The Real McCoy

By Ann Dermody
Photos By: The Mariners' Museum

By 1923, Bill McCoy had a reputation as a gentleman crook who never diluted his product. He was also the most wanted man in America, though he'd technically never broken the law.

The hearing inside the courthouse was packed as the tall, well-dressed man got to his feet and looked at the Newark, New Jersey, judge, who cleared his throat and asked what defense the accused planned to make at his upcoming trial. Reporters stood, pens eagerly poised. "I have no tale of woe to tell you," began the soft-spoken man. "I was outside the three-mile limit, selling whisky, and good whisky, to anyone and everyone who wanted to buy." And so, with a March 1925 guilty plea, the saga that had begun just a few short years earlier — and had turned Bill McCoy into the adventuring romantic hero of anti-Prohibitionist America — came to an end.

The intense fascination everyone had for McCoy, from officials in Washington, D.C. to the general public, had begun three years before. Claiming he'd only gotten into rum-running as a way to fuel his love for being on the water, the dashing teetotaler was an unlikely candidate to symbolize the face of Roaring '20s speakeasies. McCoy was born in upstate New York in 1877, before the family moved to Philadelphia. Inspired by tales from his father, a bricklayer who'd served in the Union Navy during the Civil War, the teenager started hanging around the wharves on the Delaware River.

There, he laid eyes on the Saratoga, a Philadelphia Maritime School ship. He went home and told his father to find another bricklaying apprentice. After two years on the Saratoga, he finished first in his class and spent the next few years on yachts and steamers, rising to the rank of mate on a ship that served on the Key West-Havana run, earning a substantial $75 a week. By 1900, the McCoys had moved to Florida, where Bill went into the boatbuilding business with his brother, Ben. They quickly assembled an illustrious clientele, building sailboats for the Vanderbilts, John Wanamaker, Maxine Elliott, and Andrew Carnegie. They also ran a boat service from Jacksonville to Palm Beach, then on to Fort Myers through the Everglades.

Setting The Stage

The National Prohibition Act, which banned intoxicating beverages, went into effect in January 1920. As soldiers returned home from World War I, the United States was transitioning from war to a peacetime economy, and the upheaval contributed to a depression. Wealthy clients commissioning yachts disappeared, and things got tough for the McCoy brothers. Both their beloved parents died, and McCoy's brief marriage to the daughter of a prominent Daytona surgeon ended after just six months. At 42, he was at a crossroads. A chance meeting with a dapper stranger driving a shiny new motorcar, a fellow clearly rolling in fast-gotten cash, would point him in a new direction.

America was begging for a drink, the stranger told him. They were perfectly positioned, he said, a short sail from Nassau, in the Bahamas, a place loaded with rum it was itching to sell. The only problem was a shortage of schooner captains. The man offered McCoy $100 a day to sail the Dorothy W from Nassau to Atlantic City. McCoy went to see the shabby ship, then decided against it. But the idea had taken hold. Rum-running offered adventure, cash, and a way to pursue his passion: commanding powerful boats on passages up and down the coast.

After convincing his more cautious brother to come on board, McCoy sold their boatbuilding inventory and cobbled together $20,000. In August 1920, he headed to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to purchase his own boat, the first in his fleet of rum-runners. According to Frederic F. Van de Water's biography of McCoy, The Real McCoy, it was on that trip that McCoy first saw the love of his life. "Her name was Arethusa," McCoy is reported thinking. "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." McCoy couldn't afford Arethusa, yet, and settled for a solid, 90-foot, white-oak fishing schooner, the Henry L. Marshall, which he bought for $16,000 in 1921. With a motley crew, he set sail for Nassau. Bill McCoy was in the game.

Registering the boat as a British vessel to protect himself, he soon had his first of many commissions. The Marshall offered capacity for 1,500 wooden cases of liquor, or for 3,000 cases wrapped in burlap packages and nicknamed "hams." Transit papers stated she was moving liquor from one legal port, Nassau, to another, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Even if he never made Halifax, there was no law stopping McCoy from selling his cargo on the high seas en route. At the time, territorial waters of the U.S. extended three miles offshore; boats within that limit were subject to U.S. law, including Prohibition. As long as McCoy stayed in international waters, he broke no rules.

Photo of Bill McCoy and a friend joke around on the ArethusaMcCoy and a friend joke around on the Arethusa.

On its first run, the Marshall made $15,000. McCoy's next trip was to New York, where contact boats — small, local boatmen eager to make a buck — would putter out and take the Marshall's cargo. McCoy had arrived on "rum row," that legendary stretch of water from Montauk to Cape May that would fuel the gin joints and speakeasies of Manhattan for the next decade. In just three months he'd cleared $35,000 profit, and now, looking to expand, he headed back to Gloucester to purchase the object of his desire, Arethusa. As luck would have it, her owners were in receivership, and he got her for half her estimated value of $42,000. Because another British-registered vessel already carried her name, she was renamed Tomoka, but to McCoy she was always the 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.

Photo of rye whiskey packed like hams below deckRye whiskey packed like hams below deck.

