Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 1999, Lynn Woods took a look back at the lawless days of Prohibition in the Adirondacks.
The headlines of the December 31, 1925, Ticonderoga Sentinel indicated that the war between bootleggers and ordinary citizens on one side and state troopers and federal prohibition agents on the other—waged in the Adirondacks since the Volstead Act had become national law on January 17, 1920—had gotten out of hand. A few evenings before, on the Chestertown-Riverside road, a forty-six-year-old woman named Mrs. Peter Sanders had been shot in the head by police while riding home in a Dodge touring car driven by her son.
“The officers were standing in the highway and as the Sanders car came upon them one of the officers lighted his flashlight and ordered the car to stop,” reported the Sentinel. “Young Sanders claims that the flashlight blinded him and he was able to see the three forms in the road only dimly. Believing them to be highway men he speeded up the car to pass.” The next moment, Sanders heard shots and yelled for the family to duck. “The windshield was broken and Mother said she was shot,” the young man testified. No liquor was found in the auto, and it was later established that the car had only been going twenty-five miles per hour during the alleged getaway. The law-enforcement men claimed they had aimed at the tires of the Sanders car—a common ploy of troopers hot on the chase of a bootlegger’s auto—but that story didn’t jibe with the facts. Trooper J. R. Cannon was convicted of first-degree assault (fortunately, Mrs. Sanders recovered from her injuries) and received a sentence of thirteen months to ten years at the state reformatory in Elmira.
Mrs. Sanders wasn’t the only innocent bystander to catch a bullet. The year before, a state trooper stationed in Malone had shot and killed a Schenectady man during a chase through the mountains near Keene. No liquor was found in that car either. And the November 1922 death of a “good, law abiding citizen” of Plattsburgh, shot by a trooper named Quinn after the man refused to stop at a roadblock, prompted “frequent threats to lynch Quinn,” according to the Ticonderoga paper. The troopers also got into trouble for bumping off bona fide bootleggers. In June 1929 the killing by border patrolmen of a twenty-year-old Plattsburgh youth, who had allegedly just gotten into the business, led to an investigation and a statement from President Hoover condemning the use of arms by border guards. It also prompted citizens to protect themselves: “Dozens of automobile drivers throughout the Adirondack region are now driving with these large signs attached to the rear of their cars: ‘Don’t shoot. We have no liquor,”‘ reported the Sentinel.
Prohibition, which was the law for thirteen long years—repeal finally happened on December 5, 1933—was responsible for the most lucrative, invincible, illicit industry ever to take root in the North Country. In its wake came an unprecedented wave of crime and violence, manifested not only in bootlegging but also in an epidemic of car thefts (in 1926 the Adirondack Automobile Club suggested owners record the colors of their vehicles to better retrieve them in the event of a theft), hijackings, gang murders, and reckless driving that frequently resulted in horrific car crashes. “Crime has increased at least 300 per cent in Clinton County due to violations of the Prohibition law,” stated the county’s district attorney in March 1923. Shoot-outs between professional rumrunners and enforcement officers on Route 9—the “rum trail” that connected Montreal to Saratoga, Albany and New York and ran right through the eastern Adirondacks—and adjacent back roads were common in the region throughout the twenties. But this wasn’t just a war waged by outsiders. “Everybody in town made home brew,” notes John Wertime, a former hotelier who moved to Chestertown in the 1920s. “There were two places that didn’t sell liquor. One was the church and the other was the schoolhouse. And sometimes the schoolhouse did.”
Chestertown was not unique. Franklin Palmer, the son of a Schroon Lake farmer, says he was working on a construction project in Tupper Lake during Prohibition and wanted to obtain a bottle of booze to help ease his discomfort from a bad cold. He asked a policeman—”that’s usually where you could find out about anything”—for assistance. “He said, ‘The only place you won’t find it around here is maybe in a church.'” Palmer ended up getting “some prescription stuff” in a drugstore. “If you had a friend who could get you a prescription you could buy good liquor that way,” he says.
