100 Years of Wooden Glory - The Rum Runners
September 6th 2007 09:55
The Rum Runners
By the first two decades of the Twentieth century many aspiring boat-building companies had begun establishing their businesses however, a single event in American history would provide an impetus for their growth and have a profound impact on modern culture.
On December 16th 1920, in response to the mounting pressures of middle class Americans known as the Temperance Movement, the Government passed the 18th Amendment more commonly known as the Volstead Act that prohibited the sale, possession or consumption of alcohol in the United States.
North of the border however, Canadians had been employing restricted sales of alcohol to its indigenous peoples since 1901 and by 1916 most provinces were further legislated under the Temperance Act. While it wasn’t illegal to manufacture, export or consume alcohol, it was illegal to sell alcohol in some provinces, a law that would be repealed in Canada by 1927 when Government excise and controlled liquor sales took effect that still exists to this day.
Rum running found its roots in the Volstead Act of 1920 and in response to prohibition many commercial charter boat operators became opportunists, heading out from ports in Atlantic Canada to as far south as the Florida Keys to neighboring islands in the Caribbean in search of their illegal cargo’s.
In an effort to increase their profits, rumrunners would often water down or re-label alcohol to fetch higher market prices. One operator however, Capt. William McCoy, gained a reputation for selling brand name undiluted alcohol and today, is the origin of the modern phrase “The Real McCoy” used to describe the genuine article.
Alcohol could be purchased inexpensively in the Bahamas as well as Cuba and large vessels would make the return trips from the Caribbean islands with their holds full of contraband liquor. Many of the rumrunners were capable of carrying loads with a street value in excess of $200,000.00 which was significant considering a good wage at the time was $50.00 per week.
Great risks were often undertaken with a view to great rewards and many an empire was founded on the illegal distribution of alcohol.
In 1921 Government patrols in sovereign waters that later developed into the Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards, led to the prosecution and seizure of several vessels used in the illegal alcohol trade.
No longer wanting to take the risk of having their vessels seized, rumrunners began holding outside the 12-mile limit in International waters off both coasts of America, opting instead to offload the risk of prosecution and seizure to those that were purchasing the alcohol. These lines of alcohol-laden ships were referred to as “Rum Rows” and the Government was powerless to prosecute crews or seize vessels and their cargos, as long as they remained outside the 12-mile limit.
As the distribution of alcohol became more prevalent, the use of smaller faster runabouts was employed. Most of the mahogany runabouts of Garwood or Hacker design were capable of speeds in excess of 40kts and could easily outrun the Coast Guards displacement hulled revenue cutters, making for shore to offload their alcohol at predestined rendezvous points.
Catching rumrunners in Canada however was significantly more difficult as access from the Atlantic Ocean to major Canadian ports was a relatively un-patrolled stretch of water and many towns on either side of the border were within mere miles of each other along the St. Lawrence River extending to the Great Lakes.
Additionally, since alcohol wasn’t illegal in Canada, the majority of ships carrying alcohol cargos were doing so legally and therefore found it easier to camouflage undeclared contraband in their holds.
With Canada’s proximity to American cities across the St. Lawrence River and throughout the Great Lakes region, many cottage industries, including the distillation of gin in bathtubs were created to facilitate the growing business of selling alcohol to Americans.
For one man however, the promise of riches and a better life was all he needed. His actions gave birth to a crime syndicate that made him one of Canada’s most notorious criminals.
One of Canada’s largest legal manufacturers of alcohol during prohibition years was Gooderham & Worts Ltd. located near the inner harbour of Toronto’s waterfront. Today, Gooderham’s has been converted to a series of studios catering for Toronto’s burgeoning film industry. Several blocks away on the site of Toronto’s City Hall used to stand a middle class neighbourhood known as the “Ward”.
Bessie Starkman, a Jewish woman who was married and lived with her husband in the ward, answered her door one day to Italian born immigrant Rocco Perri, who was responding to an advertisement she had placed offering room and board.
Rocco took the room and as time went on, Rocco and Bessie became torrid lovers who fantasized about a better life of wealth and social status promised in the early 1920’s.
By 1923, Bessie had left her husband and both she and Rocco moved to a lavish home located in Hamilton Ontario about half way between Toronto and Niagara Falls near the American border.
This was the beginning of the Calabrian crime syndicate that began with distribution of alcohol during the prohibition years and by the late 1920’s had expanded to drugs, extortion, racketeering and prostitution. While Rocco posed as the front man, Bessie his common-law wife ruled the organization with an iron fist and in fact was the only Jewish woman in history to ever run the Mob.
