RUMRUNNING IN MONTAUK
The Arethusa For those of you too young to remember, or who had somehow skipped this Chapter in American History 101, there was once upon a time an Act of Congress called the Vlostead Amendment. More commonly known as Prohibition, it outlawed the sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States from 1920 to 1933. As impossible as it seems today, having a run and tonic at the end of the day became a federal offense! As you might imagine, this did not sit well with many, average Americans. A man's drink was in many communities and cultures, a God given right, and no mere statute was going to change that.
In responce to this turn of events, an entire new industry sprang up in this country, to cater to those who still needed a glass of whisky from time to time. Rum running, bootlegging, moonshining - call it what you want, but the importation, transportation and distribution of illegal booze became big business, literally overnight. Generally run by newly organized crime, and abetted by the indifference of many average Americans, the process of supplying alcohol reached into nearly every community in America.
BOOZE ON THE BEACHES
Montauk was as much a part of the rum running scene, as any spot on the East Coast. A perfect hiding place for booze, cash and the element it attracted, Montauk offered the essential qualities a bootlegger needed. Montauk's isolation guaranteed the privacy needed for landing large quantities of questionable cargo. Once landed, the crates could be moved quickly to the up Island and New York speak easies. Perhaps best of all, Montauk had a tradition of good sailors who didn't mind a little risk for a fistful of hard cash. One night's run to the offshore wholesalers could put more money in a fisherman's pocket, than a month of long lining. That translated into a pool of Montauk boatmen ready willing and able to roar off into the night in search of booze and cash. Larceny in Montauk, you bet your life, and many of the locals did exactly that.
Anyone interested in local involvement in rum running, is required to read "Montauk - An Anecdotal History". Written by Peg Winski, and published by the Montauk Historical Socirty, it chronicles numerous tales of local knowledge and involvement in rum running. Mary Stannard remembered Montauk as a place where nearly everyone was involved in the business. " No dust curds could be found under beds. They were great storage places for Baccardi Rum and Johnny Walker whisky". As a young girl she wanted to see first hand how the liquor business worked. Being an indutrious litte Montauket, she and her cousin sneaked abord her uncle's boat, on one of his trips to the liquor supply ships anchored off Montauk. Her uncle, in an effort to protect her propriety, locked her in the cabin while he transacted business with the Captain of the supply ship.
Clancey Pitts was barely 17 when he had his first brush with bootlegging. Hired to help unload a major shipment, he was hard at work when the Coast Guard appeared on the scene. The Coast Guard spotted the activity on the main dock, and spotlighting the men at work, fired a warning shot in the air. Clancey remembers his fellow accomplishes scattering like rats on a sinking ship while he, took cover in the boxes and gear on the dock. Luckily for him, he got away that night. Another night he recalled directing a fleet of moving vans to the old Yacht Club. Just exactly what they were moving in the dead of night, was none of his business.
Frank Tuma remembers those days with a twinkle in his eye, and a sly smile that tells you he knows more than he cares to tell. He recalls Coast Guard boats chasing smugglers across Fort Pond Bay, and the sound of shot gun blasts in the night! Like most young Montauk boys of that time, he saw first hand how booze affected a sheltered town like isolated Montauk. It was an exciting time, a high stakes game with fortunes to be made overnight, for the those bold enough to risk everthing for a shipment of booze.
The pot of gold these local mariners were looking for, lay just over the Montauk horizon. Each night a fleet of Nova Scotian, English or Cuban ships would drift 12 miles offshore, just beyond the US territorial waters. That became known as the Rum Line. Each night a flotilla of small craft would sneak out of Fort Pond Bay, and make a bee line for the Rum Line. Often dodging Coast Guard and Customs boats, the speedsters would fill their holds with as much Canadian whisky and Jamaican run as they could take, and zig zag their way back to shore.
One of the best known of the liquor boats was the Arethusa, run by one William McCoy. Anchored 12 miles out, loaded to the gunnels with Johnny Walker Red and Baccardi, it was open for business 24 hours a day for anyone with the guts to reach her and cash to pay. Unlike many of his more cut throat competitors, McCoy was known for carrying good booze at a fair price. His reputation for solid dealing become so well known, it spawned an expression that lives on to this day - " the real McCoy"!
