Born in Syracuse New York in 1877, William “Bill” McCoy became known as one of the few gentlemen smugglers of the Prohibition era. At 6.2 foot tall with a voice like a “fog horn”, tee-total Bill McCoy was a commanding figure balanced out with boyish good looks.
Prior to prohibition Bill and his brother Ben ran a boat yard and taxi boat service in Holly Hill, Jacksonville, Florida. Gambling on a failing freight business the brothers were in financial duress when approached by a rum runner offering to pay them USD$100 to sail a liquor shipment ashore through Rum Row (the break 3 mile run to Americas marine border). Although declining the offer, the idea was seeded in the mind of older brother Bill who soon gave in to the pull of a more lucrative life in the shadow of the law. Collecting together the last of his savings, Bill began his smugglers career by investing in the 90 foot schooner Henry L Marshall before sailing it to the smugglers port of Nassau in the Bahamas where the loaded up with 1500 cases of Canadian whisky. Three days later the Marshall entered back into US waters via St Catherine‘s Sound (20 miles south of Savannah, Georgia) where the whisky was sold for $15,000 in tax free funds. It was early 1921 and Bill McCoy was hooked.
Swiftly expanding the operation Bill soon hired a second skipper for the Marshall and purchased a new flagship of his own in the form of the 130 foot schooner Arethusa (the “waterer” in Greek mythology) converting it into a virtual “floating liquor store”. Recognising the potential for legal trade just outside Americas three mile marine border, Bill’s risk free technique was to park his fully laden vessels just inside international waters and arrange for mainlanders to make their way through Rum Row to purchase liquor from his floating stores. Always a prudent man, only two potential buyers were allowed aboard at any one time and all trading vessels would be under the scrutiny of a swivel machine gun on the yachts prow to deter any idea of hijacking or argument. Despite the security measures, Bills reputation and success continued to grow and soon loyal customers were even invited to remain aboard for evening cocktails.
Not just credited with inventing the technique known as Rum Row, Bill is also said to have developed the smugglers ham or burlock (aka sacks by the US Coast Guard), a more convenient form of moving and transporting liquor between vessels. A ham consisted of a pyramid stack of 6 bottles (stacked 3,2,1) wrapped tightly in straw and burlap (hessian sacking). These bundles could be easily stacked top to tail and were quicker and safer to move between vessels than the standard wooden cases of 12. Some hams were even stuffed with salt which, if about to be boarded by authorities, could be thrown overboard where they would sink with the weight of the salt hiding any incriminating evidence. Later the salt would dissolve with the sack floating back to the surface for collection once again.
Bills first piece of major trouble would arrive on August 2nd, 1921 when his ship Marshall, along with its captain and crew, were seized off New Jersey by the US Coast Guard flagship Seneca along with with 1400 cases of whisky aboard. The surprise was the vessels clear seizure in international waters, outside of the legal 3 mile boundary. Authorities filed two writs against the vessel and its cargo claiming an old Maritime Act of 1790 which implied a 12 mile limit of approach (or one hours sailing time from shore) for any vessels engaged in fraudulent pursuits [Note: The previous legal border was set by the distance of cannon shot which, of the old 18th century smooth bore cannon, could fire no more than 3 miles]. The discovery of the old act set a new legal precedent for the maritime border causing a major blow to smugglers working on the Rum Row. Initially the owner of the Marshall could not be identified but once Bill was labelled responsible he became one of the most wanted men in prohibition at that time. To safeguard against any further surprises, Bill re registered the Arethusa under British sovereignty as the Tomoka and French sovereignty as the Marie Celeste. Foreign registration offered a degree of protection as US authorities were less likely to board international vessels in international waters.
