Not a drop to drink

The era of Prohibition led to a flourishing trade in contraband West Indian rum – and moonshine. James Ferguson takes a nip of the real McCoy

The Real McCoy. Illustration by Nikolai Noel

Ninety years ago, Americans were told to give up drinking. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was enacted on January 16, 1920, following the passing of the Volstead Act through Congress in October of the previous year. Known as Prohibition, the amendment and the act effectively criminalised the production and sale of any alcohol stronger than 0.5 per cent proof.

The ban had been a long time coming. Temperance movements had grown in strength throughout the 19th century, and a powerful coalition of religious groups and political parties lined up against the brewers and distillers.

Progressives blamed the alcohol industry for corrupting an otherwise virtuous working class, while the rather less progressive Ku Klux Klan saw attachment to the demon drink as typical of degenerate, liberal city-dwellers. Some states already operated a “dry” policy, and the formation of the national Anti-Saloon League won massive backing among rural communities and women. When the US entered the war against Germany in 1917, popular sentiment turned against German-descended brewing magnates.

The strange thing was, however, that the law never actually banned drinking as such (in fact, there were many bizarre loopholes such as “medical need” and home winemaking). It merely tried to clamp down on the production, distribution and sale of alcohol – and, needless to say, it failed spectacularly.

Prohibition, rather than producing a nation of sober, upright individuals, fuelled a vast and often criminal industry of illegal brewing and distilling, smuggling and illicit drinking dens. The Chicago Mob, personified by Al Capone, was well placed to control the city’s speakeasies and to bribe the authorities, while New York reportedly boasted over 30,000 mafia-protected dives.

The drink flowed into the US from Canada, Mexico and, last but not least, the Caribbean. Cuba, situated close to the Florida coast and with an established rum industry, was an obvious participant in the smuggling business, and while thirsty Americans such as Ernest Hemingway headed to the fleshpots of Havana, rum and other liquor headed into the United States.

The Bahamas, still a British colony, were particularly well placed to take advantage of the illicit booze boom. Not only were islands such as the Bimini chain only some 50 miles from the mangroves and secret inlets of South Florida, but British free-trade philosophy actively encouraged the business. Huge quantities of Scotch whisky as well as top brands of champagne and other European drinks were exported – totally legally – from Britain and stockpiled in the Bahamas.

Supply was therefore guaranteed, and demand was seemingly infinite. The profits to be made were astronomical: a case of rum costing US$4 in Cuba could fetch over US$100 in Florida. Not surprisingly, an army of disreputable, and sometimes murderous, individuals flocked to the region. Organised crime and smuggling cartels soon became entrenched.

The only problem was how to get the stuff into the US, which was in theory protected against this tidal wave of liquor by the US Coast Guard. In fact, the theory counted for little, as the smugglers, flush with illicit profits, invested in high-powered vessels that could outstrip the Coast Guard’s older ships. As Florida historian Gene M Burnett puts it:

“The US Coast Guard was sorely undermanned in the early years, effective by day with aid of a spotter plane, but hard pressed at night. Often the rum fleets, mostly speedy motorboats, would slowly move out of the ‘mouseholes’ at Bimini, Cat Cay, or Gun Cay and wait for sunset. Then they would spread out fan-fashion, picking up speed, and scoot like so many water bugs, often cutting between two Coast Guard cutters to avoid the staccato rain of machine-gun fire.”

It was a dangerous business, but the risks often came not from the Coast Guard but from violent criminal competitors who would commander smuggling boats and throw their crews overboard.

In the history of rum running, however, one man stood out as a consummate professional, and, curiously for a smuggler, as a man of integrity. Captain William McCoy was a well-known boat builder and tourist-excursion skipper from Daytona Beach, Florida. With the beginning of Prohibition he detected a commercial opening and began ferrying rum and other liquor from the Bahamas to the US. A close shave with the Coast Guard led him to exploit a fascinating technicality – US territorial waters (and hence the area in which the Coast Guard could operate) stretched only three miles from the shoreline. Thereafter, US jurisdiction ceased. Why not, McCoy reasoned, bring the drink to the edge of the territorial line and offload it onto smaller, faster boats that could outpace the Coast Guard cutters?

Which is exactly what happened. The bigger vessels would remain outside the exclusion zone and await “contact boats”, often crewed by local fishermen with expert knowledge of landing points. Alcohol and money would exchange hands, and the smaller vessels would speed off to a rendezvous with a truck, which would then disappear into the night.

The idea caught on, and soon there were lines of boats a little more than three miles offshore patiently waiting for customers. These off-licence flotillas were known as “Rum Row”, and they became notorious for their party atmosphere and open flouting of Prohibition puritanism. Their crews might taunt the powerless Coast Guard men, while their visitors were treated to a vaudeville ambiance of drinking, gambling and prostitution. It was the Anti-Saloon League’s worst nightmare.

Not that McCoy himself indulged in such behaviour. He was a teetotal businessman and also a plain dealer. If other rum runners diluted their spirits with water or relabelled cheap plonk as vintage Burgundy, he refused to sink to such depths. So unadulterated were his supplies that any bottle bought from him was apparently known as “the real McCoy”.

It could not last, of course, and in 1924 an Act of Congress extended the territorial water line to 12 miles. Worried by increasing criminality, the government also invested in faster Coast Guard cutters. Gradually the rum runners were pushed back or arrested, their ships confiscated. When Prohibition was eventually repealed in 1933, what remained of the smuggling network disappeared overnight. But by then many in the Bahamas, Florida and the great cities of North America had made a killing. Historians believe that it was the wealthiest period in the Bahamas’ history, and laid the basis for the tourist industry.

As for McCoy, after another contretemps with the Coast Guard he sensibly pleaded guilty to infringing customs rules, spent nine months in jail in New Jersey, and then invested his considerable fortune in Florida real estate. He lived for another 25 years in some comfort, returning also to his boat business and plying the waters of South Florida. Unlike his grateful customers, he never took a drink.