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The Real McCoy

Hi there- Bette Hardwick here from sometime in the 1920s. I have had it with these Philly winters and have taken a temporary posting down in Florida. The beaches and the weather are amazing. And check out these swimsuits!

On assignment, I got a chance to do up an article on ‘The Real McCoy’. What a dashing fella, if I do say so. Bill plays a role in Sherilyn’s Rum Runners’ Chronicles trilogy and I figured you’d want to learn more. Of course, I had to share the byline with another pencil-pusher, Frederic F. Van de Water, who is writing a book about Bill called “The Real McCoy”.

William Frederick McCoy, his friends call him Bill, considers himself an “honest lawbreaker.” McCoy takes pride in the fact that he never paid a cent to organized crime, politicians, or law enforcement for protection. Unlike many operations that illegally produce and smuggle alcohol for consumption during Prohibition, McCoy sells his merchandise unadulterated, uncut and clean. Which is where is gets the reputation as ‘The Real McCoy’.

In his book, Freddy describes him as

“Six feet two, with shoulders like a cargo hatch, slim waist, a voice like a foghorn, lean tanned face, and steady eyes set in the network of wrinkles that long gazing over glittering water etches, he sat in my suddenly dwarfed living room and talked of the days when liquor was liquor and Rum Row was a marine market running unbroken from Montauk to the Atlantic City, when each man worked for himself to outwit revenue cutters and to fend against piracy and hijacking.

He lost himself in his story. Surf boomed through his words, and out of the rush of his speech, now and then, leaped a phrase poetic and vivid, sired by his sheer zest for action and a deep love of the sea and of sail.

He crowds fifty, clean limbed and muscular as he could have been at twenty-five. His outlook upon life is as unscrupulously gleeful, thrill seeking, adventurous as though he were still fifteen. There are moments when you suspect that the essential ego of him is no more than that.”

Bill McCoy is, without question, the most successful and notorious of the rum runners. He is, literally, the father of Rum Row and the inventor of many rum- running techniques. They figure he’s responsible for 700,000 cases of scotch and whiskey smuggled in to slake the thirst of Americans.

Bill McCoy is the trusted friend of some of the most outrageous crooks in Manhattan harbors. He is a leader in Nassau- a placid tropic city that is a combination of a cow town on pay day and a new gold camp, with additional spectacular and violent features thrown in for good measure.

During Prohibition, McCoy began smuggling whisky into the U.S., traveling from Nassau and Bimini in the Bahamas to the east coast of the United States, spending most time dealing on “Rum Row” off New Jersey.

I figure he must be spending a lot of time off Miami, as well, cause Edith Duffy’s name keeps coming up and the Goodtimes blind-tiger she runs.

Almost as famous as Bill is his schooner Arethusa. When her old auxiliary engine was replaced with a better, smaller one, the increased cargo space allowed for an extra 1,000 cases of liquor, meaning that Arethusa could now carry 5,000 cases, a cargo worth $50,000 a trip. That’s a lotta clams!

“Her name was Arethusa. She seemed to ghost into the harbor’s mouth under full sail. She was an aristocrat, a thoroughbred from her keel to her trucks. The sun turned her spread of canvas golden, and my throat was tight and stiff as she came walking up the harbor like a great lady entering a room.”William McCoy

My goodness, that rum runner is a real poet. I wished my own fella talked about me that way with that look in his eye the same way Bill talks about his darn boat.

Bill created the idea of “Rum Row”. In her Rum Runners’ Chronicles series, Sherilyn describes it thus- “As far as the eye can see, you’ve got your schooners and yachts, windjamming square-riggers from Scandinavia, traps from England and Germany, converted tugs and submarine chasers, and anything else that has a bottom that will float, and a hold that can be filled with booze. (Rum Row is) a roaring, boisterous, ‘sinful-and-glad-of-it’ marine Main Street. You’re looking at about a hundred smugglers boats and come evening there will be tourists and rubberneckers, boats with jazz bands, and hundreds of contact boats (coming from shore) picking up cargo.”

He also figured out an efficient way to transport all that smuggled booze. Rather than wooden crates which were unwieldy and heavy, Bill stacked six bottles together in a pyramid, wrapped them in coconut fiber to prevent breakage, and put them in a canvas sacks called a “hams” because of their shape.

