ON THE FIRST dry day of the era that would not be so dry after all, Baltimoreans could watch the 4,125-ton cargo ship Lake Ellerslie depart the city’s harbor on a liquor-laden voyage down the Atlantic coast. They probably paid little attention to its destination. No one knew that within a few years, if not months, it would be easy enough to get a drink in Baltimore. But back on that January Saturday in 1920, onlookers watching the big freighter steam out of the harbor could only contemplate the irrevocable void the ship was leaving behind—a void precisely the size of the 34,667 cases and 1,860 barrels in its capacious hold. Observers quick with a pencil could have calculated that this ran to something in the area of 438,000 bottles’ worth of whiskey and wine, now drained from Baltimore forever.
The parade of ships sailing into Nassau harbor on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas had begun several months before the Lake Ellerslie arrived in the new dawn of Prohibition. Along Bay Street, boys rolled heavy barrels from the docks, dodging wooden-wheeled horse carts burdened with precarious stacks of liquor cases. The motley collection of stables, houses, chandleries, and shanties near the waterfront had been drafted into service as warehouses. It was not long before the steamships and the sailing vessels began arriving all day and all night, leaving mountainous accumulations of off-loaded goods on the rickety pier, hundreds upon countless hundreds of cases from each boat. Because there weren’t enough able-bodied men to serve as stevedores, the Bahamian policemen who tried to keep order on the increasingly unruly waterfront soon had to contend with a new form of traffic: the startling spectacle of island women walking from the harbor quays toward the warehouses with graceful purpose, wooden cases poised on their heads.
Bahamian drinking habits had not changed. The liquor that was pouring in from everywhere—Scotch from Glasgow, gin from Liverpool, rum from Jamaica, 60,000 bottles of Hill & Hill Kentucky Straight Bourbon directly from the distillery in Owensboro—was going out just as fast. Up to this point Nassau had been the somnolent terminal for a desultory trade in sponges, sisal, and turtles; now it became a boomtown, the ideal way station and staging area for a vast traffic in liquor. In 1918 Scotch exporters had sent 914 gallons of their product to the Bahamas; two years into Prohibition the Bahama-bound export had soared to 386,000 gallons. Outbound traffic leapt proportionately. Accounting for all sources, a U.S. Coast Guard historian estimated that at the peak of the trade ten million quarts of liquor passed through the Bahamas in a single year. The liquor shipped out of Nassau, an alarmed federal prosecutor in New York said in 1921, was “spreading like a fan up the Atlantic Coast,” as thousands of cases filled the holds and crowded the decks of hundreds of northbound ships, often as not serving as sleeping pallets for their crews.
A New York Herald reporter, trying to convey to his readers a sense of what had happened in the Bahamas, explained that outbound ships “were loaded after nightfall by negroes to whom a shilling a day once was affluence” but who now consider the “night lost [if it] does not enrich them by $10, $20 and even $50.” The latter figure seems unlikely, but the sudden riches were evident everywhere. According to a dispatch in the Times of London in March 1920, just two months into the Prohibition era, the liquor business had already “transformed the Bahama Government’s financial condition as if by magic from a deficit to a comparatively huge surplus.” A government economic development brochure attributed this to “the conditions supervening in the United States early in 1920.” Translation: the colony’s revenue from its export tax—the small price bootleggers were asked to pay for their use of the Bahamas as a depot—brought Nassauvians into the twentieth century. After the completion of a sewage system, a 2,300-volt diesel generator, a modern wharf some two hundred yards long, a newly dredged harbor, and miles of resurfaced roads and streets, the colony’s British governor, Sir Bede Clifford, said it would be appropriate to erect near the statues of Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria a third one: a monument to Andrew J. Volstead.
The stone likenesses of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea and the Grandmother of Europe stood a few blocks apart, in front of confectionery-pink government buildings in downtown Nassau. As for the Patron Saint of the Bahamian Economy, his monument could have been situated roughly halfway between them, in front of the Lucerne Hotel, a white wooden structure set behind an eight-foot wall on Frederick Street. The stolid Volstead would not have felt very comfortable at the Lucerne, but its habitués would have been happy to salute his statue daily. The royal palms in the hotel’s courtyard, its three stories of broad verandas, and the bougainvillea and hibiscus in its gardens (home to a tame pelican named Nebuchadnezzar) provided a congenial marketplace for the principals of the Bahamian bootlegging industry and their clients.
