Have you ever heard the phrase, “This is the real McCoy?” Did you know that this saying has historical significance? In the age of notorious gangsters like Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, and John Dillinger profiting off smuggled alcohol during Prohibition, William “Bill” McCoy was a rum runner, raking in huge profits and doing it all…legally. So how was he able to do it?
Bill McCoy was a boatbuilder turned bootlegger when the United States issued the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified on January 16, 1919. The Volstead Act, or National Prohibition Act, was enacted the following year.1 The 18th Amendment in the US Constitution states, “the manufacture, sell, or transportation” of alcohol is prohibited.2 However, it did not specifically state that one could not consume alcohol – there were religious and medical exceptions. This loophole allowed McCoy the opportunity for a lucrative business smuggling alcohol into the United States.
To evade suspicion from US officials, such as the Coast Guard, McCoy sailed to the Bahamas and bought his alcohol in the port of Nassau. Prohibition did not exist in the Bahamas; therefore, McCoy was legitimately purchasing alcohol. He also registered his vessel with the British government since the Bahamas were then part of the British empire.3 With his vessel registered, McCoy had contractual documents stating “he was moving liquor from one legal port to another, and the US Coast Guard could not interfere.”4
In the 1920s, international waters were just three miles off the eastern seaboard. On McCoy’s first trip, he sailed to Savannah, Georgia, sold all 1,500 cases of liquor, and made a $15,000 profit, “which was more money than he could make in five years as a boatbuilder.”5 This became known as rum running, as McCoy sailed back and forth between the Bahamas and the east coast of the U.S. His actions also coined the phrase rum row. Rum row was the sea route that stretched from Nassau, Bahamas, to St. Pierre off Newfoundland. Many major cities, including Miami, New York, Boston, and Norfolk reaped the benefits of McCoy’s haul. The international water laws made it extremely simple for McCoy to lay anchor just off the coast and wait for contact boats to sail up beside his vessel and buy his cargo. McCoy realized that “as long as he stayed in international waters, he wasn’t actually breaking any laws.”6 In an era when organized crime was taking root in American society due to Prohibition, McCoy was an individual who did not have to bribe authorities or hire hitmen to hide his actions.7 Everything he did was perfectly legal.
But the good times can’t last forever, and ultimately McCoy becomes the United States’ most wanted – the number one target of the U.S. government. He is eventually caught in international waters. When captured, McCoy is quoted as saying, “I have no tale of woe to tell you. I was outside the three-mile limit, selling whisky, and good whisky, to anyone and everyone who wanted to buy.”8 He spent nine months in jail, and when released, he did not return to the rum running business. His time as a rum runner lasted roughly three years.9
McCoy gets a reputation for being fair, honest, and reliable with his customers. He always supplied them with alcohol that was never tampered with or diluted. To quote author Stephen Jones, “McCoy never compromised his product. He never cut his booze.”10 His customers could trust that what McCoy sold was authentic. Historians are not in full agreement about the phrase, “the real McCoy.”11 However, based on Bill McCoy being a bootlegger, there is reason to believe that the phrase came about during this time because of his actions. If you wanted the good stuff, if you wanted the genuine thing, you went to McCoy. And, he was not a corrupt individual. He was the real deal; he was the real McCoy.
1 “Prohibition is ratified by the states.” History. November 24, 2009. https://doi.org/https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/prohibition-ratified.
2 “Prohibition of Liquor.” National Constitution Center. Accessed October 7, 2022. https://doi.org/https://constitutioncenter.org/the-constitution/amendments/amendment-xviii.
3The Real McCoy. Telemark Films, 2012. https://www.realmccoyspirits.com/movie.
6Ibid. and “End of the Line for Bill McCoy, King of the Rum-Runners.” This Day in Monmouth County History. https://doi.org/https://monmouthtimeline.org/timeline/end-of-the-line-for-bill-mccoy-king-of-the-rum-runners/.
7“End of the Line for Bill McCoy, King of the Rum-Runners.” This Day in Monmouth County History. https://doi.org/https://monmouthtimeline.org/timeline/end-of-the-line-for-bill-mccoy-king-of-the-rum-runners/.
9“The Real McCoy Masterclass Rum Runners of the Prohibition Era.” The Real McCoy Rum. March 16, 2021. Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jldO7y-tmVU.
10The Real McCoy. Telemark Films, 2012. https://www.realmccoyspirits.com/movie.
11Watson, Stephanie. “Why do people call things “the real McCoy”?” How Stuff Works. https://doi.org/https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/famous-inventors/why-do-people-call-things-the-real-mccoy.htm.