Hal Roth - June 2008
Old News from Delmarva:
The Capture of Hiawatha and Whippoorwill
When Prohibition went into effect on January 17, 1920, federal, state and local enforcement personnel stood tall and ready across the nation, but once liquor was banned, it seemed only to gain in desirability. The demand for spirits mushroomed, and until its repeal on December 5, 1933, the law was violated at nearly every crossroads and in every glen across the nation.
Delmarva was no different. Homemade stills appeared in garages, barns, woods and marshes up and down the peninsula. Old newspapers are filled with reports of “the man” confiscating copper boilers and coils, smashing vats full of mash and hauling transgressors off to jail. But the majority of alcohol that appeared on Delmarva was distilled elsewhere and delivered to quiet coves in the dark of night by speedboats that downloaded the contraband from ocean-going vessels anchored off the Virginia Capes.
“There used to be two boats: the Hiawatha and the Whippoorwill,” an octogenarian told me on a summer day in 1980 as we leaned on opposite sides of a white picket fence. “They’d come up the bay and have different stopping points. They were like PT boats – something like that – and they were fast. They carried a lot of liquor. They finally caught one of ’em down in the lower part of the county, down in the Neck District. They caught ’em tied up in one of them creeks. It was a bit of shooting, I heard, but I don’t think nobody got killed.
“Everybody knew when the boat was somewhere close ’cause these big trucks would come down the road in the middle of the night. They’d come down loaded with produce and go back before daylight with liquor under the produce. People always said that Kennedy owned the boats, and that’s how the old man made his money.”
There are several errors in that narrative, which will be demonstrated later, and I shall also have more to say about the Kennedy name.
“The Whippoorwill used to come up here,” another elderly gentleman offered. “One of the biggest places she would stop was Lewis Wharf [on the Nanticoke River below Vienna]. She didn’t go no farther than Vienna. She would put off her stuff and turn around and go back out. She was a forty-five footer and had two engines into her, and she could fly. They didn’t come till twelve or one o’clock in the night. Old Tommy was a whiskey man, and he was always waitin’ for her. He run the wharf at that time. I never did get involved with it. I never was much for gettin’ drunk and fallin’ down.”
A resident of Sharptown, seven miles upriver, disagrees that the rum runners never ventured beyond Vienna. He was born during the early years of prohibition and often played along the river as a child. I asked if he had ever seen Whippoorwill, which was said to frequently ply the waters of the Nanticoke.
“I never actually seen the boat,” he replied, “but I seen the spray from her. She went so fast that all you could see was the spray.”
How long Hiawatha and Whippoorwill were able to elude federal agents on Delmarva is not precisely clear. Most reports claim it was two years or a little longer, but the time looms larger in the memories of our oldest citizens. It all came to an end with a flurry of newspaper headlines published during the second week of May, 1931: “PROHIBITION AGENTS CAPTURE RUMRUNNERS – THREE ARRESTS MARK WARFARE ON LIQUOR RING – LAUNCH LOADED WITH LIQUOR SEIZED NEAR CAMBRIDGE – SECOND RUM BOAT SEIZED IN THE BAY – ELEVEN UNDER ARREST BELIEVED TO BE MEMBERS OF BIG LIQUOR RING.”
The following newspaper article – somewhat repetitious and disjointed in places – is representative of reports published around Delmarva and elsewhere.
“Cambridge, Md., May 13 (AP) – Continuing a cleanup of the base of a Chesapeake Bay liquor smuggling outfit declared to have been operating in this section for two years or more, Federal officers today seized a second high-powered launch loaded with 400 cases of liquor and 50 cases of malt, a third motor truck, and arrested three more men.
“The seizures and arrests brought the total in two days to 14 men arrested and two high-powered launches, three motor trucks, an automobile, 650 cases of liquor, and a quantity of arms confiscated.
“The first eleven of the men arrested were arraigned before Commissioner T. Louder Hearn late today, and remanded for a formal hearing Friday afternoon. Customs officials asked that bail be set at $35,000 each for the men on charges of smuggling. The 11 men, all of whom gave New York and Pennsylvania addresses, were arrested in the course of a day’s activity by federal dry agents from the shore counties and Baltimore, which resulted in the seizure of some $40,000 worth of liquor, a $50,000 high-speed motor launch, trucks, and a small arsenal.
“G. Morris Greenburg, New York attorney for the men, protested, asking that the bail be placed at from $500 to $1,000 each. When this figure was refused by the commissioner, a formal hearing was demanded.