“The men who made the greatest fortunes in Nassau never sailed a ship nor sold to any person in the United States a pint of booze,” a local historian wrote in 1934. These entrepreneurs were largely the agents, importers, and freight forwarders who turned the wheels of the business, abetted by representatives of the Royal Bank of Canada and other respectable financiers. The bankers were ready to extend loans secured by collateral as safe as a U.S. Treasury bond: the next shipment of booze coming into the port. By 1923 Roland Symonette, an ordinary seaman from the island of Eleuthera who had become a Bronfman family partner, had already earned $1 million U.S. from the Bahamian liquor trade.*
The Lucerne was where the financiers and middlemen convened for both business and pleasure, dining and drinking with the men who actually put their hands on the liquor. They were a spicy mix of sea captains, adventurers, and freelance opportunists. The best known among them was Bill McCoy, skipper of a series of twin-masted schooners that conducted an illegal liquor trade for much of the 1920s. According to the American consul in Kingston, Jamaica, McCoy was “the chief liquor smuggler operating from Nassau.” Contrary to the legend fostered by the teetotaling McCoy, the quality of the goods he delivered up and down the Atlantic coast did not give birth to the phrase “the real McCoy,” which dates back to the nineteenth century. However, the quantity he moved—175,000 cases by some estimates—went a long way toward confirming his place in the popular mythology of the time. McCoy possessed many other attributes that lent themselves to mythmaking: he was tall, he was good looking, he was a fine seaman, and he had an excellent ghostwriter.
Although Frederick F. Van de Water published The Real McCoy under his own name, he wrote it in McCoy’s first-person voice, and there’s every reason to believe the book’s description of the people who hung out at the Lucerne: “slit-eyed, hunch-shouldered strangers, with the bluster of Manhattan in their voices and a wary truculence of manner.” The publisher of the Nassau Tribune referred to the bootlegging crowd and the business they conducted as “the orgy of the Lucerne.” But apart from the notorious Bootleggers’ Ball that rocked the hotel for more than thirty-six champagne-spilling, chair-busting, knife-brandishing hours in late July 1921, this was an orgy driven not by carnality but by greed.
Any skipper hanging around the Lucerne and wanting to run liquor up the eastern seaboard had no problem acquiring the goods. The easiest way was to make arrangements with the owners of a vessel like the Dreamland. “Vessel” may not be the right word; a child’s bathtub toy traveled greater distances than the Dreamland. It was a hundred-foot-long barge permanently anchored near North Cat Cay, a dot on the map near Bimini, westernmost of the Bahama Islands, only fifty miles off the Florida coast. The Dreamland had no sails, no engine, no means of propulsion at all, but it did have lights, refrigeration, and extensive storage facilities. In Nassau, finding someone prepared to sell you smuggling-worthy liquor—which is to say, any liquor at all—was no more difficult than finding your way to, say, the Market Street establishment of Gertrude Lythgoe, “Queen of the Bootleggers.” A thirty-five-year-old former stenographer from Bowling Green, Ohio, Lythgoe happened to find bootlegging more rewarding than office work, and life at the Lucerne more stimulating than life in Bowling Green. “She says she is no smuggler,” a Wall Street Journal correspondent told his readers, and consequently she “is not responsible for what happens to the liquor after she sells it.”
The nature of the financial responsibility taken on by the men like McCoy who ran the merchandise up the coast was suggested by two procedural maneuvers they all had to execute. The first required a change in a ship’s legal status. Because any vessel flying the American flag was subject to American law anywhere in the world, a prudent captain sailed under foreign colors. Nassau being British, that meant figuring out a way to sail under the Union Jack. Nassau being Nassau, it wasn’t hard for an American buccaneer to find someone who would buy his vessel, obtain British registry, and then sell it right back to him for the same price, minus a suitable commission for his trouble. Between 1921 and 1922 the net tonnage of vessels registered in the Bahamas increased tenfold.
Changing registry was something you had to do only once; that’s how the swift, twin-masted, 114-foot American fishing schooner Arethusa, which Bill McCoy acquired in Gloucester, Massachusetts, became the swift, twin-masted, 114-foot British rumrunner Tomoka. The other procedural maneuver had to be repeated on each voyage out of Nassau: payment of the export tax that would dredge Nassau harbor, build a water system, and bestow upon the town all those other municipal goodies. The $6 per case export duty, said McCoy, meant that “each time [I] took 5,000 cases of Scotch [out of the harbor], I left $30,000 in the hands of the customs authorities.” Then he’d sail up the Great Whiskey Way to Montauk or Block Island or Nantucket, where he’d earn back the cost of the goods, the duty, the wages and provisions for his crew—and twice as much again.
Until they were beset first by modern pirates and then, in mid-decade, by a greatly enhanced Coast Guard effort, life for the smugglers was remarkably congenial. In August 1921, the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, reported that a schooner lying off the uninhabited island of Nomans Land, about twenty miles away, was “dispensing refreshment in a truly hospitable manner to all drought-ridden individuals who can sail, row or swim out to the trim-looking fisherman.” The “genial captain”—Bill McCoy, making one of his first press appearances—told the paper to advise its readers, “Come out any time you want to; the law can’t touch us here, and we’ll be very glad to see you.” Near Miami small boats dropped anchor and hung poster-sized price lists over the gunwales no more self-consciously than if they’d been selling potatoes.
Early on, the buyers coming out to the ships were retail customers, people with access to a boat able to traverse the three miles separating the mainland from international waters. Along the south shore of Long Island, in an area known to bootleggers as “the Rendezvous,” a cruise near, say, Fire Island Light was a waterborne version of big-city shopping. An officer on the Cask, a four-masted schooner that had been diverted from its prior duty in the timber trade, described how people in motor launches would pull up alongside, inquire after the prices the captain had placed on the ship’s offerings, and then scoot away to do some comparison shopping at the next ship bobbing on the coastal swells. Customers less sensitive to price and more inclined to build a relationship with a single, reliable supplier were every captain’s ideal. “It was like going to a supermarket,” said an officer on a schooner that worked northern waters. “We had a good reputation and lots of customers. They would carry your mail ashore and bring you anything you wanted.” Cruising the New Jersey coast on his own yacht, Robert Wood Johnson II, of the pharmaceutical Johnson & Johnsons, got into the habit of pulling up alongside a rumrunner, buying a bottle or two, and enjoying his evening cocktails at sea.
There were annoyances, of course—like, for instance, extortion. In The Diary of a Rum-Runner, the pseudonymous “Alastair Moray” of the Cask reported that a tariff amounting to a dollar a case had to be paid to “state police, coast guards, etc.” buzzing around the ship’s anchorage off Long Island. The three-mile limit protected bootleggers from American law but did not shield them from the annoying attentions of dishonest American enforcement personnel. Since all the Cask’s customers would have to make it back to shore through well-patrolled American waters, the ship’s crew was compelled either to buy off the authorities or provide them with other rewards. In his log for July 18, 1923, Moray described an encounter with an army lieutenant, a naval commander, and a Coast Guard captain aboard a patrol boat. “The Coast Guard captain was on duty, but the other two were only joy-riding,” he wrote. Moray welcomed them aboard, took them belowdecks, and offered them whiskey. “We all partook, and waxed merry thereon,” he continued. “They stayed about one and a half hours. When they went, I gave them a small souvenir to remind them of their visit. They have elected themselves the ship’s godfathers, and might prove very useful.”
