“A Thousand Thirsty Beaches: Smuggling Alcohol from Cuba to the South During Prohibition”
Author: Lisa Lindquist Dorr
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Price: $39.95 (Hardcover)
Lisa Dorr’s study of bootlegging from Havana to the American South is serious and scholarly, thoroughly researched from government records and loads of correspondence of those involved, but do not be dismayed. It is also entirely readable and in its own way, playful.
To begin with, the title is wonderful. The image of thirsty beaches suggests that no matter how much liquid one pours onto the sand, it will never be saturated. The beach will drink it all up.
And so it was with Prohibition, which began almost exactly 100 years ago, in early 1919.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and other groups managed to pass the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act and made the distilling, brewing, sale and importing of alcoholic spirits illegal. Oddly, one could still make one’s own wine and cider and one could still possess and drink alcohol.
Voters were told Americans would soon lose their desire for alcohol, so far too little money was appropriated to enforce Prohibition.
Well, that was certainly wrong.
Havana, Cuba, only 90 miles from Key West, was itself a vacation hot spot, and soon became THE port of departure for smugglers aiming for our coastline from Texas to Virginia.
In the early days, from about 1919 to 1925, the situation was truly hopeless. Thousands of cases of liquors of all kinds, scotch and champagne, brandies and liqueurs, were brought to Havana, legally.
In the first three months of 1923, Scotland shipped 46,665 cases of Scotch to Havana. Wales shipped 53,000 cases.
Almost none of this stayed in Cuba.
Ships, some 350 of them at the peak, would load up, declaring that they were headed to Honduras. “Smuggling liquor represented a trade of approximately 500,00 cases of alcohol; per month, or about $80, million per year. The Cuban government collected export duties on much of this trade….”
In fact, they sailed to the coast of Florida or Alabama and, in the early years of Prohibition, anchored just outside the three-mile limit, sometimes in sight of shore. Small boats called “contact” boats would go out to the “rum fleet” and buy the liquor, then speed to shore to avoid capture, to a fishing dock, inlet, cove, river or swamp. The smugglers would then unload the cargo and send it on its way by truck or rail, to Mobile, Miami, New Orleans or points north.
Dorr writes that “The Mobile operation was extensive, paying participants at every level from the main partners to deliverymen, and it did so by checks drawn on regular accounts held at the People’s Bank of Mobile, whose president was a member of the smuggling ring.” Brazenly, “Participants used the bank to deposit proceeds from liquor sales as well as their share of protection payments to officials and law enforcement.” Discovery of this operation led to one of the largest “liquor and corruption trials in the South.”
The Coast Guard at first had only 15 armed cutters and 15 smaller cutters to watch thousands of miles of coast.
Over time, the territorial limit was extended to 12 miles, more and faster boats were added by law enforcement, Cuba signed a treaty to help control liquor, and better organization and interdiction techniques were developed, but it was always hopeless. The profit was fantastic and the whole operation was demand-driven, to say the least.
Not only was Prohibition an abject failure. It also changed American culture in ways that few think desirable.
For one thing, the systems and networks developed to smuggle liquor were easily adapted to smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants, especially Chinese, who were restricted from entry by the Chinese Exclusion Act. In the case of liquor, and then with drugs and immigrants, the federal government chose to see the problem not as a social problem or economic problem but as a law enforcement issue.
“In precisely the same way Prohibition created a black market for booze, immigration restrictions spurred the development of an underground economy to meet the demand among immigrants for transportation to America for a significant price.”
Drinking, which was always quietly tolerated in the South, became fashionable, daring, exciting. For the first time, young women drank openly on dates. Dorr quotes Alabama professor Clarence Cason in “90° in the Shade”: “The Southern conscience is unruffled by the act of lifting a glass with one hand and gesturing for Prohibition with the other.”
A disregard for this law led, inexorably, to less respect for other laws. Gangsters fought turf battles to control distribution, most famously in Chicago. Politicians, judges and law enforcement officers, down to village constables, and even some Coast Guard personnel were corrupted by bribes, bribes larger than their miserable salaries. The influence and intrusion of the federal government into state and local affairs increased dramatically.
Repeal in 1933 was greeted with a toast and a sigh of relief.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.