Darkness along the Delaware coast provided good cover for Prohibition-era smugglers
By Michael Morgan
From the Holiday 2017 issue
The beach was cold, dark and deserted, and the bootleggers were pleased. Aboard the rumrunning boat that drifted a short distance from the Fenwick Island beach, men worked with military precision to ferry tins of illegal booze to shore. Within a short time, more than 200 cloth-covered containers had been stacked on the sands of coastal Delaware.
In 1919, the United States went officially “dry,” when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified to prohibit the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors; and throughout the Roaring ’20s, the Coast Guard played a cat-and-mouse game with bootleggers as they tried to sneak illicit booze into Delaware. The rumrunners began their voyage to the Delaware coast in Canada, where they loaded their vessels with a cargo of illegal whiskey, gin, and other alcoholic beverages. The illicit spirits were often packed in rectangular metal containers that could be easily stacked on a boat. Often the metal tins were covered with a cloth sack so that they could be handled quietly. The cloth covering also prevented the tins from reflecting light that would alert the revenue agents to the bootleggers’ presence.
When the rumrunners’ vessels reached Cape Henlopen, they remained in international waters, where they were safe from interference from the Coast Guard. After night had fallen, the illegal alcohol was transferred into small, low-profile boats to avoid detection for the final run to the beach. When they reached the shore, the smugglers loaded the metal containers of booze onto trucks that would carry some of the shipment to local speak-easies and would transport some to Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Sometimes these small boats landed on dark stretches of the Delaware ocean coast. Other times, the rumrunners turned into Delaware Bay at Cape Henlopen, where they would dump the liquor near shore at high tide. When low tide arrived, locals in their employ would pick up the prize. Some people used clam rakes to dredge for the cases of liquor, and others simply waded out into the water barefooted until they located a case of booze with their toes.
On one occasion, the nimble-toed residents of coastal Delaware had recovered about 50 cases of illegal alcohol by the time the Coast Guard arrived. The appearance of the patrol boats did not dissuade the crowd, which continued to fish cases of liquor from the shallow water. The Coast Guard fired several shots over the heads of the treasure hunters hoping to scatter them, but instead caused a melee during which a government agent was slightly injured. Although several arrests were made, all were given a warning and released.
In November 1930, a 60-foot-long rumrunner with a 400-horsepower engine loaded with liquor for the Christmas holiday ran through the dark waters of the bay as it passed Lewes. As it chugged along, the crewmen kept a close watch on the waters around them, but they should have been more concerned with what lay beneath their boat. Suddenly, the men were nearly knocked off their feet when the boat ran aground on a sandbar. The heavily-laden motorboat was mired tightly in the sand, and only the arrival of high tide would lift the vessel clear. Those aboard did not panic; nor did they call for help. Instead, they methodically began throwing their illegal cargo overboard. After 150 cases were pitched into bay, the boat was light enough to slide off the sandbar, and the bootleggers quickly made their way to shore, where they deposited the remaining cases of liquor in an abandoned shack. The illicit booze that had been tossed overboard to lighten the boat was left to drift away in the bay. With their booty hidden in the unoccupied shanty, the bootleggers abandoned their boat and disappeared into the dark Delaware night. Some of the booze that was left drifting in the bay washed ashore onto the bay beach, where alert beachcombers began their Christmas shopping early, carting the illegal alcohol home for the holidays. A duck hunter from Lewes happened upon the shanty, but he decided not to enter it. After he learned that the shack was filled with booze, he reportedly exclaimed, “Look at the Christmas I could have had!”
“Poison hootch vendors”
In the face of widespread disregard for the Prohibition laws, Harold “Three Gun” Wilson, Deputy Prohibition Administrator for Delaware, took a flamboyant approach to his job. Wilson had acquired his unique nickname when he was given a pair of pistols by an admirer, adding it to the one that he already carried. Hard-boiled and hard-hitting, the Bible-quoting Wilson was dedicated to stopping bootleg liquor. Known for his aggressive efforts and accused of being a publicity hound, Wilson claimed that he was appointed to “Save Delaware from the skullduggery of corrupt officials, from the evils of speak-easies, and the eternal damnation of booze.” According to Wilson, many raids were “picayune pink tea affairs” resulting in a slap on the wrist for the bootleggers. Wilson wanted to “grab the contemptible treacherous poison hootch vendor by the nape of the neck and the seat of the pants and throw him into jail where he belongs.”
The hootch venders sold bootleg liquor from their cars at Lewes Beach and at several speak-easies in town. Wilson believed that there were many people in Lewes and other Delaware towns who did not patronize speak-easies but knew of their locations. Wilson once said, “Any intelligent man can tell a barroom when he sees it and any intelligent man ought to be able to recognize a speak-easy. Dingy dimly-lighted dives with no visible means of support are speak-easies. It is not necessary to sample their wares any more than it is to bite a skunk to know a skunk.”
