Have you heard of the Queen of the Bootleggers? Her name was Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe and she was a famous female rumrunner who kept the liquor flowing between the Bahamas and the United States for three years before calling it quites. Cleo called herself the Rum Queen of the Bahamas, but to me she was the ultimate queen of reinvention.
Gertrude Lythgoe began her career as a librarian in Bowling Green, Ohio. She found a better job as a lumber sales agent on a British schooner. Lateral career move? Maybe, but when Prohibition began, she leased the schooner and set herself up as a legitimate liquor dealer based in Nassau. She operated a legitimate business, but she also supplied illegal liquor the thirsty masses in the U.S. in the early 1920s. She lived in the Lucerne Hotel in Nasssau, and she and her fellow rum runners would hold regular meetings. When things got too hot for them and the group feared spies were listening in, they moved their meetings to the pirates graveyard.
Although this work was exciting and lucrative, Cleo reinvents herself a third time when she finds herself in shark-infested waters following a shipwreck. As she floated in the water, she wondered what her life would have been like if she hadn’t started bootlegging “hams”. Hams were burlap-wrapped bundles each containing twelve liters of liquor. Her epiphany made her wonder if her life would have been better as a wife and mother. Fortunately for Cleo, she found herself in shallow water and swam to the shore of Bimini Harbor. Following the wreck of her schooner, Cleo supervised the return on her cargo to her warehouse. The original load of Scotch would have netted her a cool $80,000 which equals over $1.2 million today.
After one too many close calls with the Coast Guard, hijackers, and bad weather, Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe left Nassau and went into hiding in various locations around the United States. Despite her fear from her former “colleagues,” Cleo had no problems detailing her life in several newspapers around the country. In July 1925, the Tampa Tribune ran a series of articles written by the Rum Queen herself which details her life. Cleo claims to have worked as a librarian, a spy during World War I, and later a legitimate liquor importer before turning to bootlegging. One of the facts she shared was the prices paid by Americans to wet their whistle.
|Prices By the Case||1925||2021|
|Champagne||$ 36.00||$ 562.77|
|Liqueurs||$ 45.00||$ 703.46|
|Gin||$ 12.00||$ 187.59|
|Vermouth||$ 22.00||$ 343.91|
|American Rye (exported to UK prior to Volstead)||$ 35.00||$ 547.13|
|Scotch||$ 12.00||$ 187.59|
Another item of interest to me is the Scotch she would smuggle into the United States. All Scotch distilled in Great Britain was required to be aged for a minimum of three years before it was allowed to be sold to the British public. Scotch sent to the United States required no such aging which is why it was considered “green” alcohol. It could be shipped as soon as it was distilled. The difference between what Cleo termed “Scotch Scotch” and “Uncle Sam Scotch” was the greenness and the lack of blending.
My favorite term Cleo used was a “Volstead Vampire.” These were pretty girls who would help smugglers bring the liquor into the country. Due to the gentlemanly nature of many revenuers, pretty girls were less likely to be questioned, so they were used like today’s drug mules to help smuggle the booze.
Believing she was jinxed and there was a price on her head, Cleo quit the booze business. After a furious round of articles in newspapers across the country, she faded from public view and spent her years living in various hotels around the country. In 1965, she published her autobiography The Bahama Queen : The Autobiography of Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe. She died in Los Angeles in 1974 at the age of 86.
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