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Rum Runners: A Short, But Profitable Prohibition-Era Career

1920s | March 6, 2019

Sailors of the I'm Alone, suspected rum runner sunk by gunfire in the Gulf of Mexico, are jailed in New Orleans. Source: (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

When the United States Congress finally caved to pressures from temperance groups and passed the 18th Amendment in 1920, the country went dry. Alcohol production, sales, and distribution was suddenly a federal offense. The law that was intended to turn hard-drinking, money-squandering men into suitable husbands and providers, did little to curb the appeal of alcohol. Far from forcing people to go sober, the amendment prohibiting alcohol, called Prohibition, only led people to seek out creative and illegal ways of getting their booze. In the spirit of true American entrepreneurialism, many individuals set out to make their fortune from Prohibition by becoming rum runners. 

Pouring out booze at the start of Prohibition. Source: (allthatsinteresting.com)

What Were Rum Runners?

As the name implies, rum runners ran alcohol…not just rum…into places where it could be sold. Rum running differed from bootlegging in that the alcohol was really just being delivered from one place to the next, not being manufactured as bootleggers did, however, the term rum runner was really used to mean someone who smuggled alcohol via water. Rum runners made use of the nation’s waterways to distribute the illegal booze. Transporting and selling booze were both illegal activities. So rum runners had to be creative. 

Prohibition-era rum runner on Lake Michigan. Source: (shepherdexpress.com)

Rum Runners Worked the Seaports and Borders

Much of the alcohol flooding the United States during Prohibition came in via Canada or the Bahamas. From Canada, smugglers loaded boats with booze and slipped across one of the Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair, or the St. Lawrence River under cover of darkness. Other rum runners traveled into Boston from the eastern part of Canada and Seattle from western Canada. In the south, boats from Bimini in the Bahamas supplied Florida speakeasies with rum. 

Source: (historicipswich.org)

Rum Running was Big Business

Speakeasies, secret illegal bars, were springing up all over the country. There were literally hundreds of them in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston. Rum runners supplied the speakeasies with a steady flow of alcohol and it was a lucrative business to be in. Some of the larger ships filled with illegal booze sold their cargos for $200,000 or more. A single run could fetch thousands of dollars in profits, but it came with a risk. 

Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

Law Enforcement Cracked Down on Rum Runners

No sooner had Prohibition started when law enforcement officials discovered that rum runners were hard at work. In the first six months after the 18th Amendment was passed, there were more than 7,000 arrests made for violators of the new law. That number rose exponentially until the legal system, from the police department to the courts to the jails, was bogged down with Prohibition violation offenders. Police departments did what they could to thwart the efforts of the rum runners, from staking out docks and boathouses to stopping and inspecting boats. Many rum runners were arrested, jailed, and fined, but there were many more that weren’t caught.

Source: (danspapers.com)

Tricks of the Rum Runners

To evade the police, the rum runners used a variety of skills and tricks. Boats were outfitted with hidden chambers and false bottoms. Sometimes, the alcohol was towed underneath the boats in watertight containers. Booze was hidden inside other items, like Bibles, children’s toys, and grocery goods. Secret tunnels were constructed from boathouses to nearby houses or barns so the illegal cargo could be unloaded in secret. Elaborate secret communication signals were developed between the rum runners and their look-outs. The Windsor-Detroit Funnel was an underwater delivery system using submerged cables and mechanical pulleys to move 50-gallon drums of booze from Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit.

Redondo Beach police posing with confiscated alcohol during Prohibition. Source: (blog.dailybreeze.com)

Rum Running and Mob Connections

Rum runners and bootleggers banded together to form smuggling conglomerates. Organizes crime mobs got in on the action and either started their own smuggling operations or acquired existing ones. With the revenue from their smuggling operations, rum runners could avoid arrest by bribing police officers and law enforcement officials to turn a blind eye to their activities. 

Source: (amazon.com)

Rum Running was a Short-Lived Career

Only a few years into Prohibition, and it was obvious that the law was a failure. It was not preventing people from consuming alcohol, as it was intended to do. Instead, it was creating more problems for the legal system. In 1933, Congress passed the 21st Amendment that repeals the 18th Amendment. Prohibition was over. The rum runners who were used to making big money smuggling booze into the U.S. now had to find legitimate work to earn their livings. Still, the romantic, Robin Hood-like image of the daring rum runners persists. 

Tags: 18th Amendment, 1920s, rum runners, alcohol, prohibition period

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.