I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
When the United States banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol in 1920, lucrative business opportunities opened up for folks who didn’t have a problem with breaking the law. One of those prominent in supplying liquor to Americans in need was a woman called Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe.
The Volstead Act
According to the Ken Burns’ documentary, Prohibition, “By 1830, the average American over 15 years old consumed nearly seven gallons of pure alcohol a year―three times as much as we drink today―and alcohol abuse (primarily by men) was wreaking havoc on the lives of many, particularly in an age when women had few legal rights and were utterly dependent on their husbands for sustenance and support.”
Women and the Protestant churches joined in a campaign to rid the country of the misery caused by alcohol. The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement was formed in 1873 and began a vigorous campaign to prohibit booze.
The attack on liquor gathered momentum and led to the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution of December 1917; this banned the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes.” This led to the National Prohibition Act, which authorized the enforcement of the 18th Amendment and came into effect in January 1920. The legislation is more popularly named the Volstead Act after Congressman Andrew Volstead who sponsored it.
The act was a dismal failure and succeeded only in moving the liquor trade out of the hands of legitimate business and into the waiting arms of criminal gangs.
Shipping Through Nassau
The biggest market for illicit hooch was New York City, which is where a young woman name Gertrude Lythgoe worked. Her employer was the British Scotch Whisky wholesaler Haig and MacTavish.
Her superiors recognized that Ms. Lythgoe had talents that went far beyond toiling in the steno pool. She was given the job of setting up a trading post in the Bahamas, which was, at the time, a British colony.
She lived in the Lucerne Hotel in Nassau, a place that was known as the bootlegger’s headquarters. People described as “colourful characters,” which is another way of spelling crooks, racketeers, and villains, gathered there to make deals. The place was awash with cash, with Jim Leggett (Whisky Magazine) writing that “bar tabs were paid in $1,000 bills; and every barman could give change.”
Bahamians developed a massive thirst for Scotch whisky. In 1919, Scottish distillers landed just over 900 gallons of the good stuff in Nassau; in 1920, the first year of Prohibition, the shipments added up to 386,000 gallons.
Gertrude Lythgoe met steamers arriving from Europe to supervise the offloading of high-quality hooch. Then, she met with rum runners to strike deals. She had the best liquor and settled for nothing but the highest prices.
Bootlegging was a male-dominated occupation peopled by some very rough characters, but Lythgoe could handle them. One story tells of how she heard about a man badmouthing her.
Historian Sally Ling quotes Lythgoe as saying “Well, I found him in a barber’s shop with his face lathered and I just walked right in and told him I wanted to talk to him. I fetched him along to my office, and there I just warned him. I told him I’d put a bullet through him as sure as he sat there. He went away mighty quick.”
Once the liquor was sold it was loaded on to all manner of vessels that set sail for the eastern seaboard of the United States. The ships loaded with whisky, rum, brandy, and anything else that might cause a buzz in American speakeasies anchored outside the three-mile territorial limit. There, they waited for small boats to come alongside and load up with cases to be run ashore.
Just before Christmas 1923, The Guardian carried a report describing what had become known as Rum Row. The bootleggers had hired a pilot called Monty to fly along Rum Row and chart the positions of the “mother ships” so they could be found in the dark by people in small boats.
“Monty’s latest report showed that there were 22 ships anchored off the New Jersey shore carrying a vast supply intended to cheer New Yorkers at Christmas. However, little of this has been landed, and prices are soaring.”
Lythgoe joined the legendary William McCoy on one of his rum runs, with 5,000 cases of her finest Scotch to sell to New Yorkers. The sailor and the trader became close friends, with McCoy once describing Lythgoe as a “tall slender girl with black hair, a brain as steady as her own dark eyes, and a history that was nobody’s business.”
Lythgoe Leaves the Liquor Trade
By the mid-1920s, Gertrude Lythgoe had risen to high celebrity status in the United States.
In 1925, she developed a conviction that she was jinxed and was about to be murdered, so she decided to quit the bootlegging trade. In June 1926, The Fairmount News in Indiana published a story describing her as involved in a trade that “brought her Paris gowns and jewels as big as hen’s eggs, and the respect of the hardest-boiled bootleggers on the Atlantic seaboard―because she thinks her lucky star has set.
“A jinx has tracked her down from her whiskey throne in Nassau, through the most luxurious hotels of European capitals, through glamorous newspaper publicity, through hectic romances, to the loneliness of a New York hotel suite where she can hide from the world and recover her lost nerve and her health.”
Lythgoe faded from public sight and spent the rest of her life in hotels, for 25 years she was resident in the luxurious Hotel Tuller in Detroit. She worked on writing her autobiography; The Bahama Queen: The Autobiography of Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe was published in 1965.
Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe died in Los Angeles in June 1974 at the age of 86.
- In March 2020, Stillman Distillery in Klapmuts, near Paarl, South Africa released Gertie’s Premium Rum, named after Gertrude Lythgoe.
- It’s frequently said that the phrase “The Real McCoy” refers to the high-quality liquor William McCoy smuggled into the United States during Prohibition. The phrase actually appears much earlier and comes from a Scottish a reference to the Edinburgh distillery of G. Mackay and Co. The first printed version of the phrase is from 1856 and is “A drappie o’ the real MacKay.”
- Whisky is the correct spelling of the liquor made in Scotland. Whiskey with an “e” refers to the product from Ireland, America, and Canada.
- Sir Winston Churchill, a man noted for his prodigious consumption of alcohol, called Prohibition “an affront to the whole history of mankind.”
- “Congress Enforces Prohibition.” History.com, February 9, 2010.
- “Roots of Prohibition.” Prohibition, undated.
- “The Toast of Nassau.” Jim Leggett, Whisky Magazine, undated.
- “Gertrude Lythgoe―Fascinating Women of Prohibition.” Sally Ling, Florida’s History Detective, June 28, 2011.
- “Vessels Crowd the USA’s ‘Rum Row.’ ” The Guardian, December 12, 1923.
- “Former Fairmount Girl Craves Peace and Safety After Gold Strewn Career.” The Fairmount News, June 3, 1926.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor