Feb 1, 2017

James A. Leary, Attorney-at-Law

James A. Leary and Walter Fullerton are shown at the beginning of their law practice
 in 1910.  Professional firms were allowed to rent space in city hall. Leary made 
good use of the location, being fully embroiled in city affairs and politics for 50 years.
Photo courtesy of Saratoga Springs: A Historical Portrait by Timothy A. Holmes, Martha Stonequist
My mother, Mary Margaret McLaughlin Mead, graduated from the Albany Business College in 1928.  Her first job was with the Leary, Fullerton, and Sweeney law firm in Saratoga Springs, New York.  She was soon Jim Leary's personal secretary.  Today, we would probably describe her position as Personal Assistant or Executive Assistant.  She catered to Mr. Leary's business requirements -- taking dictation, typing correspondence and legal documents, and maintaining his busy calendar of appointments.  I'm sure it was an interesting and challenging job.

"Park Edge," built by hotel magnate William Gage in 1881,
was Jim Leary's home from 1926 until his death in 1964
There can be no doubt that her job was probably made even more interesting by the nature of Mr. Jim Leary's many professional engagements.  In an interview with the Albany Times-Union in 2015, a 95-year-old woman who had worked for Leary & Fullerton in the 1930's, Minnie Clark Bolster, described him this way, "One of the lawyers was Saratoga County Republican chairman James Leary, long thought to have made illegal gambling possible in Saratoga Springs. He was indicted, and later acquitted, during a 1950's federal investigation into gambling in the city."  So my mother had become the personal assistant to an attorney who was both the Republican Chairman for the county, and who was deeply involved in the rampant gambling enterprises then operating with impunity throughout Saratoga county.  I'm sure those were interesting times.  To understand this situation more clearly, a little history is helpful.

Casino gambling had actually existed in Saratoga County since the 1860's.  According to Wikipedia, "...John Morrissey opened the Saratoga Race Course in 1863.  In 1866 he opened the Saratoga Clubhouse downtown, offering high-stakes gambling for the town's fashionable visitors.  The clubhouse was later bought by Richard Canfield and was expanded to today's Canfield Casino.  However, in 1907 Saratoga Springs banned gambling in the city and the casino was closed."

But then, in 1920, came prohibition.  
The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages.  Saratoga Springs soon became a center for bootlegging between Canada and Albany.  It didn't take long for gambling to reestablish itself in the county. 

On May 26, 2013, in a Schenectady Daily Gazette article entitled, New casino likely would be tamer than in past, author Justin Mason wrote, "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."

Further on in the article, Mason goes on to write, "They operated principally in the summer from June until the close of the track season,” said (Author Joseph) Cutshall-King. “Everything was top shelf. You didn’t drink rot-gut gin. You drank the top stuff from Canada.

Newman's Lake House, where coincidentally, my high
school class held its after-prom dinner in 1958
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.

The Piping Rock Club, owned by Meyer Lansky,
Frank Costello and Joe Adonis
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.

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.
James A. Leary, right, indicted on a conspiracy charge
yesterday by a Saratoga county grand jury, listens intently
to his lawyers E. Stewart Jones, left, and Michael E.
Sweeney, a partner in the Leary law firm.  Leary, 72-year
old Saratoga county Republican chieftain, has also been
indicted on a first-degree perjury charge.
Schenectady Gazette photo by Fraser, September 9, 1953
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."

My mother described Leary's role when she worked for him as a coordinator, arbitrator, and money-handler for the many participants in this tangled web of mob bosses, local officials, union leaders, and family-owned business leaders.  She spoke of meeting many of the individuals mentioned above -- Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Joe Adonis, for example.   She spoke of other interesting individuals whom she had met, including mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and the head of the Chinese "On Leong Chinese Merchants Association," the so-called "On Leong Tong."   This tong society operated out of its territory on Mott Street in New York's Chinatown, and had a monopoly on the laundry business serving the casinos in Saratoga.

The prosecutor in a 1953 case against Leary, attorney Paul Williams, claimed that Jim Leary "owned" the Saratoga National Bank.  He allegedly permitted mob personnel involved with local gambling enterprises to open accounts in the bank under false names.  He also spoke of police cars "convoying the take" to the bank at night.  A witness in that case, TV repairman Herbert C. Stone of Gloversville, who allegedly held 688.8 shares of stock in the bank as a dummy for Leary, went missing during the trial.  He has never been heard from.

In 2012, on the 58th anniversary of the intentional burning of the Piping Rock Casino, author Joseph Cutshall-King stated in an article on his blog, "We have at least four suspects: the three mafia members who “owned” Piping Rock,  Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Joe Adonis—and the fourth, Lansky’s dear friend, Saratoga Springs attorney James A. Leary, head of Saratoga’s Republican machine, owner of Mac Finn’s Drugstore, and one of the slickest criminals ever to avoid prosecution by New York State or the United States."

I wish now that I had asked my mother for more information about this interesting time in her young life.

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