AskDefine | Define rumrunner

Dictionary Definition

rumrunner n : someone who illegally smuggles liquor across a border

Extensive Definition

Rum-running is the business of smuggling or transporting of alcoholic beverages illegally, usually to circumvent taxation or prohibition. The term usually applies to transport of goods over water, over land it is commonly referred to as bootlegging.


It wasn't long after the first taxes on alcoholic beverages that someone began to smuggle them. The British government had "revenue cutters" in place to stop smugglers as early as the 1500s. Pirates often made extra money running rum to heavily taxed colonies. There were times when the sale of alcohol was limited for other purposes, such as laws against sales to American Indians in the old West, or local prohibitions like the one on Prince Edward Island between 1901 and 1948.
Women were also expert smugglers and transporters. Some would hide a flask in their garters and some attached bottles to their hips.
One of the most famous periods of rum-running began in the United States with the 18th Amendment (ratified January 16, 1919) and the Volstead Act (passed October 28, 1919). Prohibition began on January 16, 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect.
At first, there was little action on the seas, but after several months the Coast Guard began reporting increased smuggling activity. This was the start of the Bimini–Bahamas rum trade and the introduction of Bill McCoy.

"The Real McCoy"

Captain William S. McCoy was a boat builder and excursion boat captain in the Daytona Beach, Florida, area from 1900 to 1920. He was also reputed to be a non-drinker.
With the start of Prohibition Captain McCoy began to bring rum from Bimini and the Bahamas into south Florida through Government Cut. The Coast Guard soon caught up with him, so he began to bring the illegal goods to just outside of the U.S. territorial waters and let smaller boats and other captains such as Habana Joe take the risk of bringing it into shore.
The rum-running business was very good, and McCoy soon bought a Gloucester knockabout schooner named Arethusa at auction and renamed her Tomika.He installed a larger auxiliary, mounted a concealed machine gun on her deck and refitted the fish pens below to accommodate as much contraband as she could hold. She became one of the most famous of the rum-runners, along with his two other ships hauling mostly Irish and Canadian whiskey, as well as other fine liquors and wines, to ports from Maine to Florida.
In the days of rum running, it was common for captains to add water to the bottles to stretch their profits, or to re-label it as better goods. Any cheap sparkling wine became French champagne or Italian Spumante; unbranded liquor became top-of-the-line name brands. McCoy became famous for never watering his booze, and selling only top brands. This is one of several reputed origins of the term "The Real McCoy."
On 15 November 1923, McCoy and Tomika encountered the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Seneca, just inside U.S. territorial waters. A boarding party attempted to board, but McCoy chased them off with the machine gun. Tomika tried to run, but the Seneca placed a shell just off her hull, and Bill McCoy's days as a rum-runner were over.

The Rum Line

McCoy is credited with the idea of bringing large ships just to the edge of the three-mile (5.6 km) limit of U.S. jurisdiction, and there selling his wares to "contact boats", local fishermen and small boat captains. The small, quick boats could more easily outrun Coast Guard ships and could dock in any small river or eddy and transfer their cargo to a waiting truck. They were also known to load float planes and flying boats. Soon others were following suit; the three-mile (5.6 km) limit became known as "the Rum Line" and the ships waiting were called "Rum Row". The Rum Line was extended to a 12-mile (22.2 km) limit by an act of the United States Congress on April 21, 1924, which made it harder for the smaller and less seaworthy craft to make the trip.
The Rum Line wasn't the only front for the Coast Guard. Rum-runners often made the trip through Canada via the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, and down the west coast to San Francisco and Los Angeles. The French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, located south of Newfoundland, were an important base used by well-known smugglers including Al Capone and Bill McCoy. The Gulf of Mexico also teemed with ships running from Mexico and the Bahamas to the Louisiana swamps and Alabama coast. By far the biggest Rum Row was in the New York/Philadelphia area off the New Jersey coast, where as many as 60 ships were seen at one time. One of the most notable New Jersey rum runners was Habana Joe, who could be seen at night running into remote areas in Raritan Bay with his flat-bottom skiff for running up on the beach, making his delivery, and speeding away.
With that much competition, the suppliers often flew large banners advertising their wares and threw parties with prostitutes on board their ships to draw customers. Rum Row was completely lawless, and many crews armed themselves not against government ships but against the other rum-runners, who would sometimes sink a ship and hijack its cargo rather than make the run to Canada or the Caribbean for fresh supplies.

