The last run of the I’m Alone

JAMES BANNERMAN January 1 1954

The last run of the I’m Alone

JAMES BANNERMAN January 1 1954

ON A raw spring morning in 1929, the tenth year of prohibition in the United States, a whisky-laden little schooner was overtaken in the Gulf of Mexico by two American coast guard cutters. As they came up they signaled the schooner to heave to at once—an order her captain acknowledged by grabbing a battered megaphone and shouting, “I’ll see you in hell first!”

John Thomas Randell, master of the ninety-tonner I’m Alone, was convinced the coast guards had no right to stop him. If his ship had been within one hour’s sailing distance of the coast of the United States they could have seized her legally as a suspected liquor smuggler; but by then she had been heading out to sea for almost fifty hours. When they fired a warning shot across her bows and repeated the order to heave to, he merely reached for the megaphone again and bellowed defiantly that he wasn’t going to obey it, and that they could sink him if they wanted to. Whereupon they did sink him, in ten thousand feet of blue Gulf water. And by nightfall of that day, March 22, 1929, the indomitable obstinacy of Captain Randell was beginning to make history.

The coast guards had radioed a report to their shore base which radioed back that Randell and the other seven survivors were to be taken to New Orleans (only one man of the I’m Alone’s crew had been drowned). The base passed on the report to coast guard headquarters in Washington. The schooner was registered at the port of Belize in British Honduras so headquarters notified the British ambassador, Sir Esmé Howard, in Washington. But two days later the cutters reached New Orleans with Randell and his men and it turned out that the wrong nation had been involved. The I’m Alone’s port of registry was Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and the flag that fluttered at her masthead as she went down was the red ensign of Canada.

Canadians reacted with intense and widespread bitterness. The I’m Alone was frankly and even notoriously a rumrunner; but many people who disapproved of rumrunning disapproved still more of the idea that the United States could enforce its law on the high seas. Others took a more emotional view and there was even a scattering of hotheads who clamored for war to wipe out the insult to the flag. At Ottawa it was decided after a series of Cabinet meetings to instruct Vincent Massey, then our first diplomatic representative in Washington, to go into the whole matter with officials of the U. S. State Department.

Meanwhile the newspapers were giving the story more and more space. An Associated Press dispatch from New Orleans said that when the crew of the I’m Alone was tended there the patrol boats, in an effort to conceal information, touched at four different docks and finally cast anchor in the middle of the river.

Captain Randell the United States gave his version to the United States district attorney, local customs officials and a special investigator from Washington. Later they let reporters have a transcript of Randell’s spirited account, which shared the front, pages next morning with word that the movies had decided to produce talking pictures.

From then until the end of April there was hardly a day when the I’m Alone incident didn’t make news. Canada sent a formal note of protest to the United States, asking it in effect to prove that its coast guards hadn’t committed an act of piracy. Although Britain wasn’t directly concerned now that Canada had taken over the case, it raised some awkward points in connection with various Anglo-American treaties. When it was found that the seaman who’d been drowned was a French citizen the government of France got into the picture. And when the United States insisted that the coast guards had only done their duty it was agreed the whole thing would have to be submitted to an international board for arbitration.

Meanwhile the New York Times reported from New Orleans that customs agents were circulating a sinister rumor about Captain Randell, who was rapidly becoming a popular hero. The Times said it understood he had indirectly caused the death of the French sailor by striking him while the schooler was being chased a rumor which, as the Times pointed out, was contradicted vehemently by all the members of the crew.

The Times also published another rumor, whose source it didn’t give, that the I’m Alone was carrying a cargo of aliens. A third tale, current among sailors years later, said the aliens were Chinese who had paid five hundred dollars a head to be smuggled into the United States and that they’d been weighted with pig iron from the ballast and thrown overboard.

On the factual side Andrew Mellon, enormously rich Pittsburgher who was Secretary of the Treasury and as such the supreme head of the coast guard service, issued a statement saying the I'm Alone had been a notorious liquor smuggler for nearly five years and that she was designed and built for rumrunning to the order of “a certain American bootlegger who is now in prison in Boston.” He said this man had named her to commemorate his having broken away from a gang of other bootleggers to operate alone.

In New Orleans Edward Gray, a lawyer who’d been engaged to represent the crew, announced it was possible that he would bring a charge of murder against the coast guards. In Belize, the home town of the cook and one seaman, the American consul had to get police protection from crowds who were quite the coast guards really were murderers and wanted to tear the consul apart in symbolic protest.

On the other hand Deets Pickett of the Board of Temperance of the Methodist Church was quoted, ‘‘When the men of the coast guard, after due and repeated warning sent their shells hull of the I'm Alone, a thrill of appreciation ran through my being. It was American. It was right." The Times of London suggested that if the coast guard cutters had been commanded by commissioned officers instead of mere warrant officers, whom it seemed to consider rather vulgar, the affair would have been handled  far less crudely. 

It wasn't until the summer of 1938, when the international commission appointed to arbitrate the case brought but an interim report, that it could be seen how much the 1929 stories had missed.  Since the report was printed as an official document of the American State Department, when the general public had long since forgotten the whole thing, the full story never did become widely known. Overlooked were such things as the spectacular fate of twelve hundred cases of liquor out of the schooner’s first cargo. And the odd way Big Jamie Clark was greeted when he went from New York to Lunenburg to make the deal that started the I’m Alone’s career as a rumrunner.

The Skipper Wore Tails

Big Jamie, a notably good-natured six-footer who weighed two hundred pounds, was friendly with a couple of New York bootleggers named Dan Hogan and Frank Reitman. Toward the middle of September 1928 they told him they’d heard there was a fine schooner for sale in Lunenburg, available dirt cheap at eighteen thousand dollars. They said that if Big Jamie would go to Nova Scotia, do the buying for them and pay five thousand dollars toward the cost they’d cut him in on the ownership and the profits. He agreed, went to Lunenburg and inspected the schooner’s hull, which was a hundred and twenty-five feet long and twenty-seven feet wide at its broadest, checked her sails and rigging and tested her twin hundred-horsepower diesel engines. After a day of poking and prying he made the deal.

If Big Jamie had bought the schooner in the name of Hogan, Reitman and himself the mere fact of their owning and operating a rumrunner would have been an offense under the American prohibition laws because they were American citizens. So he arranged to have the bill of sale and the certificate of registration at the port of Lunenburg made out to Eastern Seaboard Steamship Agencies, Ltd.—a dummy corporation set up in Canada. This meant the I’m Alone was technically Canadian owned and operated. As such the American prohibition laws didn’t affect her unless she was within one hour’s sailing distance of the coast of the United States, reckoned at her top speed.

Once this ingenious and legally correct transaction had been completed, Jamie asked his contact in Lunenburg, George Hearn, to recommend a captain. Hearn said he knew just the man.

This was John Thomas Randell, born in Newfoundland and then living in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. Randell, crowding fifty, was strong as a bull; a dark, swaggering, confident man who liked excitement and risk alternated with free-and-easy fun. Most sea captains dress with rugged neatness, but he carried this characteristic to the point of elegance. The gear he took aboard included a dinner jacket, a tail coat, six dress shirts, a dozen dress collars and eighteen pairs of silk socks.

The dashing Randell had joined the Royal Naval Reserve in 1914 and two weeks before the first Christmas of the war he was given command of a steam trawler and sent to patrol the Scandinavian coast, watching for neutral ships carrying iron ore from Sweden to Germany and intercepting and capturing them. He took three ore carriers and got such a reputation for boldness and skill that he was promoted acting lieutenant-commander and made senior officer of a flotilla of trawlers. After a fight with a surfaced U-boat, he was given the DSC. Since this action saved a French ship he was given the Croix de guerre by the government of France, and ended his second war with a bright row of ribbons and more liking than ever for adventure.