OF PROHIBITION’S MANIFOLD gifts to American posterity, few were of greater value than its enrichment of the language. The Dictionary of American Slang, published in 1960, listed more colloquial synonyms for “drunk” than for any other word; most of them originated in the 1920s. “He was taken for a ride” was the Chicago-bred euphemism for what mobsters did when they dumped the body of a troublesome competitor or an errant confederate in a distant suburb. The “Maryland Free State” was an epithet that arose not from the liberty-loving ardor of colonial forebears, nor from Maryland’s loyalty to the Union during the Civil War, but from the typewriter of Hamilton Owens, editor of the Baltimore Sun, in a salute to the legislature when it declined to pass a state enforcement act in 1923. “Powder room” was coined to denote the minimal bathroom facilities for women hastily installed in formerly all-male saloons once they had become universally accommodating speakeasies. A dry Massachusetts banker named Delcevere King wanted to find an opprobrious word to describe imbibers who openly violated the Eighteenth Amendment. Publicized in the pages of the Boston Herald, the contest King sponsored drew more than twenty-five thousand entries. Thus did the English language acquire “scofflaw,” winner of first prize and two hundred dollars.
Oddly, the most ubiquitous term to materialize from the long decades of temperance agitation and the subsequent reign of the Volstead Act is one that fell into disuse, at least in its most popular sense, virtually the minute Prohibition came to an end: rum. “Used generically as a hostile name for intoxicating liquors,” says the Oxford English Dictionary, it first popped up in Canada in 1800 and migrated south by the 1850s. By the time it had been captured by the stump speakers and pulpit pounders of the early twentieth century, it had become a common signifier for the loathed item itself, and an all-purpose modifier for everything associated with it: the “rum demon” sold by “rum barons” who ruled a “rum traffic” conducted by “rumrunners.” The OED misses the term’s ironic capture by drinkers, who had no problem calling an illegal drinking place a “rum hole” and a nose reddened by overindulgence a “rum blossom.”
“Rum Row,” though, belonged to everyone—brief, alliterative, and perfectly descriptive of the remarkable phenomenon that evolved out of those early, sunny days of coastal bootlegging. Inevitably, demand grew so great and prices so high that the freelancers were elbowed aside by industrial-scale operators. By 1923, from the Gulf of Maine to the tip of Florida, an enormous fleet of old freighters, tramp steamers, converted submarine chasers, and ships of various other descriptions—“anything with a bottom that could float and a hold that could be filled with booze,” McCoy said—lay at permanent anchor just outside the three-mile limit. No more loitering off New Bedford for McCoy and his competition; the rumrunners now sailed up the coast from Nassau, off-loaded their goods onto the Rum Row ships, and raced back south to pick up another shipment. The vessels on the Row remained immobile for months at a time, functioning as floating warehouses for a second network of seafarers operating locally.
The liquor from these “mother ships,” as the Rum Row depositories were called, found its way to shore much as Canadian liquor made it across the Detroit River from Windsor. Small boats of every imaginable description would dash out to the Row, usually under cover of night, load up, then hurry back to shore. On foggy evenings the smugglers would get their bearings by transmitting international code to a U.S. Navy radio direction-finder station, whose operators had no way of knowing who was doing the signaling. On nights they weren’t taking advantage of services provided by the government’s nautical representatives, the rumrunners sought to abuse them: when a Coast Guard vessel was in the vicinity, the miscreants would send out a distress call to draw the Guard boat to a false alarm miles away.
A telltale dark patch on its port side indicated that a boat had probably spent some time bobbing up against a rum ship, but there was no shame in this. For a coastal fisherman in the Northeast, whiskey was a more valuable catch than cod. “You knew right away when a man stopped fishing and started running rum,” a Massachusetts woman recalled many years later. “In the first place, his family began to eat proper.” In Florida, boatyard operators loyal to the fishermen/bootleggers on whom they depended refused to make wharfside space available to the Coast Guard and declined to repair their vessels. At the northern end of the Row in Maine, Canadian fishermen got into the game as well. A New Brunswick newspaper did not disguise the trade’s appeal: “It beats carrying sardines.”
Local boatmen who knew every cove and bay had no trouble finding places to land their bounty; the names of the most popular drop-off spots in the area of Brunswick, Maine—Halfway Rock, Gun Point—suggest the furtiveness of their activity. In resort areas from fall through spring, smugglers would commandeer the docks of summer houses shuttered for the season. If an inshore runner happened to encounter law enforcement officials waiting for him to pull ashore, he’d toss his cargo overboard in a relatively shallow inlet. This was a nuisance, not a loss. Having first packed the liquor in “hams”—six-bottle burlap bags weighted down with salt for instances like this—the smuggler could return a few days later, after the salt had dissolved, to find his investment bobbing safely on the surface.