Those cagey enough to make it home would unload at Gin Beach, Shagwong, Oyster Pond, where ever a truck could meet them. Depending on the size of the shipment it would be sent into the City, or left here for safe keeping. Rumor has it a favorite storage spot was the old Wyandannee Hotel. Located near the :Lighthouse, it was one of the main lodgings in Montauk in it's day, and provided a safe haven for bootleggers and their booze. Seems the old Inn had the largest basement on the East End, and it was rented out to various shady characters for a handsome sum. No questions asked, no answers expected!
Mary Smith Fullerton was the owner and operator of the Wyandannee. Born in Montauk in 1915, she was a remarkable woman, who owned and operated a number of restaurants and inns in the area. Candidly, she told of her own involvement in Montauk liquor. Not only was she aware that booze was in the Inn, she made no secret of the fact she and her parents would help bring it from Montauk to retailers and speak easies up Island. She recalls driving with her mother and father on many occasions to speak easies and night clubs in places like Astoria and Glen Cove. Hiding the hooch in false bottomed cars and trucks they would snake their way across the Island, always on the look out for hijackers and Troopers.
Local customers were keep in supply, as much as any. Mary remembers one in particular, a Mr. Rheinstein. Mary and her father would pack a suitcase with your choice of gin, rum or whiskey and make their regularly scheduled trip to Mr. Rheinstein's. She remembers him well, not as a criminal, but simply as a nice man who appreciated her father bringing by the liquid solace he craved.
THE ISLAND CLUB
Naturally, this flow of spirits spawned a string of local speak easies. By far, the most popular in this area was the Island Club on Lake Montauk's Star Island. The long since burned down Club was adjacent the current Montauk Yacht Club, and was in it's day the grandest night club and gambling casino, on the East End. Built by Carl Fisher during his monumental construction spree, it was the social center of this summer. Designed to rival the palaces of Palm Beach and Manhattan, it attracted the highest rollers of it's day. John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Ernest Hemingway, even the then major of New York, Jimmy Walker, watched the sun set over Fort Pond with an illegal martini in their fists.
Clancey Pitts worked as a bellman in those high rolling days, and remembers the characters were nearly as flamboyant as the imported Austrian crystal chandeliers that hung from the center of the gaming room's ceiling. Many a night he would see society swells drop thousands of dollars at the tables, and laugh as though they'd just beaten the joint out of every dollar it had. He actually saw one gent light a cigar with a crisp, $ 100 bill!
Clancey was there the night the Feds nearly closed the place down. Acting on a tip, On the hot Summer's night of August 23, 1930, the Troopers massed for a head line grabbing bust guaranteed to shut the doors for good. Word was Mayor Jimmy Walker was on site, and well into a night of drink and dice. Unfortunately for the Feds, the watchman at the wooden causeway that then separated Star Island from the mainland saw the Blue shirts coming. Alerting the Club, he stalled the men in blue long enough for Jimmy to hop aboard a waiting speedboat, and head for the safety of the high seas.
Although Prohibition was in all likely hood the most ignored law ever passed in the history of this country, braking it meant serious trouble for locals. That could come from the T-Men, Troopers and local authorities looking to enforce the law, just as much as the crooks you had to deal with in the trade itself. Booze was big business, and attracted a very bad element.
Dutch Schultz was the king pin of Long Island bootlegging, and like most gangsters took no prisoners. Cross him and you ended up in a swamp with a bullet in your brain. Never content to stick to his own business, he like many other importers would hijack any shipments coming down the Island. Thomas Farrell Jr. and Jacob Antilety of Southampton leaned the hard way, that you don't even joke about stealing another mobster's liquor. In 1931 they were picked up by the Schultz mob, who had heard the two had intercepted a shipment of rum headed for Schutz's Manhattan speak easies. Tied up and taken out to the woods, they were tortured all night with red hot potato mashers. They finally confessed to being blowhards, not hijackers, and were mercifully let go. As a reminder of what happened to anyone who screwed with the Schultz gang, they were more valuable alive than dead.
Prohibition was a frustrating time for the authorities to had to enforce the Volstead Act. Not only did the public thumb their nose at the law, but the Feds had to abide by the International Maritime laws in pursuing rumrunners. That meant that outside the 12 mile limit, booze was legal, and the seas could be carpeted with trawlers hawking gin, rum, scotch and whiskey 24 hours a day. There wasn't a thing the coppers could do about that!
