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Gunning for Ben Kerr

author: Paul Dalby

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Rum-runner Ben Kerr ruled Lake Ontario until one fateful day...

WHO – OR WHAT – KILLED BEN KERR?

Perhaps Kerr is not a household name today but back in 1929, the discovery of Kerr’s bloated and battered naked body washed up on a stony beach near Colborne caused a sensation.

After all, this was Ben Kerr, the “King of the Rum-Runners”, the most flamboyant and fearless of the booze smugglers. In his 42-foot-long steel-hulled, all-black speedboat Pollywog, he had seemed invincible.

But on Sunday, February 24, 1929 Ben Kerr and his crewman, “Gunner” Alf Wheat of Belleville, challenged the might of Lake Ontario again in the Pollywog. Almost 80 percent of the lake was covered in ice and strong winds whipped up 20-foot high waves on the open water. None of this deterred Kerr, who knew the 53-mile crossing from Belleville to Rochester like the back of his hand.

Kerr and Wheat made it safely across, delivered their consignment of “neck juice” to waiting bootleggers on the American side, then turned around and high-tailed it home. They were never seen alive again.

Like all good mysteries, there is no shortage of theories and suspects to explain away the death of Ontario’s most daring rum-runner as the Roaring Twenties drew to its booze-sodden climax.

 

LADIES' MAN

There’s certainly no question that John Benjamin Kerr was a magnetic personality plucked right from a dime crime novel. A big man standing over 6 feet tall with broad shoulders and slim waist, he wore his elegantly tailored three-piece suits with panache. His piercing eyes commanded everyone’s attention, especially women.

Kerr never went anywhere without a .45 revolver tucked in the waistband of his pants. On board his boats, he carried a shotgun in each hand for a little additional firepower. A deep scar under his chin – courtesy of a close call with a U.S. coastguard machine gun tracer bullet – only added to his swashbuckling persona.

“He had two sides to him, at least two sides, and some people liked him and some people detested him or feared him. He was a very complex individual,” said Belleville’s C.W. “Bill” Hunt, author of Booze, Boats and Billions and an expert on the lake rum-runners.

Although Kerr was the scion of a wealthy, respectable family in Hamilton, he was “the black sheep” who dropped out of elementary school to become a plumber. The Kerr family had money but was reluctant to share it with young Ben.

Fortunately for Kerr, the same hands that could twist a pipe wrench could also tickle the ivories of a piano keyboard. Kerr played professionally as “Bensley Kerr” at local hotels and a popular downtown ice cream parlour, quickly building up a large following, mostly female.

“The rest of his family were doctors, government employees, dentists. He just didn’t fit in with that, although he did have that musical talent,” said Margaret Houghton, Hamilton Public Library archivist and author of The Hamiltonians.

The Kerr family – including brother Bob, a vice-president of Westinghouse – still hoped that Ben would straighten up, despite his earlier brushes with the police. Their hopes soared in 1910 when he used his life savings to buy a waterfront lot in Hamilton Harbour, erect a dock and construct 50 boat lockers to cash in on the idle rich’s new craze of power boat racing. He was 26-years old.

The same year he met and fell in love with piano teacher Louisa May Byrens, just 19. They married two years later and in 1913 their daughter Helen was born. Respectability beckoned.

“Logically, he should not have become a rum-runner; he should have become a journeyman but I don’t think that was exciting enough for him,” Margaret Houghton said.

“I think he fell into rum-running naturally because he had kind of a wild streak to him.”

But Kerr had mortgaged his house to build his boatyard just as a sudden slump in the boat-building industry crushed the demand for boat lockers. Kerr’s wages as a plumber could not keep pace with the expenses of a boatyard and a family.

It was the introduction of Prohibition, powered by the Temperance movement – a movement aimed at clamping down on public drunkenness among the poverty-stricken working classes – that pushed Kerr right off the straight-and-narrow.

Prohibition led to his first encounter with Rocco Perri, the Mafia chieftain of Hamilton, a meeting that turned Kerr’s head and his fortunes. Perri was cashing in on the new demand for ‘juniper juice’ after the 1916 Ontario Temperance Act made it illegal to drink alcohol (above 2.5 per cent) in public or private. Just four years later, the United States introduced its own prohibition of alcohol with the Volstead Act.

 

CALLING THE SHOTS

Perri hired Kerr to make some of his booze runs and it didn’t take Kerr long to realize there was big money in rum-running, but only if you called the shots. Kerr promptly turned independent.