With minor local variations this routine was repeated the entire length of the Atlantic coast, as men and women in seaside communities boosted their earning power and the economic health of their communities by collaborating with the large-scale entrepreneurs of Rum Row. “Hundreds of such men” were operating out of every one of the “liquor ports,” noted the New York Times. This was especially true near the enormous New York market, where the greatest concentration of mother ships took up positions in a line running westward from Montauk to the Rockaways and south to Cape May. This traffic, said William E. Reynolds, commandant of the Coast Guard, “was entirely unprecedented in the history of the country.” Just before Christmas in 1924, the Times reported, a flotilla of eighteen steamers stood at anchor southeast of Asbury Park, New Jersey, “loaded deep with cargoes worth millions.” Other substantial fleets established permanent residence on the seas near Boston, Norfolk, and Savannah. Vancouver-based bootleggers set up similar operations offshore from major West Coast ports, and a tendril of the original Rum Row reached from the Keys along the Gulf Coast, with thicker nodes near Tampa, Mobile, Galveston, and New Orleans. In many places nightfall unveiled a constellation of ship’s lights so dense, recalled a captain who serviced vessels anchored off Highland Light on Cape Cod, “you would think it was a city out there.”
In daylight an innocent beachgoer might have perceived it differently: the long line of hulking ships and the smaller boats flitting among them looked like a fleet preparing to launch an invasion. The less innocent (which is to say virtually anyone who lived within a day’s drive of the coast) knew better. This wasn’t an invasion, but a sort of inverse blockade, an unsiege: the boats were there not to deny Americans something they needed but to provide them with something they wanted.
IN 1922 BILL MCCOY put a northern exclamation mark on his claim that he’d invented Rum Row when he sailed into port on the North Atlantic island of St. Pierre. McCoy knew at least two things about this unlikely place: its harbor remained ice-free in winter, and its business was conducted under the flag of France. For a rumrunner, these were auspicious qualities. For the rest of the world, Damon Runyon provided a more measured appraisal. “Now if you are never in St. Pierre,” he wrote in the unmistakable syntax of the guys, dolls, and other suspects who sidle through his stories, “I wish to say you miss nothing much, because what is it but a little squirt of a burg sort of huddled up alongside some big rocks off Newfoundland, and very hard to get to, any way you go.”
The French were the first Europeans to get there, stumbling across St. Pierre and the adjacent island of Miquelon in 1536. The British booted them out in 1713, and for the next century control of these scraggy, barren outposts bounced back and forth between Paris and London. After the French took permanent possession in 1815, St. Pierre became a depot for the French fishing fleet and eventual home to six thousand souls trying to pull their livelihoods out of the cold ocean fifteen miles south of Newfoundland. The larger Miquelon was more thickly populated, but only if you were counting the purple sandpipers, snowy egrets, and Atlantic puffins that were its primary residents.
But then the Eighteenth Amendment came along and the eastern seaboard developed a thirst. When the Bahamian government raised its import duties, Bill McCoy led a stream of rumrunners who shifted at least part of their business north from the Caribbean. On July 8, 1922, just months after McCoy’s first visit, the Sable Island sailed into the harbor, 12,000 cases of whiskey in its hold. Within weeks the St. Pierrais economy was transformed. In mild weather teams of oxen dragged the bounteous cargo away from the docks to be stored in basements and toolsheds; when the snows arrived horse-drawn sleighs did the toting. “The modest docks of St. Pierre’s toy harbour were buried in an avalanche of freight, pungent with the smell of superior liquor,” wrote the Canadian journalist Peter C. Newman. “The odor grew so strong that at times the fog that rolled up St. Pierre’s steeply inclined streets with the nightly tides would carry a distinct Scotch flavour.”
