BILL McCOY: The King of Rum Row

William McCoy

I GOT INTO THE SUBJECT of Prohibition a couple of years ago on reading Daniel Okrent’s excellent popular history, Last Call. I’d always understood, of course, that Prohibition was the product of the unique power of highly motivated single-issue minorities in American politics. But prior to reading Okrent’s book I’d never grasped what a perfect storm of political trends (the suffrage movement, allowing women to vote, plus the advent of income taxes, to replace revenue from liquor taxes) was required to make it possible for temperance fanatics to highjack the U.S. Constitution. What I also never realized was that there was ever such a thing as Rum Row, a floating city of oddball sailing and motor vessels that lay perpetually anchored in international waters just a few miles off the U.S. coast peddling booze to all comers day and night.

Since then I’ve also discovered Flat Hammock Press, a small independent publisher based in Mystic, Connecticut, that has reissued a series of non-fiction books first published during Prohibition that all tell the story of Rum Row from the smuggler’s perspective. The most important of these is The Real McCoy, by Frederic F. Van de Water, which recounts the career of a rather personable and flamboyant Rum Row pioneer, William McCoy, from a first-person autobiographical point-of-view.

Bill McCoy and his older brother, Ben, were Florida boatbuilders who fell on hard times as the Volstead Act took effect in 1920 and decided to try to recoup their fortunes smuggling booze. Ben handled things ashore while Bill (see the photo up top) handled things afloat. Besides being the first to anchor outside U.S. territorial waters to sell booze to skiffs coming from shore, Bill also claimed to be the first to smuggle loads out of Nassau, in the Bahamas, and St. Pierre, a French island off Newfoundland, both of which quickly became major transshipment points for liquor inbound to the United States.

Loading booze in Nassau

Loading whiskey in Nassau before making a run north to Rum Row

Loading booze in a schooner

Bottles were often packed below in triangular bags known as “hams”

Ice on the rig

Knocking ice off the rig during a run to pick up Christmas champagne in St. Pierre

More importantly, as far as his reputation was concerned, McCoy, a teetotaler, prided himself on being an honorable smuggler. He never knuckled under to the organized crime syndicates that quickly formed to exploit the trade in illicit alcohol, he never bought protection from government officials, and he never diluted or adulterated his product–all of which gave rise to that cliche of a phrase that to this day denotes authenticity and reliability: “the real McCoy.”

Though hardly serious literature, Van de Water’s book makes an excellent read for any cruiser who likes to daydream about adventuring under sail. For McCoy was very much a sailor at heart. He was fiercely devoted to his primary smuggling craft, Arethusa, a beautiful Gloucester fishing schooner, maintained her meticulously, and dreamed of nothing but making enough money so that he could sail her off into permanent retirement in the South Seas.

Machine gun practice on Rum Row

Bill McCoy practices firing a Colt-Browning machine gun on the deck of Arethusa. It was necessary to carry weapons to ward off the piratical “go-through” men who routinely highjacked vessels on Rum Row

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way, and McCoy was busted (under very questionable circumstances) and ended up serving time in jail. I’ll leave it to you to read the book to learn all the dramatic details of how his good fortune and fine exploits finally came to an end. Meanwhile, I’ll treat you to a titillating excerpt:

That day and night we made our first sales to the Jersey sea skiffs. At this time, these craft were Rum Row’s chief contact with the shore. They were open boats, high bowed and about 28 feet long, with the engine–usually a 60-horse-power, 6-cylinder Pierce Arrow lifted from an automobile–installed in a watertight box. Empty, their maximum speed was 15 miles an hour, and laden, about half that.

They were tubs compared to the craft that later came to the Row, when government supervision stiffened. Only seamen could have brought them out through the weather they often encountered. Wind and waves never stopped them. In storms there were always two men aboard them, one to steer, the other to pump and keep her afloat. Any other breed but these Jersey lads would have added a third to holler for help, but they were reckless and seamen to the backbone. They always came out full speed ahead, and you could hear the old wagons smacking along over the waves a mile away. Their exhausts were under water, and when running slowly, no one could hear them.

The first few who sampled my whiskey spread the word ashore. From then on I had no complaint about the number of my customers. Despite the storms that kept hammering us all this voyage, in two days of reasonably clear weather I had sold my entire cargo.

Loading a skiff on Rum Row

A skiff from shore comes alongside to pick up a load

The last few cases were taken off my ship by a big Jerseyman who ran his skiff solo. He paid me in twenty-dollar bills. To a rum-runner, small denominations were a pest, and I asked him if he had nothing larger.

“Nope,” he said, “but I got plenty of these,” and showed me a coat pocket packed with more twenties. He got under way and went squattering shoreward while we made sail for our return to Nassau. There was a stiff wind, and a storm was gathering in the northwest. I went into the cabin and began to count the twenties. There was something about the feeling of them that bothered me, and when I looked closer the shading on the reverses did not seem quite right either. I yelled to Crosby:

“Overhaul that mug who just left.”

He was bouncing through the waves at 10 knots, but under full sail we came up on him as if he were anchored. He tried to bluff it out for a moment, then wilted and paid me in legitimate cash. I had only half enough time to tell him what would happen if he tried that racket again, for the wind was mounting. We squared away for Nassau with a gale driving us from astern.

Arethusa under sail

Arethusa under sail

Captain Crosby had been bred to square-riggers and yachts. He was not used to the rig of a Gloucesterman. An error in maneuvering found us running off, wing and wing, before a screeching nor’wester. Only a seaman can appreciate the jam we were in, the 70-foot main boom, the 45-foot main gaff with a 60-foot hoist stretched out on one side the full length of the main sheet and the foresail spread on the other.

Something had to be done, and done quick. We were going like a destroyer, literally crucified to our course. Crosby was steering her like an artist, yet the least error or inequality, and one of the booms was bound to jibe and quite probably rip the sticks right out of her. The gale beat on her sails till they boomed like drums, and the Arethusa‘s hard-driven hull was throwing aside great welts of foam. We had to work fast and take a chance.

All hands were on the foreboom tackle. Crosby eased her around a little. We got the foresail in and had slacked off the tackle when what we had dreaded happened. As the fore gaff came across the deck the fore tackle parted. The boom swung like a lightning streak. Sparks flew. Boom, sheet, and tackle went across. The Arethusa brought up with a jerk, as though she had hit a wall, but everything held.

She ought to have been torn to pieces, but there she was, sound as before. Those Gloucester fishermen are built to stand anything. They are the one-horse shays of the sea. I presume that when they do go, they fly all to pieces in an instant.

We rounded to and took in the mainsail, but the canvas was old and split from gaff to main boom in an eighty-foot rip. The wind was mounting, but it was fair. We put my schooner under jib, jumbo, foresail, and riding sail and let her go for Nassau.

(All photos courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum)

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5 Responses
  1. DG

    I’m a visitor host in Scotland’s oldest working distillery and it’s fun being able to spread word of ‘the real McCoy’. What shortsightedness to have put such a character behind bars.

  2. Matt

    The phrase “real McCoy” originated in Scotland as the “real McKay” referring to the whisky. It gained popularity in 1870s long before prohibition.

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