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Smuggler kicks off St. Pierre boom

Jan 1, 2003

I enjoyed reading the story about St. Pierre and Miquelon in the recent issue of Sail Away ("St. Pierre & Miquelon by sea," Issue No. 86), but was disappointed that the otherwise excellent article made no mention of "Big" Bill McCoy. Perhaps more than any other individual, McCoy was responsible for creating an economic boom in St. Pierre in the 1920s. Flouting U.S. Prohibition laws, McCoy was a colorful and wily smuggler. He was the first of the rum runners to carry liquor from St. Pierre and Miquelon to the U.S. During its heyday, St. Pierre and Miquelon was referred to as the "rum-running metropolis of the north," and Big Bill McCoy made it happen.

McCoy, whose name has entered the lexicon in the expression andquot;the real McCoyandquot;a reference to his square-dealing ways and the quality of the bonded liquors he brought to thirsty Americanswas a legend. He was renowned as an excellent sail-handler who delighted in his schooners. Fiercely independent, McCoy ran his own show until it was impossible for him to resist the pressure of the mobs. By then he was ready to quit.

Born in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in the last part of the 19th century, McCoy's family moved to Philadelphia. McCoy was enrolled in school aboard the square-rigged school ship Saratoga, graduating two years later at the top of his class. One of his classmates was Herbert Hartley, who later became captain of the passenger liner Leviathan.

After school he did some time in the merchant marine and, when work dried up, served on private yachts. He was working as mate aboard Olivette between Key West and Havana, making $75 a month, before giving up the sea for the first time. He and his brother Ben then opened a shipyard in Florida, where they built gold-platers for the Vanderbilts, John Wanamaker, and Andrew Carnegie.

In the spring of 1920 he was approached by a andquot;man driving a shiny roadster, only a little smaller than a locomotive. He was wearing a checked suit that made you blink, and below his bow tie there was a diamond like an arc of light pinned to his shirt.andquot; He offered McCoy a job at $100 per day to master the schooner Dorothy W., carrying whiskey from Nassau to Atlantic City. McCoy didn't like the looks of the old schooner, but he was intrigued by the possibilities of making money and having some fun.

Prohibition had been enacted the previous year with the passage of the Volstead Act, which prohibited the sale of alcohol in the U.S. Despite the new law there was still considerable demand for good liquor, and Nassau was a good spot for Scotch whisky, imported from Britain. Initially, the Bahamians were reluctant to get into the business until they realized the immense amount of money they could earn by attaching even a small duty to every case of liquor entering and leaving the country. McCoy was one of the first to exploit this market.

McCoy, in his autobiography, entitled The Real McCoy, explains what drew him into this illegal trade. andquot;I went,andquot; he says, into rum running andquot;for the cash and I stayed in it for four years for the fun it gave me.andquot; In those years he made hundreds of thousands of dollars, and by the time he was arrested he had personally delivered more than 700,000 cases of liquor to the U.S. He wrote, andquot;there was money in the game -- lots of it if you could keep it. Beyond that there was all the kick of gambling and the thrill of sport, and besides these, there was open sea and the boom of the wind against full sails, dawn coming out of the ocean, and nights under rocking stars. These caught and held me most of all.andquot;

In 1920 he sold some boats he had built and went to Gloucester, Mass., and purchased Henry L. Marshall, a 90-foot fishing schooner. The boat had a capacity of 1,500 cases in wood or 3,000 cases in burlap. He paid $16,000 for the boat and spent another $4,000 refitting.

He made his first trip to Nassau in 1921. At that time Nassau was a torpid, poor city. Prohibition was about to change all that. Cases of Scotch began to be imported, each taxed with a duty of $6 a case. By the time Prohibition had ended, Nassau had paid off all her debts to Britain, improved the harbor, dug new wells, paved roads and streets, and put money in the treasury.

McCoy's first trip was to Savannah, loading 1,500 cases at $10 per case. His papers cleared him for Halifax, and from then on, that was what he did, so when he was boarded and found in ballast, he claimed that he had sold his cargo on the high seas, which was not illegal.

