Born in New York in 1877, William “Bill” McCoy became known as one of the few gentlemen smugglers of the Prohibition era. At 6”2 tall with a voice like a “fog horn”, Bill McCoy was a commanding figure but balanced this out with boyish good looks.
During the prohibition, having gambled on a failing freight business, Bill McCoy and his brother fell on hard times. Needing money, the two brothers made a decision to go into illicit alcohol smuggling, commonly nicknamed for the period “Rum-running”.
Recognising the potential for legal trade just outside America’s three mile marine border (i.e. in international waters), Bill’s risk free technique was to park his fully laden vessels just inside international waters and arrange for mainlanders to make their way through Rum Row to purchase liquor from his ships, converting them into “floating liquor stores”. Bill was the first to do this and is credited for essentially creating what became ‘Rum row’ as hundreds saw what Bill was doing and followed suit.
Bill’s methods were unique, his floating liquor stores had shelves of samples for visitors, where tasting was encouraged, such was Bill’s confidence in his products. His product range was one of the broadest around, stocking; Vodka, Gin, Whiskey, Rum and many other liqueurs.
McCoy, a teetotaller, prided himself on being an honourable smuggler and developed a reputation for fair dealing. He took pride in the fact that he never paid a cent to organized crime or buckled under to their violence, never bought protection from politicians or law enforcement, and, most significantly, he never diluted or adulterated his product. McCoy’s liquor was genuine imported spirits and not homemade swill or moonshine, that was everywhere at the time, this gave rise to the phrase, synonymous with his name, that still stands to this day and denotes authenticity, reliability and the highest quality: “the real McCoy”.
When punters were purchasing spirits on the black market or in speak easy’s across America, they would ask for “the real McCoy”, so they knew they were getting the best of the best.
As a result of this, Bill’s spirits became unfathomably popular.
“The first few who sampled my whiskey spread the word ashore. From then on I had no complaint about the number of my customers. Despite the storms that kept hammering us all this voyage, in two days of reasonably clear weather I had sold my entire cargo.” – remarked Bill after his maiden voyage.
Unfortunately for Bill, after a few years of smuggling and as his fame grew back onshore, his straight methods meant authorities would soon catch up to him. He was arrested by the U.S. Coastguard 6.5 miles off the coast of New Jersey under orders to capture him even if he’s in international waters.
Back on shore, when asked what defence he planned to make at the hearing before the trial, McCoy replied:
“I have no tale of woe to tell you. I was outside the three-mile limit, selling whiskey, and good whiskey, to anyone and everyone who wanted to buy.”
After serving a relatively light sentence thanks to a sympathising judge, Bill decided it was best not to compete with the powers and violence of the developing crime syndicates, such as the infamous Al Capone, and instead moved back to Florida investing in real estate and a boat building business.
On December 30, 1948, Bill McCoy died of a heart attack where he was happiest, at sea, aboard his private yacht “Blue Lagoon” at the ripe old age of 71.
Bill was perhaps best remembered by his brother, Ben, when he simply wrote;
“When the country went dry, Bill irrigated it”.