In 1919 he went back to sea and sailed in command of all sorts of ships— among them the Canadian Miller, an eighty-five-hundred-ton freighter, the Canadian Fisher, a passenger liner, and three rumrunners. His experience on them wasn’t particularly happy, chiefly because in the early Twenties rumrunning was a free-style enterprise in the hands of small operators. They seldom hesitated to double-cross anyone, including their captains, and Randell soon found that running rum in the early Twenties was not for him.

By 1928 however it was another matter. The small groups had been killed or otherwise eliminated and replaced by big operators who smuggled and sold as much as fifteen million dollars’ worth of liquor a year. They did this through organizations as businesslike as many a legitimate corporation, were prompt and reliable in their payments and treated their employees fairly and well—apart from a tendency to have them murdered instead of fired should they show bad faith or make a really serious mistake.

Randell, restless and at a loose end, knew about this change in the methods and ethics of rumrunning and when George Hearn offered him command of the I’m Alone at four hundred dollars a month he accepted. And at the end of October 1928 he took the schooner from Lunenburg to St. Pierre in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where she was to pick up her first cargo of liquor under her new management. It was to be delivered to bootleggers in the bayou country of Louisiana who would come out in launches and transfer the liquor from her thirty miles southwest of Marsh Island. There the I’m Alone would be well clear of the jurisdiction of the American coast guards. After an uneventful run by way of Bermuda and Cuba, Randell brought her to the rendezvous and hove to, on November 28, to wait for the launches. But while she was waiting a coast guard cutter came up and circled. After dark Randell headed toward Belize, British Honduras. The cutter stayed with him for two or three days but since the I’m Alone was outside United States treaty waters the coast guards didn’t attempt to seize her. However, Randell understandably wanted to shake it so he could put into the British port of Belize across the Gulf of Mexico where his cargo of liquor would be as legal as a load of potatoes. The cutter was the USCG Walcott and Randell’s general idea was to make the Walcott’s commander think he was going south and not to let him know his ship’s top speed. He ran the engines only enough to make six knots. In twenty-four hours he made about a hundred and fifty miles. He noticed that the Walcott was continually coming up abreast of the I’m Alone, falling astern again, and so on over and over. When the moon went down he waited for the cutter to drop astern once more. When she was at her farthest from him, he ordered all the I’m Alone’s lights to be put out, altered to a course at right angles and revved his engines to full speed. Then he made a second alteration of course that put him on a directly opposite heading from the cutter, passed her at a distance of half a mile or so, and kept on going. The cutter dashed around, stabbing the night with her searchlight; but Randell had got too far away to be caught in its beam. After steaming briskly in various directions for several miles at a time, he headed the I’m Alone for Belize and safety.

That was on December 3, 1928. He got to Belize on December 5, stayed two days, and left again for the rendezvous off the Louisiana coast. He’d been there two days when a mysterious motor launch approached from the marshy shore. The stranger stopped his motors when he was within shouting range of the schooner. Randell believed it was the rumrunner’s boat but he had never seen them. However when he had taken on the cargo at St. Pierre he’d been given the torn halves of fifteen American one - dollar bills, tightly bound together with a thick rubber band. He’d been told that when he was met by the bootleggers’ boat, the man in charge of it would hail him by shouting the serial number of the eighth bill from the top of the bundle. Randell was to verify this number. If it checked he was to tell the boat to come alongside. The man would then hand him the other half of the torn eighth bill and if it and his half matched he could turn over the liquor.

The Whisky Went Up In Flames

Randell was warned not to mention names on the grounds that it was safer to know little about the contacts. Thus he didn't know that the man in charge of the boat was Big Jamie Clark, personally directing that first transaction—an apparent lack of faith that Randell might have resented. When the boat was loaded Big Jamie told Randell to take the I’m Alone out to sea and cruise around for the next four days. Then he was to bring her back to the rendezvous when the motor launch would take off twelve hundred cases of whisky that couldn’t be accommodated on the first trip. Two days later Randell met the boat again off Marsh Island and an hour before midnight the last case of whisky was transferred.

