"Jack Geoghegan once remarked that people who gushed over the peace and tranquility of life in the San Juans were just showing their ignorance of our early history. It certainly is true that life hereabouts had its hazards in bygone times. Take, for instance, the era of the twenties, when Mr. Hoover's 'Noble Experiment' was in full swing. Rum runners were active throughout the Puget Sound area, but because of our proximity to the Canadian source of supply, the San Juan Islands saw more than their share of the activity.
Any former rum runner will tell you (if you can get him to tell you anything) that it was not the prohibition agents or the Coast Guard that frightened them. It was the hijacker. As the national dry spell progressed and the potential for making big money, fast, increased almost beyond temptation, more and more of the area's more anti-social population turned to the booze heist to make their killing, and sometimes the 'killing' was for real.
It was on 14 September 1924, when Chris Waters, keeper of the Turn Point Light on Stuart Island, observed a small boat drifting slowly with the tide up Haro Strait. Waters went about his business, thinking the boat's occupants were having some sort of engine trouble, but after several hours of seeing no sign of life he decided to investigate. What he found, after receiving no answer to his hail and climbing aboard was a sight so gruesome he was never to forget it. Bullet holes and blood-stains covered doors and hatches topsides, and below, lying upturned on an opened copy of Adventure Magazine, was a cap full of sticky brown blood. There was nobody on board the craft, called the BERYL-G.
William Erickson, whose wife was postmistress at Prevost on Stuart Is, helped Waters tow the drifting craft in and then called the USCG. Since the boat was of Canadian registry, Canadian authorities were also invited to take part in the extensive investigation that followed. The BERYL-G, after all the clues had been combed from her, was taken to the customs dock at Friday Harbor, where the county fair was in progress. The gruesome tale having caused a sensation locally, the craft got almost as much attention as the agricultural exhibits.
Among the clues collected from the ill-fated boat, detectives found a camera with some exposed film inside. Developing the pictures they found several of a craft known to them as a rum-running vessel which, from the picture, they concluded had rendezvoused with the murder boat. Following up this lead, police learned that the owner of the BERYL-G, William Gillis, and his son, William, Jr., had been doing business with a Tacoma rum-runner. The Tacoma man, contacted by Canadian detectives, talked freely to them and soon warrants were out for two ex-convicts named Owen 'Cannonball' Baker and Harry Sowash. Both of the hijackers lit out when they learned police were onto them, but both were apprehended ultimately in two of the more storied nation-wide manhunts of that era. They were hanged in Canada in January 1926.
Meanwhile police had pieced together the grisly story of their crime.
Baker's oft-repeated gimmick during his short criminal life was the impersonation of a police official, either to get information or to scare a fellow miscreant into doing his bidding. In this case Baker set up an involved scheme to trick Canadian authorities into revealing the location of illicit liquor caches in the Victoria area. Fooling an immigrant Canadian fisherman into thinking he was collecting film footage of rum-running activities for a Hollywood studio, Baker and his accomplice and the fisherman take them to the spots pointed out by a Provincial detective as those used for hiding booze. But the detective had seen through Baker's pretense, the information he gave was all false.
Frustrated by the failure of the scheme, Baker decided to act more directly. In traveling about the area with their fisherman dupe, Baker and Sowash had several times observed the BERYL-G behaving in a manner which convinced them its crew were running liquor. On 15 September the pair and a companion by the name of Morris had the fisherman take them at midnight to the place where the Gillis boat had been seen at anchor, where in fact, Gillis had been working on the engine.
Morris and Baker were salts that looked official from a distance and Morris had on a cap with gold trim. The trio also had a satchel containing resolvers and a pair of handcuffs. They took these with them into a skiff and slipped toward the BERYL=G in the darkness, after ordering the mystified fisherman to bring up the boat when they signaled with a flashlight.
When sounds of shooting reached the fisherman he at almost the same instant found himself looking into the barrel of Baker's pistol. Baker had returned in the skiff and now ordered the larger craft brought up to the Gillis boat. As they arrived Morris called across to Baker. 'We had to shoot the old man a little in the arm.' It was a lie; Gillis, Sr., was lying dead in the lower cabin, his head oozing blood into his cap.
The liquor, wrapped in burlap sacks, (after the universal manner of rum-running fraternity) was transferred to the fisherman's boat. Then Gillis, Jr., was called up and hit hard over the head as he emerged from the hatchway. 'The old-bloodied murderer!' muttered Morris, aloud, as Baker and Sowash proceeded to handcuff the two bodies together, rip their stomachs open with a butcher knife to prevent their victims from floating, and––as a final precaution––lashed them to the BERYL-G's anchor.
Baker then waved the bloody knife in front of the fisherman and threatened to kill him if he ever spoke of the affair to anyone.
The trio forced their unwilling accomplice to take them to Anacortes, where they left the boat––after a final admonishment to keep quiet, or they would come back and 'plug' the fishboat's skipper after all.
The frightened fisherman headed for the San Juans, where he spent some time regaining his nerve and thinking things over. He decided to keep quiet, and fearing police might trace his boat, he made for Victoria and arranged with an Oak Bay marina for changes to be made in the appearance of the craft. As it happened, this suspicious act was what led police officers to his door and with a little prodding, he soon told everything. His description of Sowash and Baker tallied with information received from detectives working in Seattle and Tacoma, where rum-runners and police were working together, for once, to put this particular crew of hijackers out of business permanently.
Above text by historian, author, David Richardson, late of San Juan County, WA.
If this post isn't enough blood, Eric Newsome wrote the tale, published by Orcas Book Publisher, Victoria, B.C., 1989.
There was a series run in the Vancouver Sun in 1941, and an article in the national publication Maclean's Magazine in 1936.
- Saltwater People Historical Society
- San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
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