In the previous installment of this history column, we looked at the murderous activities of the “Gulfstream Pirate,” James Horace Alderman, a rumrunner and alien smuggler who, in 1927, amid a struggle with federal agents over a boatload of bootleg liquor on the high seas near Bimini, shot and killed two men, including a federal agent. Ultimately, Alderman and Robert Weech, his accomplice, were overwhelmed by other Coast Guardsmen who had earlier captured them and transferred them to their vessel. Taken to a Coast Guard facility in Jacksonville, Alderman was soon after indicted by a federal grand jury for first degree murder.
In January 1929, Alderman was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. According to the Miami Daily News, “It was the first time such a sentence had been passed on a rumrunner for murder of government agents on the high seas.” Because he had cooperated with law authorities, Robert Weech was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and received a short sentence.
After Alderman’s appeal was turned down by a United States Circuit Court of Appeals, he was transferred to the Dade County jail in the county courthouse in downtown Miami. By then, Alderman had “found” Jesus Christ. Reportedly, he had converted five other prisoners to Christianity during his incarceration in Jacksonville, and was conducting prayer meetings in the Dade County jail. Word of his conversion gained sympathy for the “Gulfstream Pirate,” with The Miami Herald insisting that “Alderman…is a changed man.”
The prisoner continued to appeal his sentence with the final motions being directed at President Herbert Hoover. But the White House rejected his appeals, prompting Alderman’s comment that “Hoover let me down but God is with me still.”
The execution was originally scheduled to take place at the Broward County jail. But a closer reading of maritime law indicated that a “pirate,” as Alderman was defined, must be hanged at the port where he was first delivered. Therefore, law authorities chose a large seaplane hangar in the Coast Guard Station at Bahia Mar on Fort Lauderdale Beach for Alderman’s execution.
On the day of his execution, August 17, 1929, Alderman helped place the black hood over his head, and, as the hangman put a noose around his neck, he reportedly sang the hymn: “Jesus, Here I’m Coming.” At 6:04 a.m., Alderman dropped through the scaffold opening before a hushed audience of law enforcement officials and at least one journalist, who appeared incognito. The hangman’s knot, however, did not break the dangling Alderman’s neck, as it was designed to do, leaving him, instead, to strangle to death. Finally, at 6:19 a.m., Alderman was pronounced dead. His “choking struggles,” as one account observed, “could be heard for two minutes within the gray light of early dawn.” The hanging was Broward County’s first and only legal execution. It was also the last execution by hanging in the state of Florida.
Four years later, in 1933, National Prohibition ended with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment. The “Noble Experiment,” as its proponents had characterized National Prohibition, was an abject failure, and nowhere was this result more graphically illustrated than in the waters around Miami and other parts of southeast Florida, as rumrunners flooded these communities with alcohol obtained in the Bahamas.
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.