Rum Running in New Brunswick

By Anne Marie Murphy

Rum Running in Charlotte County

These memories are a provincial treasure, a rich tapestry of humanity and part of the shared legacy of Western New Brunswick's participation in the rum running trade of the Prohibition years. The Volstead Act, was introduced in 1920 prohibiting the populace of the United States from making, selling, distributing or imbibing in any form of alcohol between the years 1920 and 1933. The province of New Brunswick can credit Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the United States of America (1923 —1929) for directly increasing the flow of revenue for these thirteen years in the province of New Brunswick.

All of the articles in this series are enriched by the expertise and insight of many people. I owe them all an expression of thanks, in particular, for this segment: the interviewees, Jamie Haller , Calais resident, and Christine, a resident of St Stephen , as well, the Head Librarian at the St. Stephen Library and the Curator at the Charlotte County Museum, Milltown , N.B.; and the St Stephen journalist, Carol-Ann Nicholson. St Stephen historian , Doug Dougherty will be featured in the next installment, Border Towns
After the First World War, he worked as a rum runner for a short period but gave it up. Too much competition.

Jamie Haller, in the smooth, modulated voice of the historian she is, related this little known fact about her maternal grandfather. The vivacious petite blonde, well schooled in the history of the area, culled this little gem from her own family history.

Jamie, born Canadian, but a resident of Calais for over 40 years, gave a brief overview of Grandfather Fred. When asked how she knew that her grandfather was a runner, she replied, confidently, "My mother told me."

Jamie's mother, Geneva, when a child, could include the monumental trauma of watching the body count from the Titanic as they rolled in to Halifax shores from the North Atlantic. Ninety years later she would become one of the oldest survivors of the Halifax Explosion of 1917. A woman of courage and fortitude such as this would not balk at revealing a rum runner in her family. This tidbit of family history was generated throughout the family without shame or remorse.

As was the attitude of most of the St. Stephen-Calais residents spoken to for this series.

For New Brunswick people smuggling and rum running was a cottage trade. And for none more so than the residents on both sides of the St. Croix River.

The St. Croix River has its humble beginnings in the Thoroughfare between North Lake and East Grand Lake, both bodies of water straddling the international line. Seventy -five miles of turbulent waters eventually spill their contents into the Gulf of Maine, as Mainers refer to the Atlantic Ocean. The St. Croix River defines the International Border between New Brunswick and the State of Maine from Forest City to St. Stephen.

A chance meeting with Christine at the St. Croix Library revealed that every business bordering on the St. Croix had a secret trap door. Under cover of darkness on any given night a boat would pull up on either side of the river and unload its contraband booze. The supplier on the Canadian side loaded the boat in the hidden wells of dark and sent the boat on its way across the St. Croix. The receiver on the U.S. side stationed inside a river shack with its own secret door, unloaded the goods and whisked them on their way to customers.

It might be assumed, logically so, that today all evidence of a thriving, lucrative trade occurring some eight decades ago, is gone. Christine hastens to add: "To the contrary, the Lost Sock, a current Laundromat, was vacant for a long time until just presently. The back of it overhangs the river. At low tide," she affirms, "You can still see the trap door where they smuggled."

Carol-Ann Nicholson, a resident of St. Stephen and journalist with The Saint Croix Courier, affirms that "smuggling is a way of life steeped in tradition."

That tradition has been fostered in legends and stories drifting out of Charlotte County. None more infamous than the duo William Hicks and Stephen Burtt.

Constable Harry MacLaughlin, Carleton County, hands down, was the best lawman in the New Brunswick Provincial Police. He had to have been. He single-handedly bagged two of Charlotte County's biggest and best rum runners.

Harry MacLaughlin was an undercover man working out of the Centreville detachment of the NBPP, New Brunswick Provincial Police. Through his diligent efforts he managed to arrest and secure an indictment against William Hicks and Stephen Burtt, the two most powerful rum runners in Charlotte County. William Hicks lived in St. Andrews (now enjoying the tourism up-grade, St. Andrews- By-The-Sea) In 1916 liquor sales ceased to be legal when the War Measures Act was brought into effect. Hicks couldn't resign himself to a dry province thus he moved across Passamaquoddy Bay to Eastport, Maine. He began a rum running business in his ship, the Fanny May. It was recorded that he unloaded a cargo of whiskey at The Wolves, a cluster of islands in Passamaquoddy Bay.

William Hicks had become a wealthy and powerful business as well as a family man. He had collected a wife, 11 kids, two schooners and three motor boats. He was one of many ship owners aiding and abetting the economic good times on St. Pierre and Miquelon.

According to newspaper reports of the time, "the 19-tonne auxiliary schooner Telephone standing off Chance Harbour—beyond the three-mile limit—has been cruising for a week."

The schooner, commandeered by Captain Stephen Burtt had a crew aboard including Stanley Burtt, his brother, Joe Toible of St. Pierre and Clorey Augusta, a Potugese sailor. The schooner's crew alternately kept the ship, Telephone, cruising or at anchor for the better part of a week, thus by their actions, alerting authorities on shore. The captain, formerly out of Newfoundland, was confident he was beyond the International Line of three miles. The coast guard of the time (not actually in effect as a governing body) sent out a cutter to bring her in.

Telephone, consistently confident she was in international waters offered no resistance when law enforcement officers boarded and seized 575 cases of booze and 100 gallons of rum. The cache went on record as "the largest seizure ever made in New Brunswick waters."

Hicks and Burtt had been sneaking ashore, trying to find buyers for their shipload of booze. As recognizable as the pair of runners were to the New Brunswick Provincial Police, so too, the NBPP were also equally well known to them.

To counteract this , the police brought in undercover man, Harry MacLaughlin from Carleton County. MacLaughlin posed as a big time booze operator. Dressed in flashy threads, driving a big powerful car and sporting a bank roll enough to choke a horse, he looked and acted the kingpin of the rum smuggling outfits of the times. And best of all, he was an unknown figure in Charlotte County.

So much so that for his undercover work he received a commendation for almost single handedly bringing down William Hicks and Captain Stephen Burtt. The newspapers of the day, not without their humour, recorded Burtt, as saying that this was the first time he had "been caught in 15 years of successful rum running."

Incredibly, despite the stacked evidence, "Hicks and Burtt were freed of the Federal charges and later of the Provincial charges as well."

After months of conducting a covert sting-operation, pages of testimony and over 1,800 confiscated gallons of evidence, the pair were acquitted.

After months of conducting a covert sting operation, pages of testimony and over 1800 confiscated gallons of evidence, the pair were acquitted. In a quirk of fate, the Attorney General's office asked for and won an appeal. The Appeal case came before Judge Logan in Fairville. Perhaps a change of venue was instrumental in over-turning the previous acquittal. This time the pair were convicted and the schooner Telephone and twenty thousand dollars of booze seized. Justice had been served – but not in Charlotte County.

With Hicks out of commission the way was paved for other rum lords. This situation is best demonstrated by an old analogy. To see what little difference resulted from the absence of Hicks in the rum running industry, this can be shown with a simple demonstration. This analogy was presented by a law enforcement officer in drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

“Immerse your hand in a pail of water, then remove it. The water closes over and there is no appreciable change.” It was business as usual. Remove one king-pin in the rum running operation and another waits in line. Enter Harry Richardson.

Maybe Richardson had been biding his time. Whatever his cause or reason Richardson came in at the end of the era. Soon after Hicks and Burtt were de-commissioned, Richardson began his runs to St. Pierre and Miquelon. Maybe Richardson possessed none of the craft and skill of the Hicks-Burtt team or he lacked the skill and expertise in sailing,or marketing,or sales.

Whatever he lacked soon caused him to become the focus of attention. The local papers began reporting on his ventures. “Customs Officers seized the Ada May at Mowatt's Wharf, Deer Island with 510 gallons of alcohol and 80 gallons of rye on board.”

Richardson,new in the business, was hit with three charges. Before the first charge was processed, his ship was impounded and a second charge laid. They slapped him with a five hundred dollar fine and six months. These two little setbacks were back-to-back with a third charge pending in a ten month term for an infraction of the Liquor Act. Only a year in business, Richardson had lost his boat and all of his booze and was watching the proceedings—all from the confinement of a jail cell.

Richardson was a beaten man. When his first charge was finally brought to court, he admitted to the court that he had, “gone out of the running racket and sold his boat to Bill Hicks”.

And where was Hicks? Languishing in his own jail cell, lamenting the loss of his own ship, and twenty thousand dollars to boot.

The Volstead Act remained in force until the Repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Government control brought in new restrictions and among them new problems. The public clamoured for the full strength of the rum running years, the Demarara Rum. The government was unable to provide it and even if they could, the government outlets were few and far between.

A Burning Mercy:Rum in the Atlantic Provinces is the title of an exhibit catalogue lodged at the Charlotte County Museum in Milltown, N. B. James Moreira, working in conjunction with the National Museums of Canada,offers this final testimony attesting to the drinking habits of the Atlantic provinces:
Whether store-bought, smuggled or moonshine, rum remains a highly visible commodity in the Atlantic provinces, a strong cultural reminder of four centuries of involvement in the region's history.
These stories of rum running, for all that they are old stories, are the forerunners of today's liquor sales. Rum today enjoys a visible presence . Even though beer and wine may have established a forefront, especially among the thirty-somethings, there will always be a segment of society who are best recognized in those immortal words from the Garth Brooks hit:
Let's set sail with Captain Morgan
And never leave dry land
If you have a story to share, not necessarily on this topic, but one which is historical in context, email the author at:

Next... The Border Towns of New Brunswick and Maine
Back to Introduction

©Anne Marie Murphy 2009