PORTSMOUTH — Portsmouth and its surrounding towns may seem peaceful and quaint today. But if you were around during the Prohibition era, certain parts of the East Bay at times resembled crime-ridden Chicago during Al Capone’s days.
“People at Black Point (Farm) were confronting each other with machine guns,” said Town Historian James Garman during a recent lecture at the library presented as part of the Portsmouth 375th celebration.
Mr. Garman was referring to a raid at Black Point Farm on the southern corner of Portsmouth in March 1924, during which 200 case of liquor worth $10,000 were seized by the sheriff and “gunplay was prominent,” according to a newspaper account at the time. Four men from Springfield, Mass. were charged with assault with dangerous weapons with intent to kill, breaking and entering and possessing liquor and weapons, he said.
It was just one of many examples where guns were drawn between cops and bootleggers, the latter of whom found the East Bay a particularly attractive place to land illegal booze — mostly coming from Canada — because of its abundance of coastline. Small, local vessels that could outrun Coast Guard ships would meet the larger boats at the edge of the three-mile coastal limit — outside of U.S. jurisdiction — called the “rum line.” (The line was extended to 12 miles in 1924.)
“The entire East Coast seaboard was like a sieve. If you were beyond the three-mile limit you were in international waters,” said Mr. Garman. “The Rhode Island coastline had many places to land booze.”
That was never more true than in Newport County, with Black Point Farm being a good example. As Mr. Garman points out in his book, “Historic Tales of Newport County,” which devotes about 50 pages to the Prohibition era (1920-1933), the farm was a natural landing location for rum-runners. It was on the west side of the Sakonnet River, fairly isolated, and yet offered easy access to the main highways.
R.I. fought Prohibition
Prohibition got its roots in the religious revivalism of the 1820s and ’30s, which led to an increased social awareness of issues such as slavery, people with disabilities and temperance. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union formed in 1874, the Anti-Saloon League tried to close down bars in 1893, and then in the 1910s, “government got into the business of regulating morality,” he said.
Criminals and people living in the Bible Belt may had loved Prohibition, but that wasn’t the case in Rhode Island, Mr. Garman pointed out. When the 18th Amendment to the Constitution implementing prohibition came before Congress, it was ratified by 46 of the 48 states.
“The ones that did not are Connecticut and one you’re sitting in,” said Mr. Garman, adding that the Rhode Island General Assembly was so incensed it wanted to sue the U.S. government. “As you might imagine, it didn’t work.”
The Volstead Act, passed in 1919, set penalties for violators and gave the job of enforcement to the U.S. Coast Guard and, oddly enough, the Internal Revenue Service, said Mr. Garman.
Called the “noble experiment,” Prohibition intended to solve many of the country’s social ills. “But it ended up creating more social problems than existed before,” said Mr. Garman. First among them was the rise of crime — organized and otherwise — which proliferated with the demand for contraband liquor.
The East Bay was not spared.
“The Coast Guard referred to the entrance to the Sakonnet River as Times Square, because there was so much traffic back and forth,” said Mr. Garman, adding that an air field located at the old town dump in Island Park was used by some rum-runners to spot Coast Guard vessels. Newspaper accounts from the day listed many seizures of booze in both passages of Narragansett Bay as well as the Sakonnet River.
Nineteen twenty-four was a banner year for bootleggers. Besides the incidents at Black Point, a small boat, Little Fred, was seized off Common Fence Point; there was a large haul of liquor made at Sherman’s Farm; and $50,000 worth of booze was impounded at Howard Thurston’s farm on Union Street.
“Howard Thurston disclaimed ownership of the liquor, despite of the fact that it was found in his barn,” said Mr. Garman. The farm owner said he rented the barn out, but wouldn’t say to whom. Speculation was that it was being used for storage by Chicago mobsters.
“That might have been Al Capone. He was in the area, although for not very long,” he said.
‘Herb Reed,’ rum-runner
And then there are the colorful tales by “Herb Reed,” an alias for a local man who wrote firsthand accounts of his days as a rum-runner for the Providence Evening Bulletin in 1934.
“I known his real name but I’m not going to reveal it. He was from Tiverton,” said Mr. Garman.
Whoever he was, “Herb Reed” was an idea man. “He built a submarine — a floating metal tank that could be towed out to the line,” said Mr. Garman. “If he got chased by the Coast Guard, he could sink it and after a certain period of time a buoy would come up so they could see where it was.”
Once “Mr. Reed,” a fisherman whom Mr. Garman said was lured into rum-running, got in trouble with the “Boston College Boys,” a gang that wanted to take over his operation. “He fought them. There were gun battles in Tiverton,” said Mr. Garman, who added that the then-president of the Tiverton Town Council was arrested during one of these skirmishes.
The law eventually caught up to “Herb Reed,” but that didn’t slow him down. “He went to what is now the ACI, and he ran his operation from there,” said Mr. Garman.
Black Duck shooting
The most famous local rum-running incident took place in late-December 1929 and involved the Black Duck, an 89-foot vessel that operated mostly out of Newport.
“The Black Duck came into Newport Harbor with 500 cases — 12 bottles in a case — of liquor, about 2, 3 o’clock in the morning. There were four men on board,” said Mr. Garman.
A 75-foot Coast Guard CG-290, equipped with machine guns and waiting in dense fog, illuminated the Black Duck while sounding its siren. The Black Duck, which was two and a half times faster than the Coast Guard boat, took off. In response, the Coast Guard fired about 21 rounds at the Black Duck in hopes of disabling its engine.
“As he fired, the Black Duck turned and instead of hitting the stern, he hit the pilot house and three people were killed,” said Mr. Garman, adding that the fourth crew member lost a thumb.
The story made front-page headlines in the New York Times and other newspapers. Although the Coast Guard was exonerated, the incident sparked a debate over whether Prohibition was worth killing people over, said Mr. Garman. Public opinion slowly changed and after Democrats promised to repeal Prohibition if elected, Franklin D. Roosevelt won in a landslide in 1932. The 21st Amendment was passed to repeal the 18th Amendment in 1933.
Rhode Island, Mr. Garman dryly pointed out, “ratified it right away.”