With connections in New York, Philadelphia and most major eastern U.S. cities, plans to expand their operations west to Detroit and Chicago would be finalized in a meeting with mid-west crime upstarts Al Capone and Diamond Jim Grady, another Canadian.
The St. Clair River that separated Windsor on the Canadian side and Detroit on the American side was the site of the annual Gold Cup races frequented by Gar Wood, Chris Smith and Canadian boat builder Herb Ditchburn.
Given the short distance across the river it was commonplace to see Canadians rowing to the American shores and back several times a day. By the following week you would see the same people with a brand new outboard motor on their boats and after several more weeks, you would see them in brand new mahogany runabouts that cost in excess of two years annual income for the average wage earner.
Meanwhile back on the east coast of America the foundation of an empire was being built.
Joseph Kennedy, son of Irish Catholic immigrants and patriarch of the infamous Kennedy family was a client of Rocco Perri’s.
Joseph Kennedy, who was most recognizable as the father of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, became affectionately known as a “Baptist Bootlegger”.
By the mid 1920’s the Volstead Act was being reviewed by his allies in the American Government with a view to repealing it, but Kennedy was making so much money while prohibition was in existence, that he secretly aligned himself with Temperance Movement supporters in an effort to keep prohibition in place.
With a certain degree of control at that point and insider information during the prohibition period, he positioned himself as the sole import agent of several brands of alcohol, purchasing millions of dollars worth of stock. The day prohibition ended in 1933 his company re-sold the stock legally making tens of millions of dollars of profit.
While subversively controlling the distribution of illegal alcohol during prohibition, Kennedy disguised his activities as the legitimate owner of an investment firm, trading in the largely unregulated stock market.
In what would be considered highly illegal by today’s governance of the stock exchange, Joseph Kennedy manipulated the stock values of companies in cooperation with a pool of investors up or down depending on the position of the pool at the time.
In 1928 Kennedy pulled hundreds of millions of dollars out of the markets just prior to the market crash of 1929 and then subsequently made a secondary fortune on his short positions.
In the early 1930’s Joseph Kennedy funded the election of President Theodore Roosevelt who made him Chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission, closing the door behind him to anyone else intent on amassing a fortune in illegal trading practices.
In the long term Roosevelt helped groom Joseph’s eldest son Robert Kennedy for the White House job, until his assassination on the campaign trail some time after. Later, Joseph Kennedy would live the Presidency vicariously through his second son John F. Kennedy who was elected in 1961 and subsequently assassinated in 1963.
With the significant connections Rocco Perri and Bessie Starkman had made from the eastern seaboard of the United States through to the mid-west, the trafficking of heroin and morphine ran alongside the sale of illegal alcohol through an established network in all major U.S. cities.
In 1930 however, Bessie Starkman was becoming arrogant and a threat to the continued success of the mob’s operations. She was killed by a double shotgun blast in the doorway of her Hamilton Mountain home, sending shockwaves throughout the local community and giving rise to Hamilton being called “Murder Mountain”.
After a brief lapse following the death of Bessie, Rocco regained control of the Mob with the help of a second Jewish woman named Annie Newman who continued to build his empire during prohibition. Annie was instrumental in bribing the Canadian Establishment to evade prosecution in Canada, while newly elected President Roosevelt put into power by the Kennedy’s staved off efforts to thwart his operations on the U.S. side.
Back in Canada, with Government controlled liquor boards now in place and with the help of Rocco’s Chicago connection Al Capone, Annie engineered a scheme of “prohibition in reverse”, smuggling alcohol back across the border into Ontario to sell to Canadians de-void of the Governments imposed excise tax, making money as alcohol moved in both directions
Mounting pressure for the incarceration of Rocco Perri came as a result of a growing number of articles that appeared in the Toronto Star newspaper by staff journalists Ernest Hemmingway and Morley Callaghan. Hemmingway would later be recognized as a Pulitzer Prize winning Author, with he and Callaghan living out the remainder of their years in Paris France.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been tracking Rocco’s movements for years and were finally able to incarcerate him for the duration of the war years under the War Measures Act. Upon his release, Rocco disappeared and it is alleged he is in a barrel full of concrete at the bottom of the Hamilton harbour.
Prohibition came to an end in the United States in 1933 and while not directly related, much of the history of these classic wooden vessels played a significant role in both creating and perpetuating the fortunes that were made during this period.
Andy McCutcheon, 100 Years of Wooden Glory. Copyright 2006
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