The rum industry has been profitable for people from all walks of life. Distillers, writers and explorers have all reaped rewards from the sugarcane-based spirit and the same goes for criminals. Rum running turned a tidy profit for bootleggers like Al Capone and there are many other infamous names that stand alongside Scarface.
Rum Runners is a series that remembers the most notorious rum smugglers in history and the mark they’ve left on popular culture. It’s important to note that bootlegging alcohol wasn’t limited to guys. The distinction for being the queen of rum running arguably goes to Marie ‘Spanish Marie’ Waite.
Inheriting an empire
As the story goes, Marie Waite came from humble beginnings, but she was never ordinary. The daughter of a Swedish father and Mexican mother, Waite boasted a 6-foot frame, stunning blue eyes, olive skin and flowing black hair. Her beauty caught the eye of Florida gangster Charlie Waite, who’d set up a successful rum running operation.
Everything changed for Spanish Marie in 1926 when her husband was gunned down by the US Coast Guard at Biscayne Bay. Widowed and ambitious, Waite inherited her husband’s empire and set about etching herself into the annals of history.
A femme fatale and shrewd businesswoman
In Rum War at Sea, historian Malcolm Willoughby described Waite as “a fickle and dangerous person, with morals as free as the four winds.” Spanish Marie established a reputation for ruthlessness and seduction, with there being various stories of her charming police officers in Key West and getting rid of her lovers by encasing them in ‘concrete boots.’
While these tales should be taken with a pinch of salt, there’s no doubt that Waite as a formidable woman and genius smuggler. She set up her operation in Havana, smuggling Cuban rum over to the US.
She created an armada of fast-moving schooners and motorboats that were quick enough to outrun the US Coast Guard. Her tactics involved sending a convoy of four big schooners from Havana. Three would be overflowing with booze, while the fourth acted as the muscle.
If stopped by the Coast Guard, the muscle acted as the distraction. The other three cargo boats would be free to escape and rendezvous with other motorboats in US waters. After switching vessels, the rum would be ferried over to the mainland.
Staying ahead of the authorities
When the Coast Guard invested in faster boats, Waite changed tactics by equipping her fleet with radio equipment and setting up a pirate transmitting station in Key West. The station transmitted fake intelligence to the Coast Guard and communicated instructions to the boats offshore in covert Spanish phrases.
This approach worked for a few years until the queen of rum smuggling was finally captured on 12th March 1928. Spanish Marie ran into a trap at Coconut Grove, Miami, which involved the authorities tricking her with a fake radio signal. She was apprehended unloading a batch of rum from Bimini on her flagship Kid Boots.
Yet Waite found a way to slip through the net. Apparently, she’d been so convinced that she’d be able to offload the rum that she’d left her two children alone at home. While being interrogated, she broke down and played the part of the distressed mother who needed to be there for her kids. She was granted bail at $500 for a temporary release on condition she attend a trial that had been arranged for the next day.
Waite didn’t attend the trial and her attorney claimed she was suffering from severe mental trauma. Her bond was extended to $3000 on condition of a medical report being submitted for Waite to prove her illness. She skipped town and disappeared with her boats and what’s estimated as a personal fortune of 1 million dollars.
Remembering the rum running queen
The later life and death of Spanish Marie remain a mystery. But her infamy has been kept alive by Florida-based Key West Distillery, who brought out their Bad Bitch Spanish Marie rum in 2012.
This rum is as dark and devious as its namesake. Aged in vintage French oak barrels that were used to age red wine, the rum carries traces of tannin and salted caramel. Interestingly, it’s thought that Waite’s drink of choice was a rum punch made with red wine, which may have inspired the choice of barrel for the ageing process.
Mysterious, sensual and intelligence, Spanish Marie lives on as Florida legend. Another infamous femme fatale associated with rum is La Diablesse. Find out more about her story and what her place is in Caribbean folklore.