Rum Runners records the stories of the most notorious alcohol bootleggers in history. From larger than life figures like Al Capone, to gentleman smugglers such as Bill McCoy, men made headlines. But women like Gertrude ‘Cleo’ Lythgoe also made a name for themselves as successful rum smugglers and Lythgoe may well be the most successful of them all.
Becoming The Queen of the Bahamas
Lythgoe was born in Bowling Green, Ohio and was the youngest of ten children. Orphaned from an early age, she made up her mind to strike out on her own and went to New York. She became a stenographer, graduating into a junior accounts clerk for a British booze importer.
When Prohibition arrived, Lythgoe realised that the world was changing rapidly and that she needed to change with it. She managed to convince her employer that there was money to be made by importing liquor from the Bahamas.
After relocating to Nassau, Lythgoe set up a wholesale liquor export shop in the infamous Lucerne Hotel, which attracted a cavalcade of shady characters. In her autobiography, The Bahama Queen, Lythgoe described the atmosphere of the hotel.
“All types and nationalities conversed on the front veranda waiting for the ringing of the dinner bell. Many newspaper reporters and feature writers sat by the hour at the bar gathering rich material to be woven into fiction.”
With Nassau being a hotbed of crime and violence, it says something about Lythgoe’s character that she was able to survive and thrive in such a hostile environment. More than that, she established a fierce reputation that gave her the nickname ‘Queen of the Bahamas.’
The Golden Years
One of the reasons that Lythgoe became so well-known was because of her beauty. She earned the nickname ‘Cleo’ because she was meant to look similar to Queen Cleopatra. But despite having many suitors, she never married, running her rum empire solo. She certainly captured the attention of fellow rum smuggler Bill McCoy, who gave an account of Lythgoe to New York journalist Robert Wigley.
“She was a tall, slender girl with black hair, a brain as steady as her own dark eyes, and a history that was nobody’s business. She came to Nassau as an agent for Haig and McTavish’s Scotch whisky, no one knew from where.
“She made no secret of her background, but she told an entirely different tale to everyone who asked. She was born in California. She had been born in India. She was a gypsy. She had been raised in the Middle West. You could take your choice.
“Members of the rum mob who drew their own conclusions concerning her and then tried to operate accordingly, probably will recall the breath-taking fury she could show, and one or two must remember the pistol jammed into their ribs by way of making things clear.”
McCoy mentored Lythgoe and like her mentor, she prided herself on only smuggling the highest-quality spirits that weren’t watered down. When crossed, she was ruthless. One story involved her tracking down a rival who’d been spreading rumors that she traded in counterfeit booze. She confronted the poor sod in a barber shop, shoved a gun in his face and commanded that he leave Nassau or she’d pull the trigger.
While Lythgoe mainly operated as a ‘middleman’, she was more than happy to get her hands dirty in the field. She made several trips with McCoy to smuggle rum directly into the New Jersey. It was only a matter of time before her infamy caught up with her.
In 1924, Lythgoe was arrested on Nassau and charged with smuggling 1000 barrels of whisky and rum into New Orleans. She was transported back to The Big Easy to await trial.
While Lythgoe had arranged the delivery, she’d put her trust in a third party who’d tried to stab her in the back and sell the booze for his own gain. The man was captured by the US Coast Guard, which enabled Lythgoe to demonstrate that she was travelling elsewhere at the time of the incident. The charges were dropped and she returned to Nassau a free woman.
By April 1924, the US government had successfully petitioned to have its jurisdiction to the waters around the coastlines extended from 3 miles to 12 miles. This made rum running far more difficult, as smugglers would need to sell liquor further from land. Sensing the end of an era, Lythgoe decided to quit while she was ahead.
On retiring, Lythgoe moved back to America, settling first in Miami and then finally Detroit. She spent her final years writing her memoirs, passing away in 1974 at the age of 86.
The Queen of the Bahamas left behind a hell of a legacy, best summed up by long-time admirer Robert Wigley.
“She stands alone and fearless – a woman who would grace any London drawing room…she has commanded the respect and homage of this motley and dubious throng, and is known in the trade as The Queen of the Bahamas.”
Lythgoe wasn’t the only successful female rum runner. The story of Marie ‘Spanish Marie’ Waite is worth reading as well.