Now that McCoy had the boat he'd trust to any sea, all he needed was a friend he could depend on. Loyalty was a scarce trait among regularly defecting crews and customers, but when one of his captains gave him a "fat, black rubbery Newfoundland puppy," he had a pal for as long as he sailed. Old Faithful went everywhere with McCoy, developing a habit of sharing his bunk as a puppy. When he became too big, McCoy had a double bunk installed on Arethusa, as Old Faithful refused to sleep on the floor. When business called and McCoy had to be on deck, he'd leave the dog in his cabin beside an unlocked drawer containing up to $100,000 in cash. "It was perfectly safe," he recalled. "If anyone had touched it, he would've had to kill or be killed." Old Faithful's devotion to McCoy was unfailing. Once, in Bermuda, McCoy went ashore to make loading arrangements, leaving Old Faithful on board as usual. McCoy stayed at a hotel that night, and in the morning, a hotel worker poked his head into McCoy's room and asked if he owned "a big black dawg." Old Faithful had swum ashore and lay under McCoy's window all night.

With five boats now in his armada, McCoy was running crews of dozens of men on monthly trips to rum row, transporting an estimated 2 million bottles over his short-lived career. When Arethusa would reach the row, Ben would meet her laden with water, newspapers, fresh meat, vegetables, and tobacco. By then, the row was a fully-fledged regatta: Up to 100 boats at a time sat offshore, with jazz bands and tourists coming out, and Bill McCoy the undisputed king.

McCoy had an understanding with his customers that if the boat flew the British ensign, they should stay away, but if she had no flag flying, she was open for business. He placed a bright electric light high up in Arethusa's rigging to guide contact boats, and a bucket under the light kept the deck in darkness as business was conducted.

Photo of a sea skiff carrying booze to shoreSouped-up contact boats carried the booze from the rum runners back to shore.

Despite the relative roguery of his trade, McCoy built a reputation for being reliable and personable, and his product was always of the highest quality. Unlike many of the unsavory characters who'd started to frequent the trade, he was known to pay his debts, not dilute his spirits, as others did. His rum was known as the gold standard, the "Real McCoy," and he set the price by getting top dollar — so much so that his rates were published as the given for rum row.

His growing legend was fueled by newspapers and the anti-establishment feelings running rampant across the country. Reporters gushed to a public fascinated by the swashbuckling smugglers, who they thought were living a wild, nomadic life of cash, corruption, and apparent seafaring glamour just off their coast. His fame wasn't lost on government officials either.

The Beginning Of The End

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 weren't going to 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. They arrested the boatbuilders outfitting the contact boats, and tensions rose between the residents of rum row and the Coast Guard revenue cutters. In the summer of 1923, while the Henry L. Marshall was chartered to another runner, the Coast Guard impounded the vessel in international waters after her drunk captain had bragged to an undercover agent about selling liquor. The government cited "illegal exchange with contact boats," claiming that shore contact was an illegal act, and the owners, the McCoy brothers, were indicted in New Jersey. Rum row was nervous. If the Marshall case held up in court, they could all be arrested, and the loophole of selling outside U.S. waters would be slammed shut.

Photo of Bill McCoy heaving up the anchor in Nassau, BahamasMcCoy helps heave up the anchor in Nassau, Bahamas.

By late November 1923, as McCoy and his crew worked the last few runs from Nassau before winter, the Coast Guard cutter Seneca sent a whaleboat to examine his papers. The State Department had gotten the British government to agree not to interfere if the British-registered Arethusa was chased down. The lieutenant leading the siege claimed there was something wrong with McCoy's papers and ordered him to bring the boat to Sandy Hook. McCoy refused. Washington radioed orders to the Seneca to bring Arethusa in or sink her. A skirmish ensued. The rum ship was shelled four times. McCoy knew this was the end. He lowered his jib. His beloved Arethusa was heading to shore under Coast Guard command. As they started the 17-mile trip, one by one McCoy took his crew below, paid them their wages, and said goodbye — under the watchful eyes of Old Faithful. While awaiting trial, McCoy was visited by Pete Sullivan, a customs agent who'd been sent to spy on him back in Nassau the previous year. Sullivan had almost met a grizzly end when some of the more disreputable characters in Nassau guessed why he was there. In the nick of time, McCoy had stepped in, pretended he knew Sullivan, and allowed him to spend the night in his hotel room before sending him safely back to U.S. soil the next morning.

Sullivan hadn't forgotten, and he took McCoy on a bizarre tour of Washington, D.C. to meet star-struck congressmen and federal agents eager to shake the hand of the Real McCoy. Sullivan testified in court how McCoy had saved him the year before. In March 1925, McCoy was sentenced to serve just nine months in prison, and 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. When photos appeared on front pages the next day, McCoy was transferred to another jail and the warden was fired. He was released on Christmas Day to his brother, Ben. Old Faithful had sadly died while he was in jail.

The McCoy brothers now lived modestly in the family home in Florida and returned to the boatbuilding business and real-estate investment. When McCoy heard that his beloved Arethusa, auctioned by the U.S. government and put to work in the Nova Scotia fishing fleet, had been wrecked off the coast of Halifax, he rushed north to see her one last time. Today, a little bit of her lives on in various museums throughout the United States: Her lines plan is in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.; the ship's knee, one of the boats internal supports is in The Mariners' Maritime Museum, in Newport News, Virginia; and her wheel was the model for the helm of the famous Gloucester Fisherman's memorial in Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 1948, at the age of 71, the legendary Bill McCoy died in Florida on board the last of his boats. 

Ann Dermody is BoatUS Magazine's former managing editor.

— Published: June/July 2015


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