St. Pierre, the Smuggler’s Paradise

P. T. McGRATH IN THE WIDE WORLD October 1 1906

St. Pierre, the Smuggler’s Paradise

P. T. McGRATH IN THE WIDE WORLD October 1 1906

St. Pierre, the Smuggler’s Paradise


Situated off the South coast of Newfoundland, St. Pierre-Miquelon, being a French possession, offers unusual opportunities for the smuggler to ply his illicit trade. The smugglers are well-organized and systematic and the ramifications of their trade extend in all divections. The population of the islands is only about six thousand fiw hundred and the area a matter of only ninety square miles. The Islands were ceded to France by the Treaty of Paris in 1763 to be used as a shelter for the French fishing fleet.

THE little French colony of St. Pierre-Miquelon as an international issue has its own features of importance, but they cannot compare with its remarkable record as a contrabandist emporium. Nominally the headquarters of the Breton fishermen, it is really the distributing point for thousands of dollars’ worth of valuable commodities illicitly introduced into the neighboring countries. Opium, perfumes, wines, liqueurs, and other high-class French goods are smuggled into Gloucester, Boston, New York and Philadelphia by the American fishvessels on their way home from the Grand Banks; brandies, rum, and merchandise are carried up the St. Lawrence and distributed among the Quebec villages; while tobacco, sugar, foodstuffs, wearables and fishery outfits are traded with the Newfoundlanders for bait, firewood, or garden stuff, St. Pierre being a barren rock.

Were it not that scores of convictions and many voluntary confessions —not to mention the activity of the American, Canadian and Terranovan (Newfoundland) revenue police—attest the magnitude of this traffic, the reader might be pardoned for doubting that it is so extensive, but the commerce of St. Pierre is two hundred and eighty dollars per head, while that of Canada and Newfoundland is but seventy dollars.

Nature might almost be said to have designed St. Pierre for smuggling purposes, so admirably is it located to conduct the traffic. It lies but a day’s sail from the Banks, where a thousand vessels—French, American, Canadian, and Terranovan— seek for cod, harboring at times in St. Pierre for needed or illicit supplies. Within sight of it is the Newfoundland coast, where countless creeks and coves are peopled with hardy fisherfolk who regard St. Pierre smuggling as a special dis-

pensation in their behalf. A little farther away is Nova Scotia, with similar facilities and an equal propensity for the business. Up the St. Lawrence is the Quebec coast, peopled by French Canadians, predisposed to unlawful trade with St. Pierre because of kinship in race and speech. To the south is the New England seaboard, whose prohibition towns absorb “St. Peter’s rum” in quantities that suggest grave doubts of the efficacy of the temperance law enforcement. The high duties imposed by all these countries upon spirituous liquors is another incentive to the traffic, for champagne that costs five dollars a bottle in New York or Montreal is obtainable in St. Pierre for a dollar.

Therefore St. Pierre is to-day the greatest smuggling centre in the world, with as perfect and comprehensive an organization for conducting this unlawful traffic as that of a modern trust. There is a regular smuggling syndicate, with headquarters in the town and agents along the seaboard of the countries it serves; with ^ fleet of schooners, a code of signals, and a central fund for. the conduct of their campaigns. The audacity and extent of the transactions are somewhat staggering. The American Government was defrauded for years by corn juice, or alcohol being imported to St. Pierre “in bond” in shiploads, and then, after being concocted into “whisky,” smuggled back into the “downeast” seaports. The Canadian Government was victimized by rum being got in the same way from Demorara, and after being “doctored” smuggled into Cape Breton and Gaspe. The Newfoundland Government was duped by its coast being made the theatre for shipments of varied stocks, as the lonely seaboard

afforded exceptional opportunities for the distribution of such material.

