When it came to the illegal table gambling of the 1930s and 1940s, there was a general axiom: What happens in the Spa City stays in the Spa City.
Gambling halls and clubs operated nearly unfettered from the end of World War I until a nationwide crackdown was launched during the early 1950s. During their heyday, the operations pulled in notorious mobsters, big-name celebrities and a black economy that seemed to radiate money throughout the city’s expanse.
Everyone seemed to know about the backroom wagering going in posh clubs around Saratoga Lake — even the police and politicians were keen to it. But when it came to discussing the city’s relationship with illegal gambling, people clammed up.
“You’re next-door neighbor could be working on the tables out there but you’d never know it,” recalled longtime resident Minnie Bolster. “It didn’t bother us though, because it brought people here and money.”
Enough money that when the illegal gambling was finally quashed, Saratoga Springs entered what was perhaps its most pronounced and prolonged downturn. In the absence of casino gambling, the city struggled to reinvent itself as a destination and entered a period of atrophy that didn’t reverse until the late 1970s.
“I think that was more than just a coincidence,” said Jeff Clark, the president of the Saratoga Downtown Business Association. “When [illegal gambling] dried up, to some degree, so did the pool of visitors that were coming to Saratoga. The people who were indulging in the games here were fairly high stakes, so to speak.”
Now, more than a half-century after the last of the city’s gambling operations were shut down, Saratoga Springs appears poised to embrace the type of casino games that helped power its economy into the Roaring Twenties, through the Great Depression and beyond World War II.
Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo inked an exclusivity agreement with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in the North Country, eliminating the North Country — Lake George more specifically — as a location for one of three casinos he’s proposed for upstate New York. Earlier this month, the governor reached a similar agreement with the Oneida Indians to eliminate the central part of the state, leaving only four other regions as possible sites for live table games.
Among them, of course, are the eight counties of the Capital Region and Saratoga Springs, a city that already operates a quasi-casino. The burgeoning Saratoga Casino & Raceway has successfully operated the slot-machine style video lottery terminals since 2004 and would appear to be a logical destination for Cuomo to select, provided voters approve a constitutional change that the governor is seeking to allow seven casinos.
Table games could add another dimension to the booming economy the Spa City has experienced for years now and many city officials seem supportive of the idea. Some see it as a critical component to maintain the vitality of the raceway and the entire industry it brings to the city.
“If they’re going to have it, I think very definitely we want one in Saratoga Springs,” said Chris Mathiesen, the city’s Public Safety commissioner. “My concern would be if we didn’t get a casino, our racino couldn’t compete well with a casino operating near Saratoga Springs.”
Hotel card games
The dearth of illegal gambling is a relatively modern development for Saratoga Springs. Card games and wagering were part of everyday life at the hotels and inns that sprouted near the popular mineral spas during the early 1800s, even though gambling had been illegal under state law since the turn of the century.
Small gambling operations sprouted up near the city’s hotels and railroad station, but nothing grandiose. The first great gambling operation came to the city in 1869 on the shoulders of John Morrissey.The retired bare knuckles boxer known as “Old Smoke” decided to build an exclusive casino near the horse racing track he completed in 1863. Construction on Morrissey’s Club House was completed in 1869, with no expense spared.
Once open, Morrissey’s casino became the pinnacle of gaming in the city and one that operated on strict rules designed to deflect any type of negative attention from the authorities. He donated handsomely to local charities and hired local workers to operate his casino, but prohibited residents from entering the building and forbade women from gambling.
“I have lived in Saratoga nine years and no lady has ever gambled nor will ever gamble, in my house. By request, ladies have been admitted to look at the house and furniture, but the comment it has occasioned both far and near prompts me to decline any further visits from them,” he wrote in a June 1871 letter to the Daily Saratogian after the newspaper accused him of allowing women to gamble. “Furthermore my house is intended for visitors, not residents, of Saratoga.”
Morrissey’s casino operated successfully until his death in 1878. The casino then went through several changes of ownership before Massachusetts-born gambler Richard Canfield bought the building in 1893.
Canfield’s casino ran afoul of anti-gambling sentiment that had steadily grown throughout the state during the turn of the century. He gradually became fed up with the increasing restrictions being placed on his business and closed down the operation for good in 1907, eventually selling the building four years later to what was then the village of Saratoga Springs.
But the closure only put a temporary hold on illegal gambling in the city. The end of World War I and the dawning of the Prohibition Era infused new life into the city's illegal gambling trade, giving rise to an industry that would again proliferate throughout the city; only this time, it was concentrated around its outer limits.
Bootleggers shipping booze from Canada passed through the city. And the roadside inns around its outskirts were ideal places to make stops.
“You really have this resurgence around this time and the gambling casinos start developing around both Lake Lonely and Saratoga Lake,” said Joseph Cutshall-King, a former city resident and author who researched the lake clubs extensively for his fiction novel, “The Burning of Piping Rock.” “When Prohibition came in, it was almost a gift to gambling.”
Soon, the criminals smuggling liquor were finding a prime location to diversify their enterprise. Arnold Rothstein, a gangster noted for rigging the 1919 World Series, was the first of note to open a gambling hall in the city when he converted an old estate on Church Street into the Brook Club in 1921.
On the other side of the city, the father-and-son team of John and Gerald King opened the Newman’s Lake House, a converted inn that had a massive dining room to accommodate 500 people. Not too far away on Lake Lonely, bootlegger Louis “Doc” Farone started up Riley’s Lake House, an art-deco structure built on the foundation of a burned home.
Near Saratoga Lake, partners Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Joe Adonis — all younger associates of Rothstein — opened the Piping Rock Club during the early 1930s.
Many others also sprung up: The Meadowbrook, Smith’s Interlaken, and the Arrowhead. All of them masqueraded as swank nightclubs — all of them had backrooms devoted to gambling operations.
“They operated principally in the summer from June until the close of the track season,” said Cutshall-King. “Everything was top shelf. You didn’t drink rot-gut gin. You drank the top stuff from Canada.”
In the heart of the city, nefarious mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano founded the Chicago Club, an operation that attracted some of the highest rollers of the time. His club was split between a betting parlor and limited table games.
The clubs drew top acts from around the nation: Sophie Tucker, Bing Crosby, Desi Arnaz, Cary Grant, Jimmy Durante and George Gershwin to name a few. And they roared into the night with hardly any fear of reprisal from law enforcement.
After all, the entire city seemed to support illegal gambling — from the politicians that tacitly approved them to the police who worked security details when off duty. There was a triangle, in a sense, between the gamblers, the lawmakers and the authorities.
“The politician depended upon the gambler to finance his campaign at the right time,” said Richard Carbin, a longtime city resident and local author who wrote “Chipping Away at the Gambling Scene at Saratoga.” “Of course, when he became involved in government, he became directly involved with who got appointed police chief.”
Even when police did make an arrest, the case never went far, said Greg Veitch, an assistant chief with the Saratoga Springs police. The case would go before a grand jury, which would almost always fail to indict the proprietor.
“The police were turning a blind eye to this,” he said. “But the entire community was telling them ‘we don’t want you to enforce the gambling laws.’ ”
Illegal gambling was a gold mine for many locals who worked in them, even though they generally were prohibited from gambling in them.
And while there was some crime that came with the operations, the combination of the low profile most operators assumed and the strong-arm tactics that the gangster-run clubs incorporated usually dissuaded patrons from stepping out of line.
There was also a secrecy that came with illegal gambling — nobody spoke about it even though everyone knew it existed. Even years later, after many of the clubs had vanished, those who knew about the gaming halls seldom spoke freely about them, said Stuart Armstrong, a local business owner who has studied the history of the city’s illegal gaming.
“People who knew what was going on out there refuse to talk about it even 50 years later,” he said. “Dead silence. It was something that made them terribly uncomfortable.”
The roar of the clubs was inevitably quieted after an ambitious U.S. senator from Tennessee waged a crusade against illegal gambling during the early 1950s. Estes Kefauver conducted hearings that identified gambling as organized crime’s leading source of revenue — and he identified Saratoga Springs as a hotbed.
The high-profile hearings made it impossible for local authorities to ignore the flagrant illegal activity occurring in the city.
A grand jury empaneled in Ballston Spa later would indict Republican chairman James Leary for perjury and county Democratic chairman Arthur Leonard for conspiracy and bribery, though charges against both eventually were dismissed.
Without gambling, many of the clubs were shuttered. Some limped along for several years, but most vanished.
“Sin being conspicuous by its absence at Saratoga these days, no ear, however delicately attuned, can detect the click of a roulette wheel,” lamented Frank Sullivan, a Spa City native, in a 1956 article he wrote for Sports Illustrated. “The old palaces of chance are gone, or do not function as palaces of chance. Canfield’s Casino has belonged to the city for 40 years.
The swank Brook Club, out Church Street, burned in 1935, and Piping Rock, out Union Avenue, met the same end a few years ago. Arrowhead, at Saratoga Lake, is shuttered, and the Chicago Club, once a fantastic hellhole that roared in the center of the town, is silent and its whilom backer, Mr. Luciano, is living abroad, by request.”
Those now mulling the prospect of legalized table games aren’t under the illusion that they’ll reinvigorate the bygone days of Morrissey’s casino or the clubs that boomed around the city limits.
Many see casino gambling as a way for the Spa City to solidify it’s already strong economic foothold.
“Most of us feel it certainly could add to our economic vitality,” said Clark of the DBA.