The ships

On the government's side were an assortment of patrol boats, inshore patrol and harbor cutters. Most of the patrol boats were of the "six-bit" variety: 75-foot craft with a top speed of about 12 knots. There were also an assortment of launches, harbor tugs and miscellaneous small craft.
At the start, the rum-runner fleet consisted of a ragtag flotilla of fishing boats, excursion boats, and small merchant craft. But as prohibition wore on, the stakes got higher and the ships became more specialized. Large merchant ships like McCoy's Tomika waited on Rum Row, but specialized high-speed craft were built for the ship-to-shore runs. These high-speed boats were often luxury yachts and speedboats fitted with powerful aircraft engines, machine guns, and armor plating. Rum-runners often kept cans of used engine oil handy to pour on hot exhaust manifolds, in case a smoke screen was needed to escape the revenue ships.
The rum-runners were definitely faster and more maneuverable. Add to that the fact that a rum-running captain could make several hundred thousand dollars a year. In comparison, the Coast Guard Commandant made just $6,000 annually, and seamen made $30/week. These huge rewards meant the rum-runners were willing to take big risks. They ran without lights at night and in fog, risking life and limb. Often the shores were littered with bottles from a rum-runner who hit a sandbar or a reef in the dark at high speed and sank.
The Coast Guard relied on hard work, excellent reconnaissance and big guns to get their job done. It was not uncommon for rum-runners' ships to be sold at auction shortly after a trial — often right back to the original owners. Some ships were captured three or four times before they were finally sunk or retired. Plus the Coast Guard had other duties, and often had to let a rum-runner go in order to assist a sinking vessel or other emergency.

The end of Prohibition

On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, and with it the rum-running business. Most of the rum ships were sold or scrapped, and their crews either went into the merchant marine or the U.S. Navy. Surprisingly, the Navy welcomed the ex–rum-runners as skilled and experienced seamen (some with battle experience), often giving them non-commissioned officer ranks. One of the targeted rum runners to convert was Habana Joe who frequented the New Jersey rum line. However, Habana Joe resisted the offer and created a clothing company based in New Jersey after his rum running adventures.
The Coast Guard emerged from Prohibition a new service, larger and more effective. Many of the skills they learned battling the rumrunners went to defend the U.S. coastline during the war.

References and further reading

  • Malcolm F. Willoughby. Rum War at Sea. Fredonia Books. 2001. ISBN 1-58963-105-6.
  • Alastair Moray. The diary of a rum-runner. P. Allan & Co. Ltd. 1929., Reprint in 2006, ISBN 0977372561
  • Robert Carse. Rum row.
  • Don Miller. I was a rum runner. Lescarbot Printing Ltd. 1979.
  • Everett S. Allen. The black ships: Rumrunners of Prohibition. Little, Brown. 1979. ISBN 0-316-03258-1.
  • C. W. Hunt. Whisky and Ice: The Saga of Ben Kerr, Canada's Most Daring Rumrunner. Dundurn Press. 1995. ISBN 1-55002-249-0
  • Philip P. Mason. Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties: Prohibition on the Michigan-Ontario Waterway. Wayne State University Press, 1995.
  • David Frew. Prohibition and Rum Running on Lake Erie (The Lake Erie Quadrangle Shipwreck Series, Book 4) Erie County Historical Society; 1ST edition (2006) ISBN 1883658489
  • Bruce Yandle, "Bootleggers and Baptists: The Education of a Regulatory Economist." Regulation 7, no. 3 (1983): 12.
rumrunner in French: Bootlegger
rumrunner in Russian: Бутлегер
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