However, once the cargo was on it's way back to the beach, the pursuit could begin in earnest. A classic cat and mouse game ensued, with each side employing the best 1930's technology to win the race. Rumrunners built some of the fastest, sleekest boats afloat. Crammed with aircraft engines, lined with bullet proof glass, and designed to haul the greatest volume of booze, these custom busters became legendary.
On the night of August 20, 1931, the Coast Guard cutter CG-808 was patrolling Long Island Sound. Herself a converted rumrunner, she was on the high seas looking for the most famous of all rumrunners, the Artemis. It was rumored she was bringing in a full load of liquid spirits for the Labor Day weekend. Spotting a shadow on the horizon, the cutter's captain cut his engines, doused his lights and drifted in the moon light. He could hear the low rumble of diesels, as the shadowy boat approached. Throwing on his main spotlight, he picked up the fore castle of the boat, just as it crashed into the cutter. It was the Atemis, riding low in the water, loaded with gin and high tailing it towards Greenport. The collision nearly knocked the crew off the cutter, but they quickly recovered, fired up their engines and gave hot pursuit.
The Artemis was 4 knots faster than the cutter and began to lengthen the distance between them. The cutter hailed them to heave to, and put a shot over her bow. The Artemis ignored the exploding spray and began laying down a thick smoke screen. The cutter broke out everything they had - machine guns, carbines, deck gun 500 rounds in all. Disappearing into the smoke and fog, the Artemis lost the cutter. But she was hit, and headed for the nearest port.
At dawn's light the Coast Guard began a search of both sides of the Sound. They found two of the crew members in Greenport, where they'd checked into the local hospital with multiple gunshot wounds. There was no sign of the Artemis, but it's distinctive cargo was spotted near Orient Point beach. A number of smaller boats had brought the booze to shore, and a furious off-loading was taking place in broad light. As happened with so much illegal drink, most of it disappeared into thin air. And the Artemis? She was found under repair in a Port Jefferson shipyard, where she was seized and ironically, turned over to the Coast Guard for recommissioning as a patrol boat!
Corruption was a constant drag on law enforcement efficiency. Let's face it, booze was big money, and more than one man in blue turned his head when a shipment came ashore. How much monry was at stake? A single shipment found at Montauk's Thrd House in 1925 was worth $ 200,000.00. In 1930, the Coast Guard captured a Bristish sloop off Montauk, with over a million doolars of rum in her old! That kind of money was unhead of in those days, and needed official protection.
There were local cops to be bought, and the going price was a weekly envelope of tens and twenties. Even the local Coast Guard had it's share of officers looking the other way. During the course of the campaign, Capt. Frank Stuart was accused of taking $2,000 - a year's pay - for letting boats offload in Montauk. In 1932 the Coast Guard officer stationed in East Hampton was set away for a year of hard labor, for tipping off the fleet that a bust was on it's way.
If the feds were affected by the flood of contraband, you can be assured the locals were in on the take as well. The most audacious ran the boats out to the Rum Line, others unloaded the crates into waiting trucks, many others would stash the stray bottles and crates that would periodically wash ashore, while most of the rest simply tried their best to look the other way and keep their mouths shut. Occasionally, a boat would run around, and then the fun would begin. On the night of December 23, 1922 the unlikely named Madonna V can crashing onto the beach at Napeague. Loaded with Canadian whisky she began breaking up in the heavy surf. Alerted to the disaster, the beach filled with dozens of local helping hands. As Mrs. Janette Rattray reported " Lifelong teetotalers and even Deacons of the Church risked pneumonia in the December surf to bring it ashore, promoted no doubt by the inherited custom of 'wrecking' and old New England principles against waste of any kind". The whisky those brave souls saved from a watery grave quickly disappeared into the cupboards and cellars of the otherwise pious community. It's been said that whisky warmed many a cold night, that winter!
The Noble Experiment, as Prohibition was called, came to an end in 1933. The public had had enough of enforcd temperance and the crime and corruption it spawned, and end it by act of congress. Over those 13 years nearly a third of all illegal booze come into the country over the high seas. Most of that came directly through Long Island Sound, much of that by way of the East End's lonely beaches and highways. Fortunes were made, lives were lost, attitutes toward the law and law enforcement changed forever. East Enders participated in the trade, kept liquor hidden in cupboards, found botttles on the beaches, and in general looked the other way. Compared to the problems we face today wth illegal drugs and smuggeling, it all seems like a far more innocent time. Perhaps it was, but those who lived through Prohibition, had never seen anything like it - and never did again.
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