Cape Cod Rum Runners

Cape Cod Life  /  July 2019 /

Writer: Don Wilding

Living on the edge of the law

During the late 1920s, Prescott “Bud” Cummings arrived in Eastham, aiming to make a living as a turnip farmer. Profit margins were narrow, and it wasn’t long before he turned to the transit of illicit alcohol, or “rum running,” a much more lucrative way to make a living during the era of Prohibition.

Labeled as the “Noble Experiment” by President Herbert Hoover, Prohibition was in effect from January 17, 1920 to December 5, 1933. Thanks to the 18th Amendment, the sale, transport and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages became illegal, but many Cape Codders just couldn’t resist the adventures—or the cash—that smuggling contraband booze could offer.

Cummings was among the more successful rum runners on the Cape. The gig paid him “five dollars for every case that he dropped from the rum runners to the shore,” according to a series of interviews that Don Sparrow conducted with Cummings for the Eastham Historical Society during the 1980s. The 40,000 cases that he brought in added up to $200,000. Manny Zora, a Provincetown rum runner whose adventures are chronicled in his book “The Sea Fox” (co-written with Scott Corbett), had similar success aboard his fishing vessel, Mary Ellen. “I’ve never known a law which was so enthusiastically violated with the possible exception of the 55-mile per hour speed limit,” Sparrow often said of the 18th Amendment.

On Cape Cod, some residents brewed their own beer or made “bathtub gin,” but if it was quality alcoholic beverages that one desired, they turned to “Rum Row.” 

“The bootlegger made gin, bathtub gin, peddled it around town and so forth. Or he may have been on the angle of distilling anything from grains to garbage and making alcohol, and in the process blinding and killing a few people,” Cummings explained. “But the rum runner was strictly on the water, and he ran the liquor from the offshore ships to the shore, and was probably involved in getting it from the shore to wherever their warehouse was.”

Rum Row was a stretch of floating liquor stores, selling everything from wine to whiskey to rum, in international waters just off the Eastern Seaboard. Originally three miles offshore, changes in law enforcement and international treaties expanded it to 12 miles and beyond. 

“Provincetown and the outer shores of Cape Cod changed from being the end of the line to being one of the main distribution points on the Atlantic coast,” wrote Mary Heaton Vorse in the 1979 publication “Here’s Provincetown.” “The Bay shore from Race Point to Billingsgate Island off Wellfleet was awash with everything from raw alcohol to fine cognac and champagne, all imported, of course.”

A wide variety of schooners, steamers and other vessels, loaded with thousands of cases of liquor, waited for smaller speedboats to make their purchases before heading back to shore, usually under cover of a moonless night. “A more raffish and villainous fleet had not been brought together since the days of [pirate] Jean Lafitte,” Zora noted.

Captain Bill McCoy is often credited as being the founder of Rum Row. When ships began dispensing liquor to visitors from the mainland, it was usually products that were mixed on board the ships, cut with water, creosote, dyes and other chemicals. McCoy, who was known to hide out on Martha’s Vineyard, only sold genuine alcoholic beverages, earning him the name “The Real McCoy.”

Speed boats from the Cape, equipped with Liberty engines from World War I aircraft, came to Rum Row to buy liquor that was bought in Europe and dispensed from the island of St. Pierre, a French possession located just offshore from Newfoundland. Payment was usually made with cash, but prearranged transactions took over by the mid-1920s. This cut down on hijacking, where rum runners were robbed at gunpoint of their liquor and/or cash.

Cummings, who worked for a rum runner in Scituate, was in Boston’s Copley Square one night and met up with members of the notorious Gustin Gang. They forced Cummings to go along on a hijacking mission at a Mashpee beach. A shootout ensued, with the Gustins prevailing. Cummings stayed hidden behind a tree while firing his pistol into the air.

“Rummies” were in constant peril on their way back to shore. Getting caught often meant having the boat seized and a $10,000 fine assessed. However, they had their share of tricks to avoid capture. One involved tying all the cases together, on the edge of the boat. As Cummings recalled: “if they were in danger of being intercepted, they would kick over the first case of whiskey and all of the others would be dragged along with the rope. Then they would have a buoy at the tail end of this, but the Coast Guard would see it, so the rum runners put a block of rock salt on the buoy, and the salt would dissolve in a few days, leaving the buoy where the load was dumped.”

Some rummies were not able to recover their cargo, and the “burlocks,” as the liquor sacks were called, washed ashore, much to the delight of the locals. A Yarmouth man once scooped out several cases of whiskey from Bass Hole and sold them from his home. Years later, when his home was being renovated, two bottles—one empty and one full—were recovered and are now in the possession of the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth. 

If the Coast Guard got too close in their pursuit of rum runners, the smugglers had several ways to unleash a smoke screen and sail off at top speed. In moments of desperation, they’d even sink or set fire to their own vessels. The Rhode Island was a New Bedford-based rum runner that was scuttled in Buzzards Bay to avoid capture after a long chase. Some smuggler vessels, such as the Nola in Vineyard Sound, were so bullet-ridden after a chase that they either caught fire or were sunk.

Ships on Rum Row, along with other rum running boats, usually registered as British vessels, limiting the Coast Guard’s authority. 

The two-masted Annie L. Spindler, carrying about 800 cases of whiskey, ran aground in front of the Race Point Coast Guard station in Provincetown in December 1922. Town residents stripped the boat of 100 cases before the Coast Guard confiscated the rest. When the Race Point keeper tried to arrest the Spindler’s skipper, he produced his British registration. They not only had to relinquish the liquor but also transport it to another boat at the harbor, which then made its delivery to Plymouth. 

The Oakalee was another liquor-laden vessel that was seized about 10 miles off Nauset Beach in Orleans in 1926, but the boat’s captain used foreign registration and the argument that severe weather had blown him off course to convince a judge to release him.

Once the speedboats were close to shore, dories hauled the cargo to the beach. A large group of hired hands transferred the load to trucks. Manny Zora ran such an operation for Boston gangsters on a Brewster beach one night, with dozens of men in dories, on shore, and in trucks. The hooch was then transferred to a “drop” spot—usually a seaside cottage, fish house, or garage. A shellfish warehouse at Rock Harbor in Orleans was frequently used, as was Stage Harbor Light in Chatham, in a secret tunnel between the beacon and the keeper’s house.

Grocery and produce trucks were used to transport the booze off Cape. The liquor convoy involved two other cars—one loaded with gun-toting men, the other carrying a wad of cash to pay off law enforcement. 

“One time that the convoys were going over the Cape Cod Canal, there was a Salvation Army man in uniform, who happened to be walking over the bridge,” Cummings recalled. “The rum runners thought he was a police official, so they stopped and gave him $500.” The “officer” promptly gave the cash to his employer.

Police and selectmen were on the payroll, and it wasn’t unusual for Coast Guard officers to hoard a few cases for themselves. The Coast Guard once seized 400 cases from rum runners in Boston, but they didn’t have room to keep it there and were forced to store it at the Nauset Coast Guard station in Eastham. A month later, only four cases remained.

By the early 1930s, the 18th Amendment was losing support. Cummings acknowledged that the end of Prohibition was “like an automobile assembly plant had been shut down. People were out of work and the fun was over.” But, Cummings admitted that, even without pay, he “would have done it because it was so much fun.”