Written by Jennie LaForge, Registrar and Collections Specialist at the Florida Maritime Museum.
The Prohibition era was defined by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors in the United States. The amendment went into effect on January 17, 1920 and quickly gave rise to new criminal enterprises designed to provide Americans with access to the contraband liquor. Bootlegging, smuggling, speakeasies, and gang activity were rampant until Prohibition was repealed in 1933 with the ratification of the 21st Amendment.
Florida maritime culture, in particular, was impacted by Prohibition. The state’s proximity to the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands meant it was in a prime position for smuggling. Rumrunners, as the smugglers were called, could transport illegal liquor by boat to the Florida coast. The extensive coastline made Florida a difficult place for Prohibition enforcement agents to police.
One of the major ports for liquor in the Bahamas was Bimini, which lay only 45 miles from Miami. A rumrunner could leave Bimini at sunset, drop his cargo on the Florida coast under cover of darkness, and then be back in Bimini by sunrise. Rumrunners were often aided by fishermen wanting to make some extra money by acting as lookouts. Popular drop-off points included Tahiti Beach, Matheson Hammock, Snapper Creek, and the Coral Gables Waterway.
The burden of policing the waters for smugglers fell to the United States Coast Guard. In the early days of Prohibition, they were not well-equipped to deal with the high levels of illegal activity. They didn’t have the manpower to effectively patrol the waters, and their boats couldn’t keep up with the faster motorboats used by rumrunners.
That changed in 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge appropriated nearly $14 million dollars in funding for the Coast Guard. The money was used to better outfit their current boats, build and purchase new boats, and fund operating expenses. Additionally, the Florida Coast Guard built new stations in Fernandina and St. Petersburg to supplement existing operations in Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Key West.
Rumrunners devised all sorts of schemes to avoid being caught with illegal goods. They falsely labeled cases of liquor and kept them amongst legitimate shipments. They stored the bottles in tanks chained underneath their boats that could be cut loose if they were in danger of being caught. False bottoms were devised so that liquor could be hidden underneath legal cargo. If pursued by the Coast Guard, smugglers were known to throw their contraband overboard – either to hide the evidence or to lessen their load in trying to outrun patrols.
Despite the tricks employed by rumrunners, some boats smuggling liquor were caught by the Coast Guard in Florida’s waters. One of the most notorious incidents involved a rumrunner by the name of James Alderman. During a smuggling run, Alderman and his associate, Robert Weech, were spotted by federal agents. The patrol was originally en route to Bimini to investigate unrelated counterfeiting operations, but the commander of the vessel changed course to pursue Alderman’s motorboat, thinking it looked suspicious.
Alderman and Weech were stopped and arrested. In a failed attempt to escape, Alderman shot and killed two members of the Coast Guard’s crew. Both rumrunners were re-detained and brought into custody. Weech cooperated with the investigation and was sent to prison. Alderman was convicted of murder and hanged at the Coast Guard base in Fort Lauderdale.
In general, though, rumrunners were not deterred by the presence and successes of Coast Guard patrols. Florida had a general lack of support for Prohibition, and smugglers took advantage of that. Revenue brought in from illicit liquor, and the tourists attracted to a known “wet” state resulted in state and local officials looking the other way or accepting bribes when it came to these illegal activities. Even when rumrunners were caught and brought to trial, they would often get off on technicalities and go on to continue smuggling.
For these reasons, rumrunning in Florida was never very effectively eradicated. Illegal liquor flowed into the state until Prohibition ended in 1933, and smuggling ceased to be as lucrative. Some rumrunners continued to smuggle to avoid federal taxes, but not to the extent seen previously.
Carter, James A. III. “Florida and Rumrunning During National Prohibition.” The Florida Historical Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 1, July 1969, pp. 47-56, https://www.jstor.org/stable/
stable/30145748?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 1 June 2020.
History.com Editors. “Prohibition.” 27 January 2020, https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/prohibition. Accessed 8 June 2020.
Willoughby, Malcom F. Rum War at Sea. Washington D.C., Government Printing Office, 1964.