For six years, during the heart of prohibition, New England Coast Guard patrols often saw the Gloucester-rigged schooner I’m Alone sailing off into the distance toward the open ocean – it was as close as they could get to the suspected rumrunner. She was fast and her captain cagey, and if not for an overdue New Hampshire library book they might never have unlocked her secrets at all.
Everyone had a pretty good idea what I’m Alone was up to offshore. Canadian-registered boats like her that moved up and down the coast from Canada and around to Belize and back provided a ready supply of alcohol for eastern U.S. cities, parched by prohibition.
The ships (the I’m Alone weighed in at 200 tons and was 125 feet long) would load up with liquor in a foreign port, then stay out at sea – out of the reach of the Coast Guard. Smaller rumrunners would pull alongside, take on a load of booze and blaze into port hoping to beat the Coast Guard and any other chase patrols. When empty, these big supply boats would sail away to reload.
When the Coast Guard approached, the larger ships would simply move farther out to sea, and the law prevented Coast Guard from interfering. It was one of many of the cat and mouse games rumrunners played with law enforcement during prohibition. Everything changed on the night of March 20, 1929 when the Coast Guard cutter Wolcott spotted the elusive I’m Alone in the waters off Louisiana.
She was best known to New Englanders, though the entire Coast Guard knew the name. In Halifax there were countless entries in the customs logs showing her heading off to the French Island St. Pierre-et-Miquelon and from there to the Caribbean.
Her logs showed her laden with alcohol, but little if any arrived in the islands. Instead, it was dispensed to speakeasies in Boston and other U.S cities.
During the winter of 1928 I’m Alone shifted territory, heading to the West Indies, probably chasing southern tourist trade. And it was off Louisiana that the cutter Wolcott stumbled across the most wanted boat afloat.
With orders not to lose the boat, the Wolcott pursued the I’m Alone and hailed her. I’m Alone’s captain John T. Randell was a vigorous old veteran of the Boer War and World War I. He had become a rum runner by dint of lack of other work and the terrific pay.
When confronted by the Wolcott, he declined to be boarded. He invited the Coast Guard’s commander on board for a pleasant meeting, as the customs of the times dictated. But he insisted he was 14 miles off shore, beyond Coast Guard jurisdiction, and he would not agree to be inspected nor stop his ship.
The Coast Guard was just as adamant that he was within 10 miles of land. The stalemate continued for two days. The I’m Alone continued steadily out to sea with the Wolcott trailing, waiting while help arrived.
After two days, the Wolcott was joined by another Coast Guard ship, the Dexter, and together the two renewed their threats. The I’m Alone would be boarded or it would be sunk. Again Randell refused, and the shooting started.
In little time the I’m Alone was shot through the hull below the water line several times and it sank, bow-first, beneath the waves. The Coast Guard picked up all aboard, but one man – Leon Mangay – perished. As the Coast Guard began returning to port, an international firestorm was brewing that they could not have anticipated.
Rather than being hailed for capturing the toughest rumrunner afloat, the Coast Guard was under fire. Canada declared the attack piracy – no more, no less. The French and British condemned it, and Washington began scrambling to change the story.
Soon, charges against Randell and his men were dropped. It was acknowledged they were rumrunners, but all evidence had sunk to the bottom of the sea. Canada was pressing for damages – some $386,000 – and it seemed the U.S. government would soon have to pay.
The U.S. could turn the tide if it could prove the I’m Alone was not a Canadian vessel, but was owned by U.S. criminals. Based on the years they had spent chasing it around the waters of New England, the Coast Guard strongly believed that the vessel was U.S.-owned, despite its Canadian registration.
The Coast Guard would get its break in the unexpected form of a library book. Late in 1928, the Coast Guard had almost apprehended a boat carrying liquor from the I’m Alone. The boat, the Cheri, was chased but the crew torched the vessel and narrowly escaped. On board, however, a library book survived the fire. It was from a New Hampshire library and it led prosecutors to a gangster named Danny Hogan.
The book was one of few things that hadn’t been burned. As the witnesses from the vessel began talking, they first fingered Boston gangster John Magnus. Magnus owned a garage in Boston’s Back Bay, but prosecutors charged that it was really a front for a huge liquor smuggling business, and the centerpiece of the operation was the I’m Alone.
The more they dug into the operation, it became clearer why the I’m Alone had been so invincible while Magnus operated it off the coast of New England. Magnus was bribing four coast guardsmen, including a top Coast Guard official, for information about where the Coast Guard was patrolling and when. He also had access to the codes the Coast Guard used when they communicated via radio. In at least one case, the Coast Guard even watched as liquor was unloaded.
Armed with his inside information, Magnus communicated with his own partners via a large radio broadcast facility on Cape Cod, which allowed the I’m Alone to be always out of reach and its customers to make it safely to land before the Coast Guard could catch up.
In exchange for some leniency, Magnus explained the history of the I’m Alone. Built in 1923, he had bought the boat because of its speed – twin 100-horse-power diesels aided by sails powered the ship. The name, I’m Alone, was a reference to Magnus’ decision to operate independently rather than as part of an organized entity like the Big Seven Group, made up of future Mafioso.
But he corrected the misapprehension that he still owned I’m Alone. In 1928, Hogan, Marvin J. Clark and Frank Reitman, who was affiliated with the Big Seven, approached Magnus. They, too, knew that the I’m Alone seemed to be the fastest boat afloat and they wanted to buy it.
Putting together a fund of $20,000, the three asked Magnus to sell. After some dickering, the three paid $18,000 for the vessel and sent it south. Without the protection Magnus and his Coast Guard informant could provide, the I’m Alone was no longer bullet proof and its apprehension inevitable.
With the new information in hand, Canada backed off claims for damages for the boat’s owner and in the end, the United States paid $50,666 dollars in damages.