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Spotters and Piggers

One day in 1905 a stranger named Harvey Severn showed up in the town of Litchville, asking where he might find a drink — the state had been dry, by constitutional provision, since 1889. Severn got more than he reckoned for: some toughs from the town waylaid him and beat the tar out of him. They suspected he was a spotter for the Law Enforcement League gathering information to give to legal authorities. Which he was.

Severn got some public sympathy because he was an amputee with a cork leg. For his injuries — a broken nose and severe bruising to the hip joint attached to the prosthetic — he sued one of his assailants, A. D. Shaw — and won damages, but the settlement also provided that Severn should never return to Litchville, the scene of the crime.

Serving as a spotter — a traveling informant for the Law Enforcement League, the citizen association trying to get prohibition enforced on the local level — was hazardous duty. Nevertheless, the Washburn Leader observed early in 1906,

In many of the papers over the state, we see accounts of the good work done by spotters. A word of explanation here — a spotter is a sort of detective sent out by the prohibition league. . . . the spotters happen into a pig-infested town [meaning a town with a blind pig, or illegal saloon] as a hobo or any character likely to pass as a good booze customer, buys liquor, and gets enough information. A few weeks later Mr. Pig is brought face to face with Uncle Sam.

Later in 1906 came the election of Honest John Burke as governor and the appointment of state’s attorneys more in line with the prohibitionist cause. One of them was W. H. Thomas of Benson County, who allied himself with Sheriff John S. Aker against the blind piggers. Spotters commenced working Benson County to supply them the intelligence they needed.

When the law cracked down — seizing beer shipments in depots, closing blind pigs, interrogating prominent citizens, and shutting down booze-dispensing druggists, in Leeds, Brinsmade, Minnewaukan, and Esmond — that led to the composition by an unhappy rhymester of the ballad, “The Blind Pigger’s Farewell,” I mentioned in a previous essay.

The ballad, of six stanzas, is what we call a lament, that is, a tale of woe, speaking for the blind piggers put out of business. Its author is clearly riffing off of James Whitcomb Riley's poem, “Little Orphant Annie,” as each stanza ends something like, “And now he’s going to get you / If you don’t / Watch out!” A scan of its stanzas and meter indicates the ballad was meant to be sung to the tune of the common drinking song, “Song of a Gambolier” — which today we know as the tune of “Rambling Wreck of Georgia Tech.”

The song is a wonderful piece of historical documentation, detailing the deeds of law enforcement across the county and the rout of the blind piggers, its author declaring in closing,

And now good-bye, old partner boy, for yonder comes my train,
I won’t come back to Benson till my friends are in again,
You’d better follow me at once, don’t try to brave it out,
For Thomas sure will get you ’fore you know what you’re about!

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