Bootleggers? This was the Real McCoy

This was one of the chapters that I wrote for my book, "The Hidden History of Monmouth County"


Andrew J. Volstead was a well-known but very unpopular name in the early years following World War 1. A congressman from Minnesota, Volstead was the author of the Volstead Act, the first step in the struggle to enforce the 18th amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that tried to ban intoxicating liquors to every person in the nation.


But Volstead, and most of Congress who approved the Act in January 1919, and put Prohibition in place, also gave rise to new words, new names, and new heroes, especially along the Monmouth County Bayshore.


Bootlegging, rum running, speakeasies all became part of the American vernacular and made their way into, or were revived, in dictionaries. Bootleggers, originally named for the men who hid flasks of alcohol in their boot tops while trading with native Americans in the west during the 1880s, became those who dealt in illicit liquids in the 1920s; speakeasies, sometimes called Blind Pigs or Blind Tigers, were the “Speak Softly Shops” where those illicit liquids could be purchased, and about which one spoke in soft tones.


Burlock were cases that contained a half dozen bottles of liquor stacked two high, and each wrapped in straw then sewn into a burlap bag. These were also known as sacks by the Coast Guard or hams by the rumrunners.


In the later years of Prohibition, the lucrative business was completely dominated by organized crime, but in the early days, it was basically hardworking fishermen, clammers, boat owners and boat builders who took advantage of an exciting way to make a living.


Along Monmouth County’s waterways, during the early years of the “Social Experiment,” the name to be revered and with whom to do business was William F. McCoy.

The son of a Civil War navy veteran, Bill was born in Syracuse, NY in 1877, and raised in Florida when his family moved there seven years after his birth.


He was a hardworking and adventurous waterman whose father had imbued in him a love for the sea. He graduated first in his class from a Pennsylvania cadet training school and mated for 20 years on steamships in the Caribbean before heading back to Florida to partner with his brother in a boat building business. The brothers were known for their honestly, dependability, and expertise in building sturdy, safe boats.


It was just that talent that brought an acquaintance to the shipyard one day and explained the income possible simply by captaining a boat filled with liquor from the islands to the coast off New Jersey. Although Bill turned down that original offer primarily because he did not think the schooner offered for the work was ship worthy enough, he was enticed by the idea and decided to find his own boat and start the business himself.


The brothers sold the boats in their shipyard and the 90-foot schooner Henry L. Marshall became Bill McCoy’s return to the ocean as a sea captain. Successful from the start, McCoy soon went for a bigger, faster boat; it wasn’t long before the Arethusa began making frequent trips between the Bahamas and three miles off the Jersey coast from Atlantic City to Perth Amboy. The ship sailed under a new name, the Tomoka, and was registered in Great Britain. But to Bill McCoy, it would always be the Arethusa.


Bill McCoy, honest, hard working and dependable as he was, also knew in the early days of Prohibition there were few revenue cutters pursuing smugglers, and of them, most could be outrun if pursuit got underway.


Yet he was careful to keep his craft in the safety of international waters, never venturing closer than three miles to New Jersey’s shores. It was at that juncture that Bill McCoy, newly arrived smuggler, would meet the boats of the men who clammed and fished by day and met the Tomoka by night to bring in supplies to a thirsty public.

When others followed McCoy’s habits of staying as close to shore but still in international waters, Rum Row was founded, the long stream of large vessels laded with rum, scotch, whiskey and other spirits to await the transfer to eager purchasers who would then carry cases, bags, and bottles the rest of the way to shore. The burlocks, which made the transition and portage easier and accommodated the least space, were a McCoy creation.


But it was his honesty that once again made Bill McCoy the most popular and eagerly sought after of the rumrunners. As competition increased, captains became greedier, and buyers remained unaware. Many diluted their island purchases to increase their sales of more bottles, barrels, and cases.


Not Bill McCoy. He was in the business for the money, but not at the cost of cheating his customers. It wasn’t long before word got around and a sales pitch on land became known: if you got your liquor from the Tomoka, it was the real, unadulterated thing…. the real McCoy.


In 1923, McCoy’s Tomoka was engaged in battle with Coast Guardsmen who boarded the ship in international waters. When he continued to flee, with revenuers still aboard, and his ship was fired upon, he gave up and was eventually brought up on charges in Middlesex County for violations of the Volstead Act.


McCoy spent eight months in jail for rum-running, a time not entirely uncomfortable because of the camaraderie between some wealthy smugglers and the prison staff. But by the time he was a free man again, organized crime had taken over the prohibition business.


So, Bill McCoy walked away from a trade that had been lucrative, outside the law and adventurous, but never harmful or dishonest to his customers.


When it ceased to be fun, Bill McCoy, the real McCoy, returned to Florida where he invested in real estate and never worked again. He died Dec. 30, 1948 of a heart attack and is buried in Stuart, Fla.


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