Legend has it that treasure chests of pirate booty are buried in Montauk, Long Island. Captain Kidd supposedly left two chests of his loot in Money Pond. No pirate loot has ever been found, however in more recent history plenty of loot, in the form of liquor, could be found on Montauk's beaches. During the 13-year prohibition period, the Rum Runners, as they were called locally, used Montauk as a drop-off place for liquor.
Old timers remember signals from ships moored out past the legal limit rousing the men to sea in small boats to bring in the cargo under the cover of darkness. The cargo, liquor, was brought to the sand dunes in small boats, where it was dug into the dunes, to be later picked up and transported to New York City in armed trucks.
Naturally, this flow of spirits spawned a string of local speak easies. By far, the most popular in this area was the Island Club on Lake Montauk's Star Island. The long since burned down Club was adjacent to the current Montauk Yacht Club and was in its day the grandest night club and gambling casino, on the East End. Built by Carl Fisher during his monumental construction spree, it was the social center of this summer. Designed to rival the palaces of Palm Beach and Manhattan, it attracted the highest rollers of its day. John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Ernest Hemingway, even the then mayor of New York, Jimmy Walker, watched the sun set over Fort Pond with an illegal martini in their fists.
One of the best known of the liquor boats was the Arethusa, run by one William McCoy. Anchored 12 miles out, loaded to the gunnels with Johnny Walker Red and Bacardi, it was open for business 24 hours a day for anyone with the guts to reach her and cash to pay. Unlike many of his more cut-throat competitors, McCoy was known for carrying good booze at a fair price. His reputation for solid dealing became so well known, it spawned an expression that lives on to this day - " The real McCoy. "
Prohibition was likely the most ignored law ever passed in the history of this country, breaking it meant serious trouble for locals. That could come from the T-Men, Troopers and local authorities looking to enforce the law, just as much as the crooks you had to deal with in the trade itself. Booze was big business, and attracted a very bad element beer, wine and spirits.
Dutch Schultz was the king pin of Long Island bootlegging, and like most gangsters took no prisoners. Cross him and you ended up in a swamp with a bullet in your brain. Never content to stick to his own business, he like many other importers would hijack any shipments coming down the Island. Thomas Farrell Jr. and Jacob Antilety of Southampton learned the hard way that you don't even joke about stealing another mobster's liquor. In 1931 they were picked up by the Schultz mob, who had heard the two had intercepted a shipment of rum headed for Schultz's Manhattan speak easies. Tied up and taken out to the woods, they were tortured all night with red hot potato mashers. They finally confessed to being blowhards, not hijackers, and were mercifully let go. As a reminder of what happened to anyone who screwed with the Schultz gang, they were more valuable alive than dead.
The Noble Experiment, as Prohibition was called, came to an end in 1933. The public had had enough of enforced temperance and the crime and corruption it spawned and end it by act of congress. Over those 13 years nearly a third of all illegal booze came into the country over the high seas. Most of that came directly through Long Island Sound, much of that by way of the East End's lonely beaches and highways. Fortunes were made, lives were lost, attitudes toward the law and law enforcement changed forever. East Enders participated in the trade, kept liquor hidden in cupboards, found bottles on the beaches, and in general looked the other way.
Compared to the problems we face today with illegal drugs and smuggling, it all seems like a far more innocent time. Perhaps it was, but those who lived through Prohibition, had never seen anything like it - and never did again.
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