On the first trip he made $15,000 for a week's work, and he was hooked. Later with his profits he bought the old high-liner fishing schooner Arethusa, which he named Tomoka. He paid $21,000 for that vessel and spent another $11,000 outfitting her for sea. This was a schooner that was built by James and Co. in Gloucester and was the light of McCoy's life. He loved the boat, and a model he made of the ship is in the collection of the South Street Seaport Museum in New York.

How McCoy got to St. Pierre is an interesting tale. It was the winter of 1922 and Tomoka, laden with liquor, needed repairs. The ship couldn't enter into any U.S. ports, and she couldn't clear into Halifax. Canada hadn't yet realized the profits to be made in the liquor trade. Later on Halifax opened up, but at this time McCoy was unable to get clearance for his ship. The story goes that McCoy was in Halifax at the Carleton Hotel trying to come up with a solution to his troubles when he began chatting with another guest in the lobby. The gentleman he met was a Mr. Folquet, who, along with his brother, was from St. Pierre, where they were involved in business.

Folquet suggested that McCoy take his schooner to St. Pierre and Miquelon, a place unknown to McCoy. Since the smuggler had no other options, he decided to go there for repairs. St. Pierre is about 400 nautical miles east of Halifax, and it was wintertime. There was gale brewing big winds from the east, and it took a lot of persuasion on the part of McCoy to convince his crew that St. Pierre andquot;was the Paris of the north.andquot; Finally they agreed to go, and they sailed in one wicked gale. As luck would have it there was no chart of St. Pierre aboard, so andquot;we searched the cabin and found an old school atlas. From its map of Canada we determined the approximate latitude and longitude of St. Pierre and Miquelon and worked out a Mercator sailing.andquot;

Far from being andquot;the Paris of the north,andquot; St. Pierre at the time andquot;looked like a bleak village with a stone scattered beach and little white houses and sides of hills white with drying codfish.andquot; The crew was greatly disappointed, to say the least. There were only a couple of bars and no other pleasures that sailors gravitate toward.

The Folquet brothers became McCoy's agents in St. Pierre and Miquelon and offered to supply McCoy with champagnes, wines and cognacs. McCoy wanted Scotch whisky.

There was one slight hitch, however, before McCoy could get his Scotch. In 1919 a French law was passed prohibiting colonies and territories from importing alcohol from foreign countries. McCoy, seeing the great economic advantage for the community, and for him, argued to convince authorities to change the law. He finally succeeded, and before the end of Prohibition, St. Pierre and Miquelon rivaled Nassau in importance in the rum-running trade. It also became very rich. In 1930 alone more than 750,000 cases of assorted alcoholic beverages were shipped to the U.S. The duty on each one was 10 francs, or about 35 cents. That came to about one quarter of a million dollars. As a result of McCoy's groundbreaking efforts, St. Pierre and Miquelon soon was flourishing, and along with Nassau and Bermuda was a regular stop for the rum-running boats. The Folquet brothers later chartered McCoy the schooner Vera Thornhill in which to carry on his trade.

McCoy's career ended when he was finally arrested for conspiracy and served nine months in prison. There have been claims that he later went to work for Hiram Walker Distillers of Canada, running liquor into Chicago under the name of andquot;Black Dog.andquot;

His beloved schooner Arethusa didn't fare well. Seized by the government, she was sold to a French concern for use as a sealer sailing under the name Mignonette and was lost with all hands in 1930.

Not much more is known about McCoy other than that he passed away on New Year's Day in 1949. He was about 69 years old.

If readers have any more information about Bill McCoy I would be interested in hearing from them. For others who are curious about the man and those times I recommend the very-hard-to-find, out-of-print book The Real McCoy, published by Doubleday in 1931. My copy has an interesting history. I found it in the back of a used bookstore, and the original bookplate inside bears the name Kingman Brewster. Brewster later went on to become president of Yale University. It seems a lot of people were enchanted by Bill McCoy!