Kerr succeeded beyond his wildest dreams because Prohibition – sometimes called the Noble Experiment – was a pathetic failure. While it was intended to cut back on crime and poverty with a bonus of improving public health, Prohibition heralded an era of murderous mayhem.

“Nobody expected Prohibition to pass,” observed Canadian criminologist Dr. Stephen Schneider. “It was the first great mass movement that met with success in the U.S. and politicians in their naiveté thought that people would fall in line with the new law.

“When they saw the number of enforcement agents hired by the U.S. Treasury, it was a joke. The government was definitely caught off-guard,” he said.

A financial backer of the Temperance movement, the Toronto Daily Star ran this shrill editorial in 1916: “Intoxicating liquors as beverages are no longer regarded as necessities of life. It seems likely that in a comparatively short time, the vast region between the North Pole and Mexico will be under Prohibition.”

But the Ontario Temperance Act itself undid those lofty proclamations. The act did not ban the actual production of booze by licensed distilleries as long as it was consumed in another country that had no Prohibition laws.

For years, Kerr and other rum-runners used false export permits listing the country of destination as Cuba or Mexico to collect their consignments of hooch directly from large distilleries like the former Corby plant in Belleville.

“They weren’t breaking Canadian laws but they were on that slippery slope,” says C.W. “Bill” Hunt. “The first four years after the Volstead Act, there was almost no American law enforcement. It did become a very serious game in 1927, but until then there wasn’t much of a coastguard risk; you just had to be careful not to get caught on shore. Probably the biggest risks were from other rum-runners.”

Illicit booze, most of it from Canada, flowed faster than an oil gusher into the States – between five and 10 million gallons a year and worth conservatively $40 million.

The army of Ontario rum-runners actually enjoyed more popular public support, at least among the drinkers, and were better organized and better funded than the forces of law and order. Illustrating their supremacy, Ben Kerr was one of the few mariners on either side of the law to use a new invention called ship-to-shore radio.
All in all, it was a lopsided battle. The big Canadian distilleries were booming and risk-takers like Kerr got very rich, very quickly. “King” Kerr quickly paid off his debts, built himself a grand mansion in Hamilton, hired 20 more crewmen – usually ex-soldiers or experienced mariners – and expanded his fleet of speed boats. He even bought a hockey team.

At his peak, Kerr’s fleet was making up to 18 runs a week across the lake to either Rochester or Oswego. Each cargo of illicit booze earned him $3,000 – more than a customs officer made in a year.

Kerr was made for rum-running, according to Dr. Schneider, author of Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada. “He had considerable boating skills and that’s what attracted him to this profession.”

Kerr came by those skills and his encyclopedic knowledge of Lake Ontario honestly. As a boy he frequently accompanied his Uncle Fred, an Ontario fish and game officer, on many tours of lakes and rivers across the province. His uncle also taught him how to shoot like a marksman.

 

FLIRTING WITH DANGER

Throughout most of the Roaring Twenties, Kerr brazenly used the port towns of Port Hope, Cobourg, Trenton and Belleville as his bases of operation. His preferred departure points were Presqu’ile Point and Belleville, and Kerr sometimes moored his boat right next to a coastguard vessel as an act of defiance. Hiding from the law wasn’t his style, and he often played the piano for his moll in a very public place like the Presqu’ile Hotel.

His legend grew by leaps and bounds as he survived one tight scrape after another. Even though the American patrol boats sometimes caught up to him, pouring a hail of machine gun fire at Kerr’s hulking black power boat, Kerr never backed down. Returning fire with his arsenal of guns, Kerr would then disappear at blistering speed into the inky darkness of the lake.

But by 1925, Ben Kerr’s luck started to turn. U.S. Prohibition agents caught him red-handed with a boatload of booze on his ship, Martimas, near Rochester. Kerr skipped town and forfeited his $5,000 bail when he heard U.S. prosecutors would also be trying him for manslaughter because the Martimas, running without lights, had sunk a boat and drowned two sport fishermen.

Kerr fled back to Canada and landed on the Most Wanted list with a bounty on his head. He later told one of his boatmen, “If they ever catch me, they’re going to throw away the key.”

But still he kept making the booze runs across the lake, and he could never resist taunting the American Prohibition agents, like this dare carried in Canadian newspapers: “Tell the coastguard to put up or shut up.”

In 1926, Kerr’s stock as a latter-day Robin Hood was further tarnished when his name along with Rocco Perri’s was linked to the liquor poisoning deaths of 45 people in Canada and the United States. Kerr was arrested and tried in Hamilton. But there was no hard evidence linking him to the scam of selling wood alcohol labeled as Canadian whisky, and he walked away a free man.

