March 1999 News & Comment for and by the Fishermen of Maine SUBSCRIBE NOW!!
Rum on the Rocks
by Mike Crowe
On the long list of government programs in the all thumbs category, prohibition was pretty much "can't get there from here" social engineering. It was promoted in many states by religious and women's groups and supported by factory owners who objected to their employees spending their money on drink. These "dry" groups, which included the Anti Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, got varying amounts of press in several states. From politicians with anti-saloon platforms to fringe characters like Cary Nation, a woman who barged into saloons at the turn of the century and chopped them up with a hatchet, the prohibition movement was frequently a hot topic. The roots of prohibition were in Puritanism, politics and the apparent need of some people to be always telling others how to live.
After a couple of false starts in the 1830's and 1840's, a prohibition law was formally established. Neal Dow, "crochety" tannery owner and mayor of Portland, Maine, forced through the divided state legislature, the country's first such law in 1851. It came to be known as the Maine Law and was used as a model in other states. Though it was not as rigidly enforced as the National Prohibition Law of 1918 would be, it was influential in building momentum that led to the passage of the 18th Amendment. This little ditty (the 18th Amendment), written and steered through Congress by Representative Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, led to all kinds of unexpected results, at least for the government and the drys. Some of these included an apparent increased interest in alcohol; a few years after 1918 there were twice as many speakeasies in New York as there had been saloons, women were welcomed at the speakeasy where the saloon had been a men's drinking place, the quality of liquor dropped, the cost of enforcement soared and civil liberties were often trampled.
On the up side, prohibition provided supplemental income for some fishermen who ran rum from offshore ships. Most of what was smuggled was whiskey, not rum. The liquor (whiskey, rum and champagne) came from Europe and the Bahamas, but most came from Canada. Canada was basically given a new major industry by our 18th Amendment and we got more government expenditures. Maybe that's GAO math for an improvement.
As more and more boats got into the business of bringing to shore the cases, bottles and tins from outside the 3-mile limit, the customs and prohibition agents could not keep up. After twisting the arms of the Canadians, French and others the limit was moved out to 12 miles. This brought the trip back from ships along Rum Row up to about an hour, thus making rum runners more vulnerable to the agents. While the feds were throwing their arms around each other in self congratulation for what they thought would surely hasten the end of smuggling, the rum runners threw their arms around larger, more powerful engines, sometimes putting two or three aboard redesigned boats. The Sterling Viking, a WWI aircraft engine, could develop 565 hp at 1200 rpm. The 12 cylinder Liberty and the 6 cylinder Fiat, also aircraft engines from WWI, were common as well. A pair of these 8 or 12 cylinder engines could quickly drop the arms of the agents into their pockets. Large drum silencers were used that almost eliminated the sound of the engine. And so, painted grey, these boats could not be seen, heard or caught. Being fired upon by patrol boats was a threat, so when being pursued, oil was poured into the exhaust and the inshore rum runners disappeared in to a cloud of smoke.
In the early years of prohibition a lot of people began smuggling from offshore; most had never been involved in an illegal activity. To the early rum runners, as described in some reports, rather than a crime it was more like an adventurous sport, a prank for profit. All kinds of boats would go out for a load of liquor. Row boats were known to have made the trip. Lots of fishing boats were used and the coast of Maine had more than its share of isolated coves where boats could be unloaded. In the very beginning the agents had only five boats for the entire coast of Maine.
The carriers that brought liquor to Rum Row were large converted fishing boats which could carry a few thousand cases. For the first two years of prohibition, customs and prohibition agents were the enforcement officers, but the task proved to be beyond their capabilities. Enforcement then became the responsibility of the Coast Guard under the Treasury Department. Carriers which stayed outside the 3-mile and later the 12-mile limit were relatively safe from Coast Guard intervention.
One carrier operator who became well known was Captain Bill McCoy. He was a seaman and fishing boat builder who got into the smuggling business early in prohibition. He had previously never been involved in an illegal activity. He bought and sold his own liquor, was no gangster and was not a drinking man. McCoy was known along Rum Row for handling good liquor and being fair in his dealings. It was said that if you got liquor from him you got the real thing. His liquor became known as "the real McCoy." The term has become an American slang phrase meaning genuine and on the level.
In his autobiography he claims to have founded Rum Row and to have been the first to run liquor out of St. Pierre et Miquelen, which became the most important point of departure for Rum Row. He is also credited with the inventing the burlock, a package of six bottles, padded with straw, three on the bottom, two on top of these and one on top. The whole thing was sewn tightly in burlap. It took up less space, was easy to handle and store. In addition, they sank fast when thrown overboard during pursuit. Conventional cases floated a while before sinking. These were known as sacks to the Coast Guard, some others called them hams.
McCoy was captain of a Glouster-type fishing schooner, which he put under British registry. Many carriers did this to protect against seizure. Eventually he had three boats operating in rum rows. Bringing rum from Nassau and whiskey from Canada, he made considerable money. When syndicated smugglers changed the business in ways he did not like, increasing the number and size of payoffs and threats, he sold his boats and retired.
As competition increased for inshore boats, the Coast Guard got more aggressive. Smaller operators were gradually forced out of the business, replaced by faster, larger boats. One of the new breed of inshore boats that did well in the business was the Maybe. Built at Southwest Harbor she was typical of the 50'-80' boats built for the trade between 1927 and repeal. The Maybe had 1500 gallon fuel tanks down below the sole, out of the range of bullets. Capable of 33 mph, she was a round bottom, flush sheer boat of 80' with a 16' beam and 4 1/2' draft.
Captained by a man from Pembroke, Maine, the Maybe had a successful life as a rum runner; but like all rum runners was subject to threats presented by the Coast Guard and others. One late December night, while being pursued by the Coast Guard the Maybe dumped a large load of liquor overboard in shallow water at Misham Point, South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. This, as it had in other dumpings or wrecks, got others involved in smuggling, including the local residents who found and salvaged the liquor. Stories of people finding liquor that had been dumped were not uncommon.
Another of the later inshore boats was the Good Luck. This 65' Jonesport boat was powered by twin 300 hp Sterlings with twin rudders and a silencer the size of a 55 gallon drum. It made the run from Jonesport to New Bedford in 22 hours. It was the kind of boat that presented challenges to Coast Guard boats off the coast of Massachusetts.
The Coast Guard was not the only threat to rum runners. In the busier rum rows off more populated coastlines, carriers were confronted by "go through men," who would come aboard armed and dangerous demanding payment. Syndicated inshore runners threatened, extorted or robbed other runners to drive out the competition.
Prohibition did not end drinking and it did cause a few problems. But it added a few words to the language: speakeasy, the Real McCoy, hijacking, home brew, bathtub gin (not made in the tub, but the large bottles of high proof alcohol would not fit under the conventional sink tap to be diluted with water so the bath tub tap had to be used), rum running, rum row and others. It generated many great stories, and for some, a good income. And it got more women into bars.
H.L. Mencken, a well known journalist of the 1920's and 1930's observed, "It is not often that anything good issues out of American politics. This time, they have been forced to be decent for once in their lives. The repeal of the 18th Amendment means vastly more than the return of the immemorial beverages of civilized man; it means, above all, a restoration of one of the common liberties of the people. It was as absurd and oppressive for fanatics and politicians to tell them what they could drink and not drink as it would have been for the same mephitic shapes to tell them what to eat or wear."