It wasn't long after the first taxes on alcoholic beverages that someone began to smuggle them. The British government had "revenue cutters" in place to stop smugglers as early as the 1500s. Pirates often made extra money running rum to heavily taxed colonies. There were times when the sale of alcohol was limited for other purposes, such as laws against sales to American Indians in the old West, or local prohibitions like the one on Prince Edward Island between 1901 and 1948.
Women were also expert smugglers and transporters. Some would hide a flask in their garters and some attached bottles to their hips.
One of the most famous periods of rum-running began in the United States with the 18th Amendment (ratified January 16, 1919) and the Volstead Act (passed October 28, 1919). Prohibition began on January 16, 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect.
At first, there was little action on the seas, but after several months the Coast Guard began reporting increased smuggling activity. This was the start of the Bimini–Bahamas rum trade and the introduction of Bill McCoy.
With the start of Prohibition Captain McCoy began to bring rum from Bimini and the Bahamas into south Florida through Government Cut. The Coast Guard soon caught up with him, so he began to bring the illegal goods to just outside of the U.S. territorial waters and let smaller boats and other captains such as Habana Joe take the risk of bringing it into shore.
The rum-running business was very good, and McCoy soon bought a Gloucester knockabout schooner named Arethusa at auction and renamed her Tomika.He installed a larger auxiliary, mounted a concealed machine gun on her deck and refitted the fish pens below to accommodate as much contraband as she could hold. She became one of the most famous of the rum-runners, along with his two other ships hauling mostly Irish and Canadian whiskey, as well as other fine liquors and wines, to ports from Maine to Florida.
In the days of rum running, it was common for captains to add water to the bottles to stretch their profits, or to re-label it as better goods. Any cheap sparkling wine became French champagne or Italian Spumante; unbranded liquor became top-of-the-line name brands. McCoy became famous for never watering his booze, and selling only top brands. This is one of several reputed origins of the term "The Real McCoy."
On 15 November 1923, McCoy and Tomika encountered the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Seneca, just inside U.S. territorial waters. A boarding party attempted to board, but McCoy chased them off with the machine gun. Tomika tried to run, but the Seneca placed a shell just off her hull, and Bill McCoy's days as a rum-runner were over.
The Rum Line wasn't the only front for the Coast Guard. Rum-runners often made the trip through Canada via the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, and down the west coast to San Francisco and Los Angeles. The French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, located south of Newfoundland, were an important base used by well-known smugglers including Al Capone and Bill McCoy. The Gulf of Mexico also teemed with ships running from Mexico and the Bahamas to the Louisiana swamps and Alabama coast. By far the biggest Rum Row was in the New York/Philadelphia area off the New Jersey coast, where as many as 60 ships were seen at one time. One of the most notable New Jersey rum runners was Habana Joe, who could be seen at night running into remote areas in Raritan Bay with his flat-bottom skiff for running up on the beach, making his delivery, and speeding away.
With that much competition, the suppliers often flew large banners advertising their wares and threw parties with prostitutes on board their ships to draw customers. Rum Row was completely lawless, and many crews armed themselves not against government ships but against the other rum-runners, who would sometimes sink a ship and hijack its cargo rather than make the run to Canada or the Caribbean for fresh supplies.
On the government's side were an assortment of patrol boats, inshore patrol and harbor cutters. Most of the patrol boats were of the "six-bit" variety: 75-foot craft with a top speed of about 12 knots. There were also an assortment of launches, harbor tugs and miscellaneous small craft.
At the start, the rum-runner fleet consisted of a ragtag flotilla of fishing boats, excursion boats, and small merchant craft. But as prohibition wore on, the stakes got higher and the ships became more specialized. Large merchant ships like McCoy's Tomika waited on Rum Row, but specialized high-speed craft were built for the ship-to-shore runs. These high-speed boats were often luxury yachts and speedboats fitted with powerful aircraft engines, machine guns, and armor plating. Rum-runners often kept cans of used engine oil handy to pour on hot exhaust manifolds, in case a smoke screen was needed to escape the revenue ships.
The rum-runners were definitely faster and more maneuverable. Add to that the fact that a rum-running captain could make several hundred thousand dollars a year. In comparison, the Coast Guard Commandant made just $6,000 annually, and seamen made $30/week. These huge rewards meant the rum-runners were willing to take big risks. They ran without lights at night and in fog, risking life and limb. Often the shores were littered with bottles from a rum-runner who hit a sandbar or a reef in the dark at high speed and sank.
The Coast Guard relied on hard work, excellent reconnaissance and big guns to get their job done. It was not uncommon for rum-runners' ships to be sold at auction shortly after a trial — often right back to the original owners. Some ships were captured three or four times before they were finally sunk or retired. Plus the Coast Guard had other duties, and often had to let a rum-runner go in order to assist a sinking vessel or other emergency.
The Coast Guard emerged from Prohibition a new service, larger and more effective. Many of the skills they learned battling the rumrunners went to defend the U.S. coastline during the war.
Rum Running and Redemption; Dennis Lehane Delivers an Intense Tale of Family Ties, Love, Friendship and Loyalty Set in Prohibition-Era Florida and Cuba; Books and Authors
Oct 21, 2012; Byline: Adam Woog; Special to The Seattle Times 'Live by Night' by Dennis Lehane Morrow, 416 pp., $27.99 Dennis Lehane made his...