“The three men arrested today will probably be arraigned tomorrow, or if not then will be heard on Friday with the others.
“The second launch, a 54-foot, 1,200 horsepower craft capable of a speed of 50 miles an hour, officers said, was captured with three men aboard when it went aground off Bishop’s Head, about 15 miles from Taylor’s Island, scene of yesterday’s captures.
“A score of customs and prohibition officers, District Attorney Simon E. Sobeloff, of Baltimore, and Robert D. Ford, prohibition chief for Maryland, took part in the second day’s operations or came here from Baltimore for the hearing before Commissioner Louder T. Hearn, of Salisbury. Simon E. Sobeloff, United States District Attorney for Maryland, came here today to take charge of the prosecution of the case. He was preceded by Robert D. Ford, chief enforcement officer for the Baltimore District, which embraces all of Maryland.
“The first of the motor craft seized, the Hiawatha, was equipped with a radio transmitting set, officers revealed today. The fact that the radio was silenced was believed to have led to the capture of the second craft today, the Whippoorwill, as the three men aboard were without landing directions they had been getting from the other craft by wireless, in the opinion of officials. The first arrested yesterday were seven men, ambushed by the agents as they drove off Taylor’s Island with a truck loaded with 250 cases of liquor, all of whom were heavily armed but did not offer resistance. The island, officials said, was used as a central landing place for liquor, run into the bay from Canada and the Bahamas by ocean-going vessels and landed by the speedboat.
“The three men on the Whippoorwill surrendered without resistance when covered by the Federal officers’ guns. The Hiawatha, seized while at anchor at Taylor’s Island, with four men aboard, is 59 feet long, five longer than the other. Both craft were of New York registry, and efforts to trace their ownership through Treasury Department records at Washington were made.
“The hearing of the fourteen men held in jail here was delayed today when the Whippoorwill ran out of fuel at the mouth of the Choptank River when on its way here in charge of the Federal men.
“Although the Federal officers had been on the trail of the liquor smugglers for months, they said, they were handicapped by the nature of the bay shoreline and conditions on the Maryland-Delaware-Virginia peninsula.
“Liquor for years has been brought through the Virginia Capes into the Chesapeake Bay from the West Indies or Canada and trans-shipped from ocean going craft to speed boats, which in turn load it into motor trucks for delivery to Philadelphia or New York. The bay is dotted with small fishing ports and other landing places, and there are three excellent highways north, two in Maryland and the best, the Du Pont Highway, in Delaware.”
John “Pat” Neild’s ancestors began to settle on Taylors Island during the seventeenth century, and the various family names have been prominent in South Dorchester ever since. He told me the following story about his father and an incident that may be connected to the final runs of Hiawatha and Whippoorwill.
“Stapleforte and Mabel Neild lived in Hoopers Neck on Taylors Island from 1929 until the mid-1950s. Late one spring night there was a knock on their door. The visitor told my father there was a truck stuck near the north shoreline of the island, about a mile from his home, and asked my father to bring his tractor to pull it out – for a generous fee. As he was young and a little hungry, my father didn’t ask any questions and agreed to help. The project took only a short while, and he returned home with some cash in his pocket and went to bed.
“A couple of hours later there was another knock on the door. This time it opened to Federal agents. They had intercepted a bootlegger’s truck between Taylors Island and Cambridge and learned that my father had assisted them at the truck-loading site. The truck had been loaded at the waterfront with moonshine from a bootlegger’s boat.
“My father was arrested and taken to Baltimore. After he pleaded innocent and told them he was unaware of the truck’s cargo, he was released to return home, but he was told that he must appear and testify at a court hearing about the incident.
“Fearful that the bootlegging outlaws would find and dispose of him, he slept with a pistol under his pillow from that night until well after the court case. I was just a baby at the time, so this had to be about 1930.”
On the same day that the notorious Whippoorwill was captured by federal officers, Delmarva newspapers posted the headline: “DRY LAW DEBATE FRIDAY EVENING.” Readers today might be interested in the name of the individual who spoke against the Eighteenth Amendment.
“Washington, May 13 (AP) – The Anti-Saloon League made known today that arrangements had been completed for a prohibition debate between Pierre S. Dupont, millionaire supporter of the Association Against the Eighteenth Amendment, and O. G. Christgan, assistant to the general superintendent of the Anti-Saloon League.
