During World War I and World War II, army and navy fortifications and artillery pieces surrounded Narragansett Bay. But no shots were ever fired in anger. By contrast, from 1929 to 1933, the latter part of the Prohibition era, Coast Guard vessels in Narragansett Bay and other Rhode Island waters fired thousands of machine gun and one-pound cannon rounds. . . at fellow-Americans. In 1929, Coast Guard machine guns killed three of them.
The victims were crew members on rumrunners who, using speedy powerboats, had picked up illegal liquor from supply ships stationed at “Rum Row” — an area beyond the 12-mile zone off the coast of southern New England.
The rumrunners operated at night or in foggy conditions. On their return voyages, they would cruise up any one of the three channels of Narragansett Bay to coves, inlets or wharves assigned as drop-off points to unload their liquor. Because buying and selling alcohol was illegal under Prohibition laws then in force, the profits from a successful voyage could be enormous.
Coast Guard Machine Guns
The Coast Guard became the lead federal government agency fighting the “Rum War” at sea. Coast Guard patrol boats insisted on inspecting vessels suspected of carrying illicit liquor. If a vessel did not stop after being signaled, it was targeted with live ammunition from large caliber weapons — Lewis machine guns or Hotchkiss one-pounder cannon.
The Coast Guard was in a difficult position. It had the duty of enforcing federal laws within the waters of the U.S. It did not want lawbreakers to escape simply because they used speedboats.
If the Coast Guard had dealt primarily with speedboats illegally importing harmful drugs such as heroin, then having its patrol boats fire machine guns at fleeing speedboats would not have caused controversy. But that was not what was happening during the Prohibition years from 1920 to 1933. Drinking alcohol recreationally remained wildly popular among wide swaths of the population in the United States. That was especially true in northeastern states and especially in Rhode Island (perhaps the wettest state in the U.S. on a per capita basis).
Moreover, the crews on the rumrunners typically were not hardened criminals. Many of them were former struggling fishermen or ordinary young laborers, first- and second-generation immigrants and otherwise good people. During the desperate years of the Great Depression, they saw rumrunning as a chance for making serious money for their families. Furthermore, I have not found a single instance where rumrunners in Rhode Island waters fired at Coast Guardsmen. Thus, having Coast Guard machine guns fire at rumrunners became a controversial practice.
Casualties of the Rum Wars
In the shooting incidents covered in my new book, Machine Guns in Narragansett Bay: The Coast Guard’s War on Rumrunners, three crew members on rumrunners were killed by machine-gun fire. One drowned after his boat was machine gunned, caught fire and the gas tank exploded. Another fell off his boat and drowned in mysterious circumstances after his boat was chased and fired at. Two other shootings resulted in serious, life-threatening bullet wounds. And eight more crew members received minor or moderate bullet wounds.
In several incidents, hundreds of machine gun bullets were fired. It is a wonder that more men were not killed or wounded.
Federal District Court judges in Providence sometimes lambasted the Coast Guard for shooting at rumrunners. For example, in March 1932, U.S. District Court Judge Ira Lloyd Letts, at the trial of the Rhode Island rumrunner Eaglet, criticized Coast Guard patrol boats firing 470 machine gun bullets in Narragansett Bay at Eaglet. He called it “a rather sad commentary on the administration of law in this country.”
The most sensational shooting incident in Narragansett Bay, and one of the most publicized shootings during all of Prohibition, was the machine-gunning of the crew of the rumrunner Black Duck in the early morning of December 29, 1929. The machine guns were ordered to be fired by Boatswain Alexander Cornell, in command of the 75-foot patrol boat CG-290, ordered the machine guns fired. Cornell was the most aggressive of the Coast Guard patrol boat commanders operating out of Section Base 4 in New London, the Coast Guard’s main base for patrolling the waters of southeastern New England.
The Black Duck
In the evening of December 28, Cornell tied up his patrol boat to Buoy #2, several hundred yards south of Bull Point on Conanicut Island (known as Jamestown) in the East Passage, the main channel of Narragansett Bay. Cornell apparently had information about the notorious rumrunner Black Duck. After meeting up with a supply ship known to have recently arrived at Rum Row, the Black Duck would return up Narragansett Bay with a large load of liquor on board, ready for sale eventually to New Years Eve partygoers.
Cornell knew that Charlie Travers captained the Black Duck. The two had crossed paths before, but each time Travers was cruising light — with no illegal liquor on board. Travers taunted Cornell, and the Coast Guard officer itched to seize Travers’s rumrunner. The Black Duck was said to then be the fastest rumrunner operating in southeastern New England, able to reach a speed of more than 36 miles per hour.
In the early morning of December 29, Cornell heard the sounds of a motor. As a boat approached through the dark and fog, Cornell could see it was indeed the Black Duck and that it was heading his way. Cornell pointed his patrol boat’s powerful searchlight on the rumrunner and ordered crewman Lewis Pearson to man the Lewis machine gun on his boat’s port side.
Travers saw the looming Coast Guard patrol boat ahead but kept speeding to the north. He had been searching for the clanging of the buoy so he could fix his position. The Black Duck passed the stern of the CG-290, putting itself in between the patrol boat and the Jamestown shoreline. Cornell yelled for the rumrunner as it passed to heave to, but Travers continued.
Coast Guard Machine Gun Fire
Cornell had to make a decision in seconds. His boat was tied to a buoy and so he lacked sufficient time to start up his boat’s engine and chase the rumrunner. He knew it was Coast Guard policy to fire three blank warning shots with his one-pounder before he could order live ammunition to be fired. But by the time that was done, he figured, the Black Duck would have disappeared in the fog.
