The intense fascination everyone had for
McCoy, from officials in Washington, D.C.
to the general public, had begun three years
before. Claiming he’d only gotten into rum-running as a way to fuel his love for being
on the water, the dashing teetotaler was an
unlikely candidate to symbolize the face of
Roaring ’20s speakeasies. McCoy was born in
upstate New York in 1877, before the family
moved to Philadelphia. Inspired by tales from
his father, a bricklayer who’d served in the
Union Navy during the Civil War, the teenager
started hanging around the wharves on the
There, he laid eyes on the Saratoga, a
Philadelphia Maritime School ship. He went
home and told his father to find another
bricklaying apprentice. After two years on
the Saratoga, he finished first in his class and
spent the next few years on yachts and steamers, rising to the rank of mate on a ship that
served on the Key West-Havana run, earning a
substantial $75 a week. By 1900, the McCoys
had moved to Florida, where Bill went into
the boatbuilding business with his brother,
Ben. They quickly assembled an illustrious clientele, building sailboats for the Vanderbilts,
Real McCoy The
BY ANN DERMODY
SETTING THE STAGE
The National Prohibition Act, which banned
intoxicating beverages, went into effect in
January 1920. As soldiers returned home from
World War I, the United States was transitioning from war to a peacetime economy, and the
upheaval contributed to a depression. Wealthy
clients commissioning yachts disappeared,
and things got tough for the McCoy brothers.
Both their beloved parents died, and McCoy’s
brief marriage to the daughter of a prominent
Daytona surgeon ended after just six months.
At 42, he was at a crossroads. A chance meeting with a dapper stranger driving a shiny new
motorcar, a fellow clearly rolling in fast-gotten
cash, would point him in a new direction.
America was begging for a drink, the
stranger told him. They were perfectly positioned, he said, a short sail from Nassau, in the
Bahamas, a place loaded with rum it was itching to sell. The only problem was a shortage
of schooner captains. The man offered McCoy
$100 a day to sail the Dorothy W from Nassau
to Atlantic City. McCoy went to see the shabby
ship, then decided against it. But the idea had
taken hold. Rum-running offered adventure,
cash, and a way to pursue his passion: commanding powerful boats on passages up and
down the coast.
After convincing his more cautious brother to come on board, McCoy sold their
boatbuilding inventory and cobbled together
$20,000. In August 1920, he headed to
Gloucester, Massachusetts, to purchase his
own boat, the first in his fleet of rum-runners.
According to Frederic F. Van de Water’s biography of McCoy, The Real McCoy, it was on that
trip that McCoy first saw the love of his life.
“Her name was Arethusa,” McCoy is reported
thinking. “She seemed to ghost into the har-
The hearing inside the courthouse was packed as the tall, well-dressed man got to his feet and looked at the Newark, New Jersey, judge, who cleared his throat and asked what defense the accused planned to make at his upcoming trial. Reporters stood, pens eagerly poised. “I have no tale of woe to tell you,” began the soft-spoken man. “I was outside the three-mile limit, selling whisky,
and good whisky, to anyone and everyone who wanted to buy.” And so, with
a March 1925 guilty plea, the saga that had begun just a few short years
earlier – and had turned Bill McCoy into the adventuring romantic hero of
anti-Prohibitionist America – came to an end.
John Wanamaker, Maxine Elliott, and Andrew
Carnegie. They also ran a boat service from
Jacksonville to Palm Beach, then on to Fort
Myers through the Everglades.