Saratoga County

Off the Northway: Saratoga’s bootlegging history

Gambling isn’t the only vice Saratoga Springs has been known for over the years. The “sporting girls

Gambling isn’t the only vice Saratoga Springs has been known for over the years. The “sporting girls” who flocked to the track and gambling dens weren’t, either.

During Prohibition, oral histories say Carmello Carnelli’s grocery store on the West Side was a place you could get a glass of homemade wine for 25 cents.

Carnelli wasn’t alone in making his own in the era from 1920 to 1933 when the U.S. Constitution made making or selling liquor illegal. But not all the illegal thirst-quencher that circulated in the Saratoga region was made in cellars or sold so quaintly.

In fact, locals all knew that remote country barns and even city warehouses were storage points for Canadian or local booze heading for downstate and New Jersey, where it sold for five times what it was bought for in Montreal. Route 9, then a brand-new highway, was known as “The Rum Trail.”

Very little of that hooch passed through without the knowledge of a Saratoga Springs native named Louis “Doc” Farone, a bootlegger who knew famous mobsters and later had a hand in the illegal gambling that occurred at the Meadowbrook, Riley’s, and other lake houses out near Saratoga Lake.

“The rackets boss of the North Country in New York State during and after the late 1920s was a short, medium-built, well-dressed, quick-thinking American of foreign extraction known as ‘The Doc,’ ” a U.S. Treasury special agent named James A. Donohue wrote in a 1965 book called “Illicit Alcohol.”

“He moved in sporty circles, ruled with a firm hand and had a way of getting things done.”

Minnie Clark Bolster, the 92-year-old Saratoga Springs author and history collector, said Donohue’s account is accurate. “[Donohue] was very respectable. He knew what he was talking about,” she told me.

Prohibition was long over by the time Donohue was investigating Farone, but Farone — or at least his “boys” — were still running illegal back-country distilleries. They made booze from molasses, a concoction known on the street as either “alki” or “white.”

By Donohue’s account, the feds considered the Saratoga bootlegging scene a notoriously tough nut to crack — Farone associates like “Louis the Torpedo,” “Joe the Fox,” and “Harry the Jew” weren’t that trusting of new guys.

But Donohue took the challenge, and in the summer of 1939 he started staking out the Chicago Club — Lucky Luciano’s gambling club on Woodlawn Avenue behind the United States Hotel — where Farone’s men were known to hang out.

Over a few weeks, Donohue and his partner figured out which truck to discreetly tail, and caught on to an illicit still being operated near Olmsteadville in the southern Adirondacks.

But before the feds could move in, the still was broken down and its equipment hauled back down Route 9 to Wilton, where some barns at a chicken farm had long served Farone’s various storage needs.

Soon enough, Farone’s boys were setting up again at a pig farm west of the city, out in Greenfield. The feds even watched as a small dam was built to increase the still’s water supply, according to Donohue.

On Nov. 2, 1939, the pig farm was raided and men protesting their innocence were taken into custody. Next came a raid at a brick warehouse on South Franklin Street in the city that found 271 steel drums of molasses, along with 520 empty drums, Donohue said. One barrel was two-thirds full of alcohol. Most likely some driver had siphoned off for himself, Donohue said.

Farone was arrested and a trial was held in 1940 at the federal courthouse in Malone, up near the Canadian border, where notorious mobster Dutch Schultz had also once been tried.

On Aug. 2, 1940, Farone was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to two years in prison, along with another three years for trying to tamper with the jury.

I can’t tell whether he served the time. By the late 1940s Farone was in the gambling business with ownership interests in three lake houses. After the presidentially ambitious Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver led an investigation in 1952 that cracked down on Saratoga’s open sin scene, Farone in 1953 was the first to be convicted, at a trial in Ballston Spa. He served nine months, according to newspaper accounts.

Farone ran his operations from an appliance shop on Henry Street, down in “The Gut,” and was known to the locals for doing them favors and making personal loans. He died in 1970.

“I knew him as a friend,” recalled Bolster, who knew Farone in the 1950s. “His sister was my landlady, and I liked him. He was always going around in old clothes.”

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