To earn a hefty profit, ordinary folk turned into smugglers.
Prohibition was a swing at legislated morality, the reward of a hard-fought campaign to free Americans of the cost of alcohol consumption. The march for that historic piece of dry legislation, the 18th Amendment, did not happen overnight. Countless citizens, demonstrations and associations, and political operatives of extraordinary skill, were all behind these 112 words:
Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
Section 2. The Congress and the several states shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.
The bite-sized amendment was later buttressed by the Volstead Act which designated agencies for enforcement, the measurement of alcohol prohibited in beverages—”… any such beverages which contain one-half of 1 per centum or more of alcohol by volume.”—permits for medicinal use, religious exemptions, and fines and sentencing for violators. A serious flaw existed here: the language was dry, but Americans were still wet. Consumption and appetite were not suppressed by law nor parted from the system of supply and demand. Consumers still wanted to drink, and those who ignored Prohibition could earn plenty of cash to supply them.
Scotch, whiskey, champagne, gin, and rum were sold from overseas producers and the ships that delivered them, but supply vessels were not allowed in U.S. waters. The ships came anyway, floating on the edge of American territory, and soon, a flotilla of buyers came to them. Signs were hung in the rigging to advertise stock. Customers motored alongside in a variety of craft, tossed cash on the deck, and merchandise was lowered to them. This was Rum Row, and there were many rows from Florida to Maine. Supply ships could also receive food, newspapers, and messages from shore agents. They stayed until the stock ran out, then returned to a friendly port like Nassau or St. Pierre for crews, repairs, and more merchandise.
Rum-runners thrived in this system, ordinary folk who learned to double, triple, or quadruple their regular income by moving contraband. People were inventive to satisfy supply and demand. When free of its traps, a lobster boat could contain many cases of liquor. If compelled to hide merchandise from inspectors, a crew might stash the good stuff under false tops or utilize a hidden compartment. Bribes secured passage to shore and avoided patrols. Codes and secret messages kept everyone informed of schedules and supply ships. When making a delivery ashore, the runner did not always require a pier or harbor: boats could run right up on a beach. Sufficiently buoyant packages could float ashore, be moored underwater, or transfer to barges.
Law enforcement could not possibly watch every mile of coastline. Police and federal agents had their hands full with border smuggling, boot-legging, and speak-easies. Eventually, the U.S. Coast Guard received surplus Navy destroyers, extra personnel, new patrol boats, and aircraft. It was only logical that the smuggling underworld improve upon itself as well. A surplus WWI Liberty airplane engine could transform a boat into a sea devil, and at speeds of 30 knots or more, could easily out-race the Coast Guard. Patrol boats might bracket an elusive craft with warning shots, but a stray bullet from a Coast Guard machine gun might do worse—some nasty fatalities reminded every runner of the cost of doing business. Sometimes it was better to torch the boat and its cargo and jump into the sea. As the trade grew more dangerous, smugglers built armored speed boats with suppressed exhausts and smoke generators. They relied more on coded communications with shore agents and suppliers. Criminal syndicates also dipped their hands into the ever-flowing river of illegal commerce.
This dark business on the sea did not last forever, for the country was in a constant state of growth. The fire died out in some of Prohibition’s greatest supporters. Others changed their mind. Some who favored repeal believed there was more money to be made in legitimate sale of liquor, beer, and wine. There was also the notion that appetites, like their moral issues, could not be legislated. Nevertheless, the rum-runners were a stubborn and daring lot. They kept moving, facing capture, seizure, and even death, for the rewards of smuggling up until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.
Photos: uscg.mil/history, Rum War! The Coast Guard & Prohibition
→ To read more about the dangers of rum-running, take a look at Barleycorn Bay.