Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Evans: White Lightning Way

Rory Evans

White lightning Way

Copperhead Road by Steve Earle

Rory Evans 4/07/13
U.S. Labor history Research Paper

White lightning Way

Alcohol has been both an American enterprise and institution since the first Europeans reached the North American continent. The amount these early colonists drank was substantial, partly due to widely held belief at the time that water sources would most likely be contaminated and alcohol offered a safe alternative. A bill from a tavern “two days before the signing of the constitution”, in fact, stated that the 55 delegates drank “54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer and seven bowls of alcoholic punch.”1 This early adoption and the centuries of consumption leading up to the Temperance movement, which eventually resulted in Prohibition, helps explain the public’s widespread resistance. The passage of the 18th amendment to the Constitution in January 1919 which made the sale of alcohol illegal began the Prohibition era in the United States.2 To enforcement this amendment the Volstead Act was passed, which deemed “intoxicating liquors” defined as “any liquors containing more than .5% alcohol,” as illegal.3 Resistance to the Volstead Act, and to Prohibition in general, took two forms: the consumption of illegal spirits and the smuggling of these spirits, often referred to as “bootlegging” or “rum running.” This essay focuses on the latter, as the sheer scale of this illicit industry during the Prohibition era, the perpetrators unemployed citizens turned smugglers, earns it a place in U.S. working class history. It must be understood in all economic depressions, the most vulnerable citizens, the least secure in terms of employment are those with little formal education the “blue collar workers,” who when opportunity presented itself turned to this illicit and highly profitable trade. Evidence of this can be seen in the makeup of the crew of smuggling vessel The Black Duck, before the onset of the depression they had all been local fisherman. This paper will focus on the methods, motivations, and stories of the smugglers including the countermeasures arrayed against them.
One notable incident involved the notorious rum running vessel The Black Duck which operated out of Newport, Rhode Island, and the controversy surrounding the death of three of the vessel’s crew members on the night of December 29, 1929. Most of the seamen who crewed these vessels were not hardened criminals; most had no direct connection with the organized crime they helped fund. Rather, they were simply the unemployed after the stock market crash of October 1929. For The Black Duck a “50-foot speedboat, fitted with twin 300-horsepower engines,” a typical night’s run would start with the pickup of booze off of foreign ships in international waters, followed by a high-speed trip to a designated beach or harbor with men waiting to unload the cargo.4 The Black duck had been particularly successful at outrunning the Coast Guard, but on this night, two armed Guard vessels lied in wait. At 2 am Coast Guard the commander Alexander Cornell commanded the bow gunner to “let him have it.” Twenty-one rounds were fired at the ship before the gun jammed.5 The Black Duck disappeared but then surprisingly reappeared, heading toward the Coast Guard vessel. The Coast Guard men who climbed aboard described their findings: “The pilothouse is awash in blood, three bodies sprawled on the floor the only man standing is the captain hand shattered.”6
This action caused immediate public outcry. A hearing was held in the Rhode Island Grand Jury. While some believed the Coast Guard’s action were overly aggressive, the Coast Guard argued that “the liquor craft was trying to escape when fired on.”7 Ironically the infamous Black Duck was eventually converted into a Coast Guard patrol boat. It was involved with a chase of its own with the rum running speed boat Artemis off the coast of Long Island which also led to the vessel being fired upon. At this time, local shipyards knew the top speed of the Coast Guard patrol boats was 26 miles and hour, so a “Freeport shipyard made rum running boats that were capable of traveling nearly 30 miles an hour even when loaded down with liquor.”8 The Artemis not only escaped with crew intact, it also managed to successfully deliver its cargo of whiskey on a beach “three miles west of Orient Point.”9
While legends were being created on the high seas, a different kind of legend was being created along the back woods roads of rural America. These alcohol smugglers also relied on speed in their contest with local authorities and defiance of Prohibition. Their smuggling vehicle of choice, however, was the V8 automobile. There is documentation of the virtual arms race between rum runners and authorities on the basis of pure mechanical horse power, and of the sheer daring to drive at top speed on winding roads. Many of these rural rumrunners were in business for themselves, both producing and distributing home brewed spirits, referred to as moonshine. Again, hard economic times especially in rural areas turned many a man to this illicit trade, while still others kept the multi-generational backwoods stilling of their forbearers alive.
A song that best illustrates this is Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” while a modern piece, retains the essence of the smuggling experience. Earle begins by recounting history of his “Granddad” who bears the same name, telling us “He only came to town about twice a year”, and that “he'd buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line,” referring to the construction of alcohol stills.10 Earle then tells us of his choice of car, a former police car bought at auction. This “Big Black Dodge” had been built in response to motorized bandits and rum runners came equipped with high horse power engines.11 This was not enough, however, and Earle sings “he and my uncle tore that engine down… I still remember that rumbling sound,” meaning that they increased the bore of the engines cylinders for more power.12 “Copperhead Road” ends Earl’s legend with the line, “He was headed down to Knoxville with the weekly load… You could smell the whiskey burnin' down Copperhead Road.”13
Moonshining and smuggling of these spirits, as well as the smuggling of spirits manufactured in other countries like Canada, satisfied the thirsts of ordinary American’s in a “Dry Country.” While popular historical accounts focus attention only on the gangsters and organized crime who profited from this trade, it must be asked who were the smugglers themselves? If you lived and were fortunate enough to still be employed during the Great Depression, they were your neighbors, fellow blue collar workers now unemployed, however, unwilling to simply except their circumstances, yet willing to risk their freedom and at times their lives for numerous reasons. Some accounts have been documented, while others have been lost to time, still their daring and cunning of these individuals have created stories, songs, and legends which will endure.

1 Stanton Peele, “Were the Founding Fathers Alcoholics,” HuffingtonPost, (2010). (access 8 march 2013): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stanton-peele/alcohol-addiction-were-th_b_610598.html.

2 Phillip P. Mason, Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties (Wayne State University Press, 1995) 35. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=FiZWrNjIPykC&oi=fnd&pg=PA21&dq=+rum+running&ots=l9n9ZyANSi&sig=FgmC_S-JMNbFZCHjIXRJqrlxKNA#v=onepage&q=rum%20running&f=false.

3 Mason, Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties, 35.

4 Judith A Babcock, “The Night the Coast Guard Opened Fire,” Yankee, vol 63, issue 12, 2, (1999). (access 8 march 2013): http://rpsuffc.suffolk.lib.ny.us/ebsco-web/ehost/delivery?sid=7dcade68.

5 Judith A Babcock, “The Night the Coast Guard Opened Fire,” Yankee, vol 63, issue 12, 2, (1999). (access 8 march 2013): http://rpsuffc.suffolk.lib.ny.us/ebsco-web/ehost/delivery?sid=7dcade68.

6 Judith A Babcock, “The night the coast Guard Opened fire,” 3.

7 “Coast Guard Shots Hit Aft,” The New York Times (New York City, NY), Jan. 4, 1930.

8 Jim Merritt, “New York's "Rum Row", New York State Archives, Volume 2, Number 3, (2003): http://www.archives.nysed.gov/apt/magazine/archivesmag_winter03.shtml

9 Jim Merritt, “New York's "Rum Row", New York State Archives.

10 Steve Earle, Copperhead Road, produced by, Steve Earle, Tony Brown, (1989; Uni Records, 1989.), CD.

11 Steve Earle, Copperhead Road, produced by Steve Earle, Tony Brown.

12 Steve Earle, Copperhead Road, produced by Steve Earle, Tony Brown.

13 Steve Earle, Copperhead Road, produced by Steve Earle, Tony Brown.

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