The only criminal executed by the Coast Guard was a Prohibition-era rum runner

Alderman and a fellow rum runner were intercepted by a Coast Guard cutter while making a run between Florida and the Bahamas.
rum runner during prohibition

The Coast Guard is a unique branch of the military (yes, people, it is technically a military branch). It has a wartime role under the Department of the Navy, but it spends most of its time in a law enforcement capacity under the Department of Homeland Security, and it’s had that dual role since January 28, 1915.

What’s unique about it is Title 14 of the United States Code, which gives it its law enforcement authority. All Coast Guard commissioned officers, warrant officers, and petty officers have this authority. They are also customs officers.

Before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2022, however, the Coast Guard’s authority stemmed from the Department of Transportation and, before that, the Department of the Treasury. It was as Treasury Agents, that the modern Coast Guard carried out its first and only execution of a prisoner.

In January 1920, the Volstead Act went into effect, designed to enforce the 18th Amendment, the prohibition of intoxicating beverages inside the United States, specifically, the manufacture, sale, production, and transportation of those beverages. The legislation worked; Americans, on the whole, drank much less alcohol. For those Americans who continued to drink, however, it created a huge demand and an equally large and lucrative black market.

prohibition map
Front page headlines, and map representing states ratifying Prohibition Amendment (Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution), as reported in The New York Times on January 17, 1919.

We all pretty much know what happened from there. Criminal gangs conspired to produce or import alcohol in any way they could. If they weren’t making it here at home, they would import it from Canada, the Caribbean, or Europe. The stakes were high, but the money to be made was worth the risk.

James Alderman was a Florida native, a fisherman and field guide before Prohibition. After Prohibition went into effect, his resume was perfect for smuggling in booze from countries near Florida – and he did just that. He moved from Fort Myers to Miami and began a seven-year smuggling operation that would earn him the nickname “King of the Rum Runners”

He wasn’t limited to rum running, however. For the right price, he would bring anything the gangs were willing to pay top dollar for, he even smuggled illegal immigrants in from the Bahamas and Cuba. He was also ruthless in his work. The man who was an honest fisherman before World War I became “the Gulfstream Pirate” in a few short years.

coast guard against rum runner
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Seneca.

It all came crashing down in 1927. Alderman and a fellow rum runner were intercepted by a Coast Guard cutter while making a run between Florida and the Bahamas. At the time, the Coast Guard was under the Department of the Treasury and it was the Treasury who was mostly tasked with enforcing the Volstead Act. Boarding a booze smuggler was right in their wheelhouse.

In trying to escape the Coast Guard, Alderman killed Coast Guardsman Sidney C. Sanderlin and wounded Machinist Victory Lamby. He also killed Secret Service agent Robert Webster. His boat was then overrun by Coast Guardsmen, he and his accomplice were taken prisoner and hauled to Jacksonville.

Alderman was sentenced to death in federal court. During his incarceration, however, he’d found God and began converting other prisoners to Christianity. Based on his newfound faith, he made an appeal for clemency, but President Herbert Hoover denied it. He was supposed to be executed at the Broward County jail, but because maritime law deemed him a pirate, it was decided to hang him at Coast Guard Station in Fort Lauderdale.

Alderman was hanged on August 17, 1929, on a gallows Coast Guard Chief Carpenter’s Mate Olaf Tobiason built just for the occasion.