of persons-- there is a desire that this fact be understood on the county's terms. Most of my informants sensibly recognized that moon-shining represented one of the few viable economic alternatives open to Mahala Mullins and others like her; all they ask is that outsiders share this recognition and not use stories about Mahala to stereotype Hancock County as a moonshiner's haven.

  There is a desire both to correct erroneously published information and to add to the record the information of "eye witnesses" and/or relatives of Aunt Mahala. One informant told me:

" My mother talked to her ...and even felt of her hands and saw her feet and so on...She told me she was one of the most beautiful women as far as her complexion. Her hands were so smooth, and they were very small and her feet were very small...And she said that she laughed and said "I make our living this way and they're welcome to come and get me." And they would go up and arrest  her, you see, and over there on that sign [the sign previously referred to] there used to be "gettable but not fetchable." She was gettable all right, but they couldn't get her out the door, you see." (Collected from a male informant, age approximately 65, in July, 1973.

A descendant spoke of meeting a woman who had, as a child, often visited Aunt Mahala. She said : 

"Aunt Haley was a very, very sweet old lady." And she said "She would give us gingerbread and something to drink"-- uh, not whiskey, milk [laughs]; milk or whatever she had.  They always expected something to eat when they went to her house. (Collected from a female informant, age approximately 80, in August, 1973.)

  From such reports we learn that Mahala Mullins, a kindly woman who suffered from a most uncomfortable illness, was neither the gross, insensitive creature depicted in 1895, nor the female Paul Bunyan of 1937, nor the "she-devil" of more recent journalists. As a true folk character, she remains the subject of anecdote and legend. She has found her way not only into newspaper features (for better or worse), but also into the fiction of at least two authors.

Mildred Haun's The Hawk's Done Gone begins with a reference to "Letitia Edes' Mountain." Haun's narrator remembers:

When I was a youngon folks would tell me tales about that mountain, how Letitia Edes wanted, worse than a hungry dog wants a rabbit, to grow bigger than any mountain she ever saw. She growed so big that when she died they couldn't get her out of the house to bury her. They had to climb up on the hills around the house and shovel the dirt on top of it.[14]

 Since Miss Haun grew up in Cocke County, Tennessee, and since she includes references to both Hancock County and the Melungeons in her work, it seems reasonable too suggest that Mahala Mullins was the inspiriation for this passage. 

  A more clear-cut use of Mahala's story is found in Jesse Stuatrt's novel 'Daughter of the Legend'. Even if it were not known that Stuart had visited Hancock County during the period of his attendance at Lincoln Memorial University, it would be obvious that he has based his character Sylvania on Mahala Mullins. Sylvania lives on Sanctuary Mountain, Stuart's name for Newman Ridge, where she makes her living selling moonshine. Another character explains that:

 Sheriff can arrest Sylvania all he please....But he couldn't get her outen the shack. Skinny said his wife hadn't been outside his shack for twenty years. Said she couldn't get through the door. [15]

  Like the real Mahala, Sylvania is complimented on the quality of her brew. According to one of her fictional customers:

When she sold you a gallon of moonshine you got a gallon of unadulterated moonshine and not two quarts of moonshine with a quart of water and a quart of carbide all stirred up
well and shook before drinking.

  Stuart deviates from Hancock County's version of the facts in several particulars, such as having Sylvania buried in an immense coffin built especially for her funeral. Despite such changes, Daughter of the Legend clearly represents Mahala Mullins' most extended appearance in print. 

  The consideration of printed and orally transmitted references to Aunt Mahala is significant for several reasons. First, these references perpetuate the memory of a colorful Tennessee folk character. More importantly, however, they provide a unique illustration of the complex relationships between print and oral tradition. The Mahala Mullins folklore found today in Hancock County derives not only from the traditions which surrounded Mahala during her life and shortly after her death, but also from the re-shapings of these traditions by outside writers. 

This folklore bears the stamp of such re-shapings in two ways. In some cases, erroneous phrases such as "They wrapped her in quilts and rolled her gently down the hill" have entered the narrations of Hancock Countians in an almost formulaic way. In other, more frequent cases, the incorrect information is not included, and such phrases as "This is a first hand account," or "So and so can tell you the real truth" have become equally formulaic. In both instances, the folk tradition supports one writer's assertion that "Death did not put an end to Betsy Mullins' phenomenal growth." [17] Though the name is wrong, the epithet is correct.

 [1]Henry M. Wiltse, The Moonshiners (Chattanooga, 1895), quoted in Joseph Earl Dabney, Mountain Spirits: A Chronicle of Corn Whiskey from King James' Ulster Plantation to America's Appalachians and the Moonshine Life (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974), pp.138-39.
[2]The Melungeons are a dark-skinned people, neither Black nor Indian, whose origins have been the object of both scholarship and romantic conjecture for nearly two hundred years. The best brief introduction to the Hancock County Melungeons is Henry Price, Melungeons: The Vanishing Colony of Newman's Ridge (Sneedville, Tenn., 1971).
[3]  In the 1850 census records, Mahala's age is given as 25, which would make her birth 1825. In the 1880 census, however, her age is given as 56, which would make her date of birth 1824. Mr. William P. Grohse, the unofficial and very well informed historian of Hancock County, informs me that the 1860 census gives Mahala's age as 36, while the 1870 census lists her as 45. Mr. Goins has been most generous in sharing his information about the Collins and Mullins genealogy.
[4]   Phyllis Cox Barr, “The Melungeons of Newman's Ridge” (unpublished M.A. Thesis, East Tennessee State University, 1965), pp. 18-19. In a 1974 interview, Ms. Barr (now Mrs. Gibson) told me that the folklore included in her thesis had been collected from oral tradition. She gave no information about her informants because she had promised them not to reveal their identities.
[5]   Dromgoole's findings were published in “The Malungeons,” Arena, 3 (March, 1891), 470-79, and in “The Malungeon Tree and Its Four Branches,” Arena, 3 (May, 1891), 745-51. Passages quoted are from “The Malungeons,” 474; 479.
[6]   Magazine Section, August 22, 1937, p.5
[7]   Ibid.
[8]   Ibid.
[9]   James R. Aswell, ed., God Bless the Devil! Liars Bench Tales (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1940), pp. 226-43.
[10]   Aswell, “Lost Tribes,” p. 5.
[11]   p.v. The “Preface” was written by William R. McDaniel, Supervisor of the Tennessee Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration.
[12]   John Fetterman, “The Melungeons, “ The Courier Journal and Times Magazine, March 30, 1969, p. 9
[13]   William Endicott, “Mystery of the Melungeons,” San Francisco Examniner, November 15, 1970.
[14]   Mildred Haun, The Hawk's Done Gone and Other Stories, ed. Herschel Gower (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968), p.5.
[15]   Jesse Stuart, Daughter of the Legend (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), p.33.
[16]   Ibid., pp.203-204.

[17]   Aswell, “Lost Tribes,” p. 5.

Also see  Mahala Collins Mullins / Jesse Stuart

Hat Tip to Mr. Jack Goins



  1. Too bad Saundra Keyes Ivey can't be sued for using "sensationalism" from newspaper stories and passing it off as fact. Shame on her!

  2. Hello Katy,
    I can't see where Ms Ivey was passing on those newspaper articles as 'fact', she did the opposite, with correcting the 'myths'.

  3. Great blog. My father in law's grandmother was a Davidson. Mahala was her g grandmother. I have his and my son's DNA done through Ancestry. We have had numerous Collins and Mullins matches. Please message me if you would like to touch base. Thanks,