The Cornbread Mafia



  • The Cornbread Mafia : a homegrown syndicate’s code of silence and the biggest marijuana bust in American history / James Higdon.


Publication Info

  • Guilford, Conn. : Lyons Press, c2012.


  • 9780762778232 : HRD $24.95
  • 0762778237 : HRD $24.95
  • 9780762788439


  • 375 p.


  • Paperback
  • Hardcover
  • Compact Disc
  • eBook
  • MP3


  • Non-fiction
  • True crime


3Q; 3P

Reader’s Annotation

The Cornbread Mafia tells the story of how law enforcement finally brought down one of the largest marijuana-growing syndicates in history.


Marion County, Kentucky was settled by Catholic pioneers who were fleeing religious persecution. The distilleries they built became the cornerstone of the Kentucky bourbon industry. War and prohibition became the foundation of an outlaw culture. When marijuana came to the Bluegrass State during the Vietnam war, families whose livelihood had depended on bootleggers and agriculture learned to cultivate and market this new crop that thrived in the Kentucky soil. Local people had learned well the virtues of silence during the days of Prohibition, and law enforcement remained frustrated in attempts to capture the growers.

James Higdon, a local boy cum Columbia Journalism School grad, writes the story of the so-called Cornbread Mafia–how they came to be, and how the law finally caught up with them. In the process, Higdon himself faced possible arrest for aiding a fugitive because of his contact with then- and still-fugitive Johnny Boone.


Written in news-reporting style, The Cornbread Mafia contains lots of details–who, what, when, where, how much. The author shares news headlines, amounts of weed grown (lots!), and prison sentences handed out. The story is at its best when he writes about the people involved and gives us a glimpse into their way of life, their motivations, and their relationships. The final chapter gives the reader an idea of how difficult it was to get this story from people who don’t talk, and you can’t help but respect his dogged determination and research. Though written in a news voice, the story is not objective. The author’s opinions shine through in his respect for men like Johnny Boone, his commentary on the law, and his defense of the place he calls home. If you love true crime or have an interest in Kentucky history, you will enjoy this book.


This book tells the story of a unique piece of history from a little-heard perspective. It contributes to a greater understanding of Kentucky history.


Author’s page at Goodreads

James Higdon on Twitter




Central Kentucky News (a local perspective)

Appeal Factors

This book largely appeals to Kentucky readers, especially those who know the people and places in the book. It may also appeal to true crime readers and proponents of legalizing marijuana.


The Bluegrass Conspiracy, by Sally Denton. The two books share the genre of non-fiction/true crime and a Kentucky connection. Both also involve stories of drugs and government corruption.

Bluegrass: A True Story of Murder in Kentucky, by William Van Meter. Both titles are true crime stories set in Kentucky. The stories also involve questionable prosecutorial conduct.

The Origins of the Cornbread Mafia, by Joe Keith Bickett. This book makes an interesting follow-up to The Cornbread Mafia. It is an insider’s look written by one of the key members of the “mafia.”

Booktalk Ideas

Probably the most exciting way to introduce this book would be to tell about pieces of the raids where the law finally caught up with the members of the “mafia.” For example, pages 213 to 215 tell of officers arriving at Johnny Boone’s Minnesota farm hidden in a horse trailer, and the sounding of the alarm when a worker shouts “It’s a bust!” Men ran out everywhere, and some didn’t use the door.

Discussion Questions

Charlie Stiles was clearly a law-breaker, but also a philanthropist who did a lot of good. Why did the citizens overlook his criminal enterprises? How can we reconcile the two sides of the man?

Why did the growers continue risking capture, even after prior sentences and after President Reagan’s tougher laws in the war on drugs?

What did you think of the writing style used with this book? It is written in news style. Does the author maintain objectivity? Explain.

What is your opinion on the laws regarding marijuana and the sentencing guidelines?

Why I chose this book

This book was a book discussion group pick. Its setting is just over an hour from where I live, and this makes it a very popular book at my library.

Memory Hooks

Marion County, Kentucky; Lebanon, KY; marijuana; war on drugs

What happened next?

Johnny Boone is still a fugitive from the law as the three strikes law means a life sentence for him if caught. (He is now in his 70’s.) Other “mafia” members served their time and have returned home.


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