Hard times in upstate agricultural communities, the alluring nearness of Canada’s border and the promise of thrills made the bootlegging trade irresistible to many Adirondackers. In the beginning, booze smuggling was an amateur enterprise: a young man with a car searching for profit and excitement might make a few trips over the border to supply local and downstate speakeasies. Because intoxicating spirits were legal in Canada, it was easy to get the stuff: You simply drove to a liquor store in Quebec. Although the Quebec Liquor Commission allowed people to purchase only one bottle at a time, bootleggers had ways of getting around that quota. Sam Racicot, a rumrunner from Rouses Point who was interviewed by Allan Everest for his book Rum Along the Border (Syracuse Uversity Press), noted that he and two buddies would disguise themselves by wearing different hats and coats on successive visits to several stores in order to accumulate the thirty or forty bottles apiece that made a run whorthwhile.
The profits could be substantial. A case of ale that cost four or five dollars in Canada could be sold in Plattsburgh for ten and in New York City for twenty-five. A carload of twenty-five cases yielded a six-hundred-dollar profit. Rye whiskey had a markup of eight dollars a bottle, Scotch twelve. (However, hard liquor became less lucrative after 1923 due to competition from rum-running boats in New York harbor. Upstate bootleggers transported the stuff mainly in winter, when—unlike beer—it would not freeze.) In an era when more than sixty percent of the population made less than two thousand dollars a year—the neophyte state trooper based at the Malone barracks who was trying to nab lawbreakers earned an annual salary of only nine hundred dollars—this was a considerable windfall.
A fast, big car equipped with an extra set of springs, which helped to counteract the sag caused by the weight of forty or more burlap bags of booze, was an asset. Bootleggers hid the stuff in bogus back seats, spare tires, fake gas tanks, beneath false floors, or in phony truckloads of lumber, furniture or gasoline. One ring transported alcohol in a fleet of tank trucks disguised as carriers belonging to well-known oil companies. It seems that state troopers and federal men were quick to discover these novel hiding places. One officer stopped a Cadillac five miles south of Plattsburgh one night and found a forty-two-gallon tank installed in its roof, complete with a faucet and a pumping device used to force air into the tank. Another haul was discovered near Elizabethtown after troopers detected an odd gurgling noise coming from a stopped car’s locked compartment.
Confiscated loads were usually stored on police premises, sometimes under heavy guard. Eventually, the inventory—at least a substantial portion of it—would be destroyed, either by pouring it down the toilet or in bottle-smashing orgies. On several occasions officers at Rouses Point destroyed so many thousands of bottles at the dump along the Lake Champlain shore that residents worried about the welfare of the fish. Inevitably, these events attracted a large turnout of thirsty onlookers, some of whom rummaged in the ruins afterwards, hoping to discover an intact bottle.
Confronted by an army of bootleggers who would stop at nothing to deliver their loads—as well as the geographical difficulties posed by a fifty-mile-long border along which more than fifty roads, most of them lacking manned customs outposts, led into hundreds of square miles of thinly inhabited woods—state troopers and federal Prohibition officers of northern New York were at a distinct disadvantage. Their numbers were few: in May 1923 there were only eleven agents monitoring the border between Fort Covington and Rouses Point, about five miles per man. A year later, just sixteen federal Prohibition officers covered the entire northeastern section of the state. Enforcement was largely dependent on Troop B, the state-trooper barracks established at Malone in 1921, whose efforts were aided by the creation of a federal Border Patrol in the mid-1920s. Eventually, a pair of Troop B men were also stationed at Au Sable Forks, and a federal outpost was created at Elizabethtown, where the number of seized booze cars apparently rivaled those confiscated at the border.