Bill McCoy always considered his opening of the St. Pierre rum-running business a gift to the local population, who could now sustain themselves on a commodity more valuable than fish (and easier to land, too). As the growth of the business accelerated, the island’s fishermen abandoned their nets and became longshoremen, except for those who climbed aboard the whiskey fleet. More than a thousand vessels departed the tiny port for Rum Row in 1923 alone. Every basement, barn, and shed was turned into a stockroom. The six million bottles that passed through that year worked out to a thousand bottles for every man, woman, and child on the island. Although the island’s four-cents-per-bottle tax was less than one-tenth of the Bahamian levy, customs income ran to three times St. Pierre’s annual operating budget.
The bon temps rolled during what became known in later years as le temps de la fraude. New offices for importers and négociants replaced the fish processing operations on the street facing the dock. To make room for the vast quantity of bottles and cases overflowing from every roofed structure on the island, fish were evicted from St. Pierre’s refrigeration plant, which was converted into a liquor warehouse. The grand—for St. Pierre—L’Hotel Robert opened for business, its guest rooms occupied by English-speaking men sporting double-breasted overcoats, broad-brimmed fedoras, and fat billfolds. The Robert’s three-story facade was topped by an ornate wooden cornice, which was itself an exciting phenomenon on treeless St. Pierre. But wood soon became a common building material, as residents ripped up shipping cases to make shingles for their roofs, sills for their windows, and walls for their sheds. One especially resourceful islander built a brand-new home out of a matched suite of Scotch cases. The stenciled logo of a ship, repeated on each of the panels that lined the house’s walls, gave the place its name: Villa Cutty Sark.
In addition to the Scotch coming in from Glasgow, there was Irish whiskey ferried across the ocean by Norwegian steamers and so much bubbly sailing in from Le Havre that newspaper poets began to link St. Pierre with Nassau: the “Isle of Champagne” and the “Isle of Rum.” But the most valuable of the goods—or, better, the goods that made St. Pierre so valuable—was the variety represented in the hold of the Sable Island: all 12,000 of those cases were Canadian Club. To the Canadian distilling industry, St. Pierre might as well have been known as the Isle of Gold.
For all the factors that made St. Pierre so attractive—the ice-free harbor, the low import duties, the willing Catholic population—none was as important to the Canadians as its status as part of metropolitan France. Under Canadian law no duty was owed on liquor manufactured for export; shippers were required to post a tax bond as their goods left Canada, but would have the bond redeemed on the presentation of landing certificates from a foreign port. St. Pierre lay just fifteen miles off Canadian shores, but for duty purposes it was as foreign as the Congo. No longer did Canadian distillers have to supply their agents in Havana and other distant ports with the wads of cash required by local officials before they would stamp fake landing certificates. No longer did they have to use middlemen to transfer their goods to the rumrunners sailing toward Boston and New York. Vessels hailing from Halifax and other Canadian ports could chug into St. Pierre’s harbor and get legal stamps on the landing certificates required to release their tax deposits from bond. Soon a gilt-lettered sign reading “Northern Export Co.” went up on the stone facade of a building across from the St. Pierre dock—the local branch of the growing Bronfman empire. In any given week the Bronfman inventory stashed on St. Pierre was valued at more than $1 million. One of the rum-running ships working the waters between Halifax and St. Pierre might have been named in honor of the Bronfman success: the Mazel Tov.
In time, warehousing the goods became unnecessary. The St. Pierrais government decided to certify landing upon a ship’s arrival in port; duty paid, it could turn around and steam straight for Rum Row, neither crew nor cargo ever touching St. Pierre soil. The sea lanes stretching from St. Pierre to Cape Cod to Long Island became so thick with shippers, hijackers, and Coast Guard patrols that the rumrunners had to devise secure communications systems. Some depended on verbal codes (“chien oiseau” meant “200 cases arrived and landed”), some were numerical (“02716–22699” denoted “boat in trouble”). Many issued lead-covered codebooks that could be tossed safely—that is, irretrievably—into the sea if the ship was boarded by hostile parties. The Bronfman operatives, as always more sophisticated than the competition, relied on codes broadcast over a private radio station they had established expressly for this purpose.