Kerr celebrated the acquittal by commissioning a new custom-built boat, the Pollywog, powered by two 180-horsepower engines that could propel him across the lake at 40 mph. Its massive hull was encased in steel to break through lake ice, and it wore a sinister cloak of black varnish.

On many of his lake crossings, Kerr would put into Main Duck Island, 20 kilometres south of Belleville and just a stone’s throw from the U.S. border dissecting the lake. A 1,000-acre haven with a sheltered harbour, Main Duck Island was home to farmers, fishermen and a manned lighthouse.

The island was controlled by a crafty old coot named Claude “King” Cole, an occasional rum-runner who was happy to play host to his fellow lawbreakers, notably Kerr, who always headed his boats towards the island when he had to dodge a bad storm, or evade the coastguard.

 

TOO MUCH CONFIDENCE

Today the island is deserted, the lighthouse automated…a distant outpost of Parks Canada, overgrown by poison ivy and encased along its shoreline by zebra mussels. But this was where most people assumed Ben Kerr had pointed his boat after he went missing in February, 1929.

Lake Ontario in winter was definitely no place for the faint of heart, as high winds drove big breakers onto the massive ice floes choking every bay and inlet. Sane persons stayed off the lake till spring and that included the other rum-runners, the coastguard ships, even the lighthouse keepers who turned off their beacons and went ashore to the mainland for a well-earned rest.

But Ben Kerr was not like everybody else. He had come to believe in his own invincibility.

“He didn’t have to be out on the lake, he could have got others to do it for him,” said C.W. “Bill” Hunt, who has been fascinated by Ben Kerr for 30 years. “I think he got a rush from it. And of course he had too much confidence.”

Kerr’s friends had searched Lake Ontario for a week by boat and airplane, before they finally trekked out over the ice to Main Duck Island, but there was no sign of him.

A month after Kerr’s disappearance, the news his friends had been dreading made the front page of the March 26th edition of the Toronto Daily Star: “Two Bodies Found in Lake Ice – believed to be those of Ben Kerr and Alfred Wheat”.

The legendary rum-runner’s body, identifiable only by a sock that his mother had knit for him, washed ashore in McGlennon’s Bay, south of Colborne and not far from the dismembered arm of Alf Wheat, distinguishable only by a tattoo. Credit for the discovery belonged to a local farmer’s son, Aaron McGlennon, who was out walking his dog along the shoreline.

The wreckage of the Pollywog, now in many pieces, washed ashore later and was positively identified by Kerr’s friend Grant Quick, owner of the Presqu’ile Hotel.

Brighton coroner Dr. Dure brought forward a verdict “that death was accidental; there having been no evidence of foul play”. So under heavy police guard, Kerr’s body was taken to Hamilton where he was buried in his family’s plot.

“He’s buried there because I checked it with the records, but his name is nowhere on the family tombstone. And they had a private funeral with nobody from outside present,” reports Hamilton historian Margaret Houghton. “It was just as if, in their eyes, Ben Kerr never existed. He was an embarrassment to them.”

 

FAMILY FEUD

This deep family bitterness has stirred a new theory about Kerr’s last hours alive. And the spotlight points directly to his wife, Louisa May.

“On that last day of his life, Kerr must have known he was running out of gas and would have contacted his wife on the ship-to-shore radio to get in touch with Grant Quick, the chap that he rented a cottage from at Presqu’ile hotel.” Bill Hunt said.
“I think Kerr would have sent a message through his wife to Quick that he would be flashing his lights so she could alert a rescue party. The ice really piled up in the winter time and would have prevented Kerr from landing on his own.”

Newspaper reports of the day did indeed confirm that a woman resident near Presqu’ile had seen two lights flashing on the night of Kerr’s disappearance.

“But Quick never heard from Mrs. Kerr. And it seems quite plausible that she made the decision not to contact Quick,” Hunt said.

Dr. Stephen Schneider adds his own ten cents’ worth: “Ben Kerr was a headstrong kind of guy who attracted the wrong kind of attention.”

But Schneider likes one theory that suggests the U.S. Coastguard sank Kerr’s black speedboat.

“The U.S. Coastguard were as corrupt as anyone, there was no shortage of hijacking by them,” he said. “And remember the Coastguard hated Ben Kerr. He was a real thorn in their side.”

It seems nobody can quite agree if the real culprit in Ben Kerr’s untimely end was murder, mayhem or Mother Nature.

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