How an antique seal press unlocked a Nova Scotia tale of mobsters, rum running and tragedy
I'm Alone Shipping Company was a Boston rum-running front based in Lunenburg
A century-old seal press recently discovered at an antique market is bringing to life a tale of mobsters, rum running and tragedy in the waters off Nova Scotia's South Shore.
Ami McKay, a novelist and playwright from Scots Bay, N.S., found the custom cast iron press at an antique sale last week in New Minas, which is 30 minutes away by car.
The metal devices were once commonplace, used to make an official imprint on paper.
McKay and her husband bought the item thinking it could be repurposed with a new seal for their book collection. But when they looked closer, a mystery started to form.
They noticed the tattered, grimy label on the front of the press read, "I'm Alone Shipping Company Ltd. 1923."
That spurred some intense online research — and they quickly discovered the seal's storied past.
"It really does feel like a treasure," McKay told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon.
The I'm Alone Shipping Company formed in Lunenburg in 1923 as a front for rum running by Boston mobsters during prohibition in the United States.
McKay said the imprint of the seal features twisted rope, "harking back to that wonderful time period in our history, the age of sail."
The seal would've belonged with the I'm Alone ship as part of the mobsters' cover, designed to make forged documents appear legitimate.
"It would just look like they were shipping this and that and the other thing, not actually shipping rum," McKay said.
The company had one ship, owned by Boston mobster John Magnus, that was specifically designed for rum running,. It was fitted with two 100-horsepower engines, a radio with a 1,600-kilometre range, and flew the Union Jack to give the impression it was a British vessel.
It was captained by Newfoundland native Jack Randell, who, with a crew of eight men, travelled down to the Caribbean to pick up large amounts of rum and bring it back to the Gulf of Mexico, where a contact ship would be waiting.
The crew did this while continually evading the United States Coast Guard.
"For six years, the I'm Alone just slipped by and the coast guard knew about it. They actually wanted this ship specifically," McKay said.
"It was known to be the most successful rum runner of all time, and they really wanted to take this ship down and they really wanted to take that captain down."
I'm Alone meets its demise
And that's exactly what the coast guard did.
The chase started on March 20, 1929, when the coast guard ship, The Wolcott, spotted the I'm Alone near the coast of Louisiana and ordered it to stop.
Captain Randell refused, so back-up was called.
Two days later, on March 22, the patrol boat Dexter, shelled the I'm Alone, sinking it and sending $62,000 worth of alcohol to the depths.
One of the crewmen died during the shelling, leaving behind a wife and three children, which is a piece of history that stuck out to McKay.
"We get excited about the action and the adventure of it all, but these are human beings with lives and families and hopes and dreams, and what happens after all of that?"
Captain Randell and the seven other crew members were arrested and taken to New Orleans, where they were considered celebrities, McKay said.
"I think the general feeling in the U.S. was that people were sick of prohibition, and so they kind of saw these guys as a bunch of heroes," she said.
Tensions between the U.S. and Canada
The sinking of the I'm Alone caused tension between Canada and the United States, because the Canadian ambassador to Washington believed they were owed compensation.
"It went into deep arbitration, and so there was all this back-and-forth and back-and-forth, and in the meantime, the U.S. was trying to prove that this was actually a U.S.-owned ship and that's where code breaking comes into it," McKay said.
American Elizabeth Friedman, a famous codebreaker, used coded paperwork from the I'm Alone — which may have featured the I'm Alone seal — to determine what the ship had actually been carrying.
"She had cracked that code to figure out which words meant alcohol and bourbon and malt and rum and so on, so there was that bit of proof," McKay said.
"But then they had to get this one final piece of the puzzle to prove that in fact it was a U.S.-owned ship."
To do that, investigators looked to the contact boat that was scheduled to meet with the I'm Alone. When the I'm Alone didn't show up for the scheduled meeting, the contact boat was torched.
But a library book that survived the fire revealed the truth.
The investigators were able to learn who had checked it out, and determined they were an associate to the Boston mobsters who owned the I'm Alone.
"It all comes back to books and a good story," McKay said.
In the end, the United States paid some restitution to Captain Randell and the widow of the crewman. But the amount would have been much higher had it been a Canadian ship.
McKay said although the press was purchased to be repurposed, she now plans to keep it as it is — as a muse that sits on her desk.
With files from CBC Radio's Maritime Noon