Sometimes, though, the business required very little artifice. One could always proceed in the fashion favored by National Distilleries Limited of Montreal, which sent the following letter to a St. Pierre–based agent: “Dear Sir,” it began, “The bearer, Captain Tremblay, is going to go on the Columbia acting as Pilot and Navigator.” If Rum Row had had a chamber of commerce, it might have used the letter’s concluding sentence as its motto: “His duties are to bring the vessel to a position known to him.”
“RUM RUNNING IS DOOMED,” Roy Haynes declared in the summer of 1923, “and, unless I mistake the clear indications, the day of its doom is near.” Assuming that they did not know that Haynes was wrong about virtually everything, the editors of the Glasgow Evening News would have been surprised by his comment. Just weeks before, the News had described the parade of liquor ships departing the mouth of the Clyde, bound west by southwest across the North Atlantic to the coast of the United States and a rendezvous at the Rendezvous.
Of course, the Scotch whiskey industry was not entirely responsible for the rapid industrialization of Rum Row. The French had a hand in it, and so did the Hamburg-based distillery that conflated two famous brands in a counterfeit Scotch they marketed as “Black & White Horse Whisky.” American mobsters had also taken a substantial position in the business. “To cut costs and increase efficiency, we chartered our own ships to bring the Scotch across the Atlantic,” Meyer Lansky told an interviewer half a century later. “. . . By the middle twenties we were running the most efficient international shipping business in the world.” But Lansky also noted that the mob’s interest in greater efficiency had not been unprovoked: “Those fine upright men in Britain kept squeezing us for higher prices.”
The “fine upright men” were the lords of the Scotch whiskey industry, operating their “scheduled area” racket. In 1919, when the United States was turning dry, British distillers were turning peckish. World War I had been rough on them, not only restricting foreign trade but pinching their domestic markets as well. During the war the prime minister—David Lloyd George, who’d famously said that drink was a greater enemy to the United Kingdom than the Germans—hit the industry with new excise levies, redoubling taxes he had already doubled during the war. British temperance advocates, inspired by the American example, appeared to be gaining ground.
One of the whiskey lords who turned his attention to the growing threat was Lord Dewar of Homestall. Tommy Dewar had made his family’s White Label brand an international success, for three decades traveling the world to promote Scotch generally, Dewar’s specifically, and with particular delight a philosophy of living that became known as “Dewarism.” This was a fundamentally hedonist code expressed in upward of 150 aphorisms tinted by Dewar’s sybaritic enthusiasms (“Of two evils, choose the more interesting”) and his Conservative politics (“If we are here to help others, I often wonder what the others are here for”).
But Dewar also invoked more solemn principles of modern business. “Yesterday’s success belongs to yesterday” was a famous example, and never had it applied more than in 1920, as Dewar and his colleagues faced what the Scotch Whisky Association in its annual report called “the prohibition virus.” Dewar railed against the threat posed by British drys, and William H. Ross of the powerful Distillers Company Limited was alarmed as well. “The fact that America has, through a cleverly contrived plot, suddenly voted herself ‘dry,’ ” said Ross, “has been hailed by the extremists of this country as an indication that people here will follow suit.” In a word, the distillers were on the brink of panic.
As it developed, Prohibition wasn’t much of a problem for the Scotch lords. British temperance activists won little public sympathy. Additionally, the nation’s crushing war debt obliged Lloyd George’s government to promote exports, and few British products were as promotable as the millions of gallons of whiskey aging in casks from Speyside to Islay. Nor was there a potential market larger than the millions of Americans, pining for liquor, who were conveniently situated between those tariff-free outposts of empire, Canada and the Bahamas. The American thirst was so great, said the London Evening Standard, that all the decent liquor was “lodged (not too securely) in the cellars of millionaires,” who were compelled to defend their stock “by force of arms.” This wasn’t remotely accurate, but for a Scotch distiller looking to the export trade, it couldn’t help but warm the blood.