Cornell made his decision: He ordered Pearson to open fire with his boat’s machine gun. “Let her have it,” Cornell yelled. This was not the most precise order. Still, Pearson let loose a pan of 27 bullets. Then his gun jammed. He worked frantically to unjam it.
On board the Black Duck, three crewmen crouched in the pilothouse. Travers had the wheel in the engine room. Suddenly machine gun bullets swept the deck. The three crewmen were killed, two instantly. One died a few seconds later, after he stumbled onto the deck and collapsed. A bullet injured Travers’s right wrist. Somehow Travers turned his boat around, headed back to CG-290 and surrendered.
Cornell jumped on board the rumrunner and spotted the three dead crew members. He had the bodies laid out on the deck. He then ordered his crew to tow the Black Duck to the nearest medical facility, the army base across the channel at Ford Adams. Travers was eventually taken to Newport Hospital and placed under guard.
The shootings made headlines in newspapers around the country. At the Seaman’s Church Institute in Newport, the Reverend Roy W. Magoun called the killings “downright murder.” In Boston, at Faneuil Hall, a rally of anti-Prohibitionists was held, and afterwards, some men rioted and tore apart Coast Guard recruiting stations. In New London, Cornell received a letter with a death threat, and local toughs beat up a Coast Guardsman. Tempers ran high.
In Congress, Representative Fiorella LaGuardia spent 40 minutes complaining how Prohibition had tarnished the Coast Guard. The New York Herald Tribune editorialized, “It may be that bloodshed is inevitable in the enforcement of a law that large sections of the country treat with contempt. But does this excuse the raking of an unarmed rum-runner at close range with machine gun fire?”
Some Prohibition supporters applauded the Coast Guard. An editorial in the Washington Post stated, “The rum-runners got only what was coming to them. When smugglers are on open water, it is not only the duty of the Coast Guard to pursue and search them, but to kill them if there is no other means of overhauling them.” (Fortunately for crew members on board rumrunners, the Coast Guard’s policy was not this extreme.)
In Rhode Island, the state attorney general’s office convened a grand jury to decide if Cornell and his crew should be tried for murder or manslaughter. The jury decided that no charges should be brought. It was the right decision. The shooting deaths were not intentional. And it was the policy of the Treasury Department to have Coast Guard vessels shoot at vessels whose crews refused to stop when warned.
Not the Only Shooting
The shooting was a tragic accident. But it was an accident bound to happen at some point, when the Coast Guard fired machine guns near rumrunners or even at their sterns, trying to disable them. Coast Guard records I reviewed showed that Coast Guard gunners sometimes intentionally fired at the sterns of rumrunners, in order, according to one patrol boat commander, “to disable machinery or to explode gas tanks.”
In the Coast Guard’s main investigation, the machine gunner Pearson claimed that he meant to fire warning shots. But he made two fatal mistakes. First, he aimed at the stern of the Black Duck and not behind it. And second, while he testified that he meant to give a warning shot by shooting into the air about the rumrunner, he actually shot the machine gun at deck level.
Cornell claimed that the Black Duck had veered to the left just as the machine gun fire started, thus unknowingly moving into the path of the bullets. The Coast Guard investigators adopted this explanation. It wasn’t accurate, however. The Coast Guard’s own drawings showed that the path of the bullets came from the stern of the boat and not on its port side.
A Coast Guard officer later claimed that Travers also made a fatal mistake, in addition to not heaving to. Most rumrunners piled sacks of liquor high behind the wheelhouse. That functioned as some protection against bullets. Travers did not do this. Whether this would have worked against the close-range firing in the case of the Black Duck is doubtful.
As was often the case, the owners and crew members of the rumrunner were the descendants of recent immigrants and were not hardened criminals. The Black Duck’s owner was Joe Dressler of West Warwick. His Jewish parents had fled persecution and poverty in Eastern Europe. They had started a meat rendering business in Pawtucket, which would eventually become successful. The Dresslers were not wealthy.
One of the crew members was Jake Weisman, the Jewish son-in-law of Joe Dressler. Charlie Travers’s parents had immigrated from the Azores to Fall River, Mass., and did not speak English. The same held true for a third crew member, John Goulart. The Goulart and Travers families were neighbors and friends in Fairhaven, Mass. Goulart and Travers were fishermen by trade. The fourth crew member, Dudley Brandt, who resided outside Boston, was an excellent boat mechanic and a married man with a family that included young children. In short, these men were not hardened criminals who deserved to have machine guns fired at them.
The shooting of the Black Duck is the most famous shooting incident mentioned in my new book. But it is just one of 29 total shootings I discovered from 1929 to 1933. During each, the Coast Guard fired machine guns at rumrunners, striking the craft, in or near Rhode Island waters.
End Notes to Coast Guard Machine Guns
Christian McBurney, an independent historian, has authored several books on the American Revolutionary War. He publishes and edits The Online Review of Rhode Island History (www.smallstatebighistory.com). His books include Dark Voyage: An American Privateer’s War Against Britain’s African Slave Trade; Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island, Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee and Richard Prescott, and The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation of the Revolutionary War. He also co-authored World War II Rhode Island and Untold Stories of World War II Rhode Island.
Featured image: Images: Lewis machine gun By Acabashi – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lewis_Gun_at_Easton_Lodge_Gardens,_Wartime_Open_Day,_Essex,_England.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=135690456. Narragansett Bay Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Aerial view of Conanicut Island on Narragansett Bay in the U.S. state of Rhode Island. United States Newport Newport County Rhode Island, 2018. -07-29. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2018700534/.