Due to its close proximity to the Bahamas and Cuba, Florida had serious problems during Prohibition’s reign from 1920 to 1933. The nationwide constitutional ban on the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages did not sit well with residents and visitors to the Sunshine State. This was due in large part to the state’s general environment as a vacation spot for Northerners and foreigners.
According to floridahistory.org’s story on “Florida in the 1920s,” “Nassau and Grand Bahama flourished as rum smuggling centers and Florida’s one thousand mile coastline was hardly conducive to stop the smuggling of hootch. Despite the fact that locals were just a boat trip away from a wet vacation, Florida’s tourist industry didn’t want tourists taking their money to another country. In 1921, there were nine enormous liquor warehouses on Grand Bahama Island, just sixty miles from Palm Beach. This was the start of Rum Run to Florida.”
If you’ve visited the St. Augustine Distillery museum, then you know we have an area dedicated to William “Bill” McCoy, an American sea captain and rum runner during Prohibition. Said to have never touched a drop of liquor himself, McCoy made a fortune smuggling alcohol from the Bahamas to the Eastern Seaboard – specifically to Florida.
Born in Syracuse, New York, the McCoy family moved to Holly Hill, just north of Daytona Beach, Florida in 1900. There, McCoy and his older brother Ben operated a motorboat service and boat yard in Holly Hill and Jacksonville. After constructing yachts for millionaire customers like Andrew Carnegie and the Vanderbilts, the McCoy brothers fell on hard times and turned to rum running.
They bought the schooner Henry L. Marshall and began to smuggle whiskey into the U.S. via the Bahamas. After a few successful trips, McCoy purchased the schooner Arethusa, which he renamed Tomoka after the river that runs through his hometown of Holly Hill. After dozens of successful trips, McCoy became a household name through his smuggling activities. He is even credited with inventing the “burlock,” a package holding six bottles jacketed in straw, which the Coast Guard referred to as “sacks.”
On November 23, 1923, Bill McCoy’s days as a rum runner were ended when the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Seneca captured the captain and his crew under heavy gun fire. During the hearing before his trial, McCoy was asked what defense he was planning to make. His reply, “I have no tale of woe to tell you. I was outside the three-mile limit, selling whiskey, and good whiskey, to anyone and everyone who wanted to buy.”
And that is just a short glimpse into the colorful history of Prohibition times in Florida . . .