Day 89: My Rum Runneth Over – The Unsung Heroics of Bill McCoy

originally published March 29, 2012

Thanks to two friends who have abandoned the notion of a dining room table in exchange for a home-made tiki bar, I have learned a lot about rum recently. For example, I learned that, when consumed in significant quantities and mixed with a veritable reef of colorful flavors, rum can be wonderful. I hope to follow up with more research on this. For science.

My topic today is rum-running, a term which came from the lucrative business of illegally transporting rum from the Bahamas to Florida during Prohibition. I learned three cool things from this article:

  1. “Rum-running” refers to smuggling alcohol over water, while “Bootlegging” means smuggling it over land.
  2. The term “Bootlegging” comes from the city-folk who would sell illegal booze from a flask they kept tucked inside their boot legs.
  3. Bill McCoy existed.

Bill was a gentleman gangster, a kingpin on the “wrong” side of the law (a very wrong law), but far from your typical mobster-type. He was Florida’s Robin Hood during a very weird time in American history.

He was a sea captain, that’s where his legend was born. Bill attended the Pennsylvania Nautical School in Philadelphia, graduating at the top of his class. He was serving aboard a steamer ship in Havana when the USS Maine exploded nearby, setting off the Spanish-American War.

His dad was a Civil War hero, so he had a lot to live up to. Luckily, Bill had heroism in his blood, or maybe he was always trying to impress his father. Am I reading too much into this? Admit it, the story works better with the drama. What were Bill’s childhood dreams? His greatest fears?

One thing he didn’t fear was his father’s old enemy, the deep south. Along with his brother Ben, Bill moved just north of Daytona Beach and ran a small motor boat service. Sounds like Bill had my childhood dreams.

By 1918, he was something of a celebrity, albeit kind of a D-lister among the hoity-toities of the east coast. He got into yacht building, and popped out a few gems to customers like the Vanderbilts and Andrew Carnegie.

This is right around where luck moseyed south for the McCoys. There are only so many yachts that Woodrow-Wilson-era millionaires could own. Boat travel wasn’t going away, but it was no longer the primary route up and down the coast. Florida’s infrastructure was booming, with new highways being paved in order for the Burma-Shave company to have somewhere to advertise.

Ben and Bill sold their business and moved to Massachusetts. But this was not an act of defeat. This was an act of investment.

They bought a schooner called the Henry L. Marshall. After making it look pretty, and christening it with a bottle of apple juice because the recently-implemented Prohibition had outlawed alcohol, the brothers pointed it south.

The McCoys picked the Bahamas as their source, and proceeded to sneak whiskey from Nassau and Bimini all over the east coast of the USA. They usually dropped anchor in a place called Rum Row, just off Long Island. This was a gathering of ships who had set up camp just beyond the three-mile stretch off the coast into international waters. This was home base to the unfortunate souls who had the unenviable job of smuggling the hooch ashore, taking the big risks. What Bill and Ben were doing was effectively legal (albeit in a somewhat fuzzy sense of the term). They were transporting liquor from the Bahamas to nowhere.

Ah, but it’s an American boat! That must be illegal. And it would be, but Bill had changed the boat’s name and set it up in the British registry. He knew how to steady his gunwale, if you catch my meaning.

If McCoy was a micro-celeb a few years earlier, by the early 20’s he had become Jacko, Bennifer and Macca all poured into one beloved unmarked bottle. He was running rye, Irish whiskey, Canadian whiskey, wine… the only thing I’m not sure he actually hauled was rum. He invented something called a burlock – it was a means of transporting six bottles, cloaked in straw and snuggled into burlap sacks.

Bill didn’t touch liquor himself. Like a quality drug dealer who steers clear of his product, Bill didn’t want to fall into the vice. He never made a deal with any organized crime syndicate (though I imagine this was not from their lack of trying), nor did he have a single cop or politician on his payroll. He called himself an honest lawbreaker. He didn’t dilute his stuff either. Bill took pride in the purity of his alcohol; he made sure his customers received genuine, uncut stuff every time. It got so that his customers (or possibly the cops who were keeping track of the underworld) would identify Bill’s product as “the real McCoy,” because it was always untainted.

The authorities knew about Bill, but he was over the border. What could they do? He might duck up to the two tiny French-run islands of Saint Pierre and Miuelon, just south of Newfoundland. No really, there are two French islands still located just off the coast of Canada:

But he never entered American territory.

He didn’t have to. On November 23, 1923, the Coast Guard lost their patience. A boarding party hopped aboard Bill’s boat, outside of American waters. Refusing to recognize their authority, Bill pointed the boat further out to sea and took off, American boarding party and all.

Then the Coast Guard opened fire. They shot one across the bow, and McCoy’s boat had to fire back from the machine gun on their forward deck. The Coast Guard ship returned fire, and rather than head for the horizon with fifteen unwilling Americans with powerful shells exploding all around him, Bill surrendered.

He was brought to New Jersey and locked up. I’m not entirely certain what the charge was – this might be worth a follow-up – but Bill pled guilty. He may have just wanted to avoid the costs of a lengthy trial, or maybe there was a legal loophole through which the US could nab him. Either way, it cost him nine months of his life in a New Jersey jail, and effectively ended his rum-running career.

Bill’s story ends well, with he and Ben buying some land in Florida and continuing their boat-building careers, which I’m sure took off once again. Well, at least until the stock market crash of 1929.

Maybe Bill was just in the rum-running game for the money, but he kept his product clean. A lot of his competition didn’t. He’s a complex character who deserves, I believe, greater examination. I’ll start by drinking a lot of rum this weekend. I’ll let you know if I find anything out.

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