Maritime Log #38 A Life Lost by Friendly Fire Off Plum Island During Prohibition

By Dyke Hendrickson, Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian 

One of the greatest challenges the Coast Guard has faced was alcohol-smuggling during Prohibition.

In fact, there was a death by friendly fire off Plum Island as a result of a mission to stop smugglers.

The ban in the U.S. against sale and distribution of alcohol lasted from 1920 to 1933. New England communities faced great challenges in stopping the flow of alcohol because smugglers would use small coves and deserted beaches to land beer and whiskey. There are hundreds of secluded seaside spots in the region.

Pictured here is the interdiction of a drug-running vessel (left) in the ‘20s.

There was a huge amount of money involved in running booze, just as there is in the drug-trafficking world today.

Impecunious local fishermen looking for extra cash sometimes would aid smugglers, either by taking booze on their small boats or moving it into town.

In August of 1930, Coast Guard officers got a tip that a smuggler would be dropping crates off on Plum Island that night.

One vessel left from the Newburyport station and one got under way from Gloucester, according to Coast Guard records.

A fog rolled in. Visibility was nil. Shots were fired.

Coast Guard enlisted man Louis Pratt was hit. He was still alive when his wife arrived at the hospital less than three hours after the shooting. He recognized his wife and asked if she had brought their daughter.  Pratt succumbed to his injuries shortly after, passing away in the early morning of Aug. 5, 1930.

 A Board of Inquiry ordered that Hugh Olmstead, chief motor machinest mate, be brought to trial on charges of violating a lawful regulation issued by the Secretary of the Treasury, to wit, “No person shall be negligent or careless in obeying orders or culpably inefficient in the performance of duty.”

Olmstead did stand trial, but a jury rendered a verdict of not guilty, stating that the serious charges had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Others were cleared also.

Still, a death by “friendly fire” off Plum Island stands as one of the most deadly examples of policing Prohibition. 

If your organization would like me to speak at an event, please get in touch. I can be reached at dhendrickson@thechmm.org.