Initially troopers patrolled the border on horseback. They soon acquired vehicles as fast and powerful as the bootleggers’ cars. However, troopers stationed elsewhere in the Adirondacks remained on their steeds throughout the 1920s, perhaps a factor in the excessive quietness of enforcement activities beyond the rum trail. As Prohibition wore on, troopers and bordermen acquired other sorts of transport, including motorboats (in 1924 a marine patrol was established on Lake Champlain), motorcycles, snowshoes and even—for a short period of time—armored trucks equipped with searchlights and mounted machine guns. One such vehicle ran off the road during a nighttime patrol and was mired in the mud for five hours. While a team of horses struggled to pull it out, a dozen bootleggers gaily roared past. Even when it was mobile, the contraption was a failure: the motor noise and searchlights gave booze traffickers plenty of warning. The machines were shelved after having failed to make a single capture during a score of missions. There was even talk of acquiring a fleet of planes to give the dozen aircraft nightly transporting contraband over the border a scare, but the idea never caught on.
Considering the lousy pay, the fourteen-hour days, the physical perils and the lack of support from the general populace, it’s small wonder that the temptations of the bootlegging business proved too much for many troopers and federal agents. In 1928 Douglas Cooper, a former member of Troop B, was arrested during a seizure of dozens of cases of beer in a barn just outside Saranac Lake. His arrest was one of many involving ex-law enforcement officers, but Cooper could consider himself lucky: Long Lake bootlegger R. J. Stanfield, a onetime prizefighter and former sergeant in Troop B, was shot in the back by a federal officer wielding a sawed-off shotgun while he was driving a booze-laden car near Tupper Lake.
A surprising number of officers, however, were committed to their jobs. Federal agent Henry Thwaits, who served in New York between 1922 and 1930, was a familiar figure to Adirondackers along the rum trail and was responsible for a number of large hauls. On one record day in the spring of 1924, he nabbed seven of eighteen ale-packed cars seized in Essex County. Franklin Palmer remembers stumbling upon Thwaits shooting at two bootlegging cars speeding south on Route 9 one morning when he was driving a horse-drawn wagon to a neighbor’s place. Terrified, the fifteen-year-old drove his team off the road, taking cover behind a building. “The bootleggers would have run Thwaits over if he hadn’t gotten out of the way,” recalls Palmer.
The exploits of the troopers and federal men were as likely to inspire kudos from local newspapers as the brave stunts of the rumrunners. In a 1931 profile of Troop B, the Ticonderoga Sentinel portrayed the lawmen as superheroes: “Braving bootleggers’ guns, clubs of rum-crazed lumberjacks and the cunning of the big city crooks who have been unsuccessful in practically every attempt to pull a big job north of the main line of the New York Central, the troopers have blazed a glorious trail down through the last ten years. They have cleaned out big gangs, arrested or driven out the big bootleggers and their daring drives and solved all but two of three murders.”
Indeed, despite the fallout within their ranks and the many frustrations of their jobs, Troop B and the North Country federal agents were perhaps the most active Prohibition force in the nation. Their efforts got a boost from judge Frank Cooper and a couple of other upstate federal-court justices who routinely imposed stiff penalties. In 1925 northern New York led the country in the amount of fines collected from Volstead Act violators, according to the Adirondack Enterprise, in Saranac Lake. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1926, the amount, including proceeds from confiscated automobiles, was six hundred thousand dollars, the highest of any region.
Initially, Judge Cooper typically set bail at a thousand dollars, a figure that doubled within a few years and which was often accompanied by a jail sentence. He was able to impose these huge amounts—elsewhere in the state, fines for the same offense amounted to a hundred dollars or less—by adding to the Prohibition-law violations the charges of conspiracy and smuggling, which were classified as felonies. (Until implementation of the Jones Act in 1929, which made violating the Volstead Act a felony, breaking the Prohibition law was a misdemeanor.) Sometimes the penalties were even stiffer, amounting to fines of ten thousand dollars or more and a jail sentence of up to five years.
In 1925 a Tupper Lake bootlegger named Babb Aslan was fined $11,000 and sentenced to a year in the Onondaga penitentiary. According to the Enterprise, Aslan had employed young men to do his dirty work. They risked their lives and reputations by making liquor runs to Canada while he waited “in his own motor cars in some isolated usually wooded sections.” The perception of Aslan as a corrupter of youth surely played a part in the particularly harsh penalty.
