Gertrude Lythgoe – Fascinating Women of Prohibition

AL CAPONE’S MIAMI: PARADISE OR PURGATORY?

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Lythgoe with McCoy aboard the Tomoka

Lythgoe with McCoy aboard the Tomoka

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.

Another fascinating woman of the Prohibition era was Gertrude Lythgoe, also known as Grace Lythgoe.

Gertrude Lythgoe entered the world in Bowling Green, Ohio as the tenth child of an English father and Scottish mother. Yet her exotic appearance allowed her to pass for American Indian, Russian, French or Spanish. When, as an adult, she was hailed as a look alike for Queen Cleopatra she was given the nickname “Cleo.”

She became orphaned when her mother died and her father was unable to care for all the children, yet she loved school and had a quick mind. This would prove an asset in the occupation she would eventually find herself. Rescued by an aunt, she was later reunited with her father.

As a young woman she worked in New York and California as a stenographer but later came under the employ of a London liquor exporter. With the passing of Prohibition, her employer realized a opportunity existed to supply liquor to the U.S. through the Bahamas.

Needing a savvy businessperson to oversee their affairs, Lythgoe was tapped for the assignment. Traveling to Nassau, she set up the company’s wholesale liquor business on Market Street, initiated sales transactions with potential buyers and oversaw the shipments.

Reporter Wigley described her as “truly a wonderful personality. A woman of cultivated tastes, who can talk on books and who travels with the best music in her trunks, and shows such artistic taste in dress . . .”

She found buyers wary of her gender in the mostly male business but overcame any skepticism with quality of goods, pricing and smarts. Soon, she became a formidable figure in the liquor supplying business, coming to be known as “The Bahama Queen.”

Wigley met with Lythgoe frequently in Nassau and wrote that she told him of a man who had been saying derogatory things about her liquor.

“Everyone knows that my liquor is the very best,” she said, “but for some reason or another this man thought he would criticize it to other people, and he also said something unpleasant about me.

Well, I found him in a barber’s shop with his face lathered and I just walked right in and told him I wanted to talk to him. I fetched him along to my office, and there I just warned him. I told him I’d put a bullet through him as sure as he sat there. He went away mighty quick.

Lythgoe with McCoy aboard the Tomoka

A contemporary of Bill McCoy, one of Prohibition’s most notorious rum runners during the early part of the era, Lygthgoe sailed aboard his schooner Tomoka to Rum Row off New York. With the boat laden with her company’s liquor, she remained aboard several weeks until her load was sold. During this time, she and McCoy became fast friends. McCoy described the elusive lady:

She was a tall slender girl with black hair, a brain as steady as her own dark eyes, and a history that was nobody’s business. She came to Nassau as agent for Haig and McTavish’s Scotch whisky, no one knew from where. She made no secret of her background, but she told an entirely different tale to everyone who asked. She was born in California. She had been born in India. She was a gypsy. She had been raised in the Middle West. You could take your choice.
   Nassau was not the best place in those days for attractive unprotected women, but though she was the former, she certainly was not the latter. Members of the rum mob who drew their own conclusions concerning her and then tried to operate accordingly, probably will recall the breath-taking fury she could show, and one or two must remember the pistol jammed into their ribs by way of making things clear. An able thoroughly competent girl was she; no twittery jane at whom one could make passes with impunity. She expected others to mind their own business as she attended to hers. She worked at that overtime and in its course she nearly ran me ragged.

After several years of operating successfully out of the Bahamas, Lythgoe was arrested and taken to Federal courts in New Orleans where she was charged with smuggling 1,000 cases of whiskey into the city. In actuality, she had been engaged elsewhere and had left the shipment in the hands of a subordinate who arranged the shady deal with himself as beneficiary.

Eventually cleared of the charges, she left rum-running to write her memoirs but not before becoming reacquainted with her old friend Bill McCoy aboard his schooner Taormina. She described her conversation with him as he pleaded for her to stay aboard:

“Believe me, it’s a tremendous temptation, but I still have some unfinished business, tails ends which must have my attention. It is urgent that I return. There have been so many interruptions as it is. Besides, I hardly think it would be proper for me to stay aboard with three captains.”
   With that he jumped up and grabbed me in his arms, saying, “I won’t let you go.”
   For once I did not resist his caresses.
   “If you must go back, promise me that you will get the slate cleared of whatever you have to do as soon as possible. Meanwhile I will finish the overhauling of the ships here and the one in Virginia. We will meet in Miami, then go on a long cruise to the South Seas and just jog along as we please. I won’t let you go until you do promise.”
   It was with reluctance that I compelled myself to wake from those wonderful moments.
   As I said good-bye, with my arms around his neck, I kissed him.
   “All right, Bill, I promise.”

    Lythgoe never delivered on her promise. For a while, she resided at the Parkleigh House in Miami and later lived in New York. But the majority of her time was spent in Detroit, Michigan where for twenty-five years her home was the Tuller Hotel on Grand Circus Park. She died in Los Angeles, California on June 24, 1974. She was 86.

During Lythgoe’s reign in the Bahamas, her story appeared in syndicated columns in newspapers and magazines. When her photograph graced the pages of such prominent newspapers as the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times she was elevated to celebrity status. And, it is said, the British flag dipped in salute when, for the last time, she sailed from the Bahamas.

Click here for Flat Hammock Press and Lythgoe’s autobiography, The Bahama Queen.

   Click here to order a copy of Run the Rum In, which describes more about South Florida during the Prohibition era.

 

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About Sally J. Ling

Fascinating but little known history is all around us. I write historical fiction and nonfiction about remarkable events in Florida's history. Please join me for a fascinating ride.
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