Prohibition: When the Wildwoods were "wet"

It was a cold Friday evening in January, and the few saloons in Wildwood that remained opened for the winter were packed. It wasn’t New Years Eve, but revelers drank with the same sense of urgency. Last call on January 16, 1920 was final.

The Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcohol, became the law of the land.

New Jersey did not want Prohibition. The state’s governor Edward Edward’s ran on a promise to make his state “as wet as the Atlantic Ocean.” When the time came, however, he had little choice. Though New Jersey refused to ratify the amendment, federal authorities made it clear that the law would be enforced.

Herbert Hoover called Prohibition a “noble experiment,” and the movement’s goals were noble. By abolishing alcohol consumption, temperance advocates hoped to reduce crime and poverty, and to improve the nation’s quality of life. Unfortunately, thirteen years of Prohibition had the opposite effect.

An elaborate underworld developed to quench the nation’s thirst. Alcohol was smuggled into the country on ships from Canada and overseas. America’s massive coastline insured that rumrunners could unload their cargo largely undetected, and when necessary they bribed authorities to look the other way.

Wildwood’s harbors and coastline made it a bootlegger’s dream. Freighters dropped anchor beyond the three mile limit and became offshore wholesalers of illegal spirits. Some of these boats catered only to professional bootleggers, but others sold liquor by the case to fisherman and recreational boaters. Many Americans developed a love of boating during this period, and rentals of pleasure boats increased sharply.

The United States Coast Guard was left with the formidable task of policing the coast. They had 75 patrol boats and 12,000 miles of coastline to patrol. Hundreds of rumrunners in powerful skiffs sped through waterways undetected or simply outran the cumbersome government vessels. When the Coast Guard obtained high-powered motorboats to aid in their effort, they had some limited success, but the agency was ill-equipped to meet the challenge.

In June of 1924, Domenic Cappachione of Baker Avenue was arrested by Captain Charles Wright, Jr. of the Anglesea Coast Guard. According to the Wildwood Leader, Cappachione’s boat, the “Loretta,” was intercepted by Captain Wright when he attempted to purchase liquor from “a schooner 16 miles off-shore.” Wright declared he was “determined that rumrunners should not bring the stuff in through Hereford Inlet.” Apparently, he was far more dedicated to the mission than some of his fellow sailors.

A local news article from this period reported that the Coast Guard had obtained Loening amphibian planes to become the agency’s “eyes.” Officials hoped that “all fraternizing of coast guards with rumrunners (would) be reduced to a minimum through the activities of the planes.”

Ottens Harbor and Hereford Inlet both became hubs for smuggling “hooch.” Liquor was also brought right onto the beach, where it was transferred to trucks and delivered to warehouses or “speakeasies.”

Local industries became fronts for the clandestine business of alcohol sales. Coney’s Express, a trucking company, owned by local resident, K.K. Kirby, was largely a cover for his bootlegging business. Consolidated Fisheries in North Wildwood packed liquor into its fish barrels and shipped the cargo north to Atlantic City.

Residents of rural Cape May County turned to the production of moonshine or “bathtub gin.” The granddaughter of a Wildwood club owner reported that her grandfather frequently rode out “to the country” to buy liquor from farmers. The state police found dozens of stills in the rural communities of Belleplain, Woodbine and Marintown, according to Jeffrey M. Dorwart’s book, Cape May County, New Jersey.

Wildwood police conducted raids rarely. When they did, it was usually in conjunction with federal and state authorities. In February of 1923, the Leader reported that local police and state troopers conducted a raid on four area “speakeasies.” Charges of a “disorderly house” or “possession of alcohol” were brought against the offenders. Steep fines were imposed for these offenses, but they rarely had a lasting effect.

There are reports that many of Wildwood’s drinking establishments remained open in spite of Prohibition. Moore’s benefited from its proximity to the sea, and according to their website, liquor from England and Russia was practically delivered to their door. Some establishments, like Hogan’s Beverages and the Elmira Hotel, flouted the law and advertised the sale of beer in plain sight, according to one local source.

Others preferred a more discreet approach, and a ring of “speakeasies” operated around Otten’s Harbor. The proprietors of these “juice joints” became experts at hiding their illegal activities. A secret password or membership card was all a thirsty citizen needed to gain admittance. Liquor stills were imbedded in walls and fitted with rubber hoses for dispensing whiskey or gin. If a raid occurred, the precious liquid was well-hidden behind the plaster.

In 1982, Benjamin Lauriello found two of these stills while completing renovations on a building at 501 Montgomery Avenue. The copper tanks were wrapped in burlap and embedded in the wall. Local sources reported to the Atlantic City Press that Lauriello’s building had once housed a “speakeasy” called Chester Dick’s Harbor Inn.

According to one source, the “inn” was also a brothel. Customers were “entertained” in a private room upstairs, and liquor was delivered to them an on a dumb waiter that had also been installed in the building.

The tanks from Chester Dick’s are currently on display at the Wildwood Historical Museum on Pacific Avenue. The surface of one tank is marked with holes. While no one is sure how the tank was punctured, museum curator, Robert Scully, Jr., believes the holes are possibly the result of a law enforcement effort to locate the stills during a raid.

Some citizens did remain “dry” during Prohibition, but for others the “forbidden fruit” proved too enticing. The black market was so established that breaking the law became routine. A subculture of gangsters gained power and notoriety across the country. Wildwood, though it had no Al Capone, saw a steep increase in violent criminal activity.

Gun battles erupted at sea between Coast Guard patrols and rumrunners in clear view of beachgoers. The city’s chief of police, Oakford M. Cobb, was shot and wounded by a gunman. The Wildwood Leader reported that Charles Pantalone, alias “Bobby Dillon” and Cosmos Cappachione were indicted for hijacking in September of 1930.

Criminal activity did not scare tourists away from the town. In fact, the opposite was true. Smuggled booze brought adult visitors to the town in search of entertainment, and bootleggers like K.K. Kirby became popular public figures. In fact, Kirby was elected to Wildwood’s city council in April of 1932.

In 1931, a presidential commission reported what most citizens already knew – the “noble experiment” had failed. The Great Depression brought additional pressure on the government to legalize the liquor industry and provide jobs to the thousands who were out of work. Prohibition had sparked the “Roaring Twenties,” an era of lawlessness and rebellion. Congress passed the Twenty-First Amendment on February 20, 1933, and Prohibition was repealed.

In Cape May County, 72 percent of voters approved the repeal of Prohibition. New regulatory laws were passed. Liquor licenses were issued to establishments that had operated illegally for more than a decade. Bootleggers invested their fortunes in new businesses in The Wildwoods.

The era of Prohibition seemed to disappear as quickly as it came but Wildwood’s reputation as an exciting, tourist destination was established - the island was as wet as the Atlantic.

(Originally published in Wildwood Properties)

Articles by Maureen Cawley