Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bruce Stanley Bethel, Bimini Rum King

Barely visible, Bimini is in the Bahamas
West District
40 miles off Florida

By Jane Feehan

Prohibition (1920-1933) proved to be a financial boon to organized crime as well as to the adventurous. Illicit liquor trafficking also benefited the Bahamas where much of it was traded and stored before it made its way to the speakeasies, warehouses and alcove hideaways along the South Florida coast.

About forty miles off Miami lies the small island of Bimini, part of the Bahamian archipelago. Today it is known more for its game fishing opportunities than for its role during the Prohibition era when its dangerous shoals provided cover for smugglers. Before the 1920s, island inhabitants made a subsistence living off the “wracks” or wrecks of ships that met their demise atop those shoals.

After 1920, things changed with Bruce Stanley Bethel, a quiet, retired British soldier. A polite man who was said to have attended church regularly, “Bethel of Bimini” helped island inhabitants, mostly blacks, make a comfortable living from the brisk export liquor trade. A veteran beset with debilitating war wounds, Bethel welcomed smugglers with a few heavily padlocked warehouses of liquor. His business was licensed.

A long, spindly dock made of twisted mangrove roots pointed the way to the first of several warehouses
NASA photo of the boomerang-shaped island
Bethel built for the liquid gold.  Some said the amount of liquor stored there was impressiveenough to “bewilder the mind.” A bar was installed in the first one, where conviviality reigned and customers were encouraged by one of Bethel’s minions (he rarely entered the warehouses) to sample rather than buy. Today we’d call that good marketing.

Bethel probably picked up some of his marketing skills in Nassau where he and his brother operated a liquor store. When the Volstead Act of 1919 opened the window to Prohibition, Bethel saw opportunity. He looked at a map and pointed to the boomerang-shaped Bimini. A supply of liquor close to the Florida coast could reap profits. He loaded up two chartered schooners with liquor and set sail for the tiny island. The liquor salesman opened a business within hours of his arrival.  Within a few years, Bethel’s prestige among the island’s 300-500 British subjects was rivaled only by that of its resident commissioner.

Besides building warehouses, Bethel converted a concrete ship, the SS Sapona into a warehouse. He purchased the ship from Miami Beach developer Carl G. Fisher in 1924. Its engines were stripped out and sold; Bethel had the ship towed to Bimini where he used it for liquor storage. It sunk in the hurricane of 1926. Rather than serving as a tangible reminder of rum running days,  the old ship today serves as an artificial reef, attracting divers from around the world. (For years it was used for military target practice; most of the concrete on its hull is gone.)

A case of liquor from one of those warehouses purchased for $18 could be sold as high as $100 in Florida. By 1928, Bethel estimated that he had sold more than $3 million – at island prices – of liquor.  But, in a few short years it was over for Bimini.  Traffic had shifted, according to W.T. Cleare, the island’s commissioner, to Gun Cay. The glory of Bimini as smugglers’ paradise faded into history. Bruce Stanley Bethel died penniless in 1950.

Sources:
New York Times, Aug. 5, 1925.
New York Times, 18, 1928.
Tags: Florida rum running days, Prohibition and the Bahamas, smugglers in Bimini, Bimini bootleggers, Bruce Stanley Bethel, historical researcher, Florida film researcher, SS Sapona 

2 comments:

  1. Hi Jane, thank for this nice piece of Bimini's History. In my company we take divers on daily basis to snorkel in the fantastic SS. Sapona. We tell part of the story, but I will make sure my snorkel guides and captains read your writing. Eduardo Briones. www.biminiundersea.com

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  2. Thanks,and thanks for the website for Bimini Undersea ... great for exploring the beautiful waters surrounding Bimini.

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