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Bill McCoy
bill mccoy

Recognized as the self described 'founder' of Rum Row, the imaginary area 3 miles off shore from Maine to Florida where tramp steamers, schooners and freighters lay at anchor with holds full of whiskey, rum, brandy, beer, wine and champagne ready to sell to anyone with the money. Locally Rum Row ran from Nantucket to Montauk, New York. Bill McCoy, a boat builder from Jacksonville, Florida was reputed to be an honest bootlegger. He had a reputation of never watering down or re-labeling cheap whiskey as premium brands as many bootleggers did. Bill became a legend.

When Bill was anchored off Nomansland in August of 1921 an Evening Standard article caused a sensation.




Craft Hove To for Days Has Had Frequent Purchasers---Orders Asserted To Have Been Booked By Agents Here

(Special to The Standard)

Vineyard Haven Aug 9

The mysterious craft which has been hovering off Nomansland for about a week is the Arethusa and hails, according to the legend painted on her stern, from "Nassau, N.P."

The Arethusa lies with jibs to windward about eight to ten miles south pof Nomansland. She is a big bank fisherman. Fisherman coming in here say she has liquor to sell and any buyer with cash is welcome. Prices quoted are: Canadian Club whiskey $65; Scotch $75; Champagne $100.

Reports that a two masted schooner under British registry, has been hove to about 18 or 20 miles south by west of Nomansland, and that deliveries from varied and extensive cargo, are being made in this city, on the Vineyard and at points along Cape Cod have been widely circulated in this city the last two or three days. Investigation by Standard reporters has developed the following: New Bedford yachtsman saw the strange craft Saturdy and Sunday and her bearings were as substantially as reported. So far as could be learned, none of them ascertainedthe name of the vessel.oat

Vineyard fisherman who have approached close to the craft identified her as a remodeled Gloucester fishing boat recently placed under British registry.

The mission of the v essel has been common gossip on Nomansland. Fisherman there said she was first observed about a week ago. She was so heavily loaded that her decks were awash. Today her waterline was well out of the water. The New Bedford man said that a man representing himself as an agent of the rumrunner came to New Bedford last Saturday, registered at the New Bedford Hotel and Saturday and Sunday night visited several of the clubs. There he made his business known and he was ready to take orders for whiskey $65. a case f.o.b. rumrunner, or $75 a case delivered to New Bedford at any dock designated y the purchaser. Safe delivery was guaranteed.

Another New Bedford man who is closely connected to the illicit liquor traffic asserted that one motorboat load of whisky had already been delivered here.

One New Bedford who is known as a good judge of whiskey said he talked with the liquor agent and another member of the rumrunner's crew Sunday night in a local club.

Agents Are Described

"Both men seemed to be well educated", said the New Bedford resident. "They were well dressed and looked prosperous. The man who dod most of the talking was American.His companion was either a German or a Swede. The agent mentioned during the comversation that he was a college graduate and a member of the same fraternal order to which I belong.

"I do not recall that they gave any names. If they did they were probably ficticious. Anyways I didn't catch them. They turned the conversation to prohibition and the agent finally stated plainly that he knew there was plenty of booze to risk.

When he saw that I was interested he said that he had a schooner full of liquor outside the three mile linit but that he didn't want orders for less than 100 cases. The price he quoted me was for $65 a case for whiskey on board the schooner or $75 a case delivered to New Bedford. "You can leave here in a motorboat late in the afternoon, " he said, "and arrive at the schooner before dark. Then you can load up and get back before daylight. If you haven't a boat I can bring the stuff up here in my boat but it will cost you $75 a case landed anywhere you say.

All Kinds of Stuff V"He said he had all kinds of stuff, champagne, whiskey, gin and brandy of a variety of brands. Afterward I had a drink of some of the stuff he had sold in town. It was good whiskey. The label had been scratched but you could make out the words "Bottled in Bond" and the name of the town in Kentucky.

