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Flat Hammock Press is an independent book publisher specializing in nautical non-fiction and coastal culture.


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Prohibition, Rum Running and The Real McCoy   
Rum Running Revisited  
Six Books Look Back at Prohibition: "The Real McCoy," "The Bootleg Queen,"
and the Liquor Fleet that Fueled the Roaring Twenties.   

            Before there were red states and blue states, there were dry states and wet states––those that banned the sale and transportation of alcohol,
and those where such activities were legal.
            In 1919, it was the dry states, not the popular vote, which secured approval of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting the manufacture, sale or importation of alcohol. An act to enforce Prohibition was then twice passed by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate in order to override the veto of President Woodrow Wilson. Beginning January 16, 1920, America was officially dry.
            An early result of Prohibition was the development of a new industry known as rum running, the smuggling of liquor from other countries or nearby islands. At the outset, rum running was primarily the pursuit of individuals, chiefly mariners and fishermen. For these men, most of whom were not hardened criminals, there was high adventure, money to be made, a degree of romance, and a strong sense of fraternity.

Flat Hammock Press of Mystic, Connecticut, is republishing six books which are first-hand accounts of rum running. The books, most of which were first published in the late 1920s and early 1930s and long out-of-print, have been updated for modern readers with added insight, information and many never seen before photographs.
            “Prohibition is a time period so unbelievable that most Americans today do not understand what, and how, it all happened,” says Robert McKenna, editor of Flat Hammock Press. “It was brought about by a well-organized movement and led to a polarized political and social climate––one not unlike we are experiencing today. The first heroes of this era were the rum-runners, lawbreakers who were viewed as Robin Hood-like figures.”
            McKenna has spent the past five years researching Prohibition and rum running, examining period newspaper accounts and U.S. government files, to uncovering the personal journals, photo albums and correspondence of the rum-runners themselves.
            “For obvious reasons,” says McKenna, “not much was written about Prohibition from the smugglers’ perspective. These six narratives: The Real McCoy; The Bahama Queen, Diary of a Rum-Runner, Confessions of a Rum-Runner; Rum Row, and Smugglers of Spirits, are mainly all that exists. They are just as gripping and exciting as any adventure novel written then or since... and every word is true.”

            The books describe, in various forms, how rum-runners employed vessels of all descriptions, from fishing schooners, rust-streaked tramp steamers, luxury yachts, even retired navy ships, and set out from ports in Europe, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba, Jamaica, even the French Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, loaded with scotch, rye, gin, bourbon, champagne and brandy, and headed for the major cities of the United States.
            This flotilla, known as “Rum Row,” rode at anchor outside the limits of U.S. law enforcement, their holds wide open, ready, willing and able to do business with anyone who would come out to buy their liquor. Intrepid individuals in small craft would come out from the beaches, inlets and bays to these floating liquor stores and offload case after case.
            “The profits were enormous, and cash was thick,” says McKenna. “Business went on around the clock; with times being so busy that the deck of a rum-runner could look like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.”
            And as to risks, there simply weren’t any. The limit of U.S. jurisdiction was three miles. The Coast Guard was powerless to do anything and the crews of the rum running vessels would taunt the enforcement officials by offering them bottles of liquor, and serenading them with songs like “How Dry I Am” and “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor.”

            There were many Rum Rows along the American seaboard, all of them hovering in close proximity to the great ports with their big populations. The heaviest concentration of ships anchored off New Jersey and Long Island, handy to the approaches to the great port of New York.

            McKenna notes that one of the most interesting aspects of Rum Row, which is uniquely described in each book, was the community life that developed. In addition to picking up loads of whiskey, the boats from shore would deliver fresh food, water, newspapers, magazines, even ice cream. Fisherman, on their way back to market would stop to swap fish and lobsters for a few bottles of scotch. For entertainment, to keep crews from getting bored, the bigger ships featured happy hours, impromptu concerts graced by paid entertainers from shore. There was dancing on the main deck in the evenings, dance partners were girls who came out from shore just for kicks. Call girls made their way to Rum Row as well, where they received double the shore side price for their favors.
            To pass the days, the crews of the rum-runners would visit with each other, bartering, trading, or bumming cigarettes and tobacco. They would read, play cards and chess, even do arts and crafts. Most ships had a crank-handle gramophone on board, some even had radios. Sightseeing boats loaded with tourists made the rounds of the fleet; they would shout good wishes and salutations at the rummy crews. Doctors from shore were on call to render medical attention.
            Once their cargo was exhausted, the rum-runners would return to Europe or the islands, bank their money, and pick up another load.
            “They were wild times,” says McKenna. “These are the guys—and gals—that fueled the Roaring Twenties.”

 Leading the list of books is The Real McCoy, the story of rum-runner Bill McCoy, the Florida boatbuilder turned national hero whose quality liquor and fair dealing perpetuated the phrase, “it’s the real McCoy.” For nearly four years McCoy slaked the thirst of the nation while leading authorities on a merry chase. He pioneered new smuggling methods, founded the notorious Rum Row, and built a bootlegging empire that made millions of dollars. In all his dealings McCoy remained personable and trustworthy and true to his standard that the liquor he carried be the best.

The Bahama Queen is the autobiography of Gertrude Lythgoe, a beautiful and enterprising American businesswoman who set up her own wholesale liquor business in Nassau, Bahamas, and sent shipload after shipload of the finest whiskey to the thirsty America. A woman well before her time, Lythgoe earned the respect and admiration of the rum running fraternity and became crowned as the “Queen of the Bootleggers.”

            The Confessions of a Rum-Runner is the first-hand account of James Barbican, a Scotsman, who, like many of his countrymen, was out of work following his service fighting the Great War. Barbican, the pen name of Eric Sherbrooke Walker, found a job, and made a great deal of money, smuggling liquor to the United States. Walker later used his rum-running profits to open the Treetops Hotel in Kenya, Africa, best-known for being the place where Princess Elizabeth spent the night of February 5th, 1952. During the night her father George VI, died and she became Queen Elizabeth II.

          The Diary of a Rum-Runner by Alastair Moray is a plain, unvarnished, day-by-day account of eleven months off New York with a crazy ship, a mutinous crew, lurking hijackers and inquisitive federal authorities.

           Smugglers of Spirits by Harold Waters is the sole period account on the part of someone charged with enforcing Prohibition at sea. Waters served in the U.S. Coast Guard and recounts, among other things, the lack of enthusiasm the Coast Guard crews displayed in enforcing Prohibition. His stories, in addition to providing wonderful insight into the times, are colorful and, often hilarious.

           Finally, Rum Row by Robert Carse provides wonderful descriptions of the fleets that anchored off the population areas of all coasts, the characters that manned them, and the thrilling and dangerous times on ship and shore.

Robert McKenna, editor of Flat Hammock Press, is a former Coast Guard Officer and author of many books, including The Dictionary of Nautical Literacy, and Bottoms Up!: Toasts, Tales & Traditions of Drinking’s Long History as a Nautical Pastime. He teaches the subject of Prohibition and the Rum War at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He is available for lectures, book readings and presentations on rum running.

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