Ben Kerr – “King of Rum Runners”
Benjamin Kerr was a tall man (over six feet) with broad shoulders and piercing eyes, he dressed stylishly and while in the rum running business he carried a revolver. He is noted in several personal accounts in C.W Hunt’s book (“Whiskey and Ice”) as commanding a presence that was terrifying while playing the role of rum runner. He always had a rebellious streak to him and never thought much of authority. He often disregarded the law as well as mobsters. He struggled with debt and money up until he entered rum running. Ben was an ambitious man who was always trying to escape his middle class life.
Ben Kerr was born on February 29th 1884 to Charles and Helen Kerr. Growing up Ben had a love for two things; the outdoors and music. His Uncle inherited the Post of Fish and Game inspector. He would learn a lot about the outdoors including boating from his uncle. His other love was fuelled by his mother who taught him how to play the piano. Ben would leave school at age 15 only obtaining a basic elementary education.
Plumber and Pianist
Kerr would become a plumber’s apprentice after leaving school in 1899. He would work more than 55 hours a week at this job. He continued to live with his parents in order to save money. Ben would lead the way for the Plumber Union despite the preconceived view on unions. He participated in protests and when the union was gained he sat as head of his chapter. On weekends he would play hotels, taverns or ice cream parlous as a pianist under the name Benley Kerr.
During World War one Ben Kerr was hired as a plumber in the construction of Royal Connaught Hotel in Hamilton, Ontario. After the construction he performed there. Here he met Rocco Perri the king of bootlegging. Ben had finicial troubles after the War. He was trying to support a wife and child while attempting to pay back some debt he had racked up building a big boat house years before. There was not a lot of work to be found during the recession years. He turned back to his other passion boats.
King of Rum Runners
America had gone dry but due to poor planning it made easy business for those who had a boat and knew how to us it. There is no proof of when Ben Kerr started rum running, Hunt speculated April 1920 because he was out of debt by August that year. No matter he was making good money. At first he had to run strong beer but Colby’s picked up production by 1922 and whiskey became the choice product. Ben by this time had two boats. The smaller one was used to pick up loads from Colby’s and the other which he manned himself transported to the other side of Lake Ontario. He would drop loads at either Rochester or Youngstown, New York. He also sold back to local taverns and hotels often doing so on Rocco’s territory.
In 1925 Ben had a new boat (Martimas) to challenge the Coastal Guard. Due the increase in enforcement of prohibition in the States Ben began running during the winter. The natural risks were greater but the Guard had to bring their ships in for the winter. Ben would be captured that year however, after a shoot out with the Coast Guard he was brought in. At a big loss to himself he was let out on bail and placed on the American most wanted list. This didn’t stop him. He ordered the making of the polywag and moved his operation to Presqu’ile in 1928. It’s speculated that he did this so he could use the islands dubbed “The Ducks” for coverage while he crossed the lake. In February 1929 Ben Kerr went missing and was never to be seen alive again along with his partner Alf Wheat.
The “bodies” turned up 6 weeks later. There are several things that could have brought about the death of Ben Kerr. The first and favoured by police and family is that Rocco Perri had ordered a hit on hit on him. The Second was that he had become one of the many victims to the Northern Bermuda Triangle in Presqu’ile. He was the most daring rum runner because of the chance he took running out of that operation during the winter when the waters are harsher. The third is that there was no body of Ben Kerr. The body was hard to identify after 6 weeks under frozen water and was assumed to be Ben Kerr.
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