History of American Crime: Gangsters on the Gold Coast, Part II
Speakeasies & Rum Runners
America’s great experiment with a national ban on the consumption of alcohol, while well intentioned, was a well-documented abysmal failure. When the Volstead Act (passed to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment) went into full effect on January 16, 1920, the temperance movement was already over 100 years old. The constitutional amendment and legislation were the culmination of a century of preaching and pleading, the contention being that alcohol was a great evil that led to broken families and broken lives. While alcohol’s abuse certainly does destroy families and ruin lives, not everyone in the United States believed that Prohibition was the answer. In fact, Prohibition was so unpopular and so difficult to enforce that it created an entire underground industry. From production to importing to consumption, illegal alcohol was a lucrative growth industry in 1920’s America. By 1925, it is believed that between 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies existed to quench the thirsts of New Yorkers alone. Speakeasies, as illegal watering holes were known due to the need for patrons to speak a password to gain entrance, cropped up across the country. From coast to coast, some local and state officials turned a blind eye to the illegal industry. And no city was more inclined to ignore the Volstead Act than Miami. From its founding, Miami had pretty much been a wide open city when it came to tolerating vice activity, but Prohibition ushered in an entirely new era of nose thumbing and winking when it came to ignoring the new law. While the rural parts of the state were populated primarily by rule followers and law abiders, Miami became notorious.
The Miami police made an effort to enforce what too many citizens viewed as an onerous intrusion into their personal lives, but the fifteen-man “drug squad” was simply overwhelmed. In Gangsters of Miami, author Ron Chepesiuk gives two examples of Miami’s refusal to comply with the Volstead Act. Quoting from federal narcotics agent William J. Spiller’s memoir, Needle in the Haystack, Chepesiuk recount’s Spillard’s early 1920 sightseeing tour of Miami during which both the bus driver and a passenger offered to sell the agent bottles of liquor. During a stop on the tour to see building lots for sale, the real estate agent also offered to sell liquor. Even developer Carl Fisher, who originally wanted to keep Miami Beach vice-free, entertained newly inaugurated Warren G. Harding by serving alcohol during the president’s 1921 visit. These are not the most salacious stories to come out of Prohibition Miami, however. Tales of limousines lined up at wharves to receive illegal goods brought in by boat from Havana, Bimini, and Nassau established Miami’s reputation as the “leakiest spot in America.” In addition to importing booze, local moonshining and bootlegging were part of the new growth industry as well. While a community mindset that supported flaunting the law was primary, other factors were in play in the Sunshine State that contributed to Miami’s wide open nature.
.After WWI, Americans finally had the time and the money to travel beyond their own neighborhoods and Florida became a serious destination of choice. Florida in general, and south Florida in particular, experienced rapid growth due to the efforts of Miami Beach developers like Carl Fisher and Jon Collins. Between 1920 and 1925, the state’s population increased from 968,470 to 1,263,540. Life was good and large profits were to be made through land speculation. Property prices would continue to rise forever. There was no end in sight to the money to be made. Then came the Florida Land Bust.
Speculation had driven land prices upward beyond all reason and the touted development that attracted new citizens had outstripped its ability to provide housing. Even the weather played a part in the bust. The winter of 1925 was unusually cold followed by an unusually hot summer. This cast doubt on Florida’s reputation as heaven on earth. Ordinary citizens began looking to sell, rather than buy land. Recent arrivals wrote to friends and family back home saying that moving to Florida was not such a good idea. Even newspapers began reporting that all was not well in paradise. The unstable economic bubble imploded in 1925 and a combination of freezes and hurricanes, including the devastating 1926 and 1928 Miami hurricanes, sealed the Florida Land Boom’s fate. These factors drove the state into a depression that anticipated the Great Depression by four years. Layer this financial disaster over some Floridians’ independent attitudes in regard to compliance with the law and the already prosperous illegal activity on the Gold Coast boomed.
In the early days of the Prohibition decade, the Gold Coast’s rum runners and moonshiners were mostly native stock. Some of them actually enjoyed a form of Robin Hood celebrity. One of the biggest and earliest names, Bill McCoy, even made it into Robert Ripley’s syndicated newspaper column, “Believe It or Not.” Ripley credited Big Bill with being the origin of the term “the real McCoy” because of his insistence on fair dealing and providing a quality product. He hauled brand name liquor from Bimini, a northern island in the Bahamas Archipelago, to Miami and points as far north as New York City. His rum running days ended in a 1923 off-shore encounter with the US Coast Guard cutter Seneca, whose cannons proved superior to the machine-gun that McCoy had mounted on the deck of his schooner. Out on bail until 1925 and after serving minimal time once finally convicted, upon his release McCoy found that big syndicates had moved into rum running. While the competition was too much for him to continue in importing illegal alcohol, he still died a wealthy man from the massive profits made during the early Prohibition years. Interestingly, Bill McCoy was a teetotaler.
A contemporary and sometime partner of Bill McCoy, Gertrude Lythgoe was the self-described “Rum Running Queen of the Bahamas.” A teetotaler like McCoy and former Ohio librarian, she headquartered in Nassau. She described her partner, perhaps something more, as a gentleman and good businessman. They both must have been good at managing their illegal profits for both of them lived very comfortably after giving up rum running and left large estates when they passed away. Not all rum runners lived into old age, however. James Harris Alderman, nicknamed “the Gulf Stream Pirate” by the Florida newspapers, was hanged in 1929 for killing two Coast Guard officials during the course of his arrest.
The illegal, untaxed booze industry created by Prohibition and the lassie affaire attitude on the Gold Coast toward rum running produced local legends who became wealthy from their unlawful activities. These circumstances also attracted a different type of new citizen from that envisioned by Miami founders JuliaTuttle, Henry Flagler, and even Carl Fisher. 1928 and beyond were to prove interesting for Miami and the Gold Coast. Join me on August 17 for Gangsters on the Gold Coast, Part III.
Chepesuik, Ron. Gangsters of Miami. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2010.
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.