Rumrunners
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 wheelhouse.”

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 Cornell's testimony.

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.”

Copyright 2001©
—Keith Bettencourt is the Great Nephew of Charles Travers and wrote this article for the web at: www.providenceri.com/history/historical_accounts/blackduck.html.


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