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of Justice, Prohibition agents, and U.S. Coast Guard than the light-hearted disregard McCoy and his fellow rum runners showed them.
Sitting out on the row, they taunted the authorities. Their souped-up
contact boats, powered by 500-horse Liberty engines, doubled the
speed of sluggish Coast Guard boats. To the government, McCoy was
a symbol of defiance. They weren’t going to let him get away with it.
They earmarked $14 million in federal funds to upgrade and
double the size of the Coast Guard fleet. The plan was to cut rum
row off from its contact boats, making it impossible to land the liquor.
They arrested the boatbuilders outfitting the contact boats, and tensions rose between the residents of rum row and the Coast Guard
revenue cutters. In the summer of 1923, while the Henry L. Marshall
was chartered to another runner, the Coast Guard impounded the
vessel in international waters after her drunk captain had bragged
to an undercover agent about selling liquor. The government cited
“illegal exchange with contact boats,” claiming that shore contact was
an illegal act, and the owners, the McCoy brothers, were indicted in
New Jersey. Rum row was nervous. If the Marshall case held up in
court, they could all be arrested, and the loophole of selling outside
U.S. waters would be slammed shut.
By late November 1923, as McCoy and his crew worked the last
few runs from Nassau before winter, the Coast Guard cutter Seneca
sent a whaleboat to examine his papers. The State Department had
gotten the British government to agree not to interfere if the British-registered Arethusa was chased down. The lieutenant leading the
siege claimed there was something wrong with McCoy’s papers
and ordered him to bring the boat to Sandy Hook. McCoy refused.
Washington radioed orders to the Seneca to bring Arethusa in or sink
her. A skirmish ensued. The rum ship was shelled four times. McCoy
knew this was the end. He lowered his jib. His beloved Arethusa was
heading to shore under Coast Guard command. As they started the
17-mile trip, one by one McCoy took his crew below, paid them their
wages, and said goodbye – under the watchful eyes of Old Faithful.
While awaiting trial, McCoy was visited by Pete Sullivan, a customs
agent who’d been sent to spy on him back in Nassau the previous
year. Sullivan had almost met a grizzly end when some of the more
disreputable characters in Nassau guessed why he was there. In the
nick of time, McCoy had stepped in, pretended he knew Sullivan,
and allowed him to spend the night in his hotel room before sending
him safely back to U.S. soil the next morning.
Sullivan hadn’t forgotten, and he took McCoy on a bizarre tour of
Washington, D.C. to meet star-struck congressmen and federal agents
eager to shake the hand of the Real McCoy. Sullivan testified in court
how McCoy had saved him the year before. In March 1925, McCoy
was sentenced to serve just nine months in prison, and permitted to
leave the jailhouse daily as long as he returned by 9 p.m. He even
attended a Walker-Shade prizefight in ringside seats at Ebbets Field,
in Brooklyn, with the warden of his prison. When photos appeared
on front pages the next day, McCoy was transferred to another jail
and the warden was fired. He was released on Christmas Day to his
brother, Ben. Old Faithful had sadly died while he was in jail.
The McCoy brothers now lived modestly
in the family home in Florida and returned
to the boatbuilding business and real-estate
investment. When McCoy heard that his
beloved Arethusa, auctioned by the U.S.
government and put to work in the Nova
Scotia fishing fleet, had been wrecked off
the coast of Halifax, he rushed north to see
her one last time. Today, a little bit of her
lives on in various museums throughout the United States: Her lines
plan is in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.; the ship’s knee, one
of the boats internal supports is in The Mariners’ Maritime Museum,
in Newport News, Virginia; and her wheel was the model for the
helm of the famous Gloucester Fisherman’s memorial in Gloucester,
Massachusetts. In 1948, at the age of 71, the legendary Bill McCoy
died in Florida on board the last of his boats.
Ann Dermody is BoatU.S. Magazine’s managing editor.
When business was brisk, there would be up to 15 boats
waiting to be loaded from Arethusa, and McCoy’s pockets
would get so full of bills he’d have to go below several times a
night to empty them and put them under Old Faithful’s watch