How many revenuers are so famous for busting up stills and chasing down moonshiners that a fine bourbon whiskey bears his name?
Not any! But there should be. Throughout Kentucky, William “Big Six” Henderson struck fear in any man who ever thought about making an untaxed whiskey. In his 28-year career as a federal agent by the count of his personal daily record, he busted up some 5,000 stills and sent 5,600 moonshiners to jail. He became so famous that often shiners would paint “Big Six” on the sides of the barrels they produced. Some even named their children after him. There’s a Big Six wine being marketed about a fictitious bootlegger in the 1920s. It’s a made up story. The real Big Six would have had him in handcuffs before sunset.
Lots of kids in the ‘50s and ‘60s played make-believe games of cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians, but in the hills and hollows of Kentucky, a different version – moonshiners and revenuers – was popular. While the young boys were playing their games, girls had inserted Big Six into their jump-rope chant: “My mother told me ... to watch the still ... in case Big Six ... came over the hill.”
Eastern and south central Kentucky didn’t have the “still” business all to themselves. In the 1950s, Golden Pond in western Kentucky was known as the “Moonshine Capital of the World,” with as many as 15 stills running a day. Eventually, the Land Between the Lakes project led to its demise.
Big Six Henderson covered them all, from one end of Kentucky to the other.
A few years ago, the History Channel produced a documentary detailing the history of moonshine. In it they highlighted Big Six Henderson as the most legendary “still buster” in history, thus helping to cement his notoriety.
A Kentucky bourbon named Big Six would seem to be in order. Who knows how many of the stories are true that tag along with several brands of Kentucky’s finest? A Big Six bourbon would be the real deal ... well, sort of.
Standing 6-foot-4 and over 250 pounds with a thick shock of white hair later in life, and by his own admission, “I could run like a deer ... didn’t drink or smoke. Nobody outran me,” he boasted.
His bigger than life reputation developed from some of his own tales, and part of his legend was the fair treatment he showed to those he apprehended.
“I never regarded them as doing something evil,” he said. “Just illegal. I never abused them. Killed a few, but never abused them.”
“He was a great storyteller,” recalled former Bowling Green ATF agent Bob Bridgewater. “I went with him to a meeting where he was the speaker. He told about his chasing moonshiner days. Later when he was asked about the dangers of his job, he told the audience how he had once been shot by a moonshiner’s gun. But what Big Six didn’t tell them was he shot himself with the gun he had taken from the moonshiner.
“I told him later, ‘Six you’re the biggest liar I’ve ever heard.’ ‘You know that,’ he said. ‘I know that, but they don’t know that.’”
Big Six was born in 1903 in the tiny community of Saint Johns, a few miles from Elizabethtown in Hardin County. He died in 1987 at the age of 84, and was buried in Saint Johns Cemetery.
But what about that nickname, Big Six?
Many thought it was because of the 44-caliber pistol he was rarely seen without. But, during college and law school, to pay for schooling, Henderson pitched in a semi-pro baseball league. It was said he threw a baseball much like Hall of Famer Christy “Big Six” Matthewson. The nickname stuck.
In fact, it became so embedded in his name that by the time he became a U.S. Marshal, “Big Six” was part of his letterhead and signature in all of his official correspondence.
Big Six was always proud of his association with Cliff Hagan, long considered one of the greatest basketball players to ever come out of the state.
“My first memory of Big Six was in 1949, right after our Owensboro team won the state championship,” said Hagan. “He was the timekeeper. I had scored 41 points in our win over Lexington Lafayette and he came out on the floor and handed me the game ball. He said, ‘I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but I want you to have this ball.’”
Hagan’s friendship with Henderson grew and he even traveled with the lawman to visit Notre Dame about going to school in South Bend.
“Moose Krause was the basketball coach there,” Hagan said. “I also met Frank Leahy, the football coach. He told me I’d make a great tight end, but I told him no thanks, I’m a basketball player.”
Hagan said U.K. was the only college he really considered, although he did visit several others.
“I visited Eastern, and as a sophomore I went to a Western game. In fact, it was there that I saw a good player they had, Bob Lavoy, shoot a hook shot. I had never seen it before, and over the years, that became my shot.”
“It was the heyday of U.K. basketball back then,” he said. “When I got there, I decided to wear the number six. I had worn number 18 in high school, but Big Six was so nice to me, I thought six would be a good number since he gave me that ball.”
Hagan said he and Big Six often talked about some of Henderson’s raids.
“He told me that when he was on a raid and closing in, some of the moonshiners, if they had a gun, they would be going to prison,” Hagan said.