“The debate was described at League headquarters as the first oratorical encounter of national representatives of the two organizations. It will be held Friday night at West Chester, Pennsylvania.”
Most of the men captured in South Dorchester were New Yorkers. Whippoorwill’s skipper, Fred Johnson, alias J. F. Tonnenson, had previously owned and captained another rumrunner registered as Gloria.
Three others also gave aliases, but their true identities were quickly learned: Timothy Connolly, alias Tim McClosky; Guy Parkhurst, alias Frank Weber; and Benjamin Feldman, alias Ben Frye, alias “Little Bennie.” Connolly and Parkhurst were former New Jersey state troopers, and Feldman turned out to be a central figure in the smuggling ring.
Others arrested included Hiawatha’s captain, Axel Ohlsen; radioman Harwood Park; convoy leader James Wilson; and Ben Stearns, alias “Big Ben,” little Bennie’s right-hand man. John Erickson and Frank Heones initially eluded capture but were collared the following day in the vicinity of Wingate.
The group spent several nights in the Cambridge jail before being transported to Baltimore on a bus. Six thousand cases of contraband were hauled to the Baltimore Customs House on a captured truck and the two impounded speedboats.
The men were arraigned before U. S. Commissioner J. Frank Suplee on conspiracy-to-smuggle charges and were indicted in July by a Federal grand jury. By that time three more members of the gang had been rounded up to bring the total to seventeen prisoners.
In December 1931, twelve defendants in the Whippoorwill-Hiawatha case were tried in federal court in Baltimore, found guilty and sentenced to between six months and two years in prison. Of the five members who failed to appear, customs agents later apprehended one in New York, and a second turned himself in. The other three forfeited a total of $26,000 in bail money.
Official reports document Whippoorwill as weighing seventy-two tons and measuring fifty-three feet, six inches in length by eleven feet, five inches at her widest point. Powered by three 450-horsepower Liberty motors, she had the reputation of being the fastest craft afloat on Chesapeake Bay. But at fifty-six feet, four inches in length, fourteen feet wide and equipped with a triumvirate of twelve-cylinder engines, Hiawatha was never far behind. Either boat could exceed fifty miles per hour and was capable of outrunning anything that Federal or state agents could muster in pursuit of them.
On July 22, 1931, Whippoorwill and Hiawatha were put on the auction block at the Arundel Cove Coast Guard Depot. Estimated to have a combined value of at least $50,000, the boats were struck off for the astonishingly low bids of $2,575 and $2,250 respectively. When several of the boats’ crewmembers – out of jail on bail – were spotted at the auction, the government smelled a rat, and the U. S. District Court declared the auction null and void. The boats were retained by the government and converted into Coast Guard chasers. Whippoorwill became CG-987, and Hiawatha was rechristened CG-834.
An investigation by customs agents and Coast Guard Intelligence determined that a New York syndicate led by Sam Lee, alias “Sam the Chink,” was responsible for the bootlegging operation whose vessels ranged up and down “Rum Row,” taking in much of the Atlantic Coast south from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
The official government report claims that Whippoorwill and Hiawatha were the property of Bango Shipping and Chartering Corporation, presided over by Benjamin J. Feldman at 305 Broadway, New York. “Little Bennie,” as he was known, was also convicted of violating the Prohibition law and sent to Federal prison.
But old timers on much of Delmarva – especially in Dorchester County – still don’t believe that either of the men named in court records was the real boss behind the operation. Remember my 1980 conversation across the picket fence: “People always said that Kennedy owned the boats, and that’s how the old man made his money.”
My informant was referring to none other than Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Sr., prominent businessman, political figure and the father of President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy. The fact that no documentation in support of such a claim has ever been published has done little to cap the rumor.
Smuggling liquor from Canada had apparently been going on long before the advent of Prohibition, some of which was apparently quite inventive. While browsing through old journals, I discovered the following short article, published on December 15, 1865, fifty-five years before the national ban on spirits took effect.
“Smuggling from Canada has attained the perfection of a fine art. The last plan discovered is a bogus baby made of tin and filled with spirits, and then, swaddled in shawls, it is carried in a woman’s arms across the line. In a train of cars recently, a detective noticed that out of thirty babies only two cried in a journey of fifteen miles. This awakened his suspicions and led him to discovery of the trick.”
Next month we shall examine the mysterious death of a Chesapeake Bay lighthouse keeper, who many still believe was murdered by the crew of Hiawatha or Whippoorwill.
If you have any old news to share, you can reach Hal Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org.