But, not satisfied even with this wide range, the audacity and ingenuity of the Pierrois smugglers werei such that they also tricked their own ministry by bogus claims for bounties on fish bought in Newfoundland. France regards-her fisheries in these waters as a naval nursery, and, to foster a large prosecution of them and secure abundant and suitable material for naval reserves, pays a large bounty upon all fish caught by French vessels. The skippers accordingly traded liquor with the Newfoundland fishermen on the Banks for cod, and coolly collected the bounties on this! The same game was further worked by these astute! schemers in carrying stocks of fish to Nova Scotia for sale, obtaining certificates from the purchasers that they had bought twice the quantity they actually did, and securing the bonus thereon;

These far-reaching frauds were eventually discovered through the combined efforts of the Newfoundland revenue chief, Inspector Rielly; the Canadian Inspector Jones; and the French Commissioner of Customs at St. Pierre, M. Joseph Ferry. The result was a series of captures of smuggling craft—so sudden, so certain, and so complete as to demoralize the ringleaders at St. Pierre. Then, concluding their was a traitor in their midst, they laid traps to locate him, and, finding M. Ferry was the one, they made St. Pierre too hot, to hold him. The worst riot in the island’s history was caused by this incident, for in St. Pierre the smuggler’s name is legion. Ferry’s ‘house was wrecked by an infuriated mob, and he himself had to seek refuge in the gendarmerie to escape with his life. That night a notice was posted

around St. Pierre, heavily bordered in black, inviting all and sundry to the “funeral” of M. Ferry, who was to be hanged in effigy at noon next day in front of the Customs House, when the pall-bearers would be Rielly, Jones, Dreyfus and Zola. And solemnly hanged and burned in effigy Ferry was, at the appointed hour, in the presence of an assemblage of all the able-bodied Pierrois, while Ferry himself was being carried across to Newfoundland in a tug requisitioned by the Government, who feared that the stout walls of the gendarmerie would be unable to protect him.

It is estimated that these frauds cost the French treasury seventy thousand dollars a year, and what the annual loss to the United States, Canada, and Newfoundland was in those halcyon days of the traffic can only be conjectured, but it must have been at least a million dollars annually. These figures are startling, but Canada still admits to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and Newfounland fifty thousand dollars per annum, and the United States »still probably loses one hundred thousand dollars per annum. In every harbor that the American fishing vessels visit, from Eastport to Philadelphia, to sell their cargoes of fish or renew their outfits, they unload quantities of these smuggled goods. Champagnes are put ashore in lobster cases, wines in trawl-tubs, silks in rolled sails, opium and drugs in canisters, and other articles by means of a thousand and one expedients. The invariable practice of the vessels is to enter St. Pierre when homeward bound to procure “wood and water,” and lay in contraband meanwhile.

Merchants of St. Pierre, apparently reputable fishery outfitters, have become millionaires and are now living a life of ease and pleasure in

Paris on the profits obtained not from their recognized industry, but from smuggling, while handsome fortunes are still realized out of it. In St. Pierre, though the smuggler’s business is growing riskier and less profitable every year, it is still one of the mainstays of existence, and parlous would be the state of the place if this traffic were put an end to. Hence the Pierrois are furious against the new treaty, because it provides for a British Consul to be stationed among them, and this will probably be a deathblow to the traffic. Hitherto France has always refused to recognize a consul there, lest he should learn too much about the waning prosperity of the little province in consequence of Newfoundland’s enforcement of her Bait Act against St. Pierre ; but when a settlement was being arranged last spring Newfoundland and Canada insisted on this proviso and France gave way.

An idea of the magnitude of the smuggling may be gained from the fact that St. Pierre maintains a regular fleet of freighter-vessels plying to St. Malo, taking fish ladings to France and bringing back cargoes destined to be clandestinely introduced into the neighboring Englishspeaking countries. One of these vessels, the brig Russie, went ashore near the Needles, Isle of Wight, on Easter Sunday, 1902, supposed to be laden with fishery salt. When she broke up, however, there were washed on to the beach many hogsheads of what the coast-folk found, on broaching, to be the rarest of French liqueurs, and enjoyed immensely until the authorities came and impounded the remainder—fiftyfive casks containing from eighty to a hundred gallons each.

. A big smuggling trade is done along the shores of Quebec Province. It is

mainly in intoxicants, and is so widespread that a few years ago the Canadian distillers, from the harm caused to their business, proposed to the Dominion Government to bear the cost of a modern steam cruiser to patrol the coast there and put down this outlawry. One of the largest depositories of smuggled liquors in those times was near Ste. Anne de Beaupre, a shrine on the St. Lawrence River, visited annually by thousands of pious Catholics. The place was ostensibly for breeding poultry, and the liquor was carted about the country in hen-coops. Another place was a large potato farm; the liquors were stored beneath the cellars, and vended with every sack of the tubers sent out. The Island of Orleans was an equally noted resort because of the facility it afforded for transhipment among the schooners, but now it is being occupied by wealthy Montrealers as a summer resort, and the smugglers have had to move elsewhere. ,

That, however, is easy, for they enjoy the active countenance of the whole coast. The “Quebecker” thinks this trade no wrong, and the smuggler is a hero to him, while the detective is despised. Every settler, no matter how honest otherwise, is ready to buy smuggled wares, to help the smuggler hard beset, or to financially back a smuggling venture. It is not uncommon for men to club together and import mixed cargoes of spirits and merchandise by a Pierrois craft which lands it in some cove. Then old farmers and fishers going to market will be found with the stuff concealed in their carts and boats, and vending the goods as opportunity offers. All are at it, one to-day and another to-morrow, and hence almost any “habitant” will secrete goocfe for a neighbor and lie to the coast-

guards to throw them off the scent, as it may be his own case to Avant help another time.

The Canadian liquor merchant can place few orders east of Three Rivers, in Quebec, as the whole Gaspe peninsula is supplied by the smugglers, while nearly all the spirits consumed in Cape Breton and Eastern Nova Scotia pays not a cent of duty to the Canadian revenue. Legal dealers dispose of practically no stocks there, owing to the competition of the smugglers. Recently a Canadian cruiser chased a suspicious craft along the coast, and next morning the whole strand was littered with casks of intoxicants, which the vessel, a St. Pierre smuggler, had thrown overboard, fearing capture, Avhen the cruiser appeared as she was making for her landing place.

A remarkable feature of St. Pierre smuggling is that the commoner grades of intoxicants are manufactured in the place, notably a cheap brand for the Quebeckers, the base being corn spirit imported in bond from the Middle States. To manage this traffic an official of the United States Consulate at St. Pierre was made an active partner by the smugglers a few years ago. He was provided with bogus Consular seals and papers, and when the alcohol, having reached Boston from Chicago, was loaded into \7essels for St. Pierre, they, on arriving off that port, hoisted a private signal, Avhereupon he came out to them in a tug and supplied them with false bonding clearances for use on returning to Boston, to prove they had properly landed their cargoes. Instead, they made for some prearranged Newfoundland harbor, where they transferred their cargoes to the smugglers’ schooners, which decanted the liquor into eighteen-gallon casks already containing a delectable

mixture of rainwater, fusel-oil, drugs, and coloring matter, and in these receptacles the rolling of the ship speedily mixed the contents. Next these craft made for the Quebec coast, one of their favorite tricks being to show but part of their canvas or carry two suits of sails, so as to deceive the Canadian cruisers, a smuggler craft displaying a wfiite set to-day, a parti-colored outfit to-morrow, and a brown spread the next day.

Another very successful trick is to have a decoy vessel, which, when a cruiser appears, makes sail hurriedly as if to escape so that the cruiser follows her and the real offender sails serenely on. These wild-goose chases are common, and are worked in various ways, the superior knowledge of the coast which the smugglers possess, and their utilizing of intricate channels into which the cruisers dare not venture, also materially aiding them. When the scene of the proposed landing is reached signals are displayed, and the agent ashore assembles a crowd of fisherfolk to land the cargo. If anything occurs to imperil success another cove is chosen, or the cargo sold to the Government. This most ingenious trick consists in notifying a conniving coastguard where the cargo will be landed next night. He is on hand, and seizes it. The liquor is sold subject to duty of one dollar eighty cents per gallon, and as it is usually fifty per cent, over proof, this means two dollars eighty-five cents, or, to allow for a bid, three dollars a gallon. The Canadian law gives one-third each to the informer, the seizer, and the revenue, so the former two, in league with the smugglers, pocket two dollars a gallon, leaving the Government but one dollar. Sometimes, of course, a genuine capture is made, but

the vessels are old and worth but little, and the profits of the traffic allow for occasional losses.

The smuggling that can never be stamped out, of course, is that done by the fishing vessels. Seldom does one harbor in St. Pierre, no matter what her nationality, but she lays in a stock of commodities, for illicit disposal on reaching home. These fishermen declare that St Pierre has on sale the greatest variety of ardent spirits of any place in the world, from the vilest compounds to the rarest of vintages, all of which can be procured by the glass or the hogshead. There are two grades of drinking houses in the place—auberges and cabarets—frequented respectively by the masses and classes, but when mobs of English-speaking Bankmen get ashore they patronize both with marked impartiality, and always resist expulsion at ten p.m., when the law requires these places to shut. So the gendarmes are summoned, and it is a favorite trick of the alien fishers, with their undisguised contempt for “Froggie,” to pile these gorgeous officials in a heap in the public square and then decamp for their boats. All the intoxicating beverages produced at St. Pierre have a larger percentage of alcohol than have legitimate products, and by the addition of noxious drugs are all the more injurious and harmful to human beings. The stuff demoralizes fishing crews on the Banks—most of the disasters, and they are many, which occur there being due to overindulgence in these beverages. The Pierrois will leave church in the middle of a sermon te obtain a drink and then nonchalantly stroll back again.

The best-hated man along the Newfoundland shore is the coastguard. One of these being caught by some smugglers on their craft, the skipper

ordered him to be thrown overboard, saying, “Tie a rock to his feet and finish him.” He was “launched,” but without the rock, yet his fright was such that he sought a new post next day. Another officer who had caught some smugglers in the act was knocked senseless by them and carried off to a deserted island miles from the coast, where he was marooned for forty-eight hours to meditate on the enormity of his offence in “interfering with decent people who were earning an honest livelihood,” as the Irish schoolmaster of the village put it. A third, who was on duty on a vessel, wTas persuaded by the skipper to take a swig or two from a flask until helplessly drunk, when all her illicit cargo was landed and he was hoisted up with a block and tackle from her deck to the Government wharf on a Sunday morning, in full view of hundreds of people who had come from different coves to attend church—an exhibition which cost him his job.

Some years ago, when the Newfoundland coastal steamers called at St. Pierre in plying to and fro, a sleuth in the Customs service ventured into the engine-room of one ship, in search of a tank which he had been told the engineers had secreted there to contain smuggled liquor. He manipulated sundry taps without finding out anything, and then he turned one wffiich emitted a jet of live steam that almost scalded him to •death. Another detective was notified that a skiff was to land a cargo in a cove, and hastily rowed there. Seeing a suspicious boat which fled at his approach, he chased her for hours, only to find that her cargo was & barrel of fish offal!

In Newfoundland it is not judicious to press inquiries about smuggling, for you may tread on somebody’s

corns. To understand the inside workings of the traffic you must visit the fishing hamlets and fraternize with the coast-folk. Then you will hear strange narratives of cargo-running and coastguard-dodging, the veracity of which is beyond question. Few of the fisherfolk but have had more or less adventurous encounters with the preventives as they have slipped into St. Pierre with wood or bait or out again with smuggled goods, the friendly shelter of the blinding fog aiding them to dodge the cruisers through the narrow channels and the rock-strewn inlets along the shore. Their escapes are oftentimes wonderful, but their handy little smacks enable them to give the steamers the slip, and they make into the creeks, unload their contraband, and hurry it to some secure hiding-place in the forests or hills. In the political contests of the colony “St. Peter’s rum” plays a prominent part, and an experienced authority has declared that a cask of it is as good as a thousand dollars of public money. A few years ago a vessel with a supply was seized in a harbor in a district where an appeal to the electorate was in progress, and the coastguard was coolly told: “Don’t you touch that liquor; it’s more than your

job is worth. That’s for X-’s

With the operation of the new treaty, which provides for a joint policing of the fisheries and the prevention of liquor-smuggling into Newfoundland, as well as for a British Consul at St. Pierre, the supremacy of the banditti who have carried on this traffic must vanish, and then the business will be the dim and unsubstantial of what it once wras—the gxeatest money-making enterprise along the Atlantic seaboard.