Friday, January 21, 2022

Bootlegging, Low-Bush Lightning and the Murder of Deputy Sheriff J.H. Cox & Family

Coastal History

This article originally ran in the Coastal Breeze News issue of April 20, 2012, and in 2017 Randy Wayne White used the disappearance of Deputy Sheriff Cox and his family as part of the plot line of his fictional book Mangrove Lightning.

For a young, lightly populated area with a long, unpatrolled coastline, also in close proximity to the major ports of the Caribbean, Prohibition was a financial boon to Collier County. The editor of Naples’ first newspaper “The Transcript,” Vernon Lamme reported that in Naples, in 1927, with a population of less than 800, there were 22 rum runners who owned their own boats. Our coastline was ideally suited for this, having been tested during the 2nd Seminole Indian War when Cuban guns and ammunition flowed up from the Caribbean into the SW Florida to arm the Seminole warriors battling the U.S. military. By the time of Prohibition, the moonshiners and rum runners operating in the Ten Thousand Islands were, in many cases, the sons of 19th century illegal plume hunters. Contraband was brought in from Bimini, Nassau and Havana, and, in a similar fashion to the more recent drug smugglers of the 1970s, often a “mother ship” would be positioned off shore. A fast boat, piloted by a captain with local knowledge, could quickly make a lot of money. From these large ships, Bacardi rum was purchased for $7.50 a demijohn (close to a gallon) and then resold in Ft. Myers for $12.50, in Tampa for $20, Jacksonville for $25, and it would bring almost “any price by the time it got to Atlanta.” Not only was rum available in S.W. Florida, Lamme reported that at about the same prices one could obtain “gin from Holland, Brandy from Spain, Pilsner beer from Germany, and Champagne from France,… all from ships anchored at Boca Grande in Lee County.” Prohibition also became an economic boon to the Bahamas– before it started in 1917, the Bahamas imported 50,000 quarters of liquor, and by 1923 they were importing 10 million quarts, clearly not meant for local consumption, but instead for export to the U.S.

Prohibitionthe ban on alcoholic beverages in the U.S. came into being on January 16, 1919 with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and ended with the passage of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933. During this 14 year period, the smuggling of liquor into the U.S., as well as the illegal manufacturer of local “moonshine,” impacted the entire country; Southwest Florida was in the thick of it.

In 1928 the first Chamber of Commerce in Naples got a letter from an industrial trade group representing stove manufacturers that they wanted to charter a houseboat for themselves, as well as to entertain “the purchasing staff of Montgomery Ward” for a two week tarpon fishing trip. A large boat was found in Miami that was rented for $2,000 a week. It was fully stocked by the local Chamber representatives for the trip, including an ample supply of liquor; after all, the letter had said “give the cost not a thought.” Upon arrival the “stove buyers from Chicago” sampled the stock of liquor on board and found it so good that they “threw overboard all of the bathtub gin they had brought with them.”

Al Capone, the most famous gangster of the 1920’s, and one who used his influence and wealth to promote Miami as a resort area for his hoodlum friends, said: “If I break the law, my customers are as guilty as I am. When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, its hospitality.” Locally there was apparently no limit to “hospitality,” as 16 large rum demijohns were dug up near Marco’s Rose Marina, while old European beer and liquor bottles were uncovered near the Old Marco Inn, and in 1965 whiskey bottles were found under the Marco Lodge at the time it was moved to Goodland.  Meanwhile bottle hunters have found numerous bottles that floated up along the shores of nearby islands. That good, illegal liquor (untaxed and without duties) was cheaper here than almost anywhere else may explain the large amount of locally consumed liquor.

Smuggling was not without risk; on August 26, 1925 the St. Petersburg Evening Independent ran headlines: “Federal Prohibition Officers Invaded Marco Island Today” with a story that explained two men were caught with 100 cases of whiskey. The two brothers captured, giving their name as House, were attempting to land a cargo from a small boat onto the Island. They were the brothers of Albert House who the article said had escaped from the county jail the previous March, being held for payroll robbery. The newspaper article reported that a reunion of the three House brothers was planned for that night in jail. Neither Albert (“Fred”) nor his brother Daniel Ray (“Dan”) served much time, but the third brother (James “Lloyd”) took the fall for all of them and served 1 year in jail. 

