Almost everyone who grew up in and around Cocke County, Tennessee is familiar with the legend of Popcorn Sutton. Some view him as a folk hero, others as a criminal. Still, his name is synonymous with one of the county’s greatest claims to fame: Real mountain moonshine. Born in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, he came from a long line of bootleggers and considered moonshining his birth rite. He learned to make moonshine at an early age. He honed the perfection of the craft, much like his father and grandfather had before him.
But he was also known for being convicted of crimes related to moonshining and illegal firearm possession. Since his passing, his fame has only become more widespread with a new whiskey company that bears his name and numerous mentions on Discovery Channel’s popular show “Moonshiners”.
The Popcorn Sutton documentaries
While Sutton made his career out of this illegal trade, his rise to massive fame didn’t happen until he was about 60 years old. Sutton appeared in several documentaries including “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make” (featured below). According to filmmaker Neal Hutcheson, Sutton remains an intriguing figure. Hutcheson’s coffee table book-style biography, “The Moonshiner Popcorn Sutton” is a glimpse into Popcorn’s wit, jokes and “hillbilly” way of life. The book also offers a better understanding of how the people of the region survived. How well do you know the legend of Popcorn Sutton? Here are six interesting facts about his life that might just surprise you.
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1. How did Popcorn Sutton get his nickname?
Popcorn Sutton’s real name is Marvin Sutton. He received the nickname of Popcorn after he attacked a faulty popcorn vending machine with a pool cue out of frustration.
2. What did Popcorn Sutton do in 1983? Did he go to jail?
This is one of the internet’s most popular searches about Sutton. But the real question isn’t what he did in 1983 – it’s about the many bouts with the law throughout the ’70s, ’80s and early 2000s. Throughout his infamous career, Sutton faced several criminal complaints and convictions for moonshine-related crimes.
The Newport Plain Talk, Cocke County’s local newspaper, originally reported the following arrests and convictions. In 1974, he was investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and charged with multiple violations. Later, in 1981, Sutton was convicted and sentenced in the Haywood County Superior Court in North Carolina for felony possession of a controlled substance. He received a five-year sentence. In 1985, he was convicted again for a felony assault with a weapon with intent, for which he received another three-year sentence. This is likely the event that spurred the internet’s “1983” search.
In 2007, Sutton was caught with over 650 gallons of moonshine by local Cocke County authorities. He was placed on probation. One year later, while still on probation from the previous charge, an undercover agent working for the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission discovered 500 gallons of moonshine being housed and produced by Sutton. This led to yet another conviction on many other charges. The charges also included tax evasion and transportation of an illegal substance. That year, his conviction led to a sentence by federal authorities of 18 months in federal prison – which leads us to our next Sutton factoid.
3. Is Popcorn Sutton still alive?
In a move to perhaps cement his legendary status for all of eternity, Popcorn Sutton committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning just days before his federal prison term was scheduled to begin in 2009. He was 62 years old. Sutton was found in his parked green Ford Fairmont with the engine running. His wife, Pam Sutton, whom he married just two years prior, had returned from running errands when she found him. His wife reported that he had once told her that he would do this, rather than go to jail.
4. Did Popcorn Sutton have cancer?
If Sutton’s prison sentence seems light considering his many crimes, it was in part due to his age. His health was failing. Months before his conviction, Sutton reportedly had a mental breakdown after being diagnosed with cancer. As a result, the judge had reason to show him leniency.
5. Where is Popcorn Sutton buried?
As only a legend would be, Popcorn Sutton was buried twice. Originally, he was buried in an isolated plot in western North Carolina near the graves of his parents. Reports vary on why he was exhumed and reburied. However, most believe it was either due to vandalism of the original site or a family dispute with his widow. Either way, months later, his wife Pam held a large public memorial service, which Hank Williams Jr. famously attended. Sutton’s exhumed body was transported via horse-drawn carriage to his property in Parrotsville, Tenn., where he remains today. Beside his grave is a marker that reads, “Popcorn said [f—] you.”
6. Did Popcorn have a wife and a daughter?
Popcorn Sutton married Pam Sutton in 2007 just two years before his death. Sutton also had a daughter by the name of Sky Sutton. However, she and her father were not very close. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, she and her father spoke on the phone occasionally. However, before his death, she had not seen him in years. Today, Sky Sutton is a published author, historian and genealogist.
Did you know anything about Popcorn Sutton that we missed? Let us know in the comments. View the web story version of this article here.
Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Sucker Punch Pictures for allowing us to use their incredible photos of Popcorn Sutton and his still for this article.