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.
Bars, breweries, and distilleries were shut down; drinkers were cut off from their much-loved grog as the Volstead Act of 1919 prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of booze with more than 0.5 percent alcohol content. Instantly, millions of Americans, unwilling to give up their favourite tipple, became theoretical criminals, and real criminals found a lucrative new way to make a living.
Illegal Liquor Trade Flourishes
Despite the ban on liquor there was still a large group of eager buyers so, of course, an equally eager group of sellers ready to satisfy the demand was created. The law of demand and supply.
Resourceful people found ways of bringing in liquor from outside the reach of American law.
In his 2007 book Rum Row, Robert Carse describes how suppliers used “vessels of all descriptions and set out from ports in Europe, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba, Jamaica, even the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, loaded with Scotch, rye, bourbon, gin, champagne, and brandy, and headed for the major cities of the United States.”
Much of the liquor passed through the Bahamas. Daniel Okrent chronicled Prohibition in his 2011 book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. He notes that in the two years prior to the alcohol ban, the Bahamas imported 914 gallons of Scotch. In 1922, the British colony found the need to bring in 386,000 gallons of Scotch.
Of course, most of the hard stuff was loaded onto vessels that sailed north to anchor offshore just outside the three-mile limit of U.S. jurisdiction. These floating liquor stores then sold cases to local entrepreneurs who ran it ashore.
Rum Row Opens for Business
The first liquor ships anchored off the coast of Florida and supplied rum from the Caribbean, giving the picket line of vessels its name “Rum Row.”
In his 2011 PBS documentary on Prohibition, Ken Burns notes that “William McCoy, a Florida skipper, pioneered the ‘rum-running’ trade by sailing a schooner loaded with 1,500 cases of liquor from Nassau in the British colony of the Bahamas to Savannah and pocketing $15,000 in profits from just one trip.”
(Some claims are made that the rum-running McCoy is the origin of “the Real McCoy,” because he traded in high-quality hooch. But, it’s likely the phrase predates Prohibition and probably refers to Elijah McCoy, an inventor born in Canada in 1844.)
A paper published by the State University of New York (2013) notes that it could get a bit lawless outside the three-mile limit: “Piracies and hijackings were so common that most captains and crews armed themselves … one skipper was bound and gagged at gunpoint and robbed of $23,000 worth of whiskey.”
Soon vessels were anchoring up and down the eastern seaboard wherever the citizens of a large city were thirsty. And, they all were. In December 1923, The Guardian in the U.K. reported on 22 ships anchored “off the New Jersey shore carrying a vast supply intended to cheer New Yorkers at Christmas.”
The newspaper told that “Mysterious lights flash signals to ships at sea, constant skirmishes take place between smugglers and prohibition officers …”
In small boats modified with powerful engines, bootleggers headed out to meet the bigger ships, load up with illicit hooch, and then run the gauntlet of the authorities to get their cargo ashore. Sometimes, barrels of booze were simply pushed overboard and allowed to drift ashore on the incoming tide for collection on the beach.
At first, getting the liquor to customers was easy as the U.S. lacked the resources to patrol its long coastline.
Beefed up Defences Make Rum Running Difficult
By 1924, the U.S. extended its maritime limit out to 12 miles and enlisted the Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy in the battle against the rum runners. Navy destroyers were turned over to the Coast Guard and their captains were not reluctant to use their armaments to sink smugglers who refused to surrender when challenged.
In an article in Popular Mechanics (June 1926) Austin C. Lescarboura described the enforcement program as being “so effective … the Rum Row off Long Island and the New Jersey coast, from which the bulk of the liquor landed near New York comes, has dwindled from as high as 101 ships at one time, to an average of not more than four or five.”
Ever inventive, suppliers to booze cans and speakeasies found new ways of getting their product to customers. Eventually, it became obvious to legislators that prohibition was unenforceable and the law was repealed in 1933.
- Winston Churchill loved booze; he loved it a lot. He drank champagne with every meal, kept his blood-alcohol level up during the day by sipping on Scotch, and spent the evening hours in the company of brandy. When he was booked for a lecture tour of the United States in 1931 he faced the unthinkable horror of going dry for weeks. An accident put him into the compassionate care of a Dr. Otto Pickhardt who wrote the following prescription: “This is to certify that this post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times. The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimetres.” That is almost six shots. Winston was happy and sloshed most of the time, which allowed him to perform at peak efficiency.
- Rum Row, Naples, Florida is an upscale development with homes currently listed in the $15 to $20 million price range. According to the Naples Daily News (July 2016) “By 2100, large portions of Naples and Fort Myers will be swamped” because of the rise in sea levels caused by global warming. The Rum Row properties will be damp and worthless.
- “Vessels Crowd the USA’s ‘Rum Row.’ ” The Guardian, December 12, 1923.
- “Rum Row: The Liquor Fleet that Fuelled the Roaring Twenties.” Robert Carse, Flat Hammock Press, March 2007.
- “Prohibition.” Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, PBS, October 2011.
- “The Battle of Rum Row.” Austin C. Lescarboura, Popular Mechanics, June 1926.
- “Rum Row.” State University of New York, 2013.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor