Florida has seen its share of outlaws, brigands, pirates, cutthroats, and smugglers, too. And I doubt few were as popular as Bill McCoy. Even today, old-timers who spent their life on or near the water remember hearing stories about him.
Born in New York in 1877, William Frederick McCoy was the son of a man who had served in the Union Navy during the Civil War onboard a ship helping to blockade Southern ports. Maybe that’s why McCoy seemed to have been born with the sea in his blood. He graduated first in his class from the Pennsylvania Nautical School in 1895 and went on to serve on several ships as a mate and quartermaster. McCoy was aboard the steamer Olivette in the harbor in Havana, Cuba, when the USS Maine exploded in 1898, prompting the Spanish American War.
Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, the McCoy family relocated to Florida and settled in the small community of Holly Hill, just north of Daytona Beach. Bill McCoy and his younger brother Ben started a small shipping company, and later a boatyard, in Holly Hill, building upscale yachts for wealthy customers that included the Vanderbilts and Andrew Carnegie
Business was good, and the McCoy brothers seemed to be on the road to success. However, improved roads, trucks, and railroads eventually put a big dent in their shipping business and they could not turn out custom yachts quickly enough to make a living. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), about that time Prohibition began, and Bill McCoy decided that if he couldn’t make a buck hauling cargo for other people, he darn sure could by hauling illegal liquor from the islands of the Caribbean to thirsty customers along the East Coast. The brothers sold their shipyard and purchased a schooner called the Henry L Marshall.
Soon the McCoy brothers were making more money than they could imagine, and they purchased a second schooner and named it the Tomoka, after a river that runs through the region of Central Florida they called home. Eventually, they would add as many as five other boats, and would anchor off the coast in international waters and transfer their illicit cargo onto smaller boats to be brought ashore. Bill McCoy became one of the most well-known and respected smugglers on the East Coast, earning him the nickname The Real McCoy.
McCoy’s popularity drew the attention of organized crime, and gangsters tried to muscle into his operation. But McCoy was fearless and bragged that he never took a penny from mobsters or backed down an inch. Unfortunately, besides being noticed by organized crime, it didn’t take long for the United States government to go after McCoy for violating the Volstead Act.
The Coast Guard cutter Seneca caught up with the Tomoka off the coast of Seabright, New Jersey, on November 23, 1923, and McCoy made a run for it. When the Seneca fired a shot across his bow, McCoy replied with a machine gun mounted on the forward deck of his schooner. He would later claim he had only opened fire because he did not know it was the Coast Guard, and believed it was pirates sent by the mobsters to hijack his cargo. Unable to outdistance the Seneca or her guns, the chase soon ended, and McCoy surrendered.
Bill McCoy pleaded guilty and spent less than a year in jail. Then he returned to Florida and put the smuggling business behind him, focusing on real estate investment and opening another boatyard with his brother. It seems only fitting that McCoy would die at sea, onboard his yacht Blue Lagoon at age 71, on December 30, 1948.
The old smuggler may be gone, but he is not forgotten. In the popular HBO series Boardwalk Empire, actor Pearce Bunting plays Bill McCoy, and author Frederik F. Van-de-Water wrote a now out-of-print biography of Bill McCoy titled The Real McCoy. The Drinking Cup website also has an in-depth article on McCoy, including several photos. But perhaps the best eulogy came from his brother and longtime business partner Ben, who simply said, “When the country went dry, Bill irrigated it.”
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Thought For The Day – I’m never wrong. I just have different levels of right.
Enjoyed the story, thanks.