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William "Bill" McCoy
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Bill McCoy Foreward- Photo 1
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Bill McCoy Foreward- Photo 2
Cargo being loaded on the Arethusa.
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Bill McCoy Foreward- Photo 3
The Arethusa under sail. “Coming in like an eager girl through the sunset light.”
THE ORIGINAL RUM RUNNER
Foreword to The Real McCoy, by Frederic F. Van de Water
One of the most prized books in the Ayala Rum Collection is an autographed copy of Bill McCoy’s biography “The Real McCoy,” published in New York by Doubleday, Doran & Company in 1931. The book was written by Mr. Frederick F. Van de Water. The author’s respect towards Bill McCoy, as well as his passion and elegance of prose are evident in the foreword. We feel it is appropriate to include it here in its entirety.
“Got Rum?” Publishers
Fragments of Bill McCoy’s history are embodied in the records of the Department of Justice and the log books of sundry revenue cutters. These comments on the most daring and successful of rum runners are pardonably acid and prejudiced. Nothing is more offensive to officialdom than a reiterant, light-hearted disregard. Nothing is more maddening to the agents of constituted authority than derision.
For four lively years, while he mocked the increasingly portentous blockading fleet of the Volstead Act mobilized on the Atlantic seaboard, McCoy was a thorn in the twitching flesh of the United States government, a rankling and most persistent thorn. He was the founder of Rum Row off New York and the trade’s most daring and successful exponent. Time and again his ships were located, triumphantly captured. Subsequent relieve always was brief. He evaded those who had caught him and almost immediately was prodding elsewhere.
He landed the first sea-borne rum shipments in New England. He opened up St. Pierre at Miquelon as a rum base. He drove cutter captains to the brink of apoplexy. He enraged prohibition agents, distracted the Department of Justice, and troubled the Olympian calm of the State Department itself, which eventually entered into a special agreement with the British government whereby he finally was laid by the heels.
In the abstract, the slippery, irreverent, swaggeringly resourceful McCoy was a scourge, a menace, a continual threat against the peace and dignity of the United States, and a jeering foe of that swelling army which strove to make the nation dry. In the flesh, even his bitterest foes admitted, he was the most genial and endearingly candid of law breakers.
Other, less caustic, records of McCoy’s past may be gleaned in the Bahama Group, those white scraps of firmament carelessly brushed from the Creator ’s trestleboard into the blue glare of the Spanish Main. Nassau, the sunsteeped haunt successively of buccaneers, blockade runners, and rum runners, is filled with yarns of his achievement. Here you will find none of the hard, brief animus of the government reports. In Bahamian reminiscences, Bill McCoy already is trailing clouds of legendary glory.
Of all that hard, wild, unrestrained crew of rascals who infested Nassau in the early, disorganized era of the rum trade, McCoy was the most personable, the most trustworthy. In a day when a man’s word was worth no more than the breath that bore it, when contracts were enforced by the lynx- like vigilance backed by firearms; when theft, double-crossing, piracy, even murder were frequent and usually unpunished, McCoy strode his boyishly grinning, zestful way, respected and honored by the underworld rabble through which he went, ruefully admired even by the United States Consul, Loren A. Lathrop, a veteran of the service who in official moments was his firm antagonist and, after hours, his friend.
The liquor McCoy’s ships carried to Rum Row was always the best. Debts he incurred, whether oral or written, were paid on time and in full. Friends whom he made, he kept. Persistently he struck at the law of his country, but he held to his own not inconsiderable moral code.
To Nassauvians, who profited greatly during his rum- running years, he has become a glamorous Robin Hood of the Main. His erstwhile associates have epitomized his square crookedness in a phrase that has become a part of the nation’s slang: “The Real McCoy” – signifying all that is best and most genuine. Eventually dictionaries may pick it up, a verbal monument to one who played a hazardous game daringly and, after his lights, fairly and honestly.
I knew the slang long before I met the man. Several times in a stretch of years our trails crossed. In December of 1923 I went, at the behest of a magazine editor, to Nassau to write of rum running and rum piracy. The editor, I have since suspected, was prone to dramatize matters, as all good editors must. He dwelt at length on the hazards of the enterprise, counseling me to go as a tourist and to reveal to no one the purpose of my mission. So stoutly did I attempt to portray the role he had imposed that within twenty four hours of my landing at Nassau the entire island had leaped to the conclusion that I was a secret-service man. It took much time and considerable liquor to eradicate that unfortunate first impression.
McCoy and his cherished schooner, born Arethusa and rechristened Tomoka, at this time was North on Rum Row, serving the Christmas trade. From the American Consul, the late Loren A. Lathrop, a gracious and cultured gentleman who wrote under the pseudonym “Kenyon Gambier” much worthwhile fiction; from rum runners, from schooner captains, from liquor dealers, I heard of the “King of Rum Row.” So he was called. Even in that day, legend was solidifying about him. One might as well ignore Wild Bill Hickok in an account of the early days of Dodge City as to write of Nassau in its mad, bad prime and omit McCoy. He figured largely in my articles.
A year or so later Charles R. Patterson, the marine artist, dined at my home.
“Do you,” he asked me, “know a person named Bill McCoy?”
“Only indirectly,” I answered. “Why?”
“He’s under indictment here in New York,” Patterson explained. He’s ordered a canvas from me –a picture of his Tomoka running away from the revenue cutter Seneca. He asked if I knew you and sent his regards.”
Since then, McCoy has returned to his home in Florida and resumed his long interrupted trade of boat building. He has been definitely of the rum- running game. No conscientious reformation turned him from reprehensibility. His reason for retirement has been that the trade has changed and that it no longer is fun. Also, by his own unique yet rigid ethics, it has become too dirty, too wholly crooked.
In this age of consolidation the rum- running industry has not become immune. What was once a marine combination of tag and blind-man’s buff, with the revenue cutters forever “it” and each individual runner working for himself; what was once a sport as well as a lucrative enterprise has become Big Business with the small independent tradesman absorbed or frozen out. The zestful hazard has been eliminated. It is a sordid bribe-giving, graft- taking racket, coordinated, systematized.
“ I don’t want any part of it,” McCoy says scornfully. I believe him. I know that a few weeks before this was written, representatives of a “mob” that handles much of New York’s sea-borne liquor approached Bill, urging that he resume his old trade and backing persuasion with financial promises that left a hack writer dazed and a little dizzy.
“Nope,” said McCoy. “I’m through. It’s a business now, and I ’m not that sort of a business man.”
For some years we carried on a desultory correspondence, and one day, while he as in New York, we met.
Six feet two, with shoulders like a cargo hatch, slim waist, a voice like a foghorn, lean tanned face, and steady eyes set in the network of wrinkles that long gazing over glittering water etches, he sat in my suddenly dwarfed living room and talked of the days when liquor was liquor and Rum Row was a marine market running unbroken from Montauk to the Atlantic City, when each man worked for himself to outwit revenue cutters and to fend against piracy and hijacking.
He lost himself in his story. Surf boomed through his words, and out of the rush of his speech, now and then, leaped a phrase poetic and vivid, sired by his sheer zest for action and a deep love of the sea and of sail.
He crowds fifty, clean limbed and muscular as he could have been at twenty-five. His outlook upon life is as unscrupulously gleeful, thrill seeking, adventurous as though he were still fifteen. There are moments when you suspect that the essential ego of him is no more than that.
He was, without question, the most successful and notorious of the old- time – as one counts advances and changes in the liquor traffic- rum runners. He was, literally, the father of Rum Row and the inventor of much rum- running technique. When he quit the game, less than five years ago, he had landed or discharged from his schooners into lighters and motor boats for the relief of parched America a total of 175,000 cases of liquor, chiefly Scotch and rye. Practically all of this was cut four times by purchasers – diluted and fortified by grain alcohol- before it was sold. Thus, McCoy actually furnished 700,000 cases to slake America’s thirst.
He has been the trusted friend of some of the most outrageous crooks Manhattan harbors. He was a leader in Nassau when that usually placid tropic city was a combination of a cow town on pay day and a new gold camp, with additional spectacular and violent features thrown in for good measure. He has known the best of people and the worst, has been indicted over and over, jumped bail, paid fines, been mulcted by lawyers, fired upon by revenue cutters.
Out of all this and more he has emerged, for all that he has done, for all that has happened to him, still with the heart of a mischievous, authority-scorning, rather gallant small boy. He handled millions in cash and to-day is comparatively poor, but he talks more of the thrills he enjoyed than the money he had.
From the talk with Bill McCoy and many subsequent conversations, this book has grown. It is his book rather than mine. I am not his ghost, but only his more or less unsatisfactory interpreter. Even in print, it remains as closely as possible his story. The hand is the hand of his reporter, but the voice is the voice of William McCoy – the real McCoy.
Frederic F. Van de Water
Yorktown, Va. 1930