Rum Runnin’ in the USA | John W. Hoxey

How did I get here? While searching for details on the life of John W. Hoxey (1866-1956), husband of my third great-grandmother, Josephine Turner Hoxey (1864-1938), I discovered more than I bargained for.

Picture it. (in my Sophia Petrillo voice)

1920’s Virginia. Chesapeake Bay. Prohibition. Schooners. Rum runners. Feds…

That’s where we’re headed. Let’s first start at the beginning:

John Walter Hoxey was born about 1866 in Nansemond County, Virginia. His parents were Cornelius and Sarah Copeland Hoxey. According to census records, John’s family lived in the Sleepy Hole section of Nansemond, now Suffolk, Virginia.

The History of Nansemond County, Virginia by Joseph Bragg Dunn

On 27 December 1899, John W. Hoxey and my third great-grandmother, Josephine Turner, married in Norfolk, Virginia. It was the second marriage for both. Josephine brought four children from her first marriage to Rev. John H. Turner (including my second great-grandmother, Hattie Norma Turner Harrison (1884-1937).

Josephine and John W. Hoxey would go on to have three children together: Robert Hoxey (1901–1966), Olander C Hoxey (1905–1978), and Mary Elizabeth Hoxey (1907-1982).

Here is John W. Hoxey and family in the 1900 U.S. Census

Notice that John’s occupation was described as an oysterman. Around this time in Virginia, being a fisherman or oysterman was one of the most common jobs in the state. The Chesapeake Bay afforded alternately plentiful and declining beds of oyster supply.

On a modern note, my mother has fond memories of her mother preparing fried oysters for their family Christmas breakfasts in Norfolk. From the Bay to the surrounding homes in Tidewater, oysters were and remain a staple of coastal Virginia life.

In the fall of 1900, there was some excitement by way of a newspaper account involving the theft of John W. Hoxey’s oysters, about $20 worth. According to the report, the men were sent to the grand jury—charged with stealing the oysters from a sloop belonging to W.T. Core. The sailing vessel was located at the Atlantic City flats (evidently, a repair dock). The 1872 Norfolk City Directory listed W.T. Core and J.D. Thomas as carpenters and ship builders under the company name of Core & Thomas.

A newspaper report documents that John had $20 worth of oysters stolen by two men who later confessed to the crime of stealing a sloop which contained the oysters and selling them for $5. Virginian-Pilot
Norfolk, Virginia
02 Nov 1900, Fri • Page 5

By 1910, according to the U.S. Census of that year, John was still working on a boat. This time, though, he was working as a waiter.

Pass the rum, we’re getting close…

How much alcohol was being consumed around this time?

From 1900 until 1915 – five years before the 18th Amendment passed – the average adult drank about 2.5 gallons of pure alcohol a year, which is about 13 standard drinks per week.

How Prohibition changed the way Americans drink, 100 years ago

The Volstead Act of 1919, the overruling of President Woodrow Wilson’s veto of the National Prohibition Act, sought to utterly stamp out Americans’ use, manufacture, and distribution of alcohol.

How Dry I Am by Irving Berlin

With Prohibition going into effect on 17 January 1920, came a new industry:


Somehow, our very own John W. Hoxey became involved in this dealing.

The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore, Maryland
02 Feb 1928, Thu • Page 22
The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore, Maryland
02 Feb 1928, Thu • Page 7

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, John W. Hoxey is reintroduced to us in the above news clipping as Capt. J. W. Hoxey, ship’s master of the Matilda L., a schooner. The year is 1928 and Hoxey’s in a heap of mess. Indicted by a Federal grand jury on ‘a charge of smuggling and transporting intoxicating liquors and of aiding in their illegal distribution,’ Hoxey’s actions were tied to a bigger ship and player in the game.

The Ida O. Robinson

According to Ellen NicKenzie Lawson PH.D.,

Ida C. Robinson. African-American John Gross captained this schooner with a crew of three, two of the sailors being white men. Gross took liquor from a rum runner in Chesapeake Bay and loaded it onto a barge going to New York through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

Smugglers, Bootleggers, And Scofflaws:
Prohibition And New York City

Let’s clarify the name of the vessel. Was it Ida O. or Ida C. Robinson?

According to the 1914 List of Merchant Vessels of The United States… issued by the Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of Navigation, the correct name of the schooner in question is Ida O. Robinson, formerly the schooner Hattie E. Giles:

Merchant vessels of the United States : with official numbers and signal letters and lists of vessels belonging to the United States government with distinguishing signals

United States. Dept. of Commerce and Labor. Bureau of Navigation

The operations of Rum Row in the Chesapeake Bay were run by The Feldman Gang, headed by Benjamin ‘Little Bennie’ Feldman. Feldman was president of the Bango Shipping and Chartering Corporation at 305 Broadway St., New York City.

Benjamin ‘Little Bennie’ Feldman
Could John W. Hoxey and John Gross be in this unnamed photo?

What ended up happening with John W. Hoxey’s federal case and his schooner, Matilda L?

The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore, Maryland
14 Mar 1928, Wed • Page 9
The Evening Journal
Wilmington, Delaware
05 Apr 1928, Thu • Page 5
The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore, Maryland
05 Apr 1928, Thu • Page 30

According to the Westegg Inflation Calculator, Hoxey’s 1928 federal fine of $350 was the equivalent of $5747.93 in 2021 U.S. dollars. He had to pay that “plus costs.” The cost of the loss of his schooner, Matilda L. isn’t so easily added up. Still, it seems that John W. Hoxey, unlike others, escaped jail time.

There were lots of changes between 1928 and 1940 for John W. Hoxey. According to the 1930 U.S. Census, his wife, Josephine, reported that she was single. John was not in the household and so far, I have not been able to find him in that year’s census.

Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, with The Eighteenth Amendment being repealed.

Josephine passed away in 1938 and in the 1940 U.S. Census, John was living in Philadelphia and reported that he was widowed. According to records of the day, it seems that John W. Hoxey had at the very least, a common-law marriage to Pearl Young. Indeed, she was young–er, being over thirty years John’s junior. John was head of the 1940 Philadelphia household in which Pearl and another young lady, Mabel Gaines were lodgers, per the census of that year.

Pearl Young passed away in 1943 and on her death certificate, she was also known as Pearl ‘Hoxter’. John W. Hoxey was the informant on the record.

John himself lived until 1956, when he passed away on 22 February in Philadelphia. His son with Josephine, Robert Hoxey, was the informant named, per the death certificate. Robert Hoxey reported that his father was a laborer in an unknown industry.

Thanks to availability and accessibility of the historical records today, we know that there is a bit more to John W. Hoxey’s life story. No doubt, there remains even more to discover about his adventures of rum-running in the Chesapeake and the USA.

We’ll leave that for another day. As of now, this post is another example of checking historical newspapers and leaning into the surrounding facts, especially of associated names, in order to learn more about our ancestors.

We have a situation. We need to find our people.

Yes and always.

Still, when we find them, there’s no telling what we’ll find them doing and running.

Cheers to that!

The Genealogy Situation Room

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