There were few agents enforcing Prohibition laws, and these men quickly became known to the bootleggers and operators of speak-easies of coastal Delaware. One of these agents, Frank A. Gunning, was planning a raid on speak-easies in Lewes in July 1930. He knew the locations of the places that served illegal booze, but he also knew that the criminals could recognize the four Delaware prohibition agents by sight. Therefore, he recruited 10 agents from Philadelphia, obtained search warrants, and set out for Lewes. When Gunning’s agents arrived in Lewes, they were able to move through town without being recognized and were able to successfully raid the speak-easies. The alleged four speak-easies were located on Park Avenue, Front Street and Market Street.
A year later, on Monday, Nov. 16, 1931, the Coast Guard received reports that a suspicious vessel was lurking in heavy fog along the shore of Delaware Bay near Slaughter Beach. On Tuesday, Nov. 17, the fog had lifted, and Coast Guard patrol boats spotted the rumrunner Correllis as the bootleggers were unloading the last of their illicit cargo. After they jettisoned the last four cases of alcohol, they jumped for shore and made their escape into the Delaware night. The Coast Guard arrested two men who remained on the boat, but because there was no liquor on the boat, they were released. The Correllis along with other captured rumrunners, such as the Daisy T and the Don, were docked in the Lewes-and-Rehoboth Canal near Memorial Park.
Chicken house stash
A few days after the Correllis incident, James S. Baker, the officer in charge of the Indian River Inlet Coast Guard Station, received an anonymous phone call asking for a meeting that night near the inlet. When the Coast Guard officer arrived at the inlet, he discovered four men in a Chrysler car with New York license plates. Although it was dark, Baker recognized one of the men as a notorious bootlegger known as “Smokey Joe.”
As recounted by Eric Mills in his book, “Chesapeake Rumrunners of the Roaring Twenties,” a vessel carrying bootleg liquor had arrived off the Delaware coast and the rumrunners wanted to land their illicit alcohol near Cotton Patch Hills, north of Bethany Beach, in time for the Christmas season. The bootleggers wanted the Coast Guard men to look the other way while their cargo was landed, and Baker would presumably be rewarded for his inattention to duty. Baker flatly refused to cooperate. Frustrated by the conscientious Coast Guard officer, the four rumrunners piled into their Chrysler and headed south toward Bethany. During Prohibition, the wintertime population of Bethany was only about a hundred residents, and the darkened coast was an ideal place for the smugglers to land. Spurred on by reports that bootleggers were active in the resort, the Coast Guard discovered more than 200 sacks of illegal liquor in a chicken house in Bethany. The booze was confiscated, but the crooks got away.
After a decade of landing illegal booze along the Delaware coast, the bootleggers developed a clever tactic to avoid the Coast Guard patrol boats. A small flotilla of rumrunners would approach the mouth of Delaware Bay. As they reached American territorial waters, two boats that did not carry any liquor would be sent ahead. As the decoys entered the bay, the Coast Guard patrol boats would descend upon them. While the decoys distracted the Coast Guard, the other rumrunners would rush into the bay with their illegal cargo.
The Coast Guard continued to maintain vigilant patrols around Cape Henlopen, which resulted in the capture of a number of bootleggers. One night, picket boat No. 2205 from Lewes spotted several boats, which quickly jettisoned their cargoes. The picket boat sent up a flare for assistance from a Cape May patrol boat that happened to be in the area. The Cape May boat responded with a burst of fire from its machine gun, and the violators beat a hasty retreat toward international waters.
Arrests in Fenwick
The demand for holiday liquor remained great throughout Prohibition; and in 1932, the rumrunners picked one of the darkest areas along the Delaware coast, landing at Fenwick Island. The bootleggers expected to land undetected; and they hoped to reload several hundred containers of alcohol onto trucks for the drive to the big-city speak-easies. Since the roads to Fenwick Island were unpaved, they would have to negotiate the soft sand and the flimsy bridge that ran over the narrow waterway known as “The Ditch” that separated Fenwick Island from the mainland. Word of the rumrunner’s activity was picked up by the authorities, and the Coast Guard and Delaware State Police arrived as the boat was being unloaded on the beach. Fourteen men were arrested, and 219 cases of booze were confiscated. Half of the men pleaded guilty to the possession and transportation of illegal alcohol. The other seven men pleaded not guilty, and they demanded a jury trial. When the men were tried in January, the judge ruled that the government had not demonstrated any connection between the accused and the 219 cases of alcohol, even though the men and the booze had been seized on the deserted beach at the same time. To the frustration of “Three Gun” Wilson, the seven men were found not guilty and released.
With the beginning of the Great Depression in the late 1920s, the economic woes of the country pushed aside Prohibition as a political issue. In November 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president along with a host of anti-Prohibition legislators. On Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment ending Prohibition was ratified in time for the holiday season. The noble experiment was over, but it’s likely that some of the containers of illegal booze that had been dropped by the rumrunners remained buried in the Delaware sands.