The fates have been good to Long Island’s shores. There is a relaxed atmosphere that lingers on
their shaded streets. There was a time, however, when the quiet, respectable suburban communities
were filled with bathtub gin, flappers, Broadway stars and starlets and a taste of the forbidden... the
daring... the Roaring Twenties.
The decade of the 20s brought about an experience unique to the United States and certainly to
Long Island. The government imposed prohibition between 1920 and 1934, and the people, for the most
part, did not accept the law. What ensued during this time was a massive but well organized free-for-all
with Long Island right in the mainstream of the game.
First of all, there was demand for liquor on Long Island during the prohibition era. The Broadway
stars found the shores of the Island to be an especially favorite playground during the 20s, and a
number of clubs and illegal nightspots appeared along the South Bay and the North Shore. Fashionable
spots highlighted stars in gaudy dress, fast cars and an abundance of entertainment. The stars would
party, drink and enjoy each other’s company as well as each other’s talent. Rudy Vallee was known to
entertain at the Merrick Road spots, along with Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker. Great Neck resident
Groucho Marx provided his entourage for additional frolics. There were new faces in the group, such as
Bing Crosby and Ginger Rogers. The stars were joined by politicians, society folk and other notables
from New York City. These people were seeking a place to play and gather, but they also wanted a taste
of the forbidden fruit, and their expensive taste was honored.
The liquor supply to the United States was abundant in the Caribbean and in Canada, with a small
amount available in Mexico. Due to Long Island’s extensive coastline and the demand generated by New
York City, the Island became quite involved in bootlegging or rumrunning ventures of the time.
The first step was to bring the liquor up to the three-mile limit. Assuming the cargo was coming by ship
instead of by truck or rail from Canada, Long Island’s waters were as accessible as most other waters.
The large smuggling vessels would wait outside of the three-mile limit until smaller shore craft met
them and transferred the cargo.
Frank Mina is an owner of the Fire Island Ferry Service. His ferry line once tamed and operated
the infamous rumrunner Artemus. The Artemus had been notorious in bootlegging until she became
riddled with bullets and retired by a Coast Guard gunboat. Mr. Mimi claims that the boats used to
transport the liquor were of the same basic design as boats of the time period. Perhaps there were slight
modifications such as moving the pilot house forward to permit greater cargo room for liquor
transportation. “The boats were “long and narrow for speed,” said Mr. Mina, “but they used everything
from clam boats to high-powered 65- foot yachts. Almost anything that they thought could outrun a
Coast Guard patrol boat was used.”
The liquor was basically carried through the inlets and bays by these boats until it was transported
up the various rivers and canals that dot the shore. Once far enough into the mainland, the cargo was
transferred to land vehicles and stored or distributed as desired.
Another more exciting method was to use clam dories to bring the liquor first to Fire Island, then
to the Long Island shore. Braving the rough surf, the dories would be guided by skilled sailors hoping
that their costly cargo would not be lost. Due to the variation of coastline, however, “each place had its
own particular style depending on the lay of the land,” said Mr. Mimi.
Lavern Wittlock was a young Long Island resident during the prohibition years. He lived in Oak
Beach and had a run-in with bootleggers during the second phase of their operation, the storage and
distribution of the liquor. Since Long Island was dotted with many large estates, it was common for the
bootleggers to hide their cargo in empty barns, stables, coach houses and maintenance houses that were
within the estates.
The estates were vacant for a portion of the year, so the operations were usually successful. However,
there was a fear of discovery by adamant law enforcers or by just plain crooks. Therefore, the
bootlegging team would leave a guard with the liquor until it was ready to be loaded on trucks for
To Mr. Wittlock’s recollection, bootlegging operations that he encountered were land operations.
‘There wasn’t too much rumrunning in this area by sea,” claims Mr. Wittlock. “The bay was too
shallow for big craft and the ocean was too deep for any small craft.” His recollections are of secretive
trucks that rolled in during the night with illegal liquor from Canada. “It was a common thing to find a
place to store the stuff while they developed their distribution.”
One evening, on the estate “Idle Hour,” Mr. Wittlock was stopped while taking a stroll. He
realized that he was being dangerously detained when he was forced to climb aboard the seat of a truck
with a tarpaulin covering the cargo area. Finally, a man came along and identified Mr. Wittlock as
being a local resident and beyond suspicion. He was released and still enjoys the memory of his scrape
with the bootleggers.
The 20s and bootlegging brought about certain prosperity to some and a general devil-may-care attitude
to others. Wittlock tells of an incident with a cargo consisting of several cases of champagne that was
being stored on Long island. When local residents found out about the cache of expensive champagne,
they overpowered the bootlegger guard and distributed the champagne among themselves. It seems
that everybody prospered during the era.
Frank Braynard, curator of the Merchant Marine Academy Museum and author of several books
about luxury Liners, recalls a friendship with Jack Baylis. Commodore Baylis was in charge of the
Coast Guard effort to curtail rumrunners and, “he was in many scrapes and actual engagements where
there were bullets fired and people killed.”
Mr. Braynard touched upon the prosperity of the North Shore while relating the story of two local
sisters. They were exemplary citizens who wore sailor suits neatly and were true to the colors of their
prestigious North Shore yacht club. They lived quietly in a “little old red house” by the shore until
around World War II when one sister died. Then, the other sister “simply transformed herself. She
stopped wearing the uniform, gave up the job, started wearing lipstick, bought a car, married and
disappeared. Everyone said that the sisters had packed away a great deal of money from rumrunning,
but until the pair was broken up they never used it.
Whether a stolen sip of champagne or a hidden cache of loot, the era left many Long Islanders
with a certain degree of extra income. In 1932, the United States Federal Attorney claimed that more
than one million dollars was paid to law enforcement officials on Long island in the form of graft. Coast
Guardsmen could reap as much as $2 per case for permitting liquor to pass beneath their watchful gaze.
Youngsters could make extra money by transporting the liquor across the sands of Fire Island, as much
as $20 per evening. Farmers who were fortunate enough to have huge barns were paid well for hiding
the liquor in special sections hidden away from prying eyes of the law. They were also paid for hauling
the liquor in their potato sacks across the country roads. During the prohibition, farmers could earn
$80 to $100 per night under these circumstances.
The repeal of prohibition dimmed the nightlights along the shores as the stars and celebrities
remained in Manhattan for their partying. The easy money was no longer available and reprisals began
to take effect as investigations caused local scandal. Speedy ships were returned to hauling clams and
cargo of a legitimate nature and the bullet holes were filled with putty.
Eventually, Long Island’s serene respectability erased the marks of the rumrunning era, except
perhaps for the occasional bottle of rum that pops up out of the bay from a sunken cargo or is found
hidden in the ruins of an old barn. After all, it was a time when many interesting and unusual things
happened, and some of those old fishermans’s stories we’ve heard just might be true. But for the
shores of Long Island, the era was real and perhaps not easily forgotten.
First Published in the Long Island Heritage