The Gallows and the Deep

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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.

In the early Twenties, colorful entrepreneurs like Capt. William McCoy ran contraband liquor in schooners from Canada to the United States and sold it to party boaters just outside the three-mile territorial limit. (Unlike other smugglers McCoy never watered down his booze, giving rise to the term "the real McCoy.") But by 1927 McCoy had sold his ships and retired to Florida; the smuggling business had been overrun by hijackers and organized into sophisticated criminal networks; Congress had pushed the territorial limit out to twelve miles; and the Bahamas had surpassed all other nations as the favorite loading-up spot for smugglers. In 1917 the Bahamian capital of Nassau sold 50,000 quarts of liquor; in 1922 the figure jumped to 10 million.

South Florida's rum smugglers outran the Coast Guard in high-speed boats powered by converted WWI aircraft engines, precursors to the modern Cigarette boat. Underfunded and ill-trained, Coast Guardsmen were by turns trigger-happy, corrupt, or angry with their own government for forcing them to make interdiction their unpopular top priority.

At that time South Florida onshore looked strikingly similar to its present-day incarnation, awash as it was with undercover federal agents, high-priced defense lawyers, professional snitches, clandestine drop-zones, and a host of corrupted judges, hypocritical politicians and cops playing both sides of the illicit economy.

On January 27, 1927, the Associated Press had this to report:

Every prohibition enforcement agency of the United States government cooperated here this morning in simultaneous raids [that] left Broward County virtually without local law enforcement and at noon gave promise, officers said, of uncovering one of the biggest liquor conspiracies and supply bases in the country.

Sheriff Paul C. Bryan, his whole staff of deputies, and six policemen were among the first to be arrested. Bert Croft, assistant chief of police, was arrested soon afterward.

By the time Horace Alderman appeared on the scene, public animosity toward the government's liquor war was approaching its zenith.

"Life for a Coast Guardsman at some bases became unbearable," notes Coast Guard historian Cmdr. A.L. Lonsdale. "If they left the base, they might be arrested by local police for spitting, loitering, or creating a public disturbance if they talked audibly."

In Broward County the 1926 hurricane demolished a local economy based on tourism and real estate and ushered in the Great Depression three years earlier than elsewhere. Some of the newly impoverished locals turned to smuggling for survival. Many business leaders thought the rebirth of tourism was their only chance for economic salvation -- and tourists wanted liquor.

As if relations between local and federal authorities weren't poisonous enough, the Coast Guard in three separate incidents shot to death three of South Florida's best-known contrabandists, Charlie Waite, Ermon Jones, and Red Shannon. Shannon was killed two months before the 1926 hurricane, following a high-speed boat chase in front of the ritzy Flamingo Hotel off Miami Beach. Shocked spectators at a regatta looked on.

The killings led local authorities to indict nine Coast Guardsmen for murder. U.S. District Attorney W. M. Gober, who was building a career as a brass-knuckles prosecutor, was now cast in the unusual role of defense attorney to the accused feds. Months dragged on without a trial date while state prosecutors accused Gober of stonewalling.

G. Harold Martin, a trial lawyer and Fort Lauderdale city judge in the Roaring Twenties, is a lifelong teetotaler. But most people in Prohibition-era Broward County weren't, he recalls.

"Liquor? The church people were against it, that was about it," Martin says. "The sheriff's deputies would go around and collect money from the bootleggers and turn it over to the politicians, and the politicians made sure the bootleggers stayed out of jail. Simple as that.

"Sure it was corrupt. But the only thing we had to sell down here was recreation, and liquor was an important part of it."

Martin, who was born in 1900, says he can't remember who became the biggest celebrity smuggler after the shooting deaths of Shannon, Jones, and Waite. "Not because it was so long ago, but because there were just so many of them."

It's been more than 50 years since anyone has read the first official words written about the Alderman incident. The words lie inside a box in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

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Sean Rowe