Also in 1925, a school teacher working in Old Marco, Mary S. Lundstrom, reported that “The temptation of fabulous fees for illegal transport of contraband goods became irresistible to some.” She and a friend were taken across the Marco channel one night to see eight hundred cases of smuggled liquor stacked up in a clearing in the woods ready for transport to Ft. Myers, and reported that the really big loads were headed for Chicago or eastern cities.

Collier County’s first sheriff, William R. Maynard (1923-1928), and its second sheriff, Louis J. Thorp (1928-1954), were kept busy trying to locate moonshine stills hidden in the backwoods and on islands in the everglades. Sheriff Maynard’s chief weapon was his trained hound dogs, while Sheriff Thorp’s was the ability to crack a bull whip to stop a fight and control a situation. The moonshiners’ end product was liquor known locally as “low-bush lightning,” a Florida Cracker term that referred to its “lightning” impact when consumed, and that its production was hidden. C. G. McKinney – the “Sage of Chokoloskee” reported in 1923 that: “Moonshine is still on the boom; good demand for pure cane syrup, bottles, jugs and cork stoppers. The Karo syrup will not give the required results, in the moonshine business, they say. The stuff was so strong it would lather like soap when rubbed up in the hands; it must have been strong stuff – strong enough to eat up a common man’s gizzard.” Too much Red Devil Lye had apparently been added to this batch to make it lather up like soap. McKinney should have been able to determine quality, as he had been a moonshiner himself in northern Florida after the Civil War and before he moved to Chokoloskee Island. The Ten Thousand Islands and remote inland Collier County was perfect for the making of liquor – the chief ingredient is sugar and sugar cane was a large part of the pioneer agricultural product. Moonshine stills were set up along freshwater creeks and lakes and, in addition, numerous cisterns were built (and still exist) on remote islands to collect rain water. 

Because Prohibition and the laws that enforced it (the Volstead Act) were federal laws, the Feds (Coast Guard, Justice and Treasury Depts.) were, for the most part, in charge of enforcement of the smuggling or “bootlegging” of liquor, while the illegal manufacture of liquor or moonshining,” was also a Florida offense as it avoided payment of state liquor taxes even after the repeal of Prohibition.

Old photos of our local sheriffs and their deputies show themselves surrounded by the wooden barrels, copper pipes, glass containers, and hundreds of bottles confiscated from local moonshiners. Enormous effort and energy was put into stopping these illegal businesses. But, even after the end of Prohibition, moonshining did not end as there continued to be a market for low cost, untaxed, homemade liquor. At one point low-bush lightning could be purchased for 50 cents a pint, with the higher quality costing 75 cents a pint. Probably “high quality” was free of bugs like roaches, ants and flies – which were found occasionally– the by-product of manufacturing in the woods.

On August 16, 1925 the St. Petersburg Times newspaper carried a headline in all capital letters: “DEPUTY SHERIFF REPORTED MISSING IN EVERGLADES, LIQUOR RING MIXED UP IN DISTURBANCE.” This story involved Deputy Sheriff J.H. Cox, who, when he joined the new Collier County Sheriff’s Office was initially assigned to Immokalee and then to Marco, where he and his young wife had their second child, a baby boy born in October of 1923. A year before the St. Pete headline appeared, on August 28th 1924, Deputy Cox, along with his wife, had come across seven men with illegal liquor near Marco. Cox, who was only about 180 pounds and 5’9” tall, attempted to arrest the men. Seven against one were not good odds:  they beat him up and severely cut him with a razor blade. The Deputy’s wife was able to intervene and they escaped, with Cox going for medical help in Ft. Myers. The seven men were arrested for violating the liquor laws, one of them being Frank Lowe who was also charged with battery, while a grand jury indicted another, Walter Helveston, for attempted murder. Six months after Cox had found the men, on February 19, 1925, Deputy Sheriff Cox, his wife and two children disappeared completely on the eve of the scheduled trial leaving a house full of belongings. Before this happened, Cox’s employer, Sheriff Maynard, reported that Cox’s wife was in constant fear as they had received threatening letters regarding their testifying in the pending cases against the local men. Without Cox or his wife’s testimony available the charges against all seven arrested were dropped.