While much of the troopers’ and federal Prohibition agents’ efforts were concentrated near the border, they actively chased bootleggers as far south as Elizabethtown, after which point the booze traffickers generally considered themselves out of reach of the law. Forrest Jones, a retired sign painter, spent the winter of 1924 with his family in Pottersville, and although he was only a child, he can still recall the procession of Cadillacs, Packards, Oldsmobiles and other big bootleg cars that passed through town in broad daylight, their tire chains making a terrific clatter. “If they had a load in, you’d know it, because the back of the car sagged and the front was elevated,” he remembers.
After sundown, local motorists avoided certain routes where violent confrontations between booze runners and federal men were common. Poke O’ Moonshine road, connecting Elizabethtown and Keeseville, was a particularly notorious artery. State troopers and feds frequently set up traps along the dirt route, whose steep winding curves forced the bootleggers to slow down. Spruce Hill, near Keene, and Miner’s Woods, a dark stretch of Route 9 north of Chazy, were two other places where enforcement men often intercepted bootleggers.
A chase on Spruce Hill reported in the Ticonderoga Sentinel on April 2, 1925, was typical of occurrences on these lonely mountain thoroughfares. While making their rounds one night, police spotted two men changing a tire on a car stopped on the opposite side of the road. They turned around to investigate, but before the officers drew near, “the booze runners finished their work in the nick of time, started up their powerful car, and roared down Spruce Hill at eighty to a hundred miles per hour, sparks an inch long leaping from the exhaust.” After tearing onto the Cascade Lakes dirt road, north of Keene Valley, the agents still hot on his tail, the driver of the bootleg car “shoved down the lever on his smoke gun (now a vital part of every rumrunner’s paraphernalia) and an impenetrable screen of black smoke rolled out, completely blanketing the road.” The federal men “slowed into the mud and stuck fast,” but after digging themselves out, kept going and sighted the car a mile down the road. “The driver and his pal, seeing the game lost, then shot two holes into their gasoline tank, set fire to the volatile liquid, sped into the woods and disappeared.” The police put out the fire with handfuls of sand and mud and salvaged 135 gallons of alcohol.
In addition to smoke screens and revolvers, the bootleggers’ arsenal included glass or nails thrown on the road and oil poured out to create a slick. These chases often ended in spectacular crashes. Amazingly, in most instances not only did the bootleggers survive, but they made their getaway. Essex resident Koert Burnham, who was interviewed in 1975 about his Prohibition-era memories, recounted the tale of one local rumrunner on the Willsboro road. To elude federal agents, he drove full speed into the woods when he hit a series of bad curves. The lawmen roared past, but the bootlegger’s car was totaled and he had broken his collarbone. Undeterred, he coolly grabbed a burlap bag packed with twelve bottles of whiskey, tucked one arm into his sleeve, and walked a half mile until he came to a farm. Throwing the farmer the sack, the bootlegger ordered him to get his shotgun and guard the booze car for the night. Burnham recalled, “Then he walked more than two miles to the schoolhouse, where he hitchhiked a ride back to Willsboro and went into the hospital. He was back the next morning to pick up the rest of the material.”
By 1923, amateur bootleggers were overshadowed by professional syndicates, which supplied the lucrative downstate markets in a remarkably organized fashion. (In November of that year, American smugglers and Canadian liquor dealers held a conference in upstate New York at which they discussed launching a campaign “to rid the rumrunning traffic [of] amateurs who occasionally take a ‘flyer’ in the business to make a little easy money,” according to the Sentinel.) A local man might be employed as a driver, earning a onetime payment or even going on the payroll. To ensure the safe passage of their caravans, syndicates employed pilot cars, which were sent ahead. (In a chase, these vehicles were also used to foil the federal men, either by leading them the wrong way or maneuvering in front of the cops’ car and driving so slowly that the hoochmobiles escaped.) Eventually the syndicates were able to buy almost complete protection, enabling them to transport “great tonnages of hard stuff” downstate by truck, according to Burnham.