Of course, a successful rum runner like Bill got up the nose of the authorities. I’ll let Freddy take over here ‘cause he has some great stuff on all the law-breaking shenanigans.

“Fragments of Bill McCoy’s history are embodied in the records of the Department of Justice and the log books of sundry revenue cutters. These comments on the most daring and successful of rum runners are pardonably acid and prejudiced. Nothing is more offensive to officialdom than a reiterant, light-hearted disregard. Nothing is more maddening to the agents of constituted authority than derision.

For four lively years, while he mocked the increasingly portentous blockading fleet of the Volstead Act mobilized on the Atlantic seaboard, McCoy was a thorn in the twitching flesh of the United States government, a rankling and most persistent thorn. He was the founder of Rum Row off New York and the trade’s most daring and successful exponent. Time and again his ships were located, triumphantly captured. Subsequent relieve always was brief. He evaded those who had caught him and almost immediately was prodding elsewhere.

Nothing was more irritating to the State Department, the Department of Justice, Prohibition agents, and U.S. Coast Guard than the light-hearted disregard McCoy and his fellow rum runners showed them. Sitting out on the row, they taunted the authorities. Their souped-up contact boats, powered by 500-horse Liberty engines, doubled the speed of sluggish Coast Guard boats. To the government, McCoy was a symbol of defiance. They would not let him get away with it.

They earmarked $14 million in federal funds to upgrade and double the size of the Coast Guard fleet. The plan was to cut rum row off from its contact boats, making it impossible to land the liquor.

On November 23, 1923, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Seneca, had orders to capture Bill McCoy and the Tomoka, even if in international waters. The New York Times article that reported on the capture and arraignment of McCoy described the incident:
The report showed that the Tomaka was first boarded by Lieut. Commander Perkins of the Coast Guard cutter Seneca, who ordered the crew keep silent. The bow of the schooner then was turned out to sea, and when the commander of the cutter observed the movement, he sent a shot across the bow of the Tomaka. She returned the fire with a machine gun set up on her forward deck. The machine gunners ran to cover when the shells of the Seneca began to fall so close to their mark that they kicked the spray over the Tomaka’s deck.”

McCoy described the chase that led to his capture:

“When the Tomoka was boarded under cover of the Seneca’s guns, I immediately set sail and ran away with the boarding party – one lieutenant, one bos’n and thirteen seamen – and only upon their pleas did I heave to and put them back on the Seneca. The damned radio was too severe a handicap for me. I surrendered after the Seneca had fired four-inch shells at me.”

When asked what defense he planned to make at the hearing before the trial, McCoy introduced the details of his operations by replying:

“I have no tale of woe to tell you. I was outside the three-mile limit, selling whisky, and good whisky, to anyone and everyone who wanted to buy.”

Instead of a long drawn out trial, Bill McCoy pleaded guilty and spent nine months in a New Jersey jail. Bill was permitted to leave the jailhouse daily as long as he returned by 9 p.m. He even attended a Walker-Shade prizefight in ringside seats at Ebbets Field, in Brooklyn, with the warden of his prison.

Doesn’t that just break your heart? Nobody wanted Bill in the joint- except the Coast Guard of course.

“The slippery, irreverent, swaggeringly resourceful McCoy was a scourge, a menace, a continual threat against the peace and dignity of the United States, and a jeering foe of that swelling army which strove to make the nation dry. In the flesh, even his bitterest foes admitted, he was the most genial and endearingly candid of law breakers.

Out of all this and more he has emerged, for all that he has done, for all that has happened to him, still with the heart of a mischievous, authority-scorning, rather gallant small boy. He handled millions in cash and to-day is comparatively poor, but he talks more of the thrills he enjoyed than the money he had.”

Well, that’s it for me. The Florida beach is calling. But if you want to read more about the love of Bill McCoy’s life, check out the post about Cleo Lythgoe. She was as feisty a dame as there ever was, and a famous rum runner in her how right.

If you love the Roaring Twenties, gangster-era adventure, flappers, and “a cool-headed woman persevering in the dangerous business world of prohibition America”, then you should read Gathering Storm, book 1 of the Rum Runners’ Chronicles.

This is not just a story of prohibition in America, it’s a story of womanhood and strength. The feeling one is left with when closing Gathering Storm is one of steely determination and hope.

Those who are looking for a female-led historical fiction with a backbone of steel, this book is for you.

Available on Amazon. Click here to start reading today!

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