Duncan W. “Red” Shannon steered his powerful 30-foot motorboat Goose toward Miami, counting on twilight to cloak his contraband cargo. He regularly smuggled spirits to Prohibition-weary customers, but this time Ensign Philip E. Shaw and four U.S. Coast Guardsmen waited in the shadows of Biscayne Bay aboard the 35-foot K-1445. After a high-speed chase, the Goose rammed its adversary. “Fire into that vessel,” Shaw cried. His crewmen unloaded their .45s, and the helmsman slumped across his not-so-secret stash. Shaw had captured a notorious rumrunner—and made a shocking discovery: He had met this man before while he was sailing on his father’s fishing schooner.
Waged from 1920 through 1933, the war against “demon rum” pitted Americans against one another. Social reformers believed that banning liquor would enhance civic virtue; instead, Prohibition spawned an array of intrepid moonshiners and bootleggers who hazarded stiff fines and jail terms to circumvent the 18th Amendment, which outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. Perhaps a third of the liquor illegally entering the country came across water. Since seafarers had access to established distilleries in Europe and the Caribbean, the quality of their goods tended to be superior to those made in U.S. stills or brought by land from Canada. The term rumrunner, however, is misleading: Smugglers favored whiskey, gin, and brandy.
The promise of profits lured commercial sailors and fishermen to a life of high-stakes adventure far riskier even than their usual endeavors. Author Everett S. Allen relates their colorful tales in The Black Ships: Rumrunners of Prohibition, noting “they became smugglers not because they were essentially devious or because they possessed any other qualifications for lawbreaking but because they were . . . possessed of the right skills, and they were short of cash.”
The real McCoy
Consider Capt. Bill McCoy, one of the first skippers to take up the clandestine trade. He had never before been on the wrong side of the law and, even as a rumrunner, enjoyed an exceptional reputation; McCoy did not water down his merchandise, a policy that inspired the expression “the real McCoy,” meaning genuine. An August 1921 account in the New Bedford, Mass., Evening Standard showed how lucrative business could be, reporting that McCoy’s ship held 5,000 cases of liquor worth about $500,000: “At the price of $8 a case in the Bahamas, the cost of the liquor would be about $40,000 which, after deducting $60,000 for ship’s and crew expenses, would show a profit in the neighborhood of $400,000.”
Legend has it that McCoy conceived the idea for Rum Row, where hundreds of rumrunners would gather off New York City, just outside U.S. territorial waters. They anchored “mother ships” for weeks at a time, offloading cargo to a steady flow of smaller craft—contact boats—that traveled out from shore, usually at night, to carry liquor back for distribution. The ships frequented transfer ports in the Bahamas and the Maritime Provinces, which thrived as Prohibition took hold: In 1917, for example, Nassau cleared about 3,800 gallons of liquor; by 1922 it handled well over 1.3 million a year.
Beyond Rum Row, principal smuggling locations included Boston, the Virginia Capes, Florida, and New Orleans. Rum-runners did less business on the Pacific coast and in the Great Lakes, with fewer urban markets, but any isolated beach made an ideal landing site, and much of the country’s 6,000-plus miles of coastline undoubtedly saw action.
Enter the Coast Guard
With vast areas to monitor, the Coast Guard—since 1790 of modest size and mission—faced a daunting challenge. A key strategy was to position patrol boats near mother ships, then intercept contact boats once they left international waters. But many rumrunners could easily outrun the Coast Guard’s craft, and in 1924 the United States extended the 3-mile limit to 12. Rather than deter smuggling, the change spurred advances in boat design. Rumrunners commissioned powerboats that were faster and sleeker than ever before; speeds soared upward to 40 knots.
The Coast Guard needed a rapid expansion—and got it. As detailed by Cmdr. Malcolm F. Willoughby in Rum War at Sea, Congress increased spending almost $14 million, nearly doubling personnel and redeploying 25 World War I destroyers. The budget also funded 203 patrol boats called 75-footers, or six-bitters, for monitoring mother ships and a fleet of nimble 30- to 40-footers for capturing contact boats, hundreds of which were themselves converted to chase craft.
The Coast Guard also upgraded its radio, intelligence, and aviation capabilities, slowing the flow of illicit liquor, even as smugglers devised evasive maneuvers, elaborate radio codes, and ruses such as fake distress signals to tie up search vessels for hours. Nighttime jousts evolved into guerrilla warfare, with boats touting deck-mounted machine guns, and rumrunners colluded with federal and local law enforcers to ensure safe deliveries.
The longer Prohibition lasted, the greater the political corruption and criminal element. By the end of Prohibition, gangster syndicates had largely assumed control of rumrunning operations, from importation to contact boat deliveries, with many seamen working for the Mob. Some were killed—Red Shannon died from his wounds—and many refused to discuss their experiences until decades after the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th.
But others had fewer regrets. Arrested in 1923 off Seabright, N.J., and imprisoned for nine months, Bill McCoy—who had regularly cleared $100,000 a month—retired to Florida.
Cindy Christian Rogers is writer-researcher for The History Channel Magazine.