To move the alcohol southward, syndicates relied on local residents for information, storage and protection. “Friendship with telephone operators was vital to the runners, who continually called ahead to find out which roads were clear,” reported Burnham. When he was a lineman, he often got calls from Essex operator Gertrude Alexander informing him that another telephone pole had been demolished by a speeding car. Once Burnham visited her office and discovered a rumrunner with badly scratched legs coming out of the bathroom; Alexander was repairing his pants. “At the roadblock at Rogers Comers, he had ditched his car, run across a field, gotten shot at, hit the barbed wire fence, somersaulted over it, landed in cow dung and mud. The next night he got a bullet through his Adam’s apple.”
According to a 1925 article in the Enterprise, federal agents claimed that “great quantities of booze are shipped on telegraphic instructions.” They had broken secret codes used by rumrunners in telephone conversations to ensure the successful transport of a load (codes were necessary because calls were made over party lines). “Send me down five inner tubes and six boxes of patches” was not an innocuous request for auto parts, but a secret message in which “inner tubes” referred to hard stuff and “patches” meant Canadian ale. After a message was received, a load of booze valued at up to a hundred grand would roll southward toward Albany.
Farmers who lived along the border and bootlegging routes were paid “an extra couple of thousand for storing liquor” in their barns, according to local newspapers. Sometimes they didn’t require a payment: Franklin Palmer remembers hordes of bootleggers parking their cars on his father’s farm on the Blue Ridge Road to evade troopers. (Incidentally, a nearby boardinghouse was a popular hostelry for both bootleggers and enforcement officers, he says.)
Farmers weren’t the only accomplices. A New York Times article on December 13, 1923, noted that “a chain of bootlegger garages has been stretched down through the Adirondacks, where the often sorely harassed motor smuggler may have his machine repaired and obtain gasoline.” The repair stations were camouflaged by bushes and located on “obscure trails.”
A chauffeur who had worked as an auto mechanic for several months at a series of secret repair stations run by a bootlegging ring shared his experiences with the readers of the September 21, 1921, Sentinel. One place was reached by a “good soil road” that was only fifty yards from the main highway to Chestertown. It resembled an ordinary Adirondack camp—three buildings, one for sleeping, another for storing cars, and the third housing a machine shop and storeroom. The chauffeur was soon transferred to another repair station fifty miles to the south. One day “a Pierce-Arrow carrying forty cases of whiskey from Canada to New York City came up with tire trouble. We fixed him up and he slipped us $10 and beat it …. Second day we were there, the boss arrives to collect and he has two gorillas with him. The Sing Sing bird [one of the other mechanics, who had done time at the penitentiary] was kind of snappy in an answer and the boss told him where to get off. And he told him in a way that had effect.” Though the chauffeur was earning an average of $110 a week, he left to take an honest driving job that paid half that amount because “there was too much change. You didn’t know when the shooting might start.”
Bootleggers not only had to worry about confrontations with the law, but also run-ins with rival gangs. Hijackings were particularly common along the Lake George road, which, according to the Sentinel in 1923, was “getting a reputation for lawlessness.” The murder of William Hart, whose body was dumped between Lake George and Glens Falls after the booze car he had been driving was stolen, triggered a war between rival bootlegging rings that resulted in two murders and almost a hundred holdups. “Street holdups are becoming so frequent that residents of Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and other communities in the vicinity fear to leave their homes at night,” reported the October 19, 1923, New York Times. Chazy residents Bert Corkey and Owen McCuen were held up at gunpoint on Willsboro Mountain after they encountered a heavy, spike-studded, log-and-plank barricade placed across the road. Five years later, another war between bootleggers resulted in “mysterious shooting incidents in Saranac Lake on the Edgewood road” as well as gun battles along the border near Fort Covington, according to a story in the Glens Falls Post Star.
Running booze by auto was risky, and the biggest operators found it was safer and more efficient to move the bulk of their goods by rail. Packed in secret compartments built into the ends of boxcars that were filled with hay, fertilizer, pulpwood, ashes or other legitimate commodities, booze could be shipped south of the border in enormous volumes. The carloads were assigned to fake consignment companies, making identification of the guilty party nearly impossible when loads were confiscated. Border patrolmen nabbed railcars of whiskey or ale valued at fifteen, twenty and even forty thousand dollars, in the case of a haul discovered at Port Henry in May 1930.
