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.

When he realized he was being arrested, Alderman said, he really got scared. The recent Coast Guard killings of rumrunners Shannon, Waite, and Jones hovered in the forefront of his mind.

"After getting on the Coast Guard boat, he told me to go into the pilothouse," Alderman testified. "I obeyed orders. Lamby come in the door on the opposite or left-hand side. Sanderlin says, 'Now, damn you. I got you. I'm going to fix you just the same as the rest of the rumrunners, put you right with them. Red Shannon was killed with his hands in the air, with a bullet in the back of the head, and Charlie Waite, too. We're going to put you with them."

The reason none of the Coast Guardsmen were armed is that they had left their pistols -- four in all -- lying on a chart table in the pilothouse. Alderman, Sanderlin, and Lamby were now standing in front of the chart table.

"Lamby made a grab for one of the guns, and when he did, I grabbed at the same time," Alderman told a packed courtroom. "I got a gun and shot him in the breast. When I shot him, I jumped back. That put me just outside the door of the pilothouse. Sanderlin whirled to grab a gun, and I shot him in the back.

"I whirled right around outside the door and put the gun on the rest of the Coast Guard -- the rest of the boys that were on the deck of the Coast Guard boat. If I had not shot Lamby when I did, he would have shot me."

Alderman's plan: "I was going to bring them to Miami, turn them over to the authorities -- the sheriff or the city police department. I was going to throw the liquor overboard before I got in. I was going to give myself up."

He never got the chance because, despite his warnings, Webster and the crew rushed him.

Alderman fervently denied ever telling Weech to set the Coast Guard patrol boat on fire and gave his opinion that the Coast Guardsmen had themselves severed the gas lines in the engine room. Why? To assure Alderman's infamy, and cover up the fact that their commanding officer had gotten nearly half his crew killed through his own murderous threats and unsafe official procedures.

By now the press had dubbed Alderman "the Gulf Stream Pirate," and daily newspaper stories painted him as the worst bad-man ever to walk the coast of Florida. An off-the-cuff comment by Frank Tuten led to a spate of stories claiming that Alderman had planned to make his Coast Guard captives "walk the plank." The stories came complete with garish illustrations of Alderman as Blackbeard, wreaking carnage on the high seas.

Throughout the trial the all-male jury was kept incommunicado when not in the courtroom, and guarded after sundown by U.S. marshals against the possibility of bribery or worse. But, as prosecutors acknowledged, the twelve jurors spent their evenings devouring the hyperbolic news coverage of the trial. Alderman's defense lawyer, R.A. Hendricks, protested to no avail.

While he may or not have been as bloodthirsty as Blackbeard, Alderman was certainly no angel, and the trial judge allowed jurors to hear from prosecutors all about Alderman's prior convictions for smuggling, poaching, and grand larceny.

By night jurors read newspaper stories filled with hearsay masquerading as fact: The prior grand larceny charge, one reporter stated, had occurred when Alderman beat a Miccosukee medicine man nearly to death on a Gulf Coast beach and stole $500. The smuggling charge supposedly related to an episode in which Alderman had dumped a dozen Chinese immigrants overboard en route back from Cuba, and then machine-gunned them to death.

Though Alderman was under indictment for murdering Sanderlin and Lamby -- but not Webster, the Secret Service agent -- the jury heard more than 30 witnesses led by four federal prosecutors, including the assistant attorney general of the United States, testify about the killing of Webster and wounding of Hollingsworth in the melee aboard Alderman's boat.

Meanwhile U.S. District Judge Henry D. Clayton suppressed any mention of the recent Coast Guard killings of Waite, Shannon, and Jones, despite their importance in the defense explanation of Alderman's motive and his claim of justifiable homicide committed in self-defense.

Even by the standards of the Twenties, Clayton's legal miscues seemed to promise a mistrial or an appellate victory. But Alderman lost on appeal; the Supreme Court refused to hear the case; and finally Pres. Calvin Coolidge declined to commute the death sentence or to stay the execution.

"If ever a case in the history of criminal jurisprudence merited -- even demanded -- the death penalty, this is the case," thundered the U.S. attorney. "I can't conceive why, while that deck was slippery with the blood of their shipmates slain by this man, those Coast Guardsmen didn't mete out their own justice and save us this trouble and expense."

Faced with the technical problem of how to hang a modern pirate, U.S. District Judge Ritter dusted off his law books in Miami and found a long-superseded legal provision calling for buccaneers to be hung in the port where they were first brought ashore. To Ritter this meant Fort Lauderdale, and the Broward County jail was the logical site.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help