‘Liberated Spirits’: One of Seattle’s Major Prohibition Rum Runners Was a Cop

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The rumrunner got word on Sunday evening that his ship would soon come in. Roy Olmstead; his business partner, Tom Clark; and nine others drove north out of Seattle as the evening darkness settled, their convoy of eight cars driving fifteen miles on the Edmonds‐Seattle paved highway to the rendezvous point, a dock jutting fifty feet into Browns Bay of Puget Sound near a small, little‐used station on the Great Northern Railway called Meadowdale. Roy and Tom had both learned the art of bootlegging while working their “day jobs.” In 1914, the citizens of Washington State had voted to outlaw the manufacture and sale, but not the consumption, of alcohol, and put the onus of enforcing the statute on their state and local police departments, such as the Seattle Police Department, which employed both Roy Olmstead and Thomas Clark. By the time national Prohibition went into effect, Seattle’s cops had watched the inhabitants adapt for almost six years, finding ways to enjoy alcohol on a regular basis, their desires translating into handsome profits for the moonshiners who distilled alcohol and the rumrunners who imported it. While Olmstead never revealed when he got into liquor smuggling, his ability to secure probation rather than jail time for many criminals drew the gratitude of those willing to pay for his influence, his naked ambition following the quickest path to wealth. His ethics already compromised, Olmstead “saw no crime in buying and selling booze,” and was unable to reconcile the law’s allowance for consumption while forbidding a supply. He had watched two rival gangs devoted to “rum‐running” slowly destroy each other through years of warfare, leaving an open playing field even as the federal government began to enforce the ban on liquor.

The demand for good liquor, Lieutenant Olmstead knew, would continue to seek new sources; the way to profit from it was to import the best brands from Canada, a little more than a hundred miles to the north: a country where Scotch, gin, vodka, Champagne, wine, beer, and so much more were still legally sold, purchased, exported, and consumed. Any boat could take on a load of good Canadian whiskey and steam away, so long as the export duties to Canadian customs had been paid. Islands great and small littered Puget Sound, the grand waterway connecting Seattle with two of Canada’s bustling cities, Victoria and Vancouver, offering smugglers a more-than sporting chance to evade the mere two U.S. Coast Guard ships patrolling the waters. Back in Seattle, bottles bearing brand names commanded almost double the price that Roy Olmstead paid for them, creating the opportunity for extraordinary profits, a river of income that made his new career irresistible. The intelligence, initiative, and competence cited by his superiors as reasons for his rise in the police department served him equally well in his new profession. Roy Olmstead had the key assets to succeed: a talent for inspiring confidence in business partners for a venture in which no contract or agreement carried the force of law; the ability to manage an organization, a skill cultivated in his years rising through the ranks of the police force; and all the pluck and entrepreneurship of a born capitalist. This March evening found Olmstead and his associates exercising all their talents to bring in a large shipment of choice liquors and wines.

Just after one o’clock on Monday morning, the bootleggers turned left, off the paved road, and drove down the steep hill to the water. Their cars—rear seats removed to make room for the bottles, the cargo space supported by heavy‐duty springs, the cars’ engines tuned for maximum power—could not fit into the narrow roadway near the dock, so they stopped in a line and waited. Olmstead had one of his men begin flashing a light periodically, facing westward out into Puget Sound. In less than an hour, the engines of the Jervis Island could be heard approaching. With enough cargo space to convey nearly eleven hundred cases from Victoria, Canada, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and down Puget Sound, Roy’s wooden‐hulled boat had not been crafted for speed—it couldn’t even make ten knots—but her stout frame handled the job in workmanlike fashion. As soon as she was tied to the pier, the unloading began.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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