The agents also searched passengers and private railcars. Bordermen descending on the railcar of singer Geraldine Farrar at Rouses Point rooted out bottles of liquor stashed in the piano, ventilators and maid’s room. Flo Ziegfeld suffered a similar indignity: 106 bottles of liquor and a quantity of Canadian ale were found in his car, also at Rouses Point, and the Ziegfeld Follies producer was fined $614. In July 1928 a train transporting the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus yielded a more substantial cache—at least three thousand bottles of hard liquor, most of it found in the Pullman cars housing the stars and management. As a result of the delay, the circus fell behind schedule and the kids of Ogdensburg missed out that year.
Not every load of liquor transported by rail was destined for a downstate location. As a young man living in Raquette Lake, Buster Bird, now a retired guide and pilot, figured out that the alcohol proffered in nearby speakeasies and homes must be coming in by rail, since the village was remote from main roads and attracted few cars. Because three of the Great Camps in the area—Camp Uncas, Kamp Kill Kare and Sagamore Lodge-were accessible only by horse transport, tons of hay and oats were periodically shipped on the Raquette Lake Railway to the village station. One night, after a carload of hay consigned to the Raquette Lake Supply Company had arrived and was sitting on a deserted siding, Bird and some other young men broke the seal on the door and found out their hunch was correct: behind the hay bales they discovered fifty bags of Canadian ale and numerous bottles of whiskey. Over the next several days, the boys observed certain individuals digging in a nearby swamp with shovels and rounding up all the drunks in town to interrogate them. Fortunately for Bird and his friends, who had hidden their precious loot in the woods, they were never found out.
While the big money was made serving downstate cities, an enterprising Adirondacker could make a tidy profit serving the small but reliable local market. Every town had at least one speakeasy, and most hotels kept their patrons well supplied. The stretch of Route 9 between Lake George and Glens Falls was particularly fertile ground, offering travelers a choice of lively places, including the Halfway House, the Royal Pines, the Rosebud and High Point. One South Glens Falls resident whose father was a bootlegger remembers an underground speakeasy along that stretch of roadway. “It looked like a grassy hill. You drove from the highway under a dirt-and-grass shelter, got out of your car, and went into an underground room where there was a bar.”
While raids of commercial enterprises and private camps and homes did occur—during one week in May 1921, troopers shut down 102 places in Saranac Lake, “ranging from high-class roadhouses to shacks dispensing glycerin and moonshine at $1 a gulp,” according to the Plattsburgh Republican—they seem to have been relatively rare in most regions of the park: either the police had their hands full with the auto trade, or they were being paid off. Probably it was a combination of both.
A local bootlegger could make a good living simply by supplying one of the big resorts. Major Dawson, a taxi driver for the Saranac Inn, created a profitable niche for himself not only by providing spirits to guests, but also to employees. Dawson had a fleet of three or four cars that regularly made the trek to Malone or Rouses Point, according to his grandson Jay Dawson, an artist and furniture maker whose studio is in his grandfather’s old speakeasy. Dawson stored his stash under the Saranac Inn church and in a secret chamber beneath his Lake Clear house, which was connected to the club by a tunnel and could be accessed by a trapdoor in a back room. (Jay and his sister, who lives in the house, accidentally discovered the room a few years ago while repairing a septic system. There were still some bags full of whiskey bottles inside.) Dawson squirreled away wads of bills in cigar boxes and buried them in his lawn, and his ample cash reserves made him a generous source of local loans. After repeal, he transformed the speakeasy into a bar and restaurant called Major’s Inn.
Some Adirondack bootleggers made their own stuff. Henry McKee, who ran a restaurant and dance hall in Pottersville, sold William Penn rye from a cottage behind the joint for six bucks a bottle to trustworthy patrons. Actually, only the labels were authentic: McKee distilled the alcohol, nonetheless it was “good stuff,” according to Franklin Palmer, who worked for him. McKee “got caught a lot of times,” says Palmer. “Other bootleggers used to stop his car and steal his stuff from him.” Palmer’s cousin, Nelson, ran the still and spent a couple of years in jail after the place was raided.
