The Long Blue Line: Bootleggers beware-Prohibition Law Enforcement 100 years ago

Prohibition began on January 17, 1920, under President Herbert Hoover’s administration. To enforce the new laws, a Prohibition Bureau was established and was almost immediately overwhelmed. Despite having a marine division, alcohol smuggling was too lucrative, and therefore too prevalent for the Bureau. The Coast Guard became the go-to resource for enforcement, but there were issues with this solution.

No comments
A Boston rum runner loaded with liquor after apprehension by the Coast Guard. (Boston Public Library)
A Boston rum runner loaded with liquor after apprehension by the Coast Guard. (Boston Public Library)

by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen B. Lehmann

On June 21, 2019, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection unveiled a remarkable feat – the interdiction of more than 16 tons of cocaine, worth approximately $1 billion. The haul was described as “one of the largest drug seizures in United States history” by U.S. Attorney William McSwain. Less than 100 miles away, and more than 100 years ago, a similarly historic interdiction had taken place. 

Rum runner William “Bill” McCoy was a successful liquor smuggler during the early years of Prohibition and became known for selling “the Real McCoy,” or high-quality goods. (Wikipedia)
Rum runner William “Bill” McCoy was a successful liquor smuggler during the early years of Prohibition and became known for selling “the Real McCoy,” or high-quality goods. (Wikipedia)


In 1923, William “Bill” McCoy, infamous smuggler of alcohol during Prohibition, had been caught and arrested by the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Seneca six miles off the coast of Seabright, New Jersey. The interdiction occurred after a long tense standoff, which ended when a round from the Seneca’s deck gun landed mere feet from the fleeing ship. The arrest ended McCoy’s storied career as a bootlegger, and foreshadowed the Coast Guard’s present-day maritime law enforcement mission. 

Prohibition began on January 17, 1920, under President Herbert Hoover’s administration. To enforce the new laws, a Prohibition Bureau was established and was almost immediately overwhelmed. Despite having a marine division, alcohol smuggling was too lucrative, and therefore too prevalent for the Bureau. The Coast Guard became the go-to resource for enforcement, but there were issues with this solution. 

“The major issue for the Coast Guard at the time was insufficient funds and resources,” said retired Coast Guard Captain Daniel Laliberte, former Intelligence Chief for Coast Guard Atlantic Area. “The Coast Guard was fully funded for the missions it had at the time, but the major issue was that it wasn’t funded to run an entire coastal interdiction program.” 

Laliberte has studied the Coast Guard’s role during Prohibition and is currently writing a book on the subject. 

“Other issues were limits on its enforcement authority. At the time, they only enforced U.S. law out to three nautical miles. Another big issue was the need for training and experience. The Coast Guard had no training, tactics and procedures for criminal law enforcement,” said Laliberte. “We didn’t have a law enforcement manual until the 1930s.”

Posed official photograph of the Coast Guard commandant, Rear Admiral William Reynolds (U.S. Coast Guard)
Posed official photograph of the Coast Guard commandant, Rear Admiral William Reynolds (U.S. Coast Guard)

In 1924, seeing the demands being placed upon his service and measuring current capabilities, Coast Guard Commandant William Reynolds worked with U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon on a Congressional proposal for additional funds. The result grew the service’s ranks from 4,000 to 10,000 and a fleet of vessels, including 20 refurbished Navy destroyers, capable of carrying out the new law enforcement expectations. 

“It was a tremendous expansion and increase in capability,” said Laliberte. “They basically had to continue all the missions they were funded for and needed a new funding string for Prohibition. It was a huge amount of money, but it really allowed them to build a defense in depth.”

In addition to the increased presence on the water, the Coast Guard also applied some of these new funds for a presence in the sky.

“Aviation was another interesting thing,” said Laliberte. “It initially started off small, but it ended up with five planes and they were mostly used as recon to go out and find where the ships were on Rum Row, monitor them and report back, much as they do today in drug interdiction. There were even cases where from the air, the aircraft shot up cases of alcohol that had been jettisoned.”

Rum Row was a term used to indicate where “mother ships” would position themselves awaiting offload of contraband. Initially, these larger ships would anchor three miles offshore, where it was believed that no law enforcement agency had jurisdiction. However, with new and more lenient legal interpretations of the Coast Guard’s authority and a new fleet of cutters and boats on the water, smugglers learned quickly the extent of the service’s commitment. 

  • Broadside view of Coast Guard Destroyer Henley (CG-12), first destroyer deployed as part of the Coast Guard’s high seas patrol fleet. (U.S. Coast Guard)
  • Built for fast inshore patrols, the Coast Guard built 103 36-foot picket boats that could reach speeds of up to 22 knots. (U.S. Coast Guard)
  • Fleet of patrol boats rafted together at the Coast Guard base in Boston. (U.S. Coast Guard)
  • Colorized photograph of the new 165-foot “B”-Class cutter Thetis. Considered one of the most successful coastal cutter designs, the Thetis and its sisterships were also very successful in World War II as coastal escort vessels. (U.S. Coast Guard)

“In two years, they’d basically dispersed Rum Row,” said Laliberte, “but the smugglers responded by moving Rum Row further and further offshore.” 

As the Coast Guard escalated their response, the smugglers began to take a more strategic approach. More boats and crews were not enough. The service needed intelligence. 

“The Coast Guard had no formal intelligence apparatus, but it started one at headquarters,” said Laliberte. “They worked hand in hand with the Prohibition Bureau and the State Department. The intel program put out lookout lists, they worked off of tips from the public and passed information to the stations and cutters. It was kind of an integrated thing, on a shoestring.”

Rare and faded photo of a portable Coast Guard radio direction finder deployed on shore. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Rare and faded photo of a portable Coast Guard radio direction finder deployed on shore. (U.S. Coast Guard)

That shoestring paid for the Coast Guard’s first codebreakers and an international connection of informants working out of Cuba, The Bahamas and other neighboring countries, helping the Coast Guard stay one step ahead of their quarry. 

On December 5, 1933, Prohibition was repealed, bringing an end to more than a decade of intensive law enforcement action, which saw Coast Guard members shedding blood and even losing their lives in the line of duty. Without a constant threat to address with its fleet and increased numbers, the service saw the pendulum begin to swing the other way.

“Within a year after Prohibition ended, the budget was cut by 25% and drew down,” said Laliberte. “And then you had World War II a few years later and the Coast Guard was very active during that.” 

During the 13 years that Prohibition was in effect, the Coast Guard underwent a transformation in capability, mission and culture. Similarly, today’s Coast Guard is vastly different than it was 100 years ago. The modern iteration of the service includes many more elements of law enforcement and defense readiness, and provides its members with the training and procedures necessary to facilitate operational excellence. On a daily basis, the Coast Guard of 2020 averages 1,221 pounds of cocaine interdicted, 48 waterborne patrols, 12 security boardings and screens 329 merchant vessels. Aviation is as much a familiar aspect of the Coast Guard’s identity as any cutter or small boat and the ranks of our service have swelled to more than 38,000 active duty.

Despite the many innovations and transitions, the one clear holdover from 100 years ago is a commitment to service and a dedication to duty.

Leave a Reply