Bootleggers, Rum Runners & Smugglers, Oh My!

Twin Light Hotel at the mouth of the Shrewsbury River. (from photo collection of Bob Johnson)

While the Act, which banned intoxicating liquors to everyone in America, was later recognized as a 14-year social experiment, it ended with the passage of the 21st amendment, which made it legal to drink again.

But along the Shrewsbury River, the Bayshore waterway that opened out to the Atlantic Ocean, the seafaring men who made their daily living fishing, clamming, lobstering and boat building, became the bootleggers, rum runners and smugglers who catered to the needs of a thirsty nation by night.

The age of the rum runner was a lively time for Highlands, and it’s still an exciting memory for that generation who can still hear the soft purr of high speed boats, the taste of Usher’s Green Stripe or Meyer’s Perfection, and the names of those revered rum runners who plied the trade.

Respected smugglers, those who guaranteed unadulterated pure liquor, dealt with the wine, brandy and liquor shippers Maurice Meyer of London. The firm had been established in London in 1869 and was highly respected, both in England as well as in the USA where, during Prohibition, they only dealt with respectable, though clandestine, businessmen.

Meyers was aware of Prohibition for sure, but also aware of the public’s resentment of it, and knew there was a need they could capably and safely fulfill. So, it designed a series of codes that were used by smugglers, issued fictitious names and London addresses where orders could be sent, and instructed their buyers in America to refer only to those code words and names in their cables and wires. Hence, the anonymity of the smugglers, and the respected firm’s dealing with rumrunners, could be protected.

The specific codes were kind of fun, relating to flowers, fruits, or vegetables or meats that were familiar to the baymen. Buchanan’s Black and White Scotch, for instance was known as roses, Hennessy’s Three Star Brandy was apples. Even Moet and Chandon’s champagne was known by a different name…peaches…, and gin was either salmon, mackerel or cod, depending on whether it was ordered in square or round bottles, or casks.

But all these folks were dealing outside the law, so in addition to keeping out of reach of law enforcement, they also faced dangers and death from others dealing in their same trade. These were the hijackers, those who made their living by stealing from the bootleggers.

One of the more famous stories of the era was the Saturday night that ended in murder right in the heart of Atlantic Highlands. Apparently, according to a newspaper report from the day, hijacker Frank LeConte of Newark, regarded as the supreme leader in hijacking circles, had a row with Robert Schneider, a good old Highlands fellow successful in the running trade.

Seems that a while back, LeConte’s men interrupted what was going to be a successful delivery of goods by Schneider’s men some months before, and now there was a score to settle. So when Schneider spotted LeConte in Highlands this particular Saturday night, his men, led by Walter Keener and two sets of brothers in the business, George and Henry Nettinger and Ed and Ralph Bitter, pursued the hijacker out of town. LeConte went as far as Center Avenue in Atlantic Highlands, but couldn’t escape.

As fate would have it, there was a train halted in the station, blocking the road. So everyone barreled out of their vehicles and a gun battle ensured. It’s said LeConte was the first to be hit, and was downed with a bullet in his stomach. Ralph Bitters took a shot to the shoulder, but it didn’t stop him from carrying on the battle. And when it was all over, LeConte and at least six others were treated for wounds at the hospital in Long Branch, and a whole lot of them were charged with various crimes.

LeConte didn’t make it, and died at the hospital two days later.

When it came down to the law settling the difference, the brothers Bitters were charged with LeConte’s murder. However, it didn’t appear there were any witnesses, at least any witnesses willing to tell the story of what happened that Saturday night on Center Avenue, and there wasn’t a Grand Jury around calling for an indictment.

The brothers could return to plying their trade in Highlands.


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