Congress Park in Saratoga Springs in the summer is the kind of zestfully green place where moms bring baby strollers and some people think the ducks can talk.
If they could, their ancestors would have passed down dark stories of what humans once did inside the Canfield Casino, the great Victorian hall in the middle of the park.
Today, it’s home to the Saratoga Springs Historical Society and its museum, but the Canfield used to be the place where wealthy “gentlemen” came to gamble with each other on warm summer evenings in the 1890s, after the track had closed. In the Saratoga of that era, it was pretty easy, with enough money, to satisfy the need for booze, narcotics and intimate companionship as well.
A new temporary exhibit on the museum’s second floor delves into it all, plus the gangster-dominated Prohibition era, when big-name entertainers like Bing Crosby and Sophie Tucker performed in the front rooms of “lake houses” out by Saratoga Lake while booze and gambling flourished in the back rooms.
“Vice: The Darker Side of Saratoga Springs” is the product of years of preparation, said Agnes Hamberger, the museum’s archivist. Here, people can see a real Thompson submachine gun — the so-called Tommy gun of gangster lore — and get a feel for the continuity through time of the various activities reflecting the impulsive and self-indulgent side of human nature that Saratoga Springs was once famous for.
Even in the Victorian era, Saratoga was known for its open prostitution, as well as the thrill of the horses and the turn of a card. Many of those staffing the “houses of ill repute” were New York City women who followed their customers north for the summer. The madams paid protection money to local officials, who generally looked the other way, as long as the women didn’t try to gamble — the best establishments frowned on that.
Lillian Russell was a famous actress and dancer, just to stick to her official professional description. Today, she’s memorialized on Broadway at Lillian’s fine-dining restaurant, whose upstairs banquet room is the Diamond Jim Brady Room.
Circa 1900, Lillian and Diamond Jim, who was one of the wealthiest gamblers to summer at Saratoga, were known to be good friends — very good friends, by most accounts.
Around town, tongues wagged about how close they were and whether their relationship was about emotion or money. Lillian is said to have ridden around the village on a diamond-encrusted bicycle Diamond Jim had given her.
They may not have been shy about flashing their wealth, but Lillian and Diamond Jim were profoundly savory characters compared with what was to follow. Mobster Arnold Rothstein — the guy alleged to have bought the allegiances of several Chicago White Sox players in the World Series of 1919, the same year he got married on Washington Street — made his first appearance in Saratoga in 1904. The exhibit raises the question of whether a bomb that went off outside the Canfield Casino in 1905 — when there was pressure to shut down the gambling operation there — had anything to do with him.
Rothstein may have been there first, but nasty guys with names like Costello, Luciano, Adonis and Lansky would follow, running gambling houses and later either making or smuggling booze, a lucrative business during Prohibition and into the Great Depression.
A Saratogian named Adam Parillo got involved with the Montreal mob and told too much of what he knew after a Montreal bank robbery in which a bank employee was killed. He came back to Saratoga, but only for a few months.
The Saratogian must have sold a lot of copies on Dec. 9, 1936, the day a banner headline screamed: “Gang Guns Slay Parillo, Saratoga (Man) Found Dying at Doors of Hospital.” Parillo named his killer before expiring, and the man was charged, but acquitted at trial.
The exhibit also includes a video loop of performances by Tucker, Lena Horne, and others who sang after supper in Saratoga. Hamberger said she remembers as a girl seeing an airplane flying over the city pulling a banner advertising a Tucker appearance.
The exhibit is underwritten by the Alfred Z. Solomon Fund. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.