My Great Uncle was the Skipper of the Black Duck
“They opened fire on us without warning,” he said bitterly. “Killed my
first mate and mechanic. I jumped over the side.”
My great uncle Charles Travers, rumrunner and skipper of the infamous
Black Duck, was a big man with a shock of white hair—tall, broad-shouldered
and powerful-looking even in his later years. I sat at his feet on a hassock
in the sunny living room of my grand-father's house on Nobska Road in
Woods Hole, Mass.
“We had a load of liquor on board all right and we was making headway
speed through the fog, coming into Narragansett Bay when they started
shooting. No warning, just started shooting that machine gun into the
He held up his left hand. The middle finger was gone above the second
knuckle and there were scars on both sides of his hand where a bullet
had passed clear through. He studied it for a few seconds while I tried
to absorb what he was saying.
“They didn't give you any warning?” I asked.
He seemed not to hear me and went on. “When the machine gun stopped I
crawled back in the boat and took off, out to sea.” His face darkened.
“I radioed back in that I had a man all shot up but still alive.”
I held my breath.
“But the bastards held me offshore for an hour and he died at my feet.”
The man was Charles's brother, Johnny Goulart.
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I was 15 and it was 1959.
I had grown up watching John Wayne movies where our soldiers were always
valiant and righteous. American serviceman didn't do the things my great
uncle was describing. I started to doubt that he was telling me the truth.
“I was bleeding bad and after an hour I couldn't wait any longer so I
brought the Duck back into the harbor and headed for the (Coast Guard)
cutter. I figured if they was going to finish me off they'd do it then.”
For years, this was all I knew about the Black Duck incident of
December 29, 1929. We didn't talk about it much at my grandparent's house
as it seemed to embarrass my churchgoing grandmother, Rose.
Some years later I had occasion to ask my father if Uncle Charles was
really a rumrunner. He seemed to weigh the question a long time but then
went on to tell me how Charles ran “the fastest boat that ever put to
water out of Massachusetts,” and how he would pick up cases of whiskey
from a Canadian freighter offshore, then bring it back to the shallow
water where my grandfather had organized a fleet of rowboats to offload
the whiskey from the Duck. My father even admitted he worked the
lines of men standing on the beach who would pass cases of whiskey, hand
to hand, from the rowboats to waiting trucks.
My father! About the most conservative man I knew, was a rumrunner!
“You have to understand times were different back then,” he lectured
me. “It was Prohibition and a lot of people were going hungry. We did
what we had to do.”
I got one more chance to talk to my great uncle before he was gone, and
I asked him what had gone so wrong that night. Again we sat by the window
on Nobska Road.
He put his chin down to his chest, gave a little sigh and finished the
story for me. “Keith, everybody knew what we were doing. Hell, we used
to moor the Duck in the slip next to the Coast Guard cutters during
the day! We weren't exactly friends, but we all knew each other and the
rules of the game were the Coast Guard had to catch you with the alcohol
on your boat. They got a new boatswain named Cornell on the cutter that
was moored next to me. He was the one who shot us up. There was an investigation
but nothing came of it.”
So that was it. It was something between my Uncle Charles and Boatswain
Cornell, but could it have been so bad it led to an unprovoked attack
on an unarmed boat?
Thirty-five years later Judith A. Babcock wrote an article for the December
1999 issue of Yankee Magazine entitled, “The Night the Coast Guard
Opened Fire. A new look at a 70-year-old file raises a troubling question:
Was the rum-running crew of the Black Duck murdered?” I read that
title and was stunned! Had Charles been telling me the truth all along?
Prior to Babcock's article, all the stories about the Black Duck
seem to have been written from the same script: The cutter gave clear
warning, the rumrunner tried to flee, shots were fired to the rear of
the boat but the rumrunner turned into the line of fire, 21 bullets accidentally
entered the wheelhouse, and the Coast Guard immediately tended the wounded.
Babcock's research—evidence from the Coast Guard and information from
the National Archives—revealed the angle of the bullet holes in the Duck's
hull and the Coast Guard's own chart of the action, which contradicted
It seems Boatswain Alexander C. Cornell was somewhat of a maverick. He
had resigned a higher ranking position in the U.S. Navy to take the more
adventurous job of chasing rumrunners in the Coast Guard. In July of 1929
Cornell was involved in an incident where he directed machine gun fire
on the rumrunner Idle Hour and through poor judgement ended up
directing live fire into houses on the shore of Jamestown.
When Rear Admiral F.C. Billard got the report he fired off his own salvo
stating that “Boatswain Cornell violated … three injunctions,” including
that machine guns never be used for firing warning shots.
According to Babcock's story, “For months the Black Duck had shown
its heels to frustrated Coast Guard pursuers. Boatswain Cornell had not
taken it well. The one time Cornell actually forced the Black Duck
to heave to, his search turned up nothing. But Cornell had been heard
to warn the Black Duck's captain, Charles Travers, that ‘someone'
might fire into his boat someday.”
—Keith Bettencourt is the Great Nephew of Charles Travers and wrote this
article for the web at: