6 April 2023 — The Fight to Stem the Tide of Smuggled Alcohol from Abroad in Prohibition


We’re celebrating a milestone this week—this post is the 100th installment of Sea History Today! This inspired us to look back 100 years, and what was on this country’s mind 100 years ago was Prohibition, the “Noble Experiment” in which the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” was made illegal with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Enforcement of the new restrictions was laid out in the Volstead Act. This established penalties for various offenses: for example, the sale or manufacturing of alcohol could, for a first offense, result in a fine of up to $1,000 (about $15,000 in today’s dollars) and up to a year in prison. At the time it was assumed that few people would break the law. When that assumption was proven wildly mistaken, and it became evident that enterprising Americans would find innovative ways to get alcohol to millions of eager customers, the responsibility of enforcing the law along the country's vast coastline would fall to the US Coast Guard. 

The Coast Guard had seen a lot of changes in the early 20th century. In 1915 the organization was established by the merger of the US Lifesaving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service, and then when the US entered World War I, the Coast Guard was transferred to the operational control of the Department of the Navy. After the war, the Coast Guard was returned to the US Treasury, but there was serious discussion in Washington of a proposal to let the US Coast Guard be absorbed by the Navy. The passage of the Volstead Act, and the subsequent demand on the Coast Guard to combat the smuggling of alcohol into the US, would demand law enforcement efforts on an unprecedented scale from that branch of the armed forces. 

bootlegger's boat filled with sacks

This rum runner didn't escape capture. The pedestrians on shore certainly seem to appreciate the drama of a smuggler's misfortune. Note the alcohol packaged in easy-to-load sacks. Photo: National Archives.

It took a while for things to heat up off American shores. By 1921, however, bootleggers had adopted the practice of anchoring just outside the three-mile limit off the American coastline to remain in international waters and outside the jurisdiction of US law enforcement, stocked up with spirits imported from other countries. Commander Malcolm F. Willoughby, author of Rum War at Sea, described the ragtag “Rum Row” fleet that lingered off the coast from Maine to Miami:

The larger ships, mostly two-masted schooners but also some small steamers, normally maintained their immunity outside the territorial waters and, in those earlier days, sold to all comers. Many had large tanks in their holds filled with alcohol. A contact boat would come alongside, give orders for Scotch, Bourbon, or Rye, together with the name of the brand desired. The offshore crew would then break out the bottles of the size, shape, and other characteristics of the brand desired, place them in wire trays, and lower the trays into the tank of alcohol. When the bottles were filled, they were hauled on deck, and coloring and flavoring were added to the proper bottles. The appropriate labels and other markings would then be affixed, the bottles sealed and placed in their own particular straw jackets, and sewn into burlap sacks. On exchange of money, these would then be lowered into the customer’s boat, often with a deliberate dunking in the sea so that markings of salt water would give visual evidence that the product was “right off the boat.” 

Those burlap sacks, called “burlocks,” were an innovation credited to the famous Florida rum-runner Bill McCoy, known for his genuine, undiluted product and his claims of being an “honest lawbreaker” who never paid bribes or protection money. Called “sacks” by the Coast Guard, as the bundles consisted of bottles wrapped in straw and stacked on their sides as a layer of three, then two, then one, and sewn securely in burlap. The triangular shape of the sacks allowed them to be arranged alternating upward-facing triangles with downward-facing triangles, to fit the maximum product in the allotted space, and their size made them easy to handle.

rum running boat captured

What's in those barrels? Rum runners were often known for diluting their product, or even passing off one type of alcohol for another. Photo: National Archives.

The Coast Guard wasn’t the only danger to the liquor supply boats; they were also vulnerable to pirates, loaded as they were with some combination of highly valuable cargo and stacks of cash. For example, the 15 February 1925 New York Times carried an article about a Capt. J. T. Tweedie, a British subject who had served as first mate aboard the rum runner Veronica carrying whiskey and champagne from Bermuda to New York. Capt. Tweedie reported that the value of the initial cargo was $700,000, the 1923 equivalent of about $12 million today, indicating just how much money might have been changing hands aboard these vessels. To make the supply boats a less attractive target for piracy, business soon shifted to a cash-free process. Negotiations and payment were carried out by representatives onshore, and typically supply boats held one-half of a torn playing card for each transaction, and the other half was given to an approved buyer to produce at the boat to verify his identity as a paid-up customer.

In Prohibition's early years, the Coast Guard was fighting back hard, but losing the numbers game, with only 89 vessels to cover the vast Atlantic coastline, where much of the rum-running was taking place. (Up to 60 ships could often be observed in the Rum Row along the New Jersey coast alone). It was estimated that in the first years of enforcement, the Coast Guard was only able to intercept about five percent of the alcohol flowing into the US via the coast. The commandant of the Coast Guard submitted a plan to Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon requesting over 300 new vessels appropriate for the Prohibition operations, a manpower increase of 3,500 personnel, and $20 million in supplemental funding for 1924. Congress responded by appropriating roughly $13 million, which was still the largest increase in USCG history. Part of the request for new vessels had been for 20 high-seas cutters; seeing a chance to save time and possibly money, it was decided to refurbish 20 mothballed US Navy destroyers.

Similarly, according to Commander Willoughby’s book, the Coast Guard repurposed over 200 rumrunning vessels it had seized. (Other seized vessels were sold, given to other government agencies, or destroyed outright if found to be unsafe). Additionally, new vessels were purpose-built for the service, including speedy picket boats, wooden 75-foot “six-bitters” (a nickname derived from the old-fashioned practice of calling a quarter “two bits”—a “bit” was a term for one-eighth of a dollar, or 12.5 cents) and 125-foot vessels known as “buck-and-a-quarters.”

seaplane model OL-5

This type of amphibious aircraft, the Loaning OL-5, was one of the first to be purchased for use in the Coast Guard Prohibition efforts. Photo: Coast Guard Aviation Association.

Coast Guard leadership also recognized the potential for an aerial component in tracking the liquor-supplying “mother ships” and their contact boats. Although an initial aviation program in 1920 was subsequently defunded, Coast Guard personnel used aerial assets to intercept smugglers in summer of 1925, and Congress responded by funding five new Coast Guard aircraft the following year. Aviation became a permanent part of the Coast Guard program.

group of 75-foot coast guard boats

As part of the major expansion of the fleet in response to the growth of “Rum Row,” the Coast Guard acquired over 200 of the so-called “six-bitters.” Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command.

By the early 1930s, the public had truly grown weary of Prohibition, and the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933 put an end to the experiment altogether. The “Report of Coast Guard Anti-Smuggling Activities for the Fiscal Year Ending 30 June, 1933” stated that “the continued pressure of Coast Guard preventive measures was a potent factor in reducing the volume of the smugglers’ business,” but conceded that it had also resulted “in bringing about a change of smuggling technique.” There was no way to really stem the tide of illegally imported alcohol: the total area of the defended waters was too great, and the crime was too lucrative. 

The story of the US Coast Guard and Prohibition enforcement encompasses so much more than could be discussed here; I highly recommend following up on the sources linked below. And be sure to watch for a feature about legendary rum runner Bill McCoy in an upcoming issue of Sea History magazine!

Extra Credit

Rum War at Sea

“A False Economy: The Coast Guard’s Largest Single-handed Seizure During Prohibition”

“Busting Smuggler & Breaking Codes”

Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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