The Palm Beach Post reported this explanation for the disappearance: that Deputy Cox had fled the area with his family when a local fisherman, Howard Helveston, had sworn out a warrant claiming that Cox had tried to murder him. But this seems highly questionable as Howard Helveston was the older brother of the indicted Walter H. Helveston. Others, such as Luelle Doxsee of the Doxsee clamming family in Old Marco, also did not believe anyone was murdered and that the Cox family had simply been given one way tickets to Tampa. So for almost 50 years, nothing definite was ever known about what really happened to Cox and his family. 

On March 14, 1973, Frank M. Lowe died (the same person arrested in 1925) and on his death bed confessed to his son, Amos, that he had been part of an ambush of Cox on the old road to Marco. At that time the Marco road came down the present day Barefoot Williams Road, meandered southwest to cross the islands of present day Isles of Capri and terminated at the ferry crossing on the Marco River. Another of Lowe’s sons, Jack, would later say that the confession included information that his father had lured Deputy Cox, his wife and two small children onto the ferry where they crossed the Marco River and then he dropped them into the hands of Walter Helveston and his brother Percy. The two brothers took the entire Cox family into the woods of present day Isles of Capri and shot them dead. The bodies were taken up the old Marco Road and buried seven miles north of the ferry and two miles east – this would be approximately in the area of northern Henderson Creek, south of U.S. 41. Frank Lowe’s 1973 death bed confession came after all of those implicated were deceased – Walter Helveston dying in 1935 (interestingly at the time he no longer was using the name Walter, but instead used a title and his middle name “Captain Herman”) and his brother Percy dying in 1952. The Helvestons’ family never believed that a crime had been committed; they did however believe that Frank Lowe was capable of doing the murder himself. Frank Lowe’s sons also did not discount the idea that their father may have done more than simply deliver the Cox family to the Helvestons.

Despite a confession that a murder occurred, by a party with first hand information, there are some who still believe that no one ever died, and that the Cox family simply moved away. However, if the Coxes did move, no one can deny that they were able to elude a state-wide search for them that was initiated by Sheriff Maynard and, in the 87 years since, no one has ever seen or heard from any of them. Sadly, the Collier County Sheriff’s Department does not yet list Deputy Cox as one of their honored fallen members.

While quite a sensational story, Cox was not the only Deputy injured or killed in the line of duty by moonshiners. On Christmas Eve of 1935, Collier County Deputy William E. Hutto who, at the time, was also serving as the Everglade Chief of Police was gunned down by bootleggers. As he was coming back from a Christmas party, he spotted smugglers near the Barron River and, in an attempt to arrest them was shot in the heart. Hutto continued to hang on to their vehicle for a while and was dragged along by the smugglers, and died as tried to stop them from escaping. Deputy Hutto was 36 years old and left a wife and three children. The smugglers were indicted, but no one was ever convicted. 

In many ways “Florida’s Last Frontier” was like the wild, wild west with local homegrown criminals engaged in large illegal money making ventures along our coasts. They did this while being pursued by understaffed and less well financed Sheriffs. From gun running during the Seminole wars, to plume hunting in the late 1800s and early 1900s, to bootlegging liquor during Prohibition, poaching alligator skins in the 1960s, running drugs in the 70’s and 80s, and most recently human smuggling, The Ten Thousand Islands provide us a rich and fascinating history. 

Some of the information for this article regarding the results of the 1926 Marco arrest came from Doug House, other information regarding the fallen deputy sheriffs came from Todd Turrell, and the CCSO Alumni website.  I also want to thank Denes Husty and Chris Durfey.   

Craig Woodward

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *