William “Bill” McCoy was one of the most famous and respected “rumrunners” of America’s Prohibition era, and, for a time, the most wanted man in America – despite the fact that he never actually broke the law.

Using historical images, dramatic recreations, distinctive animation and interviews with authors and experts, the documentary The Real McCoy, winner of five Boston/New England Emmy® Awards, explores his fascinating true story, revealing how he became a national symbol for defying the most unpopular legislation in U.S. history.

When to Watch

The film is now available to stream on this page in the video player above and at video.cptv.org. 

More About the Program

Born in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and a transplant to Florida, McCoy loved sailing, and established a successful career as a skilled yacht builder and sailor. During Prohibition in the 1920s, McCoy’s business fell on hard times, and he found that transporting cases of liquor from the Bahamas to New York could make him richer than he ever imagined. Keeping his schooner three miles off the coast, in international waters, McCoy’s ship Arethusa acted as a floating liquor store for smaller boats to come out and transport the illicit stash to the speakeasies of New York.

The quality of McCoy’s spirits was as famous as his ability to transport the alcohol along New York’s “rum row.” Operating under a strict moral code, he never dealt in homemade moonshines, only genuine, top-quality imported spirits, and his patrons loved him for it. While his competitors adulterated their liquor with turpentine or wood alcohol (resulting in “booze” and “hooch”), McCoy’s alcohol was always uncut, earning him the nickname “The Real McCoy.” The expression caught on, and he became a household name.

Eventually the success of this gentleman crook began to embarrass the U.S. government, and in November of 1923, the U.S. Coast Guard was ordered to arrest McCoy, even though he was in international waters. The Coast Guard fired on McCoy’s unarmed boat, flying the British flag in international waters, causing McCoy to surrender, even though his actions had technically been legal.

McCoy nevertheless pleaded guilty and served nine months in jail, then retired with his family in Florida. Prohibition continued for another 10 years, but McCoy was never involved in rum-running again. However, he would remain forever entwined into the fabric of American folklore. The Real McCoy recounts the extraordinary life and legendary exploits of this man who personified the tumultuous times in which he lived.

The Real McCoy is produced by Telemark Films, LLC and Flat Hammock Press. Connecticut Public Television is the presenting station for The Real McCoy. It is distributed nationally by American Public Television (APT).