It was the Roaring Twenties. The Volstead Act (Prohibition) put an end to Grandpa’s after-work gin and tonic and Great Aunt Milli’s Manhattan at her private country club. Yet imbibers of hard liquors would not be denied.
In Chicago, Al Capone, one of the nation’s most notorious gangsters, raked in millions smuggling alcohol and opening underground saloons and gambling joints called speakeasies. To the south, the banished booze distilled in the Caribbean flowed freely into South Florida, turning family beaches from Miami to West Palm Beach into dangerous and clandestine ports of call.
It all started with the Ohio-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1873. The group labeled drunkenness “a national curse” and advocated abolishing the trafficking of alcohol. Joined by the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in 1900, the movement endorsed political candidates and vigorously lobbied for anti-saloon legislation. They were so effective that by 1916, 23 of 48 states had adopted its platform. By January 1919, the states ratified the 19th Amendment and a nationwide ban prohibited the manufacture and transportation of liquor.
But the legislation had loopholes. The law defined intoxicating liquor as having a .5 percent alcohol content, yet liquor used for medicinal, sacramental or industrial purposes, no matter the alcoholic content, was still lawful. And home brewed beverages made from fruit or grapes were also permitted. To further exacerbate the situation, law enforcement had little funds with which to enforce the legislation. Thus, organized crime seeped relentlessly through the cracks.
Moonshine stills guarded by shotgun toting lookouts dotted the back woods. Drivers called “bootleggers” delivered the distilled hooch to family, friends, private clubs and speakeasies. Soon the moniker was applied to anyone running illegal booze including imports from Canada, the French islands and the Bahamas. Speakeasies became widely popular. So named because patrons had to “speak easy” to convince the doorman to let them in, the establishments were a haven for illegal gambling and the consumption of alcohol.
In West End, Bahamas, corrugated metal shacks lined the beach where thousands of bottles of liquor were warehoused and bagged for transportation into South Florida. Bottles were fitted into straw jackets and a half dozen placed in burlap bags known as “hams.” Pushcarts on rails carried the hams to docks where they were loaded onto boats whose gunwales barely cleared the water. The armada of 18-20 boats then made its way across the 55-mile straight to secluded beaches on the South Florida coast.
One destination was Cap’s Place, a restaurant located on the Intracoastal Waterway in Lighthouse Point. Built in 1928 and still serving customers, the establishment was originally known as Club Unique and became a popular supper club and gambling casino during the 1930s and 1940s. Captain ‘Cap’ Theodore Knight, one of the earliest settlers in the Lighthouse Point area, owned the trendy club and along with his wife, Lola, become heavily involved in rum running.
Cap ran whiskey from Bimini, Bahamas back to his restaurant by night, using the beacon from the Hillsboro Lighthouse as reference. His liquor runs had a flawless record due to his skills as a navigator and the fact that he had faster boats than the Coast Guard. Additionally, his brother is said to have signaled when the coast was clear by flashing a go ahead from the lighthouse. Cap tied the whiskey to buoys with long ropes then sank the contraband in Lake Placid, a wide area on the Intracoastal in front of the club. When a customer placed an order, Cap rowed out to a buoy and brought back the bottles for use in the restaurant or delivery to customers in town. In a 1973 interview, Lola Knight recalled their rum running days:
. . . Many a night I would haul those sacks of liquor up the beach to the car and take it into town to Cap’s customers . . . Scared? We were never scared. I’m not afraid of the devil himself, and neither was Cap.
Another popular place to unload the illegal cargo was Deerfield Island, now a Broward County park. Located on the Intracoastal Waterway between Boca Raton and Deerfield Beach the 56-acre triangular island was formerly owned by Al Capone who purchased the island because of its secluded location. Known as Capone Island, it provided the perfect setting for the mobster to carry out his lucrative rum running in the early 1930s.
Few firsthand accounts of bootlegger stories exist but two that occurred in Palm Beach County are especially fascinating. The first involved Miss Alice DeLamar, a longtime winter resident of Palm Beach. Below is an excerpt from “The Night the Bootleg Boats Arrived” by James R. Knott as told in the Sunday Brown Wrapper of the Palm Beach Post, March 21, 1982:
They liked to land their boats on my beach on South Ocean Boulevard because my driveway was secluded from the road and several trucks could park there after dark waiting for the fleet’s arrival. My gardener caretaker knew the rules of the game. After dark you approached people of the bootleg profession always with a lighted cigarette prominently displayed to prove you were not sneaking up on them. When boats arrived silently at the beach on a calm night where there was no surf, the cargo of bags had to be carried to the trucks, and as a grateful tribute two or three bags would be left on my doorstep. Bags had no labels so one did not know if the gift was whiskey, gin or rum but one did at least know that it would be of excellent quality out of the British market.
The story goes on to recount how one night the caretaker woke DeLamar before dawn. High winds had swamped two heavy-laden boats east of her beach. While the crew swam ashore, the cargo sank in about 14 feet of water. DeLamar and a number of friends, including Horace Chase, Addison Mizner’s nephew, canoed out into the ocean and marked the lost contraband with a buoy. Realizing the only way to accurately locate the bags was from the air, they enlisted the aid of a pilot to pinpoint the location.
DeLamar and her friends managed to salvage 20 bags before the surf kicked up and they had to abandon their booty. But down at the Widener estate, a butler up early spied a bag washed upon the beach. The rest of the domestic staff soon joined him. Before long, a convoy of cars stopped on the road. Their drivers gawked at the spectacle of liveried servants wading in the surf. Attracted by the commotion, revenuers soon closed the road and confiscated the remaining bags.
The second account occurred in Boca Raton. J.M. “Jake” Boyd, Palm Beach County Engineer from 1926-1953 and Town Manager of Palm Beach from 1953-1959, came to Boca in 1926 to oversee several road projects. James R Knott told Boyd’s story in “Roads, Beaches and Bootleggers,” a Sunday Brown Wrapper article in the Palm Beach Post, February 26, 1984. Here is a synopsis.
Smugglers’ lookouts on the beaches adopted a novel method for signaling choice landing spots to boat pilots transporting illegal booze. Imitating legitimate surveying activity around the county, a “surveyor” with a transit provided the telescope to identify the boat and a “roadman” used his own code to wigwag the landing spot.
On one particular day, Boyd’s crew was surveying the Boca Raton beach when they inadvertently preempted the lookout’s signal. The boatman entered the Boca Raton inlet and beached in front of Boyd’s transit man. Recognizing his mistake, the smuggler took off on foot, leaving a boatload of gunnysacks full of “choice beverages.”
The surveyor contacted Boyd who, after “pondering” the situation, sent a truck to haul the contraband to the garage of his rented house. There he contemplated whether to notify the Sheriff’s office. Boyd stated:
I was accustomed to spending Saturday nights and Sundays with friends in the Palm Beach area and while still pondering I took along a case that weekend and distributed samples among appreciative friends so they could help me meditate . . . On Monday morning, when I opened my garage, the liquor was all gone without a trace; I got an anonymous telephone call thanking me for taking care of it and offering a sure source of supply in the future. I got to know the anonymous caller pretty well with the passage of time.
With the passing of the Twenty-first Amendment that repealed prohibition in 1933, organized crime lost nearly all of its black market alcohol profits but later adjusted by selling illegal drugs. Once again, South Florida became the coast of choice for smugglers and their contraband.