“It is apparent to this committee that open gambling in Saratoga has existed for many years with the knowledge of the New York State Police and of public officials and the local political organizations that control such public officials … But what is equally disturbing to the committee is that these Saratoga operations contributed enormous sums to the coffers of some of the most notorious hoodlums in the country.”
Tourists have swarmed Saratoga for two centuries. Many come for the water, seeking the professed curative powers of the 25 pungent mineral springs that gurgle up there.
But vice kept some of them coming back.
Teetotaler William Hay published a 153-page screed about Saratoga’s debauchery in 1850, describing the town as “a perfect personification of all mischief and malignity.”
He called Saratoga a place where “wine-bibbing sinners … minister at its altars in Druidical dens of darkness, drunkenness and debauchery, deep as gambling hells, resembling Pluto’s dread domain.”
The poor man would’ve croaked over the profligacy that lay just ahead.
Sanctioned by Tammany Hall and other political gangs of New York, the enterprising John Morrisey, a former bare-knuckles prizefighter and gambling impresario in the big city, built the Saratoga Race Course in 1863.
Six years later, he expanded his stake by opening The Club House, a high-falutin’ casino that attracted the rich and their heavy wallets. Customers included Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mark Twain and Ulysses S Grant.
Police looked away, particularly during the August thoroughbred campaign, when high rollers trundled to town with luggage sagging with cash.
Prohibition opened new doors to Pluto’s domain as Saratoga’s political bosses sanctioned expansion of gambling at summer-season luxury resorts known as lake houses — The Arrowhead, Riley’s, Newman’s, Piping Rock and others.
These were carpet joints — square-dealing spots where patrons with a jones for the bones or roulette could lose their money fair and square, as opposed to lowdown clip joints. A-list entertainers like Bing Crosby, Sophie Tucker and Jimmy Durante added validity and filled their ballrooms.
Many of the East Coast’s most notorious gangsters got a hunk of the pie, including Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky.
And they operated openly under the nose of law enforcement.
In 1926, a state gambling investigation prompted Judge Timothy Heffernan to quip that any Saratoga school boy could lead you to six different casinos, but local cops couldn’t find one with a map and a compass.
Police did pull an occasional make-believe raid, but everyone in town understood that Saratoga’s powerful police boss, Arthur Leonard, was in the pocket of the lake houses.
After one police incursion in 1939, business owners squawked that it cast economic gloom on the town after the moneyed class departed in a hurry. Police got the message loud and clear, and Saratoga stayed dirty for most of the 1940s.
But Sen. Kefauver’s probe spoiled the sinning.
Testimony by John Gaffney, the state police superintendent, was particularly damning. He revealed that Gov. Thomas Dewey was an enabler of Saratoga’s vice.
Gaffney said he had tossed a detailed undercover report on lake house gambling in the wastebasket because he would be “out on the sidewalk” — sacked by Dewey — if he had raided the carpet joints.
Saratoga police Detective Walter A’Hearn admitted to Kefauver that he had spent more than a decade as a well-paid casino bag man, ferrying cash between the lake houses and local banks in his police car.
By one estimate, the carpet joints paid $50,000 a week in bribes. Every suit-and-tie and tin star in town was looped in — prosecutors, political bosses, the sheriff and the police chief.
Kefauver forced Dewey’s hand: Through gritted teeth, the governor ordered an investigation.
Days after the close of the horse racing season in 1952, a grand jury indicted mobster Lansky — identified as an unemployed tool and die maker — and about 35 others as purveyors of gambling in Saratoga.
The case dragged out over two years and burned through $500,000. In the end, 27 men and two businesses were fined a totaled of $28,000 — less than the take on a so-so summer week at a single Saratoga casino.
Lansky was the only defendant to go to jail. He served 24 days.
But the case shuttered the lake houses. They closed one by one — and then burned.
A few years later, the writer Frank Sullivan, a Saratoga native, grumbled that his beautifully soiled hometown was closed up tighter than a Catholic confessional.
“Sin being conspicuous by its absence at Saratoga these days,” Sullivan wrote in 1956, “no ear, however delicately attuned, can detect the click of a roulette wheel.”
Lansky, et al., had moved on — to Las Vegas.
Casino gambling returned to Saratoga nearly 15 years ago. Sullivan wouldn’t recognize the new carpet joints.