The Ashley Gang
The Ashley Gang was a notorious band of robbers and murderers that ran roughshod over South Florida during the Prohibition era. Many of the gang was from the same family. They concentrated on robbing banks, but when Prohibition started they began pirating illegal booze from rum runners and escaping into the Everglades where John Ashley’s girlfriend, Laura Upthegrove, known as Queen of the Everglades, had a hideout.
Learn more about this notorious band of killers, their escapades during Prohibition, and how they met their demise, in the book Run the Rum In.
The Coast Guard encounter a rum runner
The Coast Guard had been handed a formidable task—halt the smuggling of liquor into the U.S. In the early years of Prohibition, the U.S. Coast Guard was significantly understaffed and ill equipped with an assortment of patrol boats, launches, harbor tugs and small craft capable of top speed of only about 12 knots (just under 14 mph).
Knowing this, rumrunners ran routes to Florida during the day with virtual impunity. While the Coast Guard added boats, staff and a spotter plane with some effectiveness, nighttime efforts to reel in the smugglers stalled.
To avoid capture, rumrunners were constantly inventing new methods to outsmart and out maneuver the Coast Guard. Initially, they developed “Bimini boats,” large cargo boats with shallow drafts. These boats could easily maneuver in the Florida mangrove swamps and inlets where Coast Guard boats with deeper drafts could not venture.
Another tactic the smugglers used to evade the law was to enhance the boat’s performance by installing Liberty airplane engines. Bird and Wallace King, sons of Edwin Thomas King who established King and Sons Boatyard, the first boatyard in Ft. Lauderdale, were intimately involved in this endeavor. Jimmy Bryan, former supervisor of marine facilities for Ft. Lauderdale, said Bird King used to sell a lot of boats to rumrunners: “They used to put power in them – 450 horse Liberty airplane engines – and for that period of time they were very fast.”
One of the most creative tactics employed by a rummie involved the vessel Louise . . .
Learn more about how rumrunners evaded the law and how the Coast Guard caught some of the most notorious rummies in Run the Rum In.
William "Bill" McCoy
William “Bill” McCoy was born in Syracuse, New York in 1877. As a young boy, his father often entranced him with tales of naval war stores from his Civil War service. Upon moving to Philadelphia, McCoy recalled: “I started nosing about the wharves on the Delaware [River] as instinctively as a bird dog ranges a stubble field.” After an initial two years of training aboard the Saratoga, a school ship used to train sailors, he spent several years on steamships as part of the merchant marine.
McCoy was a tall man, almost 6 feet 2 inches, with broad shoulders and a tapered waist. He had steady eyes and was described as having a voice like a “fog horn.” In 1900, he moved to Florida where he and his brother Ben built boats on the banks of the Halifax River in Holly Hill, just a few short miles north of Daytona Beach.
The Uncle Sam built in 1903,was used as an excursion boat on the Tomoka River. While the brothers continued to build boats, they also operated freight and passenger service between Daytona and St. Augustine and went as far south as Palm Beach. But boat passenger service slowed as motorized buses replaced water travel, and by 1920, their boat building business slowed to a trickle.
Approached by a rumrunner with an offer of $100 a day to sail a boatload of illegal liquor from the Bahamas to the United States, the McCoys turned down the offer. But eyeing the potentially lucrative opportunity for themselves, the brothers sold all their small boats and bought the Henry L. Marshall, which they sailed to the Bahamas. Built of white oak, when loaded the 90-foot fishing schooner could carry 1,500 cases of crated liquor, or 3,000 cases in burlap bags. So began Bill McCoy’s smuggling career.
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On Friday, November 4, at 9:00 P.M. WLRN (PBS TV in Miami) aired the documentary “Prohibition and the South Florida Connection.”
Steve Waxman did a fabulous job of producing this intriguing story using Run the Rum In as a catalyst for the film. I went on board as associate producer.
Check online listings for additional airings.
Nassau During Prohibition
When one walked down the streets of Nassau during the Prohibition era, he or she saw store fronts, like shoe or clothing stores, crowding the streets. Dangling signs touted the distillary or supplier the proprietor represented, and inside deals were struck with signatures on a dotted line. Money, stacks of it, passed from buyer to proprietor all with the purpose of running illegal booze into the U.S.
Just outside Nassau, several 30-foot by 50-foot barges floated on a blue-green bay. It was there schooners, loaded with liquor from English distilleries, docked and discharged their liquid cargo. Bahamian workers, both men and women, carried the cases off the schooners, and with nimble fingers, repackaged the bottles in sacks of six bottles each wrapped in straw. Called “hams,” these were then loaded onto 25-foot motorboats equipped with powerful engines and capable of carrying 400 cases in one haul. They were bound for Florida.
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While it is true the Prohibition era was dominated by men, the truth is, there were several women, some famous and some infamous, some on the side of the law and some outside the law, that played very prominent roles. This is one of them.
Marie Waite – “Spanish Marie”
It was said Marie Waite fell heir to the rum running business when her husband’s corpse washed ashore on Biscayne Bay in 1926. Charlie Waite, known as “king of the rum runners,” had been killed in a shootout with the Coast Guard.
Known as “Spanish Marie,” she set up shop in Havana where she “ruthlessly ruled a little rum running empire.” As a savvy businesswoman and formidable female admiral, she eventually became the controlling principle in the illicit booze trade from Havana to Key West. She commanded a flotilla of fifteen contact boats, the fastest in the business, and ran booze along Florida’s southern coast from Palm Beach to Key West.
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