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.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Chester Arthur and the Birther Scandal of 1881

Chester A. Arthur as a young lawyer.
Courtesy of the National Portrait
Gallery at the Smithsonian.
The early 1880s were a turbulent time for American politics. In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes declined to seek re-election leaving the task to James Garfield who took office on March 4th, 1881. Five months later, Garfield would be shot by assassin Charles Guiteau. Garfield lingered until September 19th when his health took a turn for the worst and he passed away. This left the presidency open to Garfield's vice-president, Chester Arthur. One year with three presidents. Surprisingly, this had happened once before in 1841 with a similar situation when Martin Van Buren was defeated by William Henry Harrison. Harrison died shortly after his inauguration and vice-president John Tyler took office. As a former supporter and benefactor of the spoils system, Chester Arthur did not instill the most confidence in people. His bad political reputation aside, one other thing caught the eye of his critics, Chester's birthplace.

Although Chester Arthur lived in Schenectady, he wasn't born there. His father, William Arthur was an Irish immigrant, Baptist minister, and a teacher who often traveled from his home in Fairfield, Vermont over the border to Canada to teach and preach. Malvina Arthur, Chester's mother, also had family in Canada who she stayed with often. This, combined with the fact that his family frequently moved created problems for Chester during his nomination for vice-presidency.

Chester lived at this house on the corner of Liberty and Yates
while attending Union. Later on, the building would
become the Jersey Ice Cream Factory. Courtesy of the
Grems-Doolittle Photo Collection
By 1832, the Arthurs left Fairfield and eventually made their way over to Schenectady, New York. The family lived on the corner of Liberty and Yates Street in a house that would eventually become the Jersey Ice Cream Factory. Chester enrolled at Union College in 1845 and remained there until his graduation in 1848. Arthur's first foray into politics came during his teenage years. Chester firmly supported the Whig Party and even threw a few punches for them when he got into a brawl with students who supported James K. Polk. In addition to his schoolyard political melees, young Chet also helped throw the Union school bell into the Erie Canal as a prank.

After his education at Union, Chester Arthur moved around New York and Vermont where he taught and studied the law at State and National Law School in Ballston Spa. Chester moved to New York City to work at the law office of Erastus D. Culver who was an abolitionist lawyer and friend of the Arthur family. After being admitted to the bar, Arthur joined the firm which became Culver, Parker, and Arthur where he worked on several anti-slavery cases. One of the most notable was the case of Elizabeth Jennings Graham who was denied a seat on a trolley because she was black. Winning this case resulted in the desegregation of New York City streetcar lines.

The Chester A. Arthur statue at Union College.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
During the Civil War, Arthur was commissioned as a brigadier general in the New York State militia's quartermaster department where he excelled at the position and was promoted to quartermaster general. After the Civil War is when Arthur really began getting involved in politics. Arthur became good friends with Utica's Roscoe Conkling who assisted Arthur in getting lucrative positions. Arthur would be appointed to the Collector's position at the Customs House at the Port of New York where he made over $50,000 a year, which was more than the President and more than enough to fund Arthur's growing pants collection.

While Arthur had many friends in Washington, President Rutherford B. Hayes was not one of them. Hayes pledged to reform the spoils system that directly benefited Arthur, Conkling, and the like. Arthur was able to survive in the political arena by campaigning for politicians who would turn a blind eye to Hayes' attempted reforms and appoint Conkling's men.

Campaign poster for the Garfield and Arthur ticket. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By 1880,  Hayes had declined to enter the presidential race which left the Republican ticket open. James Garfield was the popular choice for the Republican nominee and Levi P. Morton was his first choice for VP. Morton consulted with Roscoe Conkling who convinced him to decline the position. Garfield's supporters then went to Arthur who accepted against Conkling's wishes. After Garfield's assassination by Charles Guiteau, Arthur was sworn in as President of the United States where he exceeded both parties expectations by reforming Civil Service.

"I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody's damned business." - Chester A. Arthur to a temperance reformer.

Back to the birther controversy! Republican bosses reportedly wanted proof of Arthur's birthplace before he was sworn in, which he either could or would not produce. The Democrats caught wind of this and hired a lawyer and political opponent of Arthur named Arthur Hinman to investigate Chester's birth. At first, Hinman accused Chester of being born in Ireland and immigrating when he was 14 years old. This was proven to be untrue and easily disproven. Hinman wasn't done with Arthur yet, though

He dug a little more into this created controversy and found Arthur family acquaintances who claimed that Chester was born in Canada. While hearsay from some friends doesn't seem like the best evidence, it was good enough for Hinman who wrote a short book called How a Subject of the British Empire Became President of the United States. Neither of Hinman's claims gained traction in the public eye, nor did they seem to affect the Garfield/Arthur ticket. Chester Arthur always insisted that he was born in Fairfield, Vermont.  As may be expected, Vermonters claim Chester A. Arthur as the first president from Vermont, while some Canadians think Chester was the first Canadian president. A 2009 article in the Boston Globe looked into this controversy and found no record of Chester Arthur's exact birthplace so we may never know exactly where Arthur was born.