Bootlegging and Rum Running

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Rum runner Black Duck escorted by Coast Guard boats to Newport, RI harbor after CG-290 fired shots killing 3 or 4 of crew, 1930. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Enforcement of the prohibition law fell to the Department of the Treasury and intercepting the flow of rum via the sea fell to the Coast Guard. Over the years, bootleggers devised a number of ways to try to avoid capture while transporting their liquor. One of the most common was to enhance, or "soup up" the engines of the cars they drove. Their sea-faring counterparts had more logistical problems to overcome. Rumrunners would dock their loaded ships beyond the three-mile limit of US government jurisdiction and unload the cargo to smaller boats under the cover of night. The larger ships could then sail into port, subject to routine inspections without the fear of detection.

The Coast Guard found it difficult to enforce the prohibition of alcohol as there were hundreds of these “mother ships’ anchored off shore from the major ports. Large profits increased the activity. One measure of such activity could be measured by the amount of liquor that passed through Nassau, Bahamas on route to the U.S.: 50,000 quarts in 1917 to 10,000,000 in 1922.