Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Schenectady Beer Squad

Policeman Karl Peters manning the traffic signal
at the intersection of State and Centre Street
c. 1924. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle
Library Photo Collection.
The year was 1933 and the age of prohibition was over. Rum runners no longer had to run, people could bathe again as bathtubs no longer had to be used for making gin, and you no longer had to pay off your local pharmacist for a whiskey prescription. Bars and saloons began springing up across Schenectady, but some were still more used to the unregulated speakeasies of the ‘20s and early ‘30s and they didn’t always follow the new laws and regulations set up by the New York State Liquor Authority and Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.  By 1936,  the Schenectady Police Department started getting cracking down on these unlicensed bars, as well as other violators of Alcohol and Beverage Control Laws. That solution was to assign patrolmen Joseph Madden, Karl Peters, and Charles Cole to the newly formed beer squad.

The beer squad had the task of cleaning up grills and taverns that didn’t comply with regulations controlling the sale of liquor. Liquor dealers were not caught completely unaware as a two week educational process was enacted by the squad. Madden, Peters, Cole, and even Police Chief William Funston surveyed the city and warned tavern owners that those who did not obey the regulations would be harshly punished. One of the first victims of the beer squad was Thomas Burns a bartender at the Hotel St. Clair on North Broadway. Burns was charged with selling liquor on primary day and his bail was set at a whopping (for the time, at least) $500. This law forbidding selling liquor on primary and election day is thankfully now defunct (as we could all probably use a drink on election day), but it was meant to combat the tradition of trading votes for booze. This tradition goes back to George Washington who won campaigns by “swilling the planters with bumbo” which was a type of rum.
Advertisement of the Hotel St. Clair. They probably needed a new bartender
after Mr. Burns was busted by the beer squad.
By July of 1936 there was talk about increasing the size of the beer squad. This talk did not come from the Police Bureau, but from the Schenectady Wine, Beer and Liquor Dealer’s Association. They held a conference with Police Chief Funston, not to chastise or criticize the beer squad, but to call for more men to oversee the over 110 alcohol selling establishments in Schenectady. The association was also concerned that taverns outside of city limits weren’t being held accountable the same way those in Schenectady were. The biggest complaint was that taverns outside of the city were allowed to stay open later. Schenectady County also had a beer squad of three patrolmen who Sheriff Thomas Walsh said “make a careful checkup of all places selling alcoholic beverages.” By the end of 1936, the beer squad made 7 arrests and 5 convictions for violation of alcohol and beverage control laws, bringing in $1,025 out of a total $11,952 for the whole police bureau in 1936.

Patrol car from 1941. The beer squad was a plainclothes department, so there
would be no patrol car or uniform to tip off wary bartenders. Courtesy of the Larry
Hart Photograph Collection.
The beer squad worked closely with the special service squad to clean up the streets of Schenectady.  The special service squad was created in 1927 to investigate disorderly and gambling houses, many of which were probably operated out of the bars that the Beer Squad investigated.  Newspaper reports from the 30s and 40s show Karl Peters and Joseph Madden assisting in the arrests of those being charged with prostitution, operating a disorderly house, and running dice and numbers games. Schenectady was especially notorious for illegal bookie joints according to a Times Union article by Marv Cermak. Cermak writes about a Schenectady institution called the Bellevue Athletic Club that was a front for a bookmaker. The Bellevue Athletic Club may have started out as a legitimate sports club, but by the late 1950s it was known for Schenectady gambling kingpin James “Dietz” DiDonato and William “Wild Bill” Anderson, DiDonato’s “lieutenant.”
"Dietz" and "Wild Bill" (sporting sesqui beard). It was suspected that DiDonato
had ties to the mafia. When asked if it was true he stated that his Schenectady operation
was a "small town affair" referring to possible mafia connection in Utica he said
"I've only been in Utica once in my life. All the racketeers I ever knew were right here."
Photo is courtesy of
It appears that the Beer Squad was merged with the Special Service Squad at some point during the early 1940s as a newspaper report lists former beer squaders Joseph Madden and Karl Peters as working in the special service squad. Newspaper reports of Schenectady’s beer squad start to decrease around 1938 and 1939. By the mid-1950s other types of beer squads start to pop up like the Ballantine Beer Squad, the Schaefer Beer Squad and the Schlitz Beer Squad, all bowling and softball teams.

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