CHATEAUGAY –– The north country has a reputation as a mostly peaceful and law-abiding region. But back in the 1920s, that was anything but the case for a number of residents.
Author Lawrence Gooley has been researching for his latest –– and 18th –– book about the north country, and has found barrels full of information about the area’s wild and lawless bootlegging during the Prohibition Era.
Mr. Gooley said he grew up in Champlain listening to stories about the border-running that went on between 1920 and 1933, the span of Prohibition in the U.S. While Prohibition was countrywide on this side of the border, it didn’t exist in our neighbor to the north, providing local farmers with ample opportunity to make some extra money. Nobody got rich, he said, but it was a profitable side job.
“Yes, there were many dangerous trips across the border and many wild chases,” Mr.Gooley said. “People will claim that certain men became wealthy from bootlegging, but most of the big money was made elsewhere. A huge amount of money was earned by bootleggers across the north, and it added nicely to their incomes, but most claims that certain families became wealthy don’t bear out.”
But some of the nationally notorious gangsters of the day were involved in or benefited from border bootlegging, including Legs Diamond, Dutch Schultz and others, he said.
Mr. Gooley said he has combed through more than 1,000 newspaper articles and other sources documenting the hundreds of people on both sides of the law who were involved in the area.
“As wild as many of us have heard Prohibition was in the north country, I can truly say it has exceeded those claims,” he said in an email. “It was a ‘problem’ for anti-alcohol folks, but for many people, there was a lot of money to be made, a lot of fun to be had avoiding the law, and plenty of partying at roadhouses and speakeasies.”
He also said there were plenty of moonshine operations around the area.
“Many people produced their own alcoholic drinks at home; others produced locally and sold it to local businesses; and some produced large quantities for wider distribution. Some very large stills were discovered by lawmen and destroyed,” he said.
The toll Prohibition took on law enforcement was great. Some were overzealous, while others were working with the bootleggers — both negatively affecting the general public’s opinion of them.
“At the local level, it became difficult, forcing jails to house a massive influx of individuals who were arrested. A step higher, the state police battled bootleggers and made many arrests as part of the job,” he said. “Above that, customs officers and federal prohibition agents were another story entirely: often aggressive, sometimes arrogant, and quick to pull the trigger without asking a whole lot of questions.”
Mr. Gooley said there were several infamous instances of lawlessness in Chateaugay, by both the so-called good guys and bad guys.
“A good example would be the Foran-Fitzpatrick case in 1925,” he said. “Foran (a Chateaugay attorney) was stopped by overzealous enforcement officers. He was manhandled and his car was searched. He was held even though no alcohol was found, and called upon the services of another Chateaugay lawyer (Fitzpatrick). The officers denied them the right to consult, and after protesting, they were both taken to Malone and placed under arrest.
“The relationship between the public and Prohibition enforcement officers was already strained, so this incident led to angry headlines, outrage among the citizenry, and fear of violence against any officers,” he added. “Eventually it resulted in two court cases and a big shake-up within the ranks of enforcement officers.”
Mr. Gooley said the border was loaded with “line houses” or “line stores,” where all kinds of trouble occurred.
“Franklin County had many such buildings that actually straddled the international boundary. For a long time they served as homes, stores, bars, roadhouses, restaurants, etc., and were often involved in smuggling operations,” he said. “Prohibition made them natural centers for bootlegging, and very popular party sites for folks on both sides of the border. A few international incidents originated in local Line Houses, causing strained relations between Ottawa and Washington during Prohibition — a time when the two countries were already having difficulty agreeing on how border issues should be handled.”
Goole has written 18 books about north country and Adirondacks history, including two high-profile murder stories and another book of 25 regional murders.
“I love researching and writing true stories of historyand true crime stories as well. This [latest book] will qualify as both,” he said.