“Big Six was such a character, and sometimes he would embarrass his wife, Gladys, with all of the stories he told. He even had a handprinted necktie that showed me shooting a hook-shot. It was sometimes funny when he had it on and was around some people from Western (and would) put his hand over it to cover it up.”
His connection to Western was special, too. “It was about 1928 when I first met Coach Diddle, Big Six recalled in an oral history. I played against Western for L & N PanAmerican.”
For decades, his association with the school grew as he became the official timekeeper for Hilltopper basketball games.
Big Six thought so much of Coach Ed Diddle that on January 6, 1962, in recognition of Western’s 1,000th game, he personally went out in the Bowling Green community and raised 1,000 silver dollars to present to the coach at the game.
Tom Curley has been part of the High School State Tournament stat crew for 45 years, even being the clock operator for the old ABA Kentucky Colonels basketball team, and before that, several games at Diddle Arena while a student at Western in the 1960s.
“I was the first person in Louisville to ever run a shot clock at a Colonels game,” Curley said. “For whatever reason, in that first game, all of us (the stat crew) had to wear a tux.”
Curley will never forget the first time he met Big Six at the state tournament.
“I was scared to death. He was so intimidating. He’d show up in a coat and tie, wearing a cowboy hat with that big gun on his side. We had three seats: one for Big Six, one for his gun and one for me.”
Curley remembers how Henderson liked to engage the crowd, especially those sitting behind him.
“Later in his career, it seemed like he kept turned more to the crowd than what was going on in the game,” he recalled. “Sometimes as much as a minute would run off the clock when a player was shooting free throws because he was talking and not paying attention.”
Dr. Neal Garrison, from Louisville, grew up in Bowling Green in the ‘50s and ‘60s at a time when Henderson lived there and was the official timekeeper at Western games. His dad, Dick, was Big Six’s assistant and took over for him when he retired.
“He was actually my godfather ... very close to my family,” Garrison said. “He was close to lots of influential people, especially when it came to athletics, and he liked being a man of influence, too. He befriended a lot of athletes.
“Big Six was close to Diddle and Rupp (Adolph), and helped them recruit. But he was also real close to Moose Krause, the AD at Notre Dame. That was one of the reasons Paul Hornung went to Notre Dame.”
Garrison, with Henderson’s encouragement, also attended Notre Dame.
When Big Six died in 1987, Garrison attended his funeral in Louisville and then followed the family to St. John Cemetery for burial in Hardin County.
Big Six was such a storyteller that he once participated in the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee.
As an ATF agent and later a U.S. Marshal, the stories of Big Six became legendary, taking on a life of their own. There were a couple, however, that were a little far out, but still believable ... well, maybe.
“Dad played poker with General George Custer,” Big Six was quoted.
General Custer was stationed in Elizabethtown for two years, and according to Henderson, Custer tried to persuade his dad to re-enlist in the Union Army, but he refused. Six months later, Custer was killed at Little Big Horn.
Historically, the time frame Big Six talked about didn’t match with his story, but that’s not to say he wasn’t just confused on the dates.
Another story Big Six told in a 1978 interview involved his association with Babe Ruth.
“I was there when Babe hit his called shot,” he said. “I guess it was the biggest thrill in my life.”
It was the third game of the 1932 World Series in Chicago at Wrigley Field, in which the Yankees swept the Cubs 4-0.
“I was sitting up there in the box seats he’d given me,” said Henderson. ‘Course that’s why I was so fond of Babe.’”
Big Six would have been 29 years old at the time, and the interview fails to explain how Ruth and Henderson became acquainted. At the time, Big Six had been playing semi-pro baseball in the region and worked for L & N Railroad. Major League baseball teams traveled by train in that era, so there’s a chance their connection could have happened as the Yankees went from New York to Chicago. Big Six could have also crossed paths with the Babe on one of the Yankees barnstorming games while passing through Louisville.
Throughout his career, he collected several hundred prized bourbon decanters many given to him by legal distillers. Some were said to be one-of-a-kind.
Has William Big Six Henderson’s life reached “folk hero” status? There were probably several moonshiners in Butler, Barren, Logan, Warren, Allen, Monroe and Edmonson counties, just to name a few, who would never call Big Six a hero. But they knew of his reputation and all of those tales. Combined with what others said and what he said about himself, stories, embellished or not, have kept alive the exploits and legend of Big Six Henderson.
If ever a bourbon was named in his honor, he would probably be OK with it. It was the un-taxed variety that he had a problem with.
Get up, get out and get going! Gary P. West can be reached at email@example.com.