Potentially the biggest influence of all was the impact Bill made on a sleepy French fishing community on the island of St Pierre just south of Newfoundland, Canada. Recognising potential in its location to the US mainland, Bill officially moved his operation from Nassau to the island in 1922. Located just 970 miles from the Rum Row of New York city, St Pierre also had the solid advantage of being a French colony (and therefore outside of US law ), offering a port that didn’t freeze over in winter, no competing factions, total cooperation from the poor locals and low export tax on all products shipped. What would follow would single handily transform the islands community and economy into one of the most successful smuggling ports in history.
A year after Bill first arrived with a hold full of Canadian Club whiskey, over 1000 vessels would be recorded having come and gone from the small island. Initially a fishing port with a population of 4000, St Pierre was transformed commercial merchant town. Fishing docks were converted into negociants, fisherman rehired as longshoreman or crew aboard runners and almost every spare barn, garage or cellar converted into a liquor warehouse. By the end of 1923, 6 million bottles would be recorded passing through the town, an equal of 1500 bottles per every man women and child on the island. This period St Pierre’s history has become known as Le Temps de la Fraude – “The time of the scam”. A visiting Canadian journalist wrote of the town;
“The odour grew so strong that at times the fog that rolled up St Pierre’s steeply inclined streets with the nightly tide would carry a distinct Scotch flavor”.
By 1931 the island recorded exporting 1,815,271 gallons of Canadian whisky in that year alone. Even though the island charged an export tax at one tenth the rate as that in Nassau, St Pierre would take more than three times their annual revenue. On an island long cleared of trees and with so many wooden cases arriving holding liquor, the wood was commonly used in the making of window sills, rooves and sheds. With his close ties to the New York crime syndicate and investments in rum running, it is said that Al Capone had his own warehouse on the island and regularly visited the port to check on his holdings. Today visitors to the island can visit the Musée de la Prohibition in Hotel Robert where a straw hat allegedly belonging to Capone is on display along with other memorabilia from the islands prohibition history.
Unfortunately for the St Pierre however the repeal of prohibition in 1933 plunged the island into an almost overnight economic depression. For Bill however, his smuggling days would come to an end as early as 1923 while on a night run in November, the Tamoka with Bill aboard would be seized six and a half miles off the coast of Seabright, New Jersey. Once again the USCG flagship Seneca would be the captor. Despite McCoy’s attempt to outrun the 204 foot cutter it would be a warning shot from one of her four 6-pounder guns which would decide her surrender. With plenty of connections and savings behind him however, McCoy was able to remain on bail for two years thanks to a sympathetic judge who allowed a monitored confinement in a New Jersey hotel room and freedom to come and go as he pleased. Eventually though Bill was served 9 months in a New Jersey jail after pleading guilty to all counts of illegal smuggling. Once his time was finished having been out of the game for so long and with his savings eaten into due to legal fees, Bill decided it was best not to compete with the powers of the developing crime syndicates and instead moved back to Florida investing in real estate and a boat building business with his brother Ben.
On December 30, 1948, Bill McCoy died of a heart attack where he was happiest – at sea aboard his private yacht Blue Lagoon at the ripe old age of 71. With a reputation for high quality spirits and honest dealings Bill became known by the popular 19th century phrase “The Real McCoy” from which author Frederik F. Van-de-Water entitled his popular book on the man in 1931. Bill was perhaps best remembered by his brother Ben when he simply wrote;
“When the country went dry, [Bill] irrigated it”.
[For further information on Rum Running, see – Rum Running: Of cigarettes, horses and hams]
- Last Call – The rise and fall of prohibition by Daniel Okrent. Scribner Inc, 2010
- Sally J Ling – Florida’s History Detective: William “Bill” McCoy – The Real McCoy
- BBC News – Regions and territories: St Pierre and Miquelon
- CBC News: Is That Really Al Capone’s Autograph?
- The Spirits Of America: A Social History of Alcohol by Eric Burns. Temple University Press, 2004
- Mariners Museum – Image Collection
- “Rum Ship Seized Under Act of 1799” – New York Times – August 14, 1921