Snuffing out smugglers in 1927


The Prohibition era was a crazy time when lawmen were trying to uphold a law they couldn’t enforce, and citizens of otherwise sound judgment were imbibing without a second thought, fiery concoctions closely akin to paint remover.

City beer barons transported their illicit liquor in large truckloads and Model A Fords rattled over dirt roads carrying lesser amounts brewed in back woods and farmhouse cellars. Chautauqua County, with its easy access to Lake Erie, had its own share of bootleggers operating under the nose of the law.

One spring day in 1927 Police Chief Edward Cranston of Westfield and Trooper Dackle of the State Police, stationed at Portland, received a call from the Sheriff’s Department, also stationed in Portland, that bootleggers James Simpson and Conley Hill, both of Westfield, were expected to land that night at Mason’s Beach near Ripley. Accordingly, the lawmen went to Ripley and waited at the beach.

The smugglers’ boat, a 50-foot launch, was sighted a quarter of a mile out in the lake shortly before 2:20 a.m. The officers rowed out to the craft, (one wonders why they didn’t wait for the suspects to land), and demanded a surrender at gunpoint. The two-man crew seemed at first inclined to put up a fight, but eventually dropped their guns into the lake.

The officers boarded the boat, and with Chief Cranston at the wheel, started for a landing place at Barcelona. When almost there, the boat ran aground and while the Chief was busy trying to refloat it, the two bootleggers suddenly jumped overboard. Both appeared to be good swimmers and rapidly disappeared into the darkness.

In an effort to recapture the prisoners, the officers boarded their rowboat, which was being towed behind the launch. They heard a cry from Simpson and rowed toward the sound, but were unable to locate him. After a fruitless search and hearing no more of him, the two officers returned to Barcelona minus their prisoners. The bootleggers’ launch was removed from the shoal the following morning and towed to Barcelona where customs officials, summoned from Buffalo, guarded the cargo of ale and whiskey, valued at $25,000.

Simpson’s body was recovered by fishermen early the same day, but continued efforts to find Hill proved fruitless. There were several schools of thought on the ultimate fate of the two bootleggers. Chief Cranston’s theory was that Hill gained the shore as the Chief said he had heard no cry for help from him.

Local fishermen were of the opinion that Simpson died trying to save his companion. Coroner E.B. Osgood, who examined Simpson’s body, stated simply that the victim had drowned as a result of cramps. Evidence came up later that Hill had been caught in a similar escapade, when he was struck by a bullet, but swam a mile to shore and escaped.

Agnes “Pat” Pfleuger is a Dunkirk resident who formerly worked at the OBSERVER writing articles on the area’s history.