"The agent told me came up from the south and he had planned to anchor outside of New York harbor. But the Federal authorities were too active ther and he came up to New London. Muchh of the cargo was sold there and then the schooner was navigated to her present location. The agent said the captain knew the coast like a book and was taking no chances. He said it was his custom to heave to close to some bouy that he knew was outside the three mile limit." "I saw the rumrunner Saturday afternoon," said New Bedford yachtsman who was out sword-fishing. The character of the vessel was common gossip of the fisherman at Nomansland. I should say the schooner was 18 to 20 miles south by west of Nomansland and about 40 miles from New Bedford. I passed with three or four hunderd feet of her, too far away to make out the name.

"The schooner was a two master and looked as though she might have been a fisherman. The only thing that disguinshed her from the regular fisherman was the presence of two top-masts. Fisherman generally only carry a topsail.

There Nearly a Week

"The fisherman of Nomansland said the rumrunner had been out there nearly a week. When first sighted she was so

low in the water her decks were nearly awash. Now her water line is well out of the water. The fishing fleet has been pretty close to her as she seems to have attracted a school of swordfish. In fact, the schooner is serving as a mark for the boatmen. Bearings are being given as 'so many miles from the rumrunner'. A big motorboat accompanies the rumrunner. Presumably this for deliveries or a quick getaway if the occasion arises. I do not believe, however that the owners of the schooner are taking many chances. The vessel is just outside the jurisisdiction of the federal authorities and if it is true that she is under British registry there isn't much possibility of a raid."

Islanders Ran Liquor

Another New Bedford man who has a summer home on the Vineyard said some of the fisherman there had helped to make deliveries of liquor taken from the rum-runner.

"One fisherman told me he had been aboard her several times," the New Bedford resident said. "He said she had been a Gloucester fisherman recently placed under British registry. He said also that she had a big stock of booze aboard including a lot of Irish whiskey. My opinion is that the schooner loaded at some Canadian port."

Admits Buying Booze

Still another man who said he had bought some of the booze from the rum-runner said that the owners were fussy about the currency they accepted. He said they would take only silver and refused to take checks or paper money. No information regarding the visit of the alleged liquor agent was obtainable at the New Bedford hotel. The room clerks said nobody answering to the description given had registered there. They said they were too busy to notice the number of visitors their guests received.

Night Watchman Interviewed

George Backus,, nnight watchmean on the New Bedford, Marthas Vineyard and Nantucket Steamboat Company told a Standard reported that he had observed, "no unusual activity along the waterfront of late. Might come Tonight

"However," he said, "boats might come up to Merrill's Wharf during the night and I wouldn't know about them. Automobile traffic to Merrills wharf is usually heavy, but the lighthouse tenders are usually tied up there and the officers and crews are generally travelling bac and forth.

Of course if a motorboat engaged in carrying liquor came up the river after dark. It probably would carry no lights and so as far as possible the noise of the motor would be muffled. Personally I do not believe an attempt to land booze would be made along this part of the waterfront. It would be done farther south where there is less danger of attracting attention.

The next day a Standard reporter, Earl D. Wilson, who would lager become editor, posing as a liquor buyer aboard a chartered fishing boat went out to the Arethusa and bought a few bottles. The reporter was amazed as he described being in the hold of the ship, a veritable floating liquor warehouse. According to Earl J. Dias book, Black Ships;Rum Runners of Prohibition and newspaper articles of the day this is Bill McCoy's New Bedford connection.

New Bedford Evening Standard

August 10, 1921

Unlike some of the fashionable resorts of New York, a ticket is not necessary to get on board the Arehusa. Embued with the democratic ideals of the country off whose shores she is lying, the English vessel welcomes all comers. When the New Bedford man, who paced the deck of the rum runner only a few days ago, approached the floating bar, he was hailed by the skipper, who met him at the side of the ship and welcomed him aboard in the most politer and hospitable manner.