Stills in the Adirondacks were probably as common in those days as they were in the hollows of Kentucky. Some, owned by downstate syndicates, were professional ventures guarded by machine-gun-toting thugs. Keeping your still a secret wasn’t always easy, however; the operations tended to leave telltale signs. Dick Richards, an eighty-year-old Corinth native, says the troopers would watch the brooks for fish kills, knowing that a likely cause was the disposal of spent grain. Two copper stills that produced a thousand gallons of alcohol a day, owned by Keeseville bootlegger Charles “Muskrat” Robare, were busted by troopers who happened to be passing by on the highway and caught a strong whiff of fermenting mash.
A number of Adirondack stills churned out grain alcohol that was actually destined for markets north of the border. American alcohol was in demand by Canadian distilleries because it cost less than the domestic stuff and was tax-free. After making their deliveries of the pure alcohol, transported in five-gallon cans, bootleggers would pick up a load of bottled beer for the return south. Richards said the stills around Corinth got their grain from Saratoga, which was well supplied because of the horse farms in the vicinity.
Prohibition didn’t just endanger the lives of bootleggers, cops and innocent bystanders; it also put drinkers, who never knew just what they were consuming, at considerable peril. A sampling of the goods to be found in Glens Falls’ speakeasies was recounted in a February 21, 1925, Post Star article. They included “a gin product ‘concocted while you wait’ from grain alcohol, oil of coriander, juniper, glycerin and distilled water; Jamaica ginger, known as ‘Jakey’ [a substance that killed hundreds and caused paralysis in fifteen thousand people in 1930], peppermint and various kinds of extracts.”
In 1920 a Port Henry man died from drinking wood alcohol. At least eight people in Essex County had perished as a result of imbibing poisonous alcohol, according to a report from the county medical examiner in the February 11, 1928, Plattsburgh Republican. And on March 24, 1932, the Ticonderoga Sentinel ran a warning from federal agents that denatured alcohol had been discovered in raids on speakeasies in Tupper Lake and elsewhere. (Many bootleggers obtained denatured alcohol, produced for industrial use, and redistilled it to eliminate the denaturant. However, their efforts to get rid of the toxins weren’t always successful.)
If you were desperate enough, you came up with your own safeguards, according to Buster Bird. “Some of those drunks didn’t care. They’d take a loaf of bread, pour the alcohol through the bread, and they’d drink it,” he says. Bird himself became deathly ill once after drinking a pint of whiskey he’d obtained from a local druggist. That experience taught him to be cautious. When he later discovered a dozen bottles of illicit hooch buried along the roadside, Bird didn’t like the smell or taste of the stuff and decided not to drink it.
Until the encounter with the game protector, that is—an incident in which the liquor came in handy. A friend had inadvertently rented one of his cottages to a special game warden, a species of law enforcer that Bird says “the natives hated like the devil hates holy water.” The protector’s purpose was to make sure nobody was killing deer out of season. Bird and his friend guided a party in the woods near Seventh Lake, and one of the guys ended up wounding a doe, which dropped dead right at the game protector’s feet. The warden and Bird’s friend had a conversation. The game protector told him that he’d see him later.
That night, after his friend had expressed considerable anxiety about the situation, Bird got to thinking. The next morning, he presented his plan to his friend, but his buddy was far from thrilled. “I said, ‘We’ll cut a couple of good steaks off that deer of mine and give it to this special game protector, and we’ll give him a quart of that bootleg whiskey.’ He says, ‘Gosh, we don’t dare do that, do we?’ I said, ‘Why not?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Suppose it kills him.’ I said, ‘If it kills him your problem is solved. If it don’t kill him, he takes the whiskey and keeps the venison, and you’ve got something on him.’
“Well, we did it, and he didn’t die, so that told us it was all right to drink,” says Bird, chuckling. “My wife and I and this guy and his wife, we had a party and drank it.”