‘Booze plane’ caught in Roswell in the 20s; An excerpt from the book ‘Treasures of History IV’ by Elvis Fleming recalls when a plane was caught carrying alcohol during the Prohibition period
It was November of 1927. Cuba took the lead in the world’s sugar interests, the U.S. president was Calvin Coolidge; “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” directed by Harry A. Pollard, was one of the most viewed movies released. The PGA Championship: Water Hagen took fourth consecutive championship at Cedar Crest CC Dallas. At age 23, Theodor Geisel, also known at Dr. Seuss, married his first wife, fellow author and editor Helen Palmer, 28, on Nov. 29, Vin Scully, American sportscaster (Los Angeles Dodgers) was born in The Bronx, New York, and Prohibition was high on the list of political pros and cons, or wet and dry.
Elvis Fleming came to the archives last week, the times that I cherish, when he is there. He happened to mention Prohibition here in New Mexico, and a story he wrote in his book “Treasures of History IV.” I couldn’t resist sharing this story:
Beacham’s 1927 Bi-Plane Booze Bust: New Mexico’s First
It was a cool morning on Nov. 22, 1927, when C. G. ‘Smoky’ Taylor of Roswell and Kenneth Oliver of Chicago set down their Waco-10 single engine biplane on the prairie near the Harvey Stewart Ranch about 15 miles north of Roswell.
The two men got out of the plane and proceeded to unload their cargo: five or six cases of American made whiskey. Suddenly, they saw cars approaching in the distance, so they quickly got back in the plane and started to take off, leaving the liquor.
It was the height of Prohibition, that much-maligned period from 1920 to 1933 when the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating beverages were illegal. The approaching cars spotted by Taylor and Oliver carried Federal Probation Agent Howard Beacham and a team of special agents and deputy sheriffs. They had been scouring the hills west and north of Roswell for two days and nights with binoculars, watching for the expected airplane full of bootleg booze.
When Beacham saw what the ‘rumrunners’ were about to do, he got out of his car and began firing at the airplane with a .30-30 deer rifle. One of his shots punctured the plane’s fuel tank and another disabled the motor. Foiled in their getaway, the criminals surrendered. Taylor was armed with a revolver and was a little slow to give it up.
Beacham gave credit to Special U.S. Customs Agent Juanita McDaniels, 22, of El Paso. She had spent five days on the case virtually without sleep, but how she knew where the plane would touch down was kept a secret. According to David A. Townsend and Clif McDonald in an excellent article in the January 2000 issue of the “Southern New Mexico Historical Review,” Ms. McDaniels often went undercover as a high school student to collect intelligence about violations of Prohibition and Immigration laws. Her younger sister, Thelma, was also an agent and usually accompanied her.
The Roswell Daily Record in those chivalrous, but ‘politically incorrect’ days, referred to Ms. McDaniels as ‘a pretty 22 year old girl’ and to the sisters as ‘two pretty girls.’ The paper took no note of how handsome, or not, were Beacham and the other men, on the arresting team! The Chaves County deputy sheriffs who helped Beacham with the bust were J. B. Coats and W. M. Crow.
Taylor was in deeper trouble because he had been armed. A 1923 statute and enhanced the law against simple transportation of liquor by adding the provision that made it a more serious offense to carry a deadly weapon while illegally transporting intoxicating liquor. When Taylor and Oliver appeared in court, they tried to beat the $500 fine or 15 years in prison penalty by claiming that an airplane was not a vehicle within the definitions of the 1923 law! But it did not work.
The capture of the ‘Booze plane’ near Roswell was the first airplane ever seized in New Mexico carrying illegal liquor.
Howard Beacham was a very remarkable man whose story is ably outlined by Townsend and McDonald. Beacham and his wife Juanita operated hotels and restaurants in Alamogordo before he was elected Sheriff of Otero County in 1920 at the age of 37. The ‘Eliot Ness of Otero County’ was determined to see that the prohibition laws were obeyed, which cost him some local support. Sheriff Beacham made certain that no bad guy would outrun him: his professional car was a Stutz Bearcat Sports car that he had seized in a raid.
According to Townsend and McDonald, the Democrats did not re-nominate Beacham in 1922 because of his enthusiasm for catching bootleggers. However, he continued in the role of Federal Prohibition Agent until prohibition ended in 1933, with jurisdiction over Lincoln, Chaves, and Eddy counties, as well as Otero.
Modern dope smugglers who hide narcotics in secret compartments of their vehicles or try to camouflage the real contents of their cars and trucks have nothing on the ingenious bootleggers of Prohibition. In February 1928, Beacham noticed a suspicious truck loaded with lumber going by his house. He followed it and discovered that the load was fake lumber; it actually encased a large compartment with ‘the single largest cargo of liquor ever captured by officials in the vicinity of Alamogordo….’ The haul was valued at $7,000.
Later that same year, Beacham was chasing a bootlegger when a truck struck his car. The accident put the agent in the hospital briefly.
Beacham seized a 1929 Nash coupe near Alamogordo in January 1931 that had 100 gallons of whiskey and 23 bottles of French wine hidden in the upholstery and secret compartments. The following month he and other officers captured a giant 355-gallon whiskey still in Eddy County, along with the two moon shiners who built it, J.O. Whitefield and W. M. Horton.
Beacham’s law-enforcement career did not end with Prohibition, Townsend and McDonald state. He served four more years as sheriff of Otero County, winning the elections of 1934 and 1936. After that he operated the Plaza Café in Alamogordo, while also serving as justice-of-the-peace and municipal judge. Howard Beacham died at the age of 80 on March 9, 1963. He left a heritage that is worthy of imitation not only by peace officers but also by all law abiding citizens of southern New Mexico.
“Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.”
“Funny to watch these Senators switching back and forth on Prohibition. Politics is a great character builder. You have to take a referendum to see what your convictions are for that day.”
“Communism is like prohibition, it is a good idea, but it won’t work.”
“Instead of giving money to found colleges to promote learning, why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as good as the Prohibition one did, why, in five years we would have the smartest race of people on earth.”
Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.