Pirates, Bootleggers, and the Beryl G

Murder on the Salish Sea

The only thing prohibition era bootleggers had to fear more than the law was other bootleggers.

Prohibition took hold in Washington state in 1916, but failed to eliminate the state’s thirst for alcohol. Bootleggers were all too happy to quench the thirst, and smuggling whiskey from Canada became commonplace. Rumrunners operated throughout the Salish Sea, including the San Juan Islands. Since these bootleggers had little regard for the law, liquor piracy (bootleggers stealing from other bootleggers) became common as well.

One of the most famous cases of liquor piracy in the Salish Sea took place in September 1924. Rumrunner-turned-liquor-pirate Owen “Cannonball” Baker, along with a team that included Harry Sowash and Charles Morris, posed as US customs officials. They hired Paul Stromkins, a local fisherman, to take them out in his powerboat. On one of these outings, Baker spotted a vessel, the Beryl G, at anchor in the Haro Strait. He believed it was likely to be a rumrunner and a prime target. At midnight, Baker and his crew had Stromkins take them back to the Beryl G. Stromkins, still under the impression that Baker and his men were US officials, had no idea he was about to become their getaway driver.

Once aboard the Beryl G, Baker shot the captain, a rumrunner named William Gillis, and Sowash murdered the captain’s son, William Gillis Jr. Father and son were tied to the Beryl G’s anchor, their bellies slashed to prevent the bodies from floating, and they were sunk into the strait. Gillis’s liquor was then stolen, Stromkins was threatened into silence, and the Beryl G was set adrift.

The blood-soaked Beryl G was eventually spotted from the Turn Point Lighthouse on Stuart Island and taken to Friday Harbor for further inspection. After following a convoluted trail of clues, authorities eventually tracked down Baker, Sowash, and Morris. Baker and Sowash were hanged for the murders of William Gillis and his son in 1926. Morris was also sentenced to hang, but had this sentence commuted to life in prison.

The case of the Beryl G has captured imaginations for decades. In 2015, this story inspired Tiller’s Folly, a Canadian band, to create “The Bitter End.” The lyrics offer a chilling warning that comes too late for the Gillises: sometimes “the sharks that lurk these waters are of a human kind.”