The Gallows and the Deep

The story of the bloody, high-seas crimes and execution of smuggler Horace Alderman is a yarn worthy of Joseph Conrad. Or Quentin Tarantino.

Like many a convict before him, James Horace Alderman came to Jesus in a jail cell. His conversion to Christianity, and not some native taste for melodrama, explains why the 46-year-old smuggler asked to wear a red rose to the gallows and be buried in white. The rose was an obscure reference to his religious awakening. White burial clothes were the custom of an evangelical church he joined while awaiting execution.

More than the red rose or the white funeral garb, Alderman's last meal is a telling gesture: four strips of bacon, two poached eggs, bread and coffee -- a resolutely simple meal chosen by a man who made his living as an Everglades fishing guide and Gulf Coast pool-hall proprietor before turning to a life of crime. Of course the fact that Alderman could eat at all hints at preternatural animal health or a fanatical commitment to bravado, or both.

After he ate Alderman was taken by elevator from the third floor of the Broward County jail to a van waiting on the street. Six carloads of armed men escorted him east down Las Olas Boulevard and then south to a metal seaplane hangar at Bahia Mar. And there, at 6:04 a.m., Alderman was quietly hanged -- the first and possibly the last person ever officially put to death in Broward County and the only execution ever carried out by the federal government in its continuing war against smuggling.

"Neck Broken By Noose, It Is Reported" was the headline in the next day's Miami Herald.

Like much of what has been written about Alderman since his death, the newspaper headline was misleading. Alderman's neck was not, in fact, broken by the noose. The execution was botched. Alderman kicked and strangled for a full twelve minutes before being pronounced dead by a local doctor. But the public was left in the dark.

One reason was a federal judge's order that said the killing must be carried out in secret. Seven weeks before Alderman's death, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Halsted Ritter commanded that the "United States marshal shall not permit to be present at the time of the execution any newspaper reporters, nor any photographers nor cameramen, and only permit to be present a physician, a spiritual adviser as may be requested by the prisoner, and the necessary assistants."

He added that "neither said marshal nor any person present shall make any statement or give any report whatsoever of the hanging or any matter connected therewith."

Another reason the public was left in the dark was a conspiracy of newspaper executives. Despite Judge Ritter's media blackout, a Miami Herald reporter named Edgar Lee Hay managed to attend the hanging disguised as an undertaker's assistant. After watching the execution, Hay wrote an eyewitness account. Then, according to both Hay and his editor, the story was killed by the Herald's publisher, who had been a classmate of Judge Ritter's at DePauw University.

The deception was compounded by the fact that Hay met in secret with a Jacksonville-based Associated Press reporter immediately after leaving the scene of Alderman's death. After recounting the horrific details of the execution, Hay learned that his comrade's bosses also had suffered a change of heart and decided to suppress the story.

An accurate depiction of Horace Alderman's death might have changed public opinion about capital punishment. It might have badly damaged Fort Lauderdale's sunny image. Or it might have strengthened existing local animosity toward the federal government. But the mishandling of the execution itself, and the subsequent cover-up, was only one thread in a dark tapestry of legal error, reportorial distortions, and official misconduct.

For years hundreds of pages of documents housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia, have waited to tell a different story about Alderman than the one purveyed by newspaper and magazine accounts of his trial and death and by later popularizers of local legend.

The origins of the fictional, mythical Alderman -- and the beginnings of any salvageable truth about him -- lie in those archives, and also at a spot in the Gulf Stream 34 miles east-southeast of Fort Lauderdale, 25i42

If you don't recall the hundreds of near-riotous Alderman sympathizers who gathered at Bahia Mar for the hanging, or the way machine-gun toting federal agents strung concertina wire around the seaplane hangar to protect themselves from the crowd, it's because Alderman's arrest occurred 70 years ago this summer.

The war in which Alderman became a central figure wasn't the one aimed at South American cocaine kingpins. It was the one that began on January 17, 1920, when the National Prohibition Act went into effect. At the time authorities expected few violations of the new law. But over the next fourteen years, Prohibition corrupted all levels of society, swamped the judiciary, killed thousands of people, and gave rise to underworld syndicates that still exist.

It also made the Coast Guard, which most people hadn't thought of as an enforcement arm of the government, a major presence along America's seaboards. By 1927 Coast Guard Base 6 in Fort Lauderdale was ground zero in a war for which public support was rapidly eroding.

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