The Firey Phantom of the Shrewsbury River (A Halloween Tale)

The Volstead Act was enacted at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s, 1920. Consumption of all alcoholic beverages became illegal. The entire United States was “DRY”. However, it did not stay dry for very long. Prohibition opened up opportunities for entrepreneurs to supply liquor, beer, and wine to people, illegally. Anchored right off of Sandy Hook was a fleet of cargo ships piled to the gunwales with booze. All a guy had to do was take his boat out, load up, and bring the “Who-Hit-John” back to the dock. The gangsters handled the rest of it. At least that’s what Johnny told himself as he piloted “Mary & Me” back towards his Highlands home on the Shrewsbury River.

Like his father, and uncles, his grandfather, and great grandfather, Johnny Blake was a fisherman. At 36 he had spent his life and most of his childhood saving money to buy his boat, “Mary & Me”. She was a good sturdy boat, her engine strong, her bilge clean, and no leaks. And she was fast. Johnny also believed she was lucky. Since buying the boat and going further out in the Atlantic than the Baymen, his catch was much larger and more profitable. But it was still small money for such hard labor.

Just this morning as he walked out his front door on the way to the pier on the other side of the driveway, he fell through a rotted front step and nearly killed himself. He told his wife, Mary, to be careful, he would fix it when he got home from work. Now he was sure that he didn’t want to fix it. But he would. He promised. He smiled thinking of Mary as he approached his pier.

Later, after dinner, as Johnny was fixing the porch, his friend Mike dropped by. They talked for a while. Then Mike told him about a deal he made with a guy named Lillien. He would get paid a lot of dough if he would take his boat,” Gypsy”, out to what they called Rum Row and pick up a bunch of booze a couple of nights a month. He’d already made five runs. It was easy and sure money. This guy, Lillien, installed one of those radios in “Gypsy” and Lillien, his first name was Al, would tell Mike when the coast was clear and where it was safe to land the booze.

Alexander Lillien Jr

Then came the question. “Johnny, I told Al Lillien and his brother about you, and he wants to bring you on to do some runs. Whadda ya think?” Before Johnny could think, he said “I’m in.”

So, it began. At first, Johnny didn’t expect much. He figured the rum-running, as they called it, could supplement his fishing. No more second-hand clothes and furniture. Now he could fix some of the broken things around the house.

Time passed quickly. Real adventure has its ring, and the lure of easy money has a very strong appeal. Johnny had made 100s of midnight runs out to Rum Row by 1929. He rarely fished at all now. He would go out once in a while to make himself look legitimate. His wife, Mary, wasn’t aware that Johnny the fisherman, the man she married, had turned into Johnny the rumrunner.

One thing never changed though. Like his father and grandfather, Johnny banked most of the money he made on those runs. He lived modestly, still drove that old Ford pickup, and was always home for dinner and he did his own repairs to his house, truck, and on “Mary & Me”. That boat was still his pride and joy. What little money he allotted himself went into that boat. He was still a decent man; the taint of the gangsters hadn’t found Johnny Blake.

One night after picking up his load of booze, he spun “Mary &  Me” around and headed for shore. Johnny’s handsome face held an illegal smile as he hummed a popular tune. He was happy. This would be his last trip to Rum Row. He had gotten Al Lillien’s blessing to bow out, after all, he had made more runs than any of the others and never got close to being caught by the Feds.

As he rounded the tip of Sandy Hook and headed into the Bay, a glimpse of a shadow behind him made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He swore he saw a boat without running lots trailing him. Knowing the waters of the bay and the Shrewsbury River like he knew the back of his hand; Johnny pushed the throttles forward and the twin engines dug in. “Mary & Me” sped across the bay. At the same instant that he throttled forward, Johnny shut off his running lights. The effect was as if he had vanished from sight.

As his eyes adjusted now to the darkness, he saw them. Two boats, not one, coming in hard on either side. This wasn’t the Coast Guard. These boats were gangsters. The only reason that they would come after him would be if they were some other faction trying to cut Lillien’s crew out of the business. It must be Luciano’s guys, Johnny thought as he increased his speed, and cussed under his breath.

“What kind of engines do these guys have?” he wondered as the two boats were closing as if “Mary & Me” were idling and not running full bore. A man’s voice yelled, “Hey, pull over and give us your load and you won’t get hurt.” Johnny knew better and pushed the throttles forward to their limits. “Mary & Me” hurtled down the Shrewsbury River, the two boats on either side of her. “Have it your way.” The voice called.

Moments later, he saw light coming towards “Mary & Me”. It was a Molotov Cocktail. The bottle of gasoline, followed by three others smashed into pieces on the boxes of liquor astern of the wheelhouse. Suddenly, the afterdeck of “Mary & Me” was engulfed in flame. Johnny thought about beaching her just as the explosion blasted him through the wheelhouse windows and into the cold Shrewsbury River.

It was hours later. Johnny had somehow made it to the riverbank. His handsome face was badly burned, and he was correct in assuming that both his legs were broken. But he had survived. He looked around with his one remaining eye and saw that he was lying on the transom of his boat, with her name, “Mary & Me”, elegantly painted across the charred wood. She had saved his life even though she lost hers.

He had always held the notion that boats and ships had a life and personality of their own. Johnny never went out to sea again. He never bought a new boat, though he could afford to. He retired and stayed home with Mary, who tended his battered body for the next ten years.

Upon Johnny’s death and ever since, on dark moonless nights, the ones they call a Smuggler’s Moon, residents along Sandy Hook Bay and the Shrewsbury River see her. She comes down the river shrouded in mist. Then the fire begins. Before long she is ablaze. Then they can hear a man screaming. Then the specter fades and the screaming stops and the only sound that remains is the lapping of the river. Until that is, the next moonless night.

Do you have a historical story, legend, or mystery here at the Jersey Shore and Sandy Hook Bay? If you do, I’d like to hear it.

Email your story to

Related Articles

Free Email Updates
Get the latest content first.
We respect your privacy.