Secret Hearings Brought to Light
Throughout the summer of 1926, the Coast Guard stations on LBI were the location of a series of secret federal trials. Members of the Coast Guard were accused of taking bribes to allow rum runners to land cargoes of liquor on the beaches, in violation of the prohibition enforcement law known as the Volstead Act. Word of the trials first leaked to the public in a special Asbury Park Press report.
“BEACH HAVEN, Aug. 17. – United States coast guard headquarters at Washington last night let down the bars of secrecy at the hearing of 11 coast guardsmen accused of taking graft from rum runners. The men are attached to stations from Barnegat to Little Egg Harbor, and the hearings began 10 days ago without their being made public.
“The hearing was scheduled to get under way late this morning, with three of the 11 accused men awaiting trial. Hearing on the first eight was completed yesterday, but no statement was forthcoming last night on the nature of the testimony.”
Once the hearings were exposed, the Press continued, “Newspapermen, it was announced this morning, would be permitted to attend the hearings.
“The trials are presided over by Capt. John Boedeker, commander of section base No. 1 at Atlantic City. Commander William J. Wheeler of coast guard headquarters at Washington and Superintendent (M.W.) Rasmussen of the fifth coast guard district, with headquarters in Asbury Park, are attending the hearings, which will close this week.
“Capt. Boedeker is acting as judge of a general coast guard court.”
The next day the Philadelphia Inquirer was able to report, “SHIP BOTTOM. A vivid work picture of how the gold of rum runners corrupted the members of the U. S. Coast Guard service and turned the law enforcers into law violators was received here today at the court martial proceedings of Chief Boatswain’s mate J. Edward Falkenburg, eighth Coast Guardsman to face trial.
“The proceedings are being conducted at the Coast Guard Station here, on Long Beach Island, seven miles from Beach Haven.”
And from inside the Coast Guard station, “From the lips of Captain (M.W.) Rasmussen, superintendent of the Fifth district, came most of the amazing revelations of the alleged compact between rum runners and coast guardsmen. Captain Rasmussen, a witness and at the same time a member of the investigating body, repeated a ‘complete confession’ he said the defendant, Falkenburg, had blurted out to him after a rather grueling examination.
“Under the arrangements, as revealed to Captain Rasmussen by Falkenburg, and as repeated to the court-martial board, rum runners paid coast guardsmen 50 cents for every case landed. It was also testified that when coast guards seized liquor from smugglers not in the compact, the liquor was promptly peddled to residents near the station.
“The proceedings moved slowly today, since the testimony was taken down in long hand by a yeoman, who found it difficult to keep up with the conversational rate of speed.”
On Aug. 21, the Asbury Park Press had a reporter in the Ship Bottom station as Falkenburg’s trial came to an end.
“After hearing these witnesses the courtroom was cleared while the court considered the evidence.”
After deliberating for an hour and 40 minutes, the defendant was called before the court and informed by the body that the charge contained in specifications No. 1 had not been proved.
“According to the usual court martial proceedings this was accepted by many as an indication that Falkenburg had been found guilty of either all of the charges, or part of them, contained in the other three specifications.”
The charges that remained were “No.2. – Agreeing with Nelson C. Rogers, commander of the bonds station, to allow liquors to be landed near the bonds and Little Egg Harbor stations and to allow rum runners to enter the various inlets.
“No.3. – That the defendant accepted various sums of money between March 1, 1925, and June 29, 1926, from Nelson C. Rogers as a result of the agreement mentioned in specification No. 2.
“No.4. – That the defendant did on or about June 1, 1925, transport eight cases of whisky across Barnegat bay in a coast guard boat, and did sell the whisky to Harvey Woods.”
The next day Falkenburg went from defendant to witness, according to the Inquirer.
“Boatswain Falkenburg, against whom proceedings were conducted yesterday, was the government’s chief witness against the defendant. Throughout the direct examination by Commander Wheeler, Falkenburg continually evaded any direct replies that would tend to connect Rogers with any illegal actions.”
This was supported by some of the testimony.
“Q. Falkenburg, you realize that you are under oath, don’t you?
“A. Yes, sir.
“Q. You testified that Rogers gave you one hundred dollars while you and he were attending the annual get-together of the station keepers held at the Hotel Morton, Atlantic City, between September 9 and September 11, 1925. You also mentioned that the rum runner Delphine came in through the inlet the night before you left for Atlantic City. Did the success of the Delphine in running the blockade have anything to do with the one hundred dollars given you by Rogers?
“A. I was under the impression at the time, although since then I have always been at a loss to understand why I got the money.
“Q. Do you mean that Rogers handed you the one hundred dollars and did not tell you what it was for, or that you did not know what it was for?
“A. Yes, sir.
“Q. Do you want this court to believe that answer?
“A. Yes, sir.”
The trial was finally coming to an end.
“Following Falkenburg the defense called two enlisted men to testify as to the character and observance of duty by the defendant. The government then called Superintendent M.W. Rasmussen, commander of this district, who told of a verbal statement made by Rogers to himself shortly after the investigation had started.
“‘Rogers told me he had stopped permitting liquors to come through his inlets and he realized how foolish he had been for permitted it at all,’ Rasmussen testified.
“Following Rasmussen both sides announced that they rested their case. The court then adjourned until Monday morning.”
For the Coast Guardsmen and their families the waiting began, but events showed why some of the trials had been kept secret. The Inquirer of Sept. 9 announced, “United States Marshal Snowden, chief of this division, and ten secret service men from Washington arrived in the resort tonight armed with forty-one warrants.
“The warrants are the result of the recent trials by court-martial of eleven members of the coast guard at Ship-bottom station near Beach Haven on charges of accepting bribes and co-operating with rum runners.
“The alleged bribers are being taken before United States Commissioner Albert McGee and held in $25,000 bail for the Federal grand jury.”
But for the LBI Coasties, who at other times had risked their lives to save others, there wouldn’t be a happy ending. The Asbury Park Press of Sept. 15, 1926, reported, “A searching inquiry begun two months ago to determine if coast guard patrolmen were cooperating with organized bands of rum runners to smuggle large quantities of liquor in over the north Jersey coast was brought to a close today when General Lincoln C. Andres, assistant secretary of the treasury in charge of prohibition enforcement and the coast guard approved prison sentences for 10 coastguardsmen tried at the Ship Bottom coast guard station.
“The men are now on the way to the naval prison at Portsmouth, N H., where they will serve terms ranging from four months to one year. They were convicted of ‘scandalous conduct tending to destroy good morals’ by a coast court martial at Ship Bottom Aug. 7.”
The “Ship Bottom 10” would be an example for the nation.
“This situation has been practically cleaned up by recent inspection tours, the officials said, adding that while civil courts seldom convict for violations of the prohibition law the severe sentences imposed by coast guard court martial upon members of the service who have been found guilty have increased the morals of the entire service.”
Prohibition was supposed to improve the nation’s morals. But as the 1920s drew to an end, some were beginning to question whether or not the “noble experiment” was working.
Next Week: Repeal.