Rum-running was common around New Bedford, in the waters off Martha's Vineyard, Nomansland, Cutty Hunk, Menemsha and Nantucket during Prohibition. The SouthCoast was very much a hotbed for illegal liquor that was transported off ships anchored in international waters. The line of vessels spread out along the coast became known as "Rum Row."

The plan was easy as a breeze. Late at night, "rumrunners" would carry hundreds of cases of bootleg whiskey from the liquor ships and then sped them across the water to places like Nomansland for hiding and New Bedford for distribution. Everyone was equipped with short-wave radios, keeping an eye out for the U.S. Coast Guard. It was also common knowledge that the gangsters running the operation paid off a lot of officials, including the police and politicians. When the speed boats returned to New Bedford harbor, trucks were loaded and hooch was transported to Rhode Island and New York speakeasies.

Of course, Italian "wiseguys" put pressure on the Irish gangs to move out or be assassinated. This set up a turf war that lasted from the 1920s to when "Whitey" Bulger ran operations.

New Bedford isn't usually attributed with many rum row stories, but Daniel Okrent has history and stories of the local bootleg liquor industry in his book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

In January 2020, we celebrated the 100 year anniversary of Prohibition, the infamous noble experiment, created to be one of the solutions to society's difficulties. As with anything the government mandates with an iron fist, most Americans rebelled, and instead of going away, the sale of booze just went underground, where crime syndicates spirited away millions of bottles of John Barleycorn and even larger a number of millions of dollars that wouldn't go into the tax coffers.

You more than likely traveled along the very same route, boating to Martha's Vineyard, that the ill-reputed rum runners used a hundred years ago, until Joseph P. Kennedy went to Europe with President Roosevelt's son and came away with a supernova liquor agreement getting the rights to import Dewar's, Haig & Haig Scotch Whiskey and Gordon's Gin into the United States.

I propose a toast: "If your ship doesn't come in, then swim out to meet it."

Phil Paleologos is the host of The Phil Paleologos Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @PhilPaleologos. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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