Our Amazing History: Shootout at the Ranch

Scotch Whisky
Bottle of Scotch Whiskey

At 2 o’clock in the morning on April 10, 1925, several men drove a late-model moving van and an Essex touring car quietly up a long dirt driveway to Second House on the Benson estate in what is now Montauk County Park. Two men got out of the Essex, one a small-time operator named William Shauber who carried a pistol, the other, a young, former New York State trooper named William Delmadge, carrying his regulation Derringer handgun. Remaining in the van were its armed owner and two helpers. These five expected to participate in the theft of 100 cases of illegal Scotch whisky and rum illegally stored there. This was in the fourth year of Prohibition.

The scheme had been hatched by State Trooper Delmadge. Four days earlier, he had for the first time accompanied an older state trooper to Third House to pick up $500 cash, a monthly “fee” charged by the state troopers for “guarding” this illegal hootch. On the way back to the barracks where the money would be shared, wheels turned in Delmadge’s head. Why not, on his own, come back with friends and a van and steal everything?

During those years, Montauk’s fishing fleet captains fished by day and at night met ships from England at the 12-mile limit to haul boxes of liquor back to the little village of Montauk, which was then located on the arc of Fort Pond Bay.  Bootleggers from New York City would come out once a week to carry off the boxes brought in and stored at Second House, five miles away from the village. And once a month, the state troopers got their small fee. Everyone prospered.

Sleeping upstairs when Shauber and Delmadge knocked were caretaker Frank Dickerson, 33, his wife Loretta, 31, and in another bedroom their children Eleanor, 9, Phineas, 6, and Shank, 3. Dickerson told his wife to go to the kids’ room. He’d go downstairs and answer the door.

Threatened with guns, Dickerson had no choice but to lead the intruders to the many boxes stored in the basement and in two adjacent barns.   The five men expected it would take two hours to load everything. They got to work.

Unnoticed in the house upstairs was the family’s 70-year-old grandfather, also named Phineus. Watching things unfold from the top of the stairs, he ran down the backstairs, saddled a horse and rode at full gallop to the village to roust the fishermen. He got 15 of them, all carrying rifles, to drive three big sedans along backroads and up the driveway to block the escape of the surprised thieves.

A firefight ensued and Delmadge was wounded in the thigh, the van’s driver in the ear, and it was over. Delmadge, nursing his wound on the ground, was set upon by the fishermen, who ripped off his badges, belts and holster and then sent the robbers off empty-handed in the Essex and moving van.

Later, Delmadge was found by local police recovering at his girlfriend’s house in Patchogue, where he told everyone a story of being attacked by Dickerson while “doing his duty.” Other troopers then came to Montauk, arrested Dickerson, took him to Riverhead jail and put him on trial. When the real truth came out, the perpetrators wound up serving prison terms.

This story was widely covered in New York City newspapers, where updates ran for weeks. In the end, revenue officers chopped up the illegal hootch with axes, and the Coast Guard conducted a 10-night, all-out war by their so-called “Dry Navy” to detain rumrunners. Prohibition ended in 1933.

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