LONG BEACH — Are you ready for some rollicking stories about America’s attempt to “dry up” the country and how New Yorkers coped with the 18th Amendment?

Ellen NicKenzie Lawson’s book, “Smugglers, Bootleggers and Scofflaws” chronicles the U.S. Coast Guard’s efforts to seize ships during Prohibition from 1920 to 1933.

Lawson dug through 90 boxes of Coast Guard records and then she wrote about the Rum Row that made New York City the largest supplier of alcohol in the nation.

Lawson’s book is chock-full of stories about such “scofflaws.”

“The research took a lot of time because the Coast Guard categorized its seizures by ship name and not by location,” Lawson said. She has a Ph.D. in history and is editor of “The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women.”

“The best quote is on the back cover of my book and it is from the archivist of the United States David Ferreiro at the National Archives and Records Center, saying ‘the book is both entertaining and enlightening.’ Which means a lot since before he assumed this position he was head of the New York City Public Library,” Lawson explained.

With more than 5,000 miles of coastline and only 200 Coast Guard vessels to monitor smuggling activities, creative and humorous exploits occurred on both sides of the law. Cases of whiskey hidden under tons of freshly caught fish, smugglers masquerading as yachtsmen, law enforcement officials on the take and the birth of liquor smuggling syndicates are all documented in this volume.

Her stories came from Long Island, the Jersey shore and the Hudson and East Rivers. There were 30,000 speakeasies and 500 nightclubs in New York during Prohibition and most, if not all, served alcohol that made its way past the Coast Guard’s watch. Syndicates developed in the Lower East Side, West Side, Little Italy and ultimately the Broadway Mob and they served as distributors of banned liquor.

People such as Fiorello LaGuardia, James “Jimmy” Walker, Pauline Morton Sabin, Nicholas Murray Butler and Al Smith all contributed politically in repealing Prohibition, but Lawson emphasizes that it was the people who ultimately spoke and were heard. Lawson concludes in her book that smugglers, bootleggers and scofflaws asserted their freedom to drink alcohol for enjoyment and that is part of the American tradition of seeking liberty. The result was the unprecedented repeal of the 18th Amendment with the 21st Amendment.

Lawson lived in Long Beach from 1996 to 1998 while studying studio arts under Royal Nebeker at Clatsop College in Astoria when she was in her 50s. Soon after that she began research on the Prohibition Era using primary sources at the National Archives in D.C. “I hope to earn enough money from this book to either live there in the summer or at least spend every July there when it is just too darn hot here in Colorado,” Lawson stated. 

“I visited Long Beach with my son one summer for week, spent a very rainy Thanksgiving there another year and spent a month in Ocean Park last summer. I did a Native-American song and dance program for a third and fourth grade class in that school,” Lawson said.

“After I left Long Beach (very reluctantly) in August 1998, I lived in Arlington, Va., just outside D.C., with my daughter, who now also has a Ph.D. in American history. I was a substitute art teacher in the public schools, taught children’s art camp one summer at the Corcoran Museum of Art in D.C., and did research in Coast Guard seized vessel records for 1920-33,” she explained.

“At the suggestion of my daughter I took up the subject of smuggling to NYC during Prohibition and went through all 90 boxes of records,” she said. “History remains my first love, so I do art and occasionally sell a piece (acrylics, watercolor prints including one to a scientist from Norway using a small piece of driftwood I found on Long Beach and still have) and I have learned to landscape which uses my art training.”

Lawson has also fixed up four homes and then selling them, one of which is at the 8,000-foot level of elevation. She has lived in Colorado for the past nine years and said she could not raise a garden because of the elk. She also had a mountain lion race through her property.

“Smugglers, Bootleggers and Scofflaws” is available in online format for $19.95. To order email suny@presswarehouse.com, call 877-204-6073 or write to SUNY Press, Box 960, Herndon, VA 20172-0960. Hard copies will be available in December.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.