The Gallows and the Deep

Page 5 of 7

The relaxed transportation duty explained why crew members wore T-shirts and dungarees instead of their Coast Guard uniforms. In an account written 49 years after the incident, crew member Caudle revealed that the patrol boat stopped Alderman on the high seas mainly because its commanding officer wanted to treat the out-of-town Secret Service agent to a taste of South Florida intrigue.

Perhaps most significant of all its omissions at Base 6 is the board of inquiry's failure to interview the central character in the drama, Alderman himself. No explanation was given as to why.

Upon reaching land Horace Alderman had been taken to the hospital under heavy guard. The next day he was moved again. "In view of the existing feeling among the rumrunners, and of the fact that several had attempted to gain admittance to the hospital, Alderman was removed to the county jail, all the necessary precautions being taken against any sympathizers," Jordan wrote.

The precautions apparently weren't enough for the Coast Guard. Alderman was placed aboard a government gunboat on the New River and taken by convoy to Jacksonville, where he was held in solitary confinement.

It was nearly half a year later, when he went to trial in January 1928, that Alderman got to tell his side of the story. By then Weech had turned state's evidence against Alderman before a grand jury in Jacksonville. In return for his testimony against Alderman, Weech received a light sentence -- one year in the federal penitentiary -- and vanished before Alderman's hanging.

Weech, the linchpin in Alderman's indictment, remained a shadow player. His grand jury testimony was first sealed, then destroyed by the court decades ago.

Alderman acknowledged he was a killer but denied to his dying day that he was a murderer. Speaking in what was described as a clear, strong voice in a federal courtroom in Miami, he told a rather different version of the high seas bloodbath: In the first minutes of the encounter off Fort Lauderdale, he thought his contraband cargo was being hijacked by rival smugglers. The crew members of CG 249 weren't dressed like Coast Guardsmen, and Alderman said the Coast Guard vessel wasn't readily identifiable as such. Likewise Sanderlin didn't identify himself as a government agent.

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.

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Sean Rowe