Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Taverns and Inns of Schenectady, Part IV: Prohibition and Speakeasies

Sketch of the ALCO Plant. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

Leading into the 1900s, Schenectady saw an industrial reawakening. General Electric and the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) were growing at a tremendous rates and both industries were a major factor for the rapid increase of Schenectady’s population. Other industries contributed to Schenectady’s growth, and soon, workers from all over the world were moving to Schenectady for work. This increase in population led to a need for more drinking establishments. Houses and hotels, the Vendome and Van Curler were two of the most popular, would pop up around Schenectady in the early 1900s and they offered food, drink, and lodging to people passing through. The need for workers in GE and ALCO was mainly fulfilled by immigrants, including many who were from Italy and Poland. The influx of immigrant workers into Schenectady helped Schenectady become one of the fastest growing and most industrious cities in New York.  Immigrants in Schenectady would often end up residing in the neighborhoods close to their workplace. The East Front Street Neighborhood was where many of this new immigrant group settled. Front Street’s proximity to ALCO and other factories made it a natural spot for workers to live in (see our previous blog post on the East Front Street Neighborhood for more information

The Hotel Vendome had several name changes throughout the 1800s. It was opened in 1850 as The Eagle and between 1865 and 1868, it was renamed The Carley House. The clock tower was added in the early 1890s and it was reopened as the Barhydt House. The final name change occurred in the late 1890s when it became the Hotel Vendome. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

An example of the punishment a
keeper of a disorderly house would get.
From the February 4, 1905 issue
of the Amsterdam Evening Recorder
Police and public officials did not consider this new immigrant group to be a large part of Schenectady’s criminal element, but the press would often have a field day reporting on crimes that Italians and Poles committed. Like much of the population, a large amount of the arrests of Italians and Poles occurred due to excessive drinking and many of those arrested were considered “intemperate” by the police. Crime occurred mainly within the neighborhoods that the immigrants resided in and both the Fifth Ward of Schenectady and Front Street were notorious for dive bars and houses of ill-repute. The Fifth Ward housed John Verra who was known as the “King of the Red Lights” and Jennie “The Terror” Salerno who, according to Robert Pascucci’s Electric City Immigrants, was a corpulent but muscular woman who ran a saloon with an extremely rough reputation. On Front Street, there was Raffaelo Negro’s “resort of all bad Italians of the neighborhood” and Louis Farone’s disorderly house on Monroe Street. Stories of crime in these saloons and taverns may have been favored by the press, but many immigrants were being arrested for smaller offenses like petit larceny, gambling, and in the case of Italian street musicians, disturbing the peace. Pascucci's book is an excellent resource for finding more about these neighborhoods and can be read online at

Advertisement for The Franklin from the July 25, 1914 issue of the Schenectady Gazette.
A hotel located several blocks from the East Front Street Neighborhood served a different type of worker. The Franklin Hotel at 225 Liberty Street was known to many actors, musicians, and others on the vaudeville and burlesque circuit. The Franklin was as a place where “a thirsty prohibition-era actor could always find something to wash away the dust after three-a-day performances.” The Franklin was owned by the Gartner family from 1913-1950 and saw some of the best vaudeville acts get a drink or have a meal at the hotel. Actors from the old Proctor’s theater on Erie Boulevard would go to the Franklin after late night shows where they would be served a night lunch and play poker throughout the night. During Prohibition, the actors would be served Nate Gartner’s “home brew” and just about anything else they could find. An interview with Nate Gartner from the Daily Gazette recounts the time that a 12 year old Milton Berle visited The Franklin. Nate says that Berle was on a diet to bulk him up a bit and that he was always accompanied by his mother. Other acts that lunched at the Franklin included Jimmy Cagney, the Avon Comedy Four, Stan Laurel, and even Harry Houdini.

While many speakeasies had tight security, they could still be quite dangerous
as seen in this article from the October 23, 1930 issue of The Saratogian.

During prohibition, rum runners and bootleggers would often drive up to Canada to obtain alcohol for local speakeasies. In his book Schenectady’s Golden Era, 1880-1930, Larry Hart recounts the story of Paul Gay who would regularly make the rum run from Schenectady to Canada to supply his own speakeasies. He was caught one time before the prohibition laws were solidified, fined $50 for illegal entry into the U.S., and sent on his way. Speakeasies would often serve wine, liquor. The low-alcohol beer, also known as near beer, served during prohibition was deemed inadequate and a popular saying during the time was that “Whoever called it near beer was a poor judge of distance!” Drinkers of near beer would often spike it with the alcohol that was sold at pharmacies. Bootleggers were often more likely to get highjacked than caught by the police. One bootlegger called the cops to report his vehicle stolen. The Schenectady Police found his heavily modified car on State Street. The bootlegger’s car had a special body and suspension in order to carry heavy loads and an armored plate over the gas tank. These additions didn’t stop the highjackers who drove up beside the bootlegger’s car, jumped on the running boards and pointed a revolver at him, and ordered him to stop.
A prescription for medicinal alcohol from Whelan's Drug Store in Schenectady. During prohibition, prescription liquor was one of the only legal ways to obtain alcohol. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Collection.

The Schenectady History Museum’s exhibit A Night on the Town in Schenectady 1850-1950: One Hundred Years of Fashion & Frivolity features fashion from the early 1900s and is a great depiction of what it was like to be a socialite during this time. Check it out at our 32 Washington location and stop by the library to learn more about Schenectady’s historic hotels and taverns.

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