"We transact business here day and night," said the genial captain of the modern pirate craft, "and we manage to supply Block Island, Martha's Vineyard, New Bedford and Fall River with what the residents of those places seem to want the most. Come out any time you want to; the law can't touch us here, and we'll be very glad to see you." Compartments in the ship held huge quantities of a large selection of different liquors, beer and champagne. There were areas where cases had obviously been removed and taken off in smaller boats. Dias estimated the cargo's 5000 cases to be worth $500,000, their math estimated the profit from that amount to $400,000. Remember these are 1921 dollars. Today $500,000 would be worth over $6,000,000. Analysis of the liquor purchased was taken to Pierre Barret, chemist for Browne's Pharmacy, Union St. New Bedford, revealed in another article that his product was described as "cheap rotgut whiskey and rainwater". Browne's and probably other pharmacies, would routinely analyze samples of liquors and beer brought to them by customers of bootleggers who wished to know what kind of product they where buying and to perform testing of contraband seized by the police. Prices for testing ranged from $5.00 to $25.00 depending on if you wanted to know just whether it was safe to drink or if you wanted the actual proof and ingredients in it.

The next day Dias, a close friend of Everett S. Allen a reporter whose first days assignment was covering the Hurricane of 1938, went out posing as an entrepreneur "intent on establishing a through route to New Bedford and other points on the mainland."

"We had been out of site of land for some time and the skipper of the fishing vessel I was on turned to me and said,"If your rum boat is out here, we ought to sight her about 11 o'clock." At 10:45 off to starboard I spotted first one sail and then another. "There she is said my skipper."

"It had taken us about 4 1/2 hours. Estimating our vessel's speed as 6 1/2 miles an hour, I figured we were 28 miles out. The Arethusa's skipper said a mouthful when he implied his location was splendid. Business was rushing when we arrived and we waited for other customers, mostly in swordfishing vessels to be board and be served. Finally somebody aboard the Arethusa waved for us to come aboard; our vessel hove to, we got in a dory, rowed up to her rail and we climbed aboard. The crew resembled a gang of cutthroats as ever bade a luckless victim to walk the plank. All were unshaven, some looking as though their faces had been innocent of a luckless razor for the nearly four weeks they had been out there."

It continues to mention that Bill was living on Martha's Vineyard with Indian residents of Gay Head. The newspaper article forced McCoy to move on had only made his location a target of the federal authorities who unable to find him declared he never was there. Dias would interview Bill when he was in New Bedford in 1939. The Arethusa would make headlines for the next 5 days.

McCoy's first rum ship was the Henry L. Marshall, which was actually being held after seizure along the mid Atlantic at the time the articles were running in New Bedford. His best known ship was the Arethusa though, a Gloucester rigged schooner. Later renamed the Tomoka by McCoy, it was considered to be the fastest and most well built of the ships of its type. The Arethusa was once owned by Captain Clayton Morrisey who was the model for the Gloucester Fisherman's Memorial statue. Morrisey's father, Captain William Morrisey had the schooner Effie M. Morrisey built and named it for Clayton's sister. The Effie Morrisey later went on as a research vessel at the Arctic Circle with expeditions such as National Geographic Society. Renamed the Ernestina she is now berthed in New Bedford, MA.

Hijacking of rum ships was a common occurrence, but thanks to McCoys vigilance he was never a victim to piracy. Bill would equip his men with Colt sidearms and a machine gun mounted on the bow. One of his tactics while strangers were on board his boat for a transaction was to station his men on separate areas of his ship so as to make it harder for any raiders to overtake the whole crew at once. Considerable pressure on the Arethusa from the Coast Guard picket boats caused Bill to rename her the Tomoka. In November of 1923 the Coast Guard Cutter Seneca put McCoy out of the rum running business temporarily when they seized the Arethusa. Bill didn't make the CG's effort an easy one. When a boarding party attempted to board his ship and seize her, he allowed them on. The Seneca thinking their men would steam the ship to port, but Bill chased them off with a machine gun burst. After picking up the boarding party, the Seneca finally overtook the Arethusa after firing her heavy gun just over the bow of the ship. Increasing pressure from more violent competitors made him decide to quit the business. Bill continued to build and sail his boats until he died in 1948.