Shine On

From a June, 1950 Gazette edition:

A retrospect of prohibition days on Martha’s Vineyard brings to light certain annals not unlike those familiar to the nation at large. It was inevitable that an Island conveniently situated off the coast and accessible from the sea would be involved in some of the activities of the era — and the Vineyard was, though many residents saw little or nothing of these activities and the community as a whole stood apart from lawlessness then as now.

In rum-running years, vessels carrying cargoes of contraband liquor could wait outside the thirty-mile limit for small boats — speedboats or fishermen or any other craft — to transport the valuable goods to the main. If pursuit became pressing, the rum-runners could jettison their cargoes into the water, for top speed is not possible in a heavily loaded boat. This was a bonanza to certain people of the Vineyard, as the cases of liquor would be greeted by enthusiastic salvagers as they floated ashore.

One captain said: “I remember the time when a thirty gallon barrel of scotch came floating ashore on a beach that belonged to a friend of mine. ‘Oh, boy!’ cried he. ‘Wait a minute,’ said I. ‘You don’t know what’s in that thing. I shall take it to a friend who can analyze it.’ Which I did.

“My scientific friend’s comment was ‘the man that distilled that whiskey knew his business.’ Well, I went back to my friend and told him that I thought I deserved at least a quart for that small service. I got it, and it was good whiskey, too.”

Friend number one, it seems, distributed some of the whiskey among his dearest and most close-mouthed friends, and hid the rest in a hay mow on a farm. “When the boys went up to do the haying,” the captain went on, “they found it. I never saw a haying job take so long in all my life.”

Shortly afterwards, the place was to be sold at auction. Friend called up friend in great agitation, and the captain went out surreptitiously with some jugs. There were about four gallons left, after the ravages of the farm help, which he gleefully carted away.

Fishermen going out to haul their traps would sometimes acquire certain dividends to add to their cargo. As these were easily hidden under mounds of fish, the risk was not too great. However, occasionally boats do get wrecked, and on other occasions, it seemed prudent to heave the works overboard.

Once there was a wreck on South Beach, and the shore was littered with cases of liquor. Part of the population of Chilmark and Gay Head, it is maintained, went and built a large bonfire on the beach, and stayed there until the supply was used up. The beauty of the situation was increased by the fact that several officers of the law, with rifles slung over their shoulders, marched up and down the beach patrolling it as they gazed steadfastly at the far horizon.

“Once,” said the captain, “I saw a gun fight in the middle of Vineyard Sound. There was an Island man who had such a fast boat that he’d never been caught. He went by me, and behind him I saw a government boat coming up. He headed west in a hurry. And they were shooting at him like nobody’s business. Made it a little awkward for me. I was right in the middle. He got away though. Never did get caught.”

When boats used for illegal pursuits were confiscated by the authorities, they were sold at public auction. It was a rather unhealthy plan to bid on some of these. Someone would come quietly up to the bidder through the crowd and murmur in dulcet tones: “I wouldn’t bid on that boat any more if I were you.” Thus, even though a rum-runner had his boat taken away from him, he was sometimes able to get it back again with little pain by means of gentle persuasion.

After a number of unfortunate experiences with liquor in wooden cases, the bootleggers evolved the brilliant idea of carrying it in net bags, so that when thrown overboard it would sink immediately. This was a great blow to the earnest beachcombers. Small-time operators could sink a batch in some secluded, accessible spot, and after telling the people they were supposed to contact that they had to throw it out in the middle of the Sound, they could go back and get it, profiting by the sale of the liquor as well as their commission for transporting it.

According to the captain nobody made much money on bootlegging here. For one thing, there were too many people doing it, which spread the profits out too thin. The only really big profit the captain knows of was a haul pulled by a man who managed to retrieve the entire cargo of a fair-sized bootleg boat. But that didn’t pay either, in the long run, because the man became so unpopular with everyone involved in the racket that he didn’t dare go out on the water any more and had to sell his boat. Sinister strangers appeared on the Island and inquired affectionately after this individual, but though the neighbors looked hopefully every morning, expecting to find his stark remains in the street, so far as is known nothing ever happened to him after all.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner