Did Popcorn Sutton Have Cancer? Coming Clean With the Real Story

popcorn sutton in the tennessee mountains

Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Popcorn’s widow Pam once and for all about his health. While Popcorn indicated he was ill in his final days, he was never diagnosed with cancer. (photo courtesy of Sucker Punch Pictures)

Many outlets, including our own, reported Popcorn Sutton had been diagnosed with cancer in his later years, this is the real story

As someone whose newspaper covered the final trial of “Popcorn” Sutton, I don’t need Google to remember the milestones of the moonshiner’s final days. Today, we’re going to talk about a myth that’s grown up in the years since Sutton took his own life. It’s a myth I may have inadvertently had a hand in making. 

When facing federal prison time, legendary moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton asked the court to consider his illness. After Sutton took his own life rather than go to prison, the myth has arisen he was battling cancer. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Popcorn’s widow Pam once and for all about his health. While Popcorn indicated he was ill in his final days, he was never diagnosed with cancer.

Popcorn Sutton
Facing prison time, Popcorn forever cemented his legendary lawbreaker status and decided to go out on his own terms (photo courtesy of Sucker Punch Pictures)

Did Popcorn Sutton have cancer? 

He did not. At the celebration of the partnership between Ole Smoky Moonshine and the Sutton estate, I asked Pam the question directly. She confirmed Sutton had not been diagnosed with cancer. He had indicated he was ill to the court but had never claimed cancer.  

After years of officials in authority looking past Sutton’s lawless ways, things got serious. Sutton had been running moonshine in the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina for decades. He’d had a few brushes with the law over the years but for the most part, operated as something of an open secret. Towards the last decade of his life, Sutton essentially flaunted his operation in law enforcement’s face. There were popular videos and books about his life and his “likker.” How open was Popcorn about making moonshine? The New York Times wrote about him, so pretty open. 

By the time authorities busted him with somewhere in the vicinity of 900 gallons of illegal moonshine in two states, he was a legend. A brilliant self-marketer, Sutton looked and sounded the part of a mountain moonshiner. He wore a long, scraggly beard and was frequently seen in his “overhauls.” His fedora-style hat was complete with a “coon pecker bone” attached to the front. He had a reedy voice and talked in the vernacular of the mountain folk with a liberal application of curses. Sutton was a natural in front of the camera and was in multiple documentary-style films. He was – toward the end of his life – an unlikely underground folk hero of sorts. 

But ultimately, Judge Ronnie Greer sentenced him to serve 18 months in federal prison. Rather than report to prison, he got in his car and took his own life via carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 62. 

Popcorn’s legacy today

In the weeks, months and years after Popcorn’s death, there were several attempts to bring his moonshine to market. After a change of the law, legal moonshine distilleries became and thing and suddenly and posthumously, Popcorn was in demand. However, those efforts never quite got a foothold. 

Enter Joe Baker. Baker – the founder of the massively successful Ole Smoky Moonshine – has family roots that run deep into the East Tennessee hills. Over the years he’s built a reputation for building a successful business that manages to honor the region’s history without exploiting it. And so, he’s built a partnership with Sutton’s widow that appears strong enough to last. For whatever complications his legacy may bring, Popcorn Sutton’s reputation for being the best moonshine maker in the region lingered. The fact that Pam and Popcorn’s running buddy and partner JB Rader attest to the quality carries a lot of weight.

Pam sutton and joe baker at the sutton home in newport tn
Pam Sutton and Joe Baker are bringing Popcorn’s original recipe to Ole Smoky (photo courtesy of Ole Smoky)

Is Popcorn’s moonshine the best?

Is Popcorn’s moonshine the best? It’s hard for me to say. As a local, I quite frankly turned my nose up at the commercial moonshine operations for quite some time. I’ve got a guy who has a guy and I can get “real” moonshine whenever I want. That being said, I’m not sure my moonshine palate is that sophisticated. I’ve never done the Pepsi moonshine taste test, as it were, and I don’t have any stash of moonshine that Popcorn made before he died. I guess that Popcorn made the good stuff, but his knack as a marketer fluffed his reputation somewhat. Was he the best? The consensus is that he was very good, I think we’ll leave it at that. 

In summary, Popcorn Sutton was a legendary moonshiner whose legacy lives on through a series of books and documentaries. It lives on through a partnership between a legal Smoky Mountain Moonshine distillery and his widow Pam. It’s a legacy that still draws attention and questions to this day. Questions that include whether he had cancer when he took his one life in 2009. That, at least, is one piece of his legacy we can definitively answer. He did not. 


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