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Miami: Mob City

Hi there- Bette Harwick here. I’m Sherilyn’s sidekick and gal-Friday from the 1920s. Which is another way of saying I’m her ‘unofficial’ research assistant. More like unpaid… but hey, it’s tough for a gal to get a break in this biz so I take any gig I can.

As you know, I’m a bit of a scribbler myself, and one of the things I enjoy is reading over Sherilyn’s notes at the end of the day. –although don’t tell Sherilyn, she hates it when I read her stuff before she’s finished polishing it.

I’ve noticed that the idea of Miami as a mob city has really caught her imagination. Everybody thinks of Chicago and New York as the home base for gangsters… but hey, those mob-bosses have to vacation somewhere, right?

The popularity of automobiles and the expansion of the railway opened up Florida. These days, Miami in the Twenties is in the middle of a frantic land boom as hundreds of thousands of tourists fall in love with the tropical paradise.

Like many of their fellow citizens, gangsters from all over America flock to the sun-kissed beaches to escape the cold and the snow. They trade in their suits and fedoras for swim trunks and flip-flops. I was playing at being a paparazzi when I snapped this pic of Al Capone in his swimtrunks.

There’s a hedonistic feel to any resort and when you have a whole city, a whole state turned over to making guests feel welcome, well that has some interesting consequences. Especially during Prohibition, the time period for the Rum Runners’ Chronicles.

In Miami, Fort Lauderdale and up and down Florida’s south coast, vice flourished. Newspapers refer to it as ‘Lansky-land’ in tribute to the influence of Meyer Lansky, the notorious New York crime boss who has sewn up much of the gambling in the state. Sherilyn has included him in the Rum Runners’ trilogy as a lurking, menacing figure (which sure as shootin’ he is!) and Edith’s eventual business partner.

Sherilyn also contrasts the relaxing calm afternoons on white sandy beaches with an exciting Miami nightlife. Edith recognizes the potential, as do those Yankee mobsters. Gator Joe’s and Goodtimes are part of the illegal speakeasy/ blind-tiger action.

Sherilyn also brings a real life Miami nightclub- Tobacco Road, to life. From her research notes, Tobacco Road (from Wikipedia) is a bar in the Brickell area of Downtown Miami, Florida. It was popularly known as the oldest bar in the city. The liquor license it amended was first issued in November 1912 (though property records show the building as being built in 1915, as a bakery) and operated nearly continuously since its opening, having been shut down briefly at times for run-ins with the law, such as when the upstairs, now a live music venue, was used as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Tobacco Road was located at 626 South Miami Avenue, on the south side of the Miami River. Tobacco Road celebrated its 100th anniversary in November 2012. In 2012, the land on which Tobacco Road lies was purchased for $12.5 million. On October 26, 2014, Tobacco Road closed and was demolished by Thunder Demolition Inc. An estimated 4,000 people came on its last night.

There has been rapid and mammoth investment in nightclubs, casinos, race tracks, and slot machines. Illegal liquor is so available every hotel bellhop is a bartender. Orange groves and mango swamps are transformed into nightclubs, hotels and casinos. Sheriffs are given direction to make sure that this new energy of easy money ran smoothly.

If you’ve read any of the Rum Runners’ trilogy, you’ll recognize all these references. In fact- the bartender bell hop features prominently in Edith’s dialogue in the first book, Gathering Storm.

Mobsters from Chicago, Detroit, Philly, New York; they have all arrived en masse to put down business roots in Miami’s rich, fertile soil. Sharing territory, splitting the operations, and sharing the profits keep internal crime down and more importantly, draw little publicity. The spirit of cooperation that began with Nucky Thompson in Atlantic City allows crime families to flourish in Miami.

Al Capone, the unofficial mayor of Miami, has a sprawling mansion on Palm Island. One of the first things he did stepping off the train that first time was to drop by the real mayor’s clothing store and order a $1,000 of silk shirts, and thus a mutually beneficial partnership was born.

Of course, by the time Edith arrives on the scene in Miami, Capone was in prison for tax-evasion. That gave her and BFF Mae Capone a chance to spend some quality time together- looking at real-estate and building a bootlegging empire along the southwest Florida coast.

“The major port city of Nassau is built on ambition. It’s close enough to be America’s back door and, in these days of Prohibition, functions as a wine and spirits clearinghouse within the law.” Eye of the Storm, Book 3 Rum Runners’ Chronicles

Besides the nearly perfect year-round climate and enormous profits, Miami also provides convenient access to neighboring countries where the mob hold prosperous business interests. A short boat or plane trip and a mobster is in Cuba, the Bahamas, and other Caribbean islands where gambling was booming and liquor was legal.

Plane travel is a new thing in 1932, and in the books Edith, Mae Capone, Cleo Lythgoe, and Spanish Marie all make regular trips to Nassau. Being able to fly back and forth is a marvelous advancement.

There’s an important scene in the final book, Eye of the Storm, where young Leroy is inspired to become a ‘saloon-owning pro-baseball playing pilot’ based on his experience at the Miami airport.

I can see why Sherilyn’s so caught up in the idea of the vice that sweeps into Florida like a tropical storm. Of course, our heroine, Edith Duffy is in the middle of it, buying and running her little speakeasy Gator Joe’s, and the gorgeous club that rose from Gator’s ashes called Goodtimes.

Take it from me, if you like the idea of a cool-headed woman persevering in the dangerous business world of prohibition America, the Rum Runners’ Chronicles are for you.
They’re not just stories about Prohibition in America, at their core they’re about womanhood and strength.

The feeling I was left with when closing Gathering Storm, Storm Surge, and Eye of the Storm is one of steely determination and hope.

Click this link and start reading Gathering Storm’s Chapter One if you are looking for a female-led historical fiction with a backbone of steel.

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