If ever there was a seller’s market, this was it. Any faint resistance to exploiting American Prohibition was swept away when the cupidity of the distillers was catalyzed by a combination of imperial pride and the British commitment to freedom of the seas. Sir Auckland Geddes, ambassador to Washington, employed diplomatic understatement when he informed George Curzon, the foreign secretary, that “the enactment of Prohibition has inflicted hardship on the Trade.” British sensitivities were not mollified when William Jennings Bryan threatened invasion of Bimini if the UK continued to tolerate its use as “the base of a conspiracy against the Prohibition law.” As an increasingly marginalized figure in a minority party, Bryan had no authority to act on his threats, but he was a former secretary of state, and his words were widely reported in the London press.
To the British foreign office eventually fell the responsibility of conducting an arduous negotiation with the American State Department regarding the three-mile limit, which had been universally recognized as the demarcation line between national and international waters since the eighteenth century. The Americans wanted to push the line outward, hoping to strain the resources of inshore smugglers who would have to traverse many more than six miles of open seas on a round-trip. To another branch of the British government, the Colonial Office, fell the responsibility of fielding American demands that the British crack down on the bootlegging business that was growing exponentially in the Caribbean colonies. The U.S. consul in Nassau sent his superiors in the State Department a local newspaper’s summary of the Colonial Office response to American pleadings: “We are doing our best for you but cannot be expected to infringe on the prerogatives of our own people to help you enforce one of your fool laws.”
At the same time, U.S. secretary of state Charles Evans Hughes had been under great pressure to forbid all foreign ships, even passenger liners, from carrying liquor inside American coastal waters. The primary advocate of this position was the Justice Department, in the formidable person of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who seemed to relish a fight like this one. Having sharpened her saber during her assaults on Andrew Mellon’s inconstant devotion to the Volstead Act, she now turned her attention to Hughes, accusing the State Department of failing to enforce the Constitution and electing instead “to ‘give aid and comfort’ to the British Embassy.”
The possibility that champagne and whiskey might be stripped from the pantries of their liners brought the British to the negotiating table, and Lord Curzon eventually acceded to an extension of the three-mile limit. The new treaty established that a nation’s coastal waters began at “an hour’s steaming distance” from the shore—as later interpreted by American authorities, twelve nautical miles. Curzon wasn’t happy about the compromise but considered this change in long-established international law a necessary acknowledgment of the prevailing political reality in the United States—a reality that he described as “Puritanism run mad.”
Curzon’s counterpart in the Colonial Office made no concessions at all. Winston Churchill believed that “a State is only responsible for the enforcement of its own laws,” and had no obligation to implement the laws of another nation. He flatly refused to use British influence, authority, or power to interfere in any way with the liquor trade of the Bahamas or any other British colony in the Caribbean. Several years later, summing up his view of the Eighteenth Amendment, Churchill landed on a phrase that went beyond Curzon’s sputtering invocation of Puritanism. Prohibition, Churchill said, was “an affront to the whole history of mankind.”
THE British ROLE in the Prohibition era did not end with the signing of the twelve-mile-limit treaty. The final chapter wouldn’t be written until after the lords of the Scotch industry had established a schedule of price controls, credit requirements, and other rules regulating access to Rum Row; after they had successfully opened an alternative depot on St. Pierre, nearer the population centers of the Northeast; and after they had forged their phenomenally profitable joint venture with Sam Bronfman.
After all that, the enduring epitaph for the British role in the bootlegging business was uttered by Sir Alexander Walker, heir to the firm that had been founded in Ayrshire a century before by his grandfather Johnnie. Summoned before a Royal Commission on Licensing in 1930, Walker was asked if the distillery industry could have stopped the export of liquor to the United States.
“Certainly not,” Walker replied.
The examiner pressed. “You could not?”
Said Walker, “We would not if we could.”
* Like the Bronfmans, Symonette later learned how to erase the stain of bootlegging from his fortune. After four decades spent channeling his earnings into real estate, shipbuilding, construction, and other more conventional industries, Symonette’s success was memorialized by two distinct honors. First, in 1964 he became the premier of the newly self-governing Bahamas. But he won yet more appropriate recognition in 2001, when his country put Symonette’s face on its fifty-dollar bill.