Greater Miami and southeast Florida were arguably the leakiest spots in the United States during National Prohibition. The area’s proximity to the liquor-supplying Bahamas, a lengthy coastline whose numerous coves and inlets delighted liquor smugglers, a large tourist population that demanded—and received—alcoholic beverages, and public opposition toward prohibition efforts made Greater Miami and nearby areas havens for bootleg liquor, despite the efforts of prohibition enforcement agencies. One observer called southeast Florida “the wettest country I have known.” He explained: “There was not even an attitude toward prohibition—people have simply forgotten about it altogether.”
Perhaps the most sensational story of the Prohibition Era in southeast Florida centered on the murderous activities and subsequent execution of James Horace Alderman, the “Gulfstream Pirate.” Alderman had been operating for some time as a Miami-based rumrunner and bootlegger (the former term connotes someone smuggling over water; the latter smuggling over land), as well as an alien smuggler, when, on August 6, 1927, he and Robert Weech, another smuggler, left for Bimini, some fifty miles east of Miami, to pick up a liquor supply.
The rumrunners were returning to Miami with their cache on the following day when a United States Coast Guard vessel left its base at Bahia Mar on Fort Lauderdale Beach for Bimini. The boat contained a seven-man crew and one other passenger, Secret Service Agent Robert K. Webster. The Coast Guard was sending Webster to Bimini to investigate reports that counterfeit United States currency was being used in liquor smuggling operations.
As the Coast Guard Vessel neared Bimini, the crew sighted Alderman’s boat and ordered it to stop. After the Coast Guard fired several shots across its bow, the rum boat hove to. The two rumrunners were taken aboard the Coast Guard boat along with their cargo of twenty-one and one-half cases of liquor. A short time later, Alderman picked up a gun from among several weapons on the chart table in the pilot house of the Coast Guard boat and opened fire on his captors. The rumrunner killed the motor machinist’s mate first class and the boatswain, and wounded a Coast Guardsman. Alderman claimed that he fired in self-defense. The Coast Guard viewed it as an act of murderous aggression.
According to the Coast Guard version, Alderman then ordered the surviving Coast Guardsmen to reload the liquor onto the rum boat and directed Weech to set fire to the government vessel to destroy all evidence of the encounter. Weech flooded gas into the bilges of the Coast Guard boat, but it failed to ignite. At the same time, Alderman was struggling with an engine that refused to start. The remaining Coast Guardsmen and agent Webster seized on Alderman’s preoccupation with his recalcitrant engine to attempt to overwhelm him. In the ensuing scuffle, Alderman shot and killed Webster before he and Weech were overpowered by other Coast Guardsmen. The Coast Guard then summoned another vessel from Bahia Mar and carried the rumrunners to the Broward County jail. Later, they were transported by local police in a vehicle tearing through the streets of downtown Fort Lauderdale at fifty miles an hour with its siren screaming to the deck of a Coast Guard cutter and transported to Jacksonville and a federal facility there. Depending on the source, the prisoners were transferred either to avoid a lynching or a possible jail break. In the next installment of this column, we will look at the fate of Alderman and the final months of his life.
Paul S. George, Ph.D., serves as Resident Historian, HistoryMiami Museum. He conducts history tours throughout the County and even beyond for HistoryMiami. Additionally, he teaches classes in Miami/S. Florida and Florida history for the Museum. Dr. George has also led, since 2002, tours of Little Havana as part of Viernes Culturales, a monthly celebration, every third Friday, of the culture and history of that quarter.