Jamie and his men left the I’m Alone’s side and made for shore. Halfway there they saw the dim outline of a coast guard cutter’s white hull in the darkness ahead of them. A moment later they heard a motor as a fast little launch put off from the cutter and raced after them. Big Jamie had intended to take the boat up a river that led through the marshes toward the bootleggers’ hideout. In the dark he couldn’t find the entrance and there was no time to hunt for it. So he opened up to full speed, roared toward the shoreline and deliberately ran the boat aground.

They couldn’t save the whisky with the coast guard launch less than ten minutes behind them, and it was vital to destroy the evidence. Jamie ordered a man to break the boat’s fuel feed pipe and Jamie threw a lighted match into the spreading pool of gasoline on the floorboards. The boat and the precious whisky were turned into an enormous torch.

Meanwhile Randell, whose responsibility ended when he trans-shipped the liquor, headed the I’m Alone for Belize where he took on another consignment for the bayou gang. When he got back to the rendezvous off Marsh Island on New Year’s Eve Big Jamie came out to meet him as if nothing had happened. He’d philosophically bought a new boat to replace the one he’d sacrificed. For the next few months the I’m Alone shuttled steadily and regularly between Belize and the coast of Louisiana— northbound with liquor, southbound empty.

Everything went smoothly for Randell and his schooner until March 20. 

Then, at the Louisiana end of a run, trouble came with a rush. At five o’clock in the morning he noted that he was anchored between fourteen and a half and fifteen miles out into the Gulf when he saw a coast guard cutter approaching. He hove up anchor and steered southwest. The cutter trailed, gaining slowly, and at six-thirty he recognized the Walcott, whose skipper ordered him to heave to.

“Captain,” Randell called across the water, “you have no jurisdiction over me. I am on the high seas outside the treaty waters.”

The cutter captain said he wanted to go aboard the I’m Alone for a talk with Randell and Randell said he could if he’d come unarmed.

The Walcott drew alongside with her gun’s crew closed up ready to fire. Randell rang for full speed ahead, shouting through his megaphone as he pulled away that he couldn’t allow the captain aboard until the men left the gun.

Agreement was shouted from the cutter. Randell slowed and watched a boat being lowered by the cutter. Into it stepped the captain, unarmed and wearing a singularly peaceful-looking pair of carpet slippers. He was rowed to the I’m Alone.

He and Randell talked for almost two hours. The Walcott’s captain insisted he had the right to seize the schooner. He claimed that when he first hailed her she’d been less than eleven miles from the coast not between fourteen and a half and fifteen miles, as Randell claimed. It was an important point because the I’m Alone could conceivably have gone eleven miles in one hour at her top speed, and would therefore have been within the coast guard’s jurisdiction. The coast guard captain argued that under a provision of international law called the doctrine-of-hot-pursuit, he had the right to chase the I’m Alone until he caught her unless she reached the territorial waters of some other country. Randell stoutly insisted he had not been within the legal limit when he was hailed, and seeing they couldn’t agree the two captains dropped the argument. But the coast guard skipper apparently abandoned his peaceful attitude for at two o’clock that afternoon the Walcott again moved up and signaled “Heave to, or I fire.”

Randell shouted through his megaphone that he had no intention of stopping, and then he cried, “I’ll see you in hell first.”

The coast guard captain gave him a quarter of an hour to change his mind but Randell refused. Then the Walcott commenced firing. Several shots passed through the sails and rigging. Then after a few more rounds from the four-pounder, the Walcott opened up with either a machine gun or a quick-firing rifle. As the whining stream of bullets sprayed the schooner, Randell felt a sudden heavy blow on the front of his right thigh. His leg went numb and he staggered and looked down, expecting to see blood spurting and wondering why he was still able to stand. Instead of blood he saw a little shapeless blob lying on the deck at his feet and realized the bullets were wax, such as were sometimes used against rioters in order to disperse them without causing death or wounds.

Randell Lost the Argument

Then Randell saw that a shell had jammed in the four-pounder’s breech and that the gun was out of action. He kept the I’m Alone on a southerly course and the cutter, which had dropped back, pulled up again and followed all night and all the next day a short distance astern. At evening the I’m Alone took down its sails headed for a position eighteen to twenty (?) miles off the Mexican coast. By morning the wind had increased to a moderate gale and a rough sea was running. About seven-thirty another cutter approached and Randell saw that she was the Dexter. Her captain put her close enough to the Walcott to hold a shouted conference, after which he bore down on the I’m Alone and signaled her to heave to or be fired on. Randell refused. The cutter fired a warning round and repeated the signal. Randell again refused, roaring scornfully through a megaphone that he was on the high seas and beyond the coast guard’s authority.

The Dexter opened fire. After she had sent twenty rounds through the rigging and sails and a few into the hull, her captain once more ordered the schooner to stop. When Randell bellowed a third refusal the Dexter’s captain opened up in earnest. Shells smashed windows and engines and occasionally hit the hull below the water line. Sixty or seventy shots thundered against the vessel. Meanwhile rifle shots were cutting through the cabin house, through the ports in the cabin and around the men gathered aft. None was struck except by splinters, which were flying everywhere.

When the engineer reported that the floor of the engine room was covered with fast-rising water Randell ordered the schooner’s boats to be put over the side. It took ten minutes, and by that time the I’m Alone’s foredeck was level with the sea. When Randell jumped, the ship’s bow was twenty feet under water, her stern ten feet in the air and she was beginning to dive.

The men were picked up, gasping and shivering, by the two cutters. Randell was full of admiration for a coast-guardsman who dived into the lashing waves and tried to save the I’m Alone’s boatswain, Léon Mainguy, but succeeded only in bringing his drowned body to the surface. The men were given hot drinks and dry clothing—and then were sent below decks and put in irons. Randell noted later that he didn’t blame the coast guard captains for sinking his ship, since they were only obeying orders, but “I consider it a most cowardly action to blow my boat to pieces with a gale of wind blowing and a heavy sea running, when any man but a strong swimmer could not expect to live.”

After Randell and the crew were released from imprisonment in the Custom House at New Orleans (the United States district attorney dropped the case against them) Randell went home to Nova Scotia. His men shipped on in other vessels. The body of Léon Mainguy was sent to his native St. Pierre in a fine coffin paid for by the I’m Alone’s owners—an act of generosity that cost them, all in all, $516.14.

Randell and his family moved to Toronto, were bathed briefly in the light of publicity, then left in peace. Randell, finished with rumrunning for life, took a series of jobs which included command of a large motorboat on Great Bear Lake in 1932, and later went back with his family to Nova Scotia. He died in Halifax in the winter of 1944, at the age of sixty-four.

Meanwhile on January 5, 1935, almost six years after the sinking, the international commission appointed to rule on the I’m Alone case gave its decision. The commissioners were Sir Lyman Duff for Canada and Willis Van Devanter for the United States who concluded that although the schooner’s business at the time she was sunk was unlawful the action of the coast guards was unlawful too.

The United States government made a formal apology to the government of Canada and paid it twenty-five thousand dollars as a token of its regret. Nothing was paid to the owners of the I’m Alone but in addition to the token payment, the United States paid another twenty-five thousand dollars in compensation to Randell and his crew. For having lost his job and all his gear, which rather astonishingly included a collapsible opera hat, Randell was awarded $7,906. The crew got sums varying from nine hundred to thirteen hundred dollars and the boatswain’s widow was given a shade over ten thousand for herself and her three children.

All the men survived to get their money except a young cook who had died, Captain Randell used to say pityingly, as a result of the strain of having been trapped in the forecastle while the coast guards were riddling it with rifle fire that missed him by inches. He was awarded nine hundred and seven dollars. His name was the final touch of strangeness in the I’m Alone’s curious story.

It was William Wordsworth.