Bootlegging and Rum-Running in Jacksonville

October 13, 2011 20 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Advocates for prohibition thought that once liquor licenses were revoked, reform organizations and churches could persuade the American public not to drink, smugglers would not oppose the new law, and saloons would disappear. However, the opposite effect would happen.

McCoy during Prohibition

During Prohibition (1920–33), the McCoy brothers fell on hard times. Their excursion and freight business could not compete with the new highways and buses being built up and down the coast and across Florida. Needing money, the two brothers made a decision to go into rum-running. They sold the assets of their business, traveled to Gloucester, Massachusetts, and bought the schooner Henry L. Marshall.

McCoy then began to smuggle whisky into the U.S., traveling from Nassau and Bimini in the Bahamas to the east coast of the United States, spending most time dealing on "Rum row" off Long Island. After a few successful trips smuggling liquor off the coast of the United States, Bill McCoy had enough money to buy the schooner Arethusa. Placing the schooner under British registry in order to avoid being subjected to U.S. law, Bill renamed the vessel Tomoka (after the name of the River that runs through his hometown of Holly Hill).

McCoy made a number of successful trips aboard the Tomoka, and - along with the Henry L. Marshall and up to five other vessels - became a household name through his smuggling activities. Capt. McCoy mostly hauled Rye, Irish and Canadian whiskey as well as other fine liquors and wines. He is credited with inventing the "burlock" -- a package holding six bottles jacketed in straw, three on the bottom, then two, then one, the whole sewed tightly in burlap. It was economical of space and easy to handle and stow. These were generally known in the Coast Guard as "sacks." McCoy's legend grew as his quality liquor and fair-dealing perpetuated the phrase: "it's the real McCoy."

McCoy also became an enemy of the U.S. Government and organized crime. When the Coast Guard discovered McCoy, he established the system of anchoring large ships off the coast in international waters and selling liquor to smaller ships that transferred it to the shore. McCoy also smuggled liquor and spirits from the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon located south of Newfoundland.

Capture and arraignment

On November 23, 1923, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Seneca, had orders to capture Bill McCoy and the Tomoka, even if in international waters. A boarding party boarded the Tomoka, but McCoy refused to surrender. The Tomoka tried to flee, but the Seneca placed a shell just off the hull, and Bill McCoy's days as a rum-runner were over. The New York Times article that reported on the capture and arraignment of McCoy described the incident:

The report to Collector Elting showed that the Tomaka was first boarded by Lieut. Commander Perkins of the Coast Guard cutter Seneca, who ordered the crew keep silent. The bow of the schooner then was turned out to sea, and when the commander of the cutter observed the movement, he sent a shot across the bow of the Tomaka. She returned the fire with a machine gun set up on her forward deck. The machine gunners ran to cover when the shells of the Seneca began to fall so close to their mark that they kicked the spray over the Tomaka's deck.

McCoy described the chase that led to his capture:

When the Tomoka was boarded under cover of the Seneca's guns, I immediately set sail and ran away with the boarding party - one lieutenant, one bos'n and thirteen seamen - and only upon their pleas did I heave to and put them back on the Seneca. The damned radio was too severe a handicap for me. I surrendered after the Seneca had fired four-inch shells at me.

When asked what defense he planned to make at the hearing before the trial, McCoy introduced the details of his operations by replying:

I have no tale of woe to tell you. I was outside the three-mile limit, selling whisky, and good whisky, to anyone and everyone who wanted to buy.

Instead of a long drawn out trial, Bill McCoy pleaded guilty and spent nine months in a New Jersey jail. He returned to Florida and invested his money in real estate. He and his brother continued the boat building business and frequently traveled up and down the coast.

McCoy, in his autobiography, entitled The Real McCoy, explains what drew him into this illegal trade. "I went" he says, into rum running "for the cash and I stayed in it for four years for the fun it gave me." In those years he made hundreds of thousands of dollars, and by the time he was arrested he had personally delivered more than 700,000 cases of liquor to the U.S. He wrote, "there was money in the game -- lots of it if you could keep it. Beyond that there was all the kick of gambling and the thrill of sport, and besides these, there was open sea and the boom of the wind against full sails, dawn coming out of the ocean, and nights under rocking stars. These caught and held me most of all."

The Liquor Czar: The Whiskey King of Duval County on next page.

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