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.

On the August 15, 1929, Ritter signed Alderman's death warrant, instructing marshals to proceed north with their captive from Dade to Broward County. Tipped off by law-enforcement sources, a Miami Herald photographer was waiting in Fort Lauderdale when Alderman arrived. The marshals beat up the cameraman and smashed his equipment, whereupon local authorities issued arrest warrants for the U.S. marshals.

Meanwhile Broward politicians sought to protect the image of their tourist resort and to respond to constituents who broadly opposed the idea of an execution. First the county fathers declared the ceiling of the jail too low for a proper hanging. When Ritter shifted the site to the roof, officials claimed the roof was insufficient to support the weight of a gallows. The federal government offered to rent a piece of land beside the courthouse, and the county agreed -- then cunningly failed to reach a quorum for the necessary vote to approve the lease.

In exasperation Ritter finally moved the place of execution to the nearest federal land -- Coast Guard Base 6 -- and recruited the sheriff of Palm Beach County to tie the noose.

The more real the hanging became, the more Alderman transmogrified from backwoods brute to high-minded Bible-thumper. He began wearing a suit and spectacles, the latter necessitated by too much late-night Scripture reading. Whether calculated or sincere, Alderman's new martyr-image resonated in the public mind. Hendricks, the defense lawyer, claimed to have a petition signed by ten of the twelve Alderman jurors asking for a Justice Department review of the entire case.

The petition, if it ever existed, came too late. After mounting the steps of the scaffold and receiving the black hood, Alderman committed his final, unexpected, and defiant act. He began to sing a hymn, and kept on singing until the moment when the trap door dropped.

Only one of the original Coast Guardsmen, Frank Tuten, was there to hear it.

As if to make up for the secrecy of the hanging, Alderman's funeral was beset by more than 7000 people. Some may have wished they'd stayed home, because the eulogy went on for nearly four hours. The largest of the many floral arrangements covering the gray casket was one inscribed simply "From Your Buddies."

Beginning in January 1928, the Coast Guard in Washington ordered new reinforcements to Fort Lauderdale: 300 men, twelve ships, and a pair of seaplanes equipped with top-of-the-line radios.

The Fort Lauderdale Daily News reported that "the present concentration of forces in Florida and the active war against rumrunners is said to be directly traceable to the killings... by Alderman."

Reviewing the Alderman episode, one government analyst in the booze war wrote to his superiors saying he was concerned that Alderman's name might live on long after his execution:

The aftermath of this horrible affair indicates as nothing else could the deplorable state of affairs on the southeast coast of Florida and points unmistakably to the course which it seems we must follow in the near future. It appears that the decent element in these communities is so overawed by the criminals that they are unable to bring about any public condemnation of Alderman....

Not long after, according to press reports, South Florida smugglers offshore began using carrier pigeons to communicate with their confederates on land. One rumor had them using wireless robot boats to carry their cargoes. Alderman was many months in the ground before federal officials realized that rumrunners were turning more and more to airplanes, beginning to land them routinely by night in the Everglades.

The last document in Alderman's court record, now housed in a federal archive in Atlanta, is a May 17, 1932, plea by Alderman's wife, Pearl Alderman, to return her husband's pistol. There is nothing in the record to indicate that the government complied with the request.

The petition was entered a few months before the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

Alderman himself lies in lot 5, section C, of Miami Memorial Park, a cemetery in South Miami. The grave is situated next to a hurricane fence, and standing beside it one can hear the low noise of traffic from two expressways.

The grave is unmarked, and according to the cemetery's keepers, no one has asked to see it in many years. Alderman's original request was partly granted: he was buried in a white suit, but carried no rose to the gallows.

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