Here are some of the extraordinary stories, often amusing, I read while researching for the 17th Daisy Dalrymple Mystery, BLACK SHIP.
Lambert was then a youthful, hapless, helpless, hopeless FBI agent.
Now, he announces, he is a Prohibition agent, sent to England to find out who is shipping forbidden alcohol to America. He starts spying on the neighbours--very embarrassing. Then a body is found in the communal garden and Daisy finds herself involved in the affairs of bootleggers, rumrunners and mobsters. Not at all what a respectable mother of twins is accustomed to.
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In researching for this book, I came across a library book, The Black Ships (black ships is what the coast guard called the rumrunning ships), by Everett S. Allen. Mr Allen grew up on the New England coast and knew many people who had been involved with rumrunning during Prohibition. He interviewed many of them as well as doing research in the US Coast Guard archives. His book sent me to the Coast Guard on my own behalf, to clear up a few points, and the USCG sent me their history of the period: Rum War at Sea, by Commander Malcolm F. Willoughby.
The USCG was in a very difficult position. Prohibition had been passed by a narrow margin, so a large proportion of the US population were on the side of the bootleggers, at least until organised crime took over. This resulted in a "disheartening number of releases and acquittals by certain courts, when there should have been forfeitures and convictions..." [Willoughby].
One Federal judge in Connecticut was so anti-Prohibition that he virtually never convicted a rumrunner, however convincing the evidence.
In one case, a small cargo vessel was stopped in Long Island Sound. The Coast Guards couldn't find any liquor aboard. They suspected concealed tanks built behind false bulkheads, but at sea it wasn't possible to make the measurements necessary to find them. She was released, but later was seized for running without lights (a common ploy to make the rumrunners harder to find, which led to the name Black Ships). She was taken into custody. Tied up at a USCG pier, she was measured and hidden tanks full of liquor were indeed discovered. The court pronounced that as she had been seized for running without lights, that was the only offence for which she could be prosecuted. Ship and cargo were returned to the owners.
A Norwegian steamer, Sagatind, was found drifting on "Rum Row", forty miles offshore, well outside the three-mile limit. The Coast Guard fired shots across her bow to stop her, without eliciting any reaction. They boarded, and found the crew drunk and incapable, some injured from fighting amongst themselves. They also found 43,000 cases of liquor and a large amount of cash. However the Government failed to prove any liquor had been sold, rather than just transported in international waters. Ship and crew were released by the court.
The 3-mile limit was extended to 12 miles or one hour's sailing time, by international treaty in 1925. This made it much more difficult to pinpoint the position of black ships, and proving how fast they were able to sail was no easier. By this time many bootleggers were highly organised. They could afford their own experts in navigation, whose testimony refuted the Coast Guard's careful measurements--at least when judges and juries were already far from keen on producing a conviction.
On one occasion, an overzealous coast guard falsified his log to show the rumrunners were within territorial waters. This was a serious offense, the log being a legal document. The chief warrant officer concerned was found guilty and reduced in rank.
There was no effort to falsify the position in another case, off the West coast. The Coast Guard found a known black ship, the Federalship, far outside the limits and trailed her from Oregon to California, hoping to catch her actually breaking the law. She flew the flag of Panama. The decision was taken by the San Francisco headquarters to seize the ship. Two USCG cutters came up to her and ordered her to stop and let them come aboard. The captain refused, saying that for all he knew they were "a lot of bloody pirates." After being fired on--and hit--several times, Federalship stopped. She was taken to San Francisco Bay and the cargo of liquor removed (it disappeared from storage!). A Federal Grand Jury indicted the captain and crew for conspiracy. The defence claimed the seizure was illegal, and an act of war as she was Panama registered. The US attorney said that under Panama's law Federalship had lost her registry by engaging in rumrunning and so was a renegade pirate. However, the black ship had not engaged in any illegal activity--had not, in fact, entered territorial waters--while under pursuit from the Columbia River to the point where she was seized. She was released and the USCG had to tow her all the way back to where they had captured her.
The law required the Coast Guard to seize not only any liquor they found aboard a black ship, but the ship itself and all its equipment. This led to the rumrunners turning the tables. They'd go to a friendly local jurisdiction and accuse the individual Coastguardsmen of stealing their tackle--charts, sextant, timepiece and so on. The US attorney would request a transfer to Federal court, where the rumrunners didn't pursue the case, but in the meantime the newspapers made hay with the charges of theft and the Coast Guard became ever less popular.
The rumrunners used to communicate from shore to ship by illegal radio transmissions in code. One radioman who was arrested was fined $10 for violation of a fire ordinance, the only charge that a hostile jury would make stick. The Prohibition authorities managed to crack the code of one prolific transmitter. They found themselves in a quandary: if they prosecuted, the rumrunners would know the code had been cracked. Not only would no further information about ship movements be overheard, but to persuade a jury of conspiracy to break the law the Coast Guard would have to reveal its methods. They decided not to prosecute.
In one prosecution, when a motorboat had been seized loaded with liquor, the Coast Guard witness was asked what he had found aboard. "One hundred cases," he said. The judge responded, "There's no law against carrying cases," and he dismissed the case.
One final episode among many: Off Key West in Florida, a black ship was halted by gunfire. The boarders were told they had killed the skipper, who had fallen overboard. The Key West population was almost wholly anti-Prohibition and there was talk of lynching the coastguardsman responsible. He was charged with first degree murder by the father of the captain. At the hearing before a justice of the peace, the charge was reduced to manslaughter because the body of the victim could not be found. The coastguardsman was released on bail. Subsequent investigation revealed that the skipper had disappeared before in similar circumstances and had reappeared in Cuba. This time, apparently, he had swum to shore and made his way to his girlfriend's house in Tampa. When the case went to the Grand Jury, some